Monday, May 23, 2011

Way Too Early College Football Top 10's: Top 10 Players

I hope everyone enjoyed the first installment of my way too early college football top ten's, the top 10 teams. In this week's installment, I've got my top 10 college football players. Now, this one got a little more tricky. How can you define a top 10 player? The Patriots Danny Woodhead shattered all kinds of records, but he did it at Division II Chadron State. Obviously small-school guys creep up and have oustanding NFL careers and so on, so I had to make a few limitations.

First, all players have to be in the FBS, or what we all refer to as Division I.

Second, they have to be someone whose got the potential to win a college football award at their respective position, and for many of the skill guys, you'd like to see them mentioned as a potential Heisman (in reality, the best offensive player on the best team) Tropy.

And third, while I didn't limit my players to coming seniors, I wanted to give everyone a chance to sort of see what the scouts see, and rated players that have the potential to be drafted and go onto successful NFL careers. For example, Andrew Luck made my list, but he's only a redshirt junior and could stay yet another year in Palo Alto.

So, here's my list of who I think are the Top 10 College Football Players as we head into the 2011 season. I also added my 11th - 20th ranked players for those who will be calling for my head to roll as they feel I'll have left someone deserving off the top 10...Cough*Denard Robinson*Cough!

Please note that I've tried to link the best highlight clips of each prospect, along with any interesting pieces on them as well.

1) Trent Richardson - RB - Alabama - JR
For all the talk surrounding the potential QB class for next year (keep in mind Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley aren’t seniors) the best player in college football is actually a running back. Richardson, a 5’11” 224lbs junior holds the title. If you haven’t seen him play, he’s one of the hardest runners I’ve ever seen. For all the pre-draft talk about how “angry” Mark Ingram ran the ball, his understudy runs even harder. In fact, for my money he’s probably one of the top 5 hardest runners I’ve ever seen. The great Earl Campbell still ranks up there, but after that, I think I’d have to go Jerome Bettis, Adrian Peterson, Eddie George, and Ricky Williams’ 2002 season. Richardson probably runs harder than a couple guys on that list.

An absolute terror in the weight room, posting a 475 pound bench press, Alabama coaches were afraid to let him go any higher, even though Richardson wanted to (keep in mind, most NFL linemen bench around this much weight), a 365 pound power clean, and squats over 600 pounds. As a true freshman, Richardson ran for 751 yards and 8 touchdowns…yes, in Mark Ingram’s Heisman campaign. Last year, getting a bit more of the workload as Ingram missed the fist few games for the Crimson Tide, he carried 112 times for 700 yards and 6 touchdowns and added 23 catches for 223 yards and 4 more scores.

I watched the Alabama spring game this year, mostly because it’s a pretty good sneak preview of some top tier NFL talent, as the Tide has not only Richardson, but linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower, safety Mark Barron, and corner Dre Kirkpatrick and several talented receivers led by Marquis Maze. With Greg McElroy gone, A.J. McCarron will take over the reigns offensively. He’ll need some breaking in, and Nick Saban gave the ball to Trent Richardson plenty of times in a multitude of different ways. He can line up as a single back, take Wildcat snaps, catch out of the backfield, and was even split out wide. Richardson should get the lion’s share of the offensive workload for Alabama, and provided he stays healthy, he could be an early front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.

2) Andrew Luck - QB - Stanford - RS JR
The Cardinal quarterback shocked the world by opting to head back to school for his red-shirt junior season instead of becoming the Carolina Panthers quarterback of the future. I, for one, am glad as that means my beloved Dolphins may still have an outside shot at getting him next year, if he comes out. Smart as a whip, an architectural design major, he’s by far the best quarterback in college football.

From the time he led the Cardinal to an upset win over USC as a red-shirt freshman, big things were forecasted for Luck, and he hasn’t disappointed. In 2010, Luck threw for over 3,300 yards and had 32 touchdowns against only 8 interceptions. For his two years as a starting quarterback, Luck is a shade under 6,000 yards passing and has thrown 45 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions.

He’s certainly got the smarts to run an NFL offense and got to learn under one of the great quarterback teachers in Jim Harbaugh. An aside story on Harbaugh that relates to the Dayton Flyers. Harbaugh tutored Josh Johnson, the current backup to Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Harbaugh was coaching at the University of San Diego. Johnson, in his senior year, led the Toreros with 2,976 passing yards and threw 42 touchdowns and only 1 interception. That interception was against the Dayton Flyers in a 35-16 Flyers victory, and was San Diego’s first loss that season. Back to Luck, he had an outstanding campaign in 2010, losing only to Oregon. He should be just fine for this year, but he’ll have to replace several departing seniors on his offensive line and top target Ryan Whalen, who was drafted by the Bengals. I’d expect, if the Cardinal can deal with the losses on the line, Luck should also get a good amount of Heisman consideration, and should still be the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, should he come out, and more importantly, if there is an NFL Draft.

3) Justin Blackmon - WR - Oklahoma State - JR
Everyone remembers how great Dez Bryant was at Oklahoma State. They also remember him getting kicked off the team for having lunch with Deion Sanders and possible an agent. Whatever the case was, Dez Bryant did just fine in his first season for the Dallas Cowboys. Now, if he could only avoid shopping malls. Justin Blackmon, who was once in Bryant’s shadow, is now the star and has surpassed what Dez Bryant did. Like Andrew Luck, Blackmon’s return to Oklahoma State came as a bit of a shock as many draft experts thought he’d give Julio Jones a run at being the second receiver selected in this year’s draft. However, despite hauling in 111 catches for nearly 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns, Blackmon returned to school.

At 6’1” and 211 lbs, Blackmon’s not the biggest or the fastest guy out there, but he reminds me in some ways of a cross between Reggie Wayne and Sidney Rice. Blackmon’s physical off the line and gets into his routes quickly and gets in and out of cuts very sharply, often gaining a lot of separation in the process. He’s got outstanding hands and doesn’t have many drops. Blackmon’s also got pretty good leaping ability - not on par with A.J. Green’s for example - but still far more than adequate.

One additional benefit for Blackmon was the return of his quarterback, Brandon Weeden. In case you’re wondering, yes. Yes, this is the same Brandon Weeden who was once chosen as a second round pick by the New York Yankees as a pitching prospect in the 2002 draft. As a pitcher, he played for the Yankees single A team and was later traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers before winding back up in Stillwater for the Cowboys. Weeden, 27 is a pretty good quarterback prospect in his own right and he and Blackmon will have another year of experience working together to build upon., which should be worrisome to defenses that will oppose Oklahoma State in 2011.

4) Dont’a Hightower - LB - Alabama - SR
Many remember the Oakland Raiders drafting former Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain with the 8th overall pick in the 2010 draft. McClain pretty much ruined Florida’s chances to repeat in the SEC title game and was outstanding against Texas in the BCS Title Game. While he’s still adapting to the speed of the NFL, McClain was pretty productive for the Raiders as a rookie. Hightower, who was injured that year, is even better. An absolute monster at ILB standing 6’4” and clocking in at 260lbs, he’s a true thumper…with range.

I saw him play personally against Tennessee last year, and man, he’s every bit as big as he’s listed. For a program as storied as Alabama, Hightower is one of only 11 true freshman to start the season opener for the Tide since 1972 - which is impressive by itself. He’s a sure tackler and doesn’t make many mental mistakes. He can play for 3 downs, meaning he can drop into coverage and run with backs and tight ends. In his career, he’s got 80 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 1 sack and 8 quarterback hurries. In 2010, he was still recovering from a knee injury that somewhat limited his mobility.

In the ‘Bama spring game, he was all over the place. He truly understands the defense and is like an on-field coach. He blitzed more often in that game than I’d seen of him at any time in 2010, which is a good sign that he’s 100% again. The one main knock against Hightower is that he doesn’t generate the game-changing play, having never recorded a forced fumble or an interception. Part of that’s due to the abundance of talent on the Alabama defense; part of it’s due to his not being 100%; and part of it’s due to him just not making those plays. I expect that to change in 2010, and if you’re NFL team is a 3-4 defense that needs help at LB, he’s one to watch. He’s a traditional inside linebacker, but if you watch Alabama, you’ll see him line up at OLB, and even with his hand on the ground on occasion.

5) Alshon Jeffery - WR - South Carolina - JR
There are few receivers as physically imposing as Alshon Jeffery. He reminds me of Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall in terms of size, athleticism, and style of play. At 6’4” and 233lbs, he’s a nightmare for college corners to have to matchup against. Jeffery is a very physical player, and while he lacks the elite speed - in my opinion, he looks like a 4.5 player on the field - he’s going to be exceptional at the next level. He can totally dominate a game when he wants to.

Jeffery pulled in 88 receptions for 1,517 yards and 9 scores in 2010, and is well on his way to bettering that stat line in 2011, even without Stephen Garcia, potentially. In 7 games, he recorded at least 7 receptions and he had to multi-score games. The most impressive stat however, might be his yardage per reception which is a staggering 17.2 clip.

Jeffery should provide plenty of big plays for the Gamecocks this year, provided they find a suitable starting quarterback to throw to him. Having a running back like Marcus Lattimore, who surprisingly didn’t make my list, should help to keep defenses stacking the box to give Jeffery more single coverage on the outside. What’s most impressive to me about Jeffery is that he had some of his biggest games against the best competition. See for yourself. Against Auburn, he tallied 8 catches, 192 yards and 2 scores. Against Alabama, 7 catches, 127 yards and 2 scores. Against Clemson he caught 5 for 141 and a score. If Jeffery keeps up that kind of production, he’s got an outside shot at entering the Heisman race, which, let’s face it, is about as corrupt as it gets in college athletics.

6) Landry Jones - QB - Oklahoma - JR- No one thought something good could come out of Sam Bradford’s injury against BYU at the beginning of the 2009 season, then Landry Jones happened. All you have to do to see how good Jones can be is to look at the jump he made statistically from 2009 to 2010. In ‘09, Jones’ completion percentage was 58.1%, about what you’d expect for someone just getting into the starters’ role full-time. He threw for 3,198 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Jumping to 2010, Jones upped his completion percentage to 65.6%, increased his yardage to 4,718 and threw 38 touchdowns while cutting down his interceptions by two to 12.

Jones has some excellent targets led by Ryan Broyles, who should be one of the top receivers in next year’s draft class. Broyles tabbed over 1,400 yards and hauled in 12 touchdowns. Kenny Stills gives him another option outside and TE James Hanna is pretty underrated in his own right catching 7 touchdowns in just 18 total receptions.

Jones has a decent arm and has shown an adept touch at throwing downfield. I think a lot of NFL personnel will look to Sam Bradford’s rookie year and see that he was able to come from the Oklahoma spread system and make a full transition to the NFL system, including taking snaps from center. Jones, just a junior, has ample size at 6’4” and 230lbs and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he were to jump ahead of someone like Matt Barkley or Ryan Lindley and be the second quarterback taken after Luck. That is, assuming Luck, Barkley, and Jones all enter the draft.

However, there’s been some sad news for the Sooners recently as middle linebacker Austin Box passed away unexpectedly last week.

7) LaMichael James - RB - Oregon - JR
There’s no other player as explosive as the little Oregon running back in all of college football. James rips of highlight reel runs week after week as he powers the high-tempo Ducks offense. A small guy standing just 5’9” and 185lbs, James shows an innate ability to run between the tackles that typical smaller backs haven’t shown. Still, he’s at his best getting to the outside and using his speed to run past the defense. While he’ll be suspended for the first game of the 2011 season for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor harassment case stemming from an incident with his ex-girlfriend, it’d be shocking if James doesn’t end up in the thick of the Heisman race.

He’s got a nice counterpart in Kenyon Barner that will allow James to spell himself when needed. However, based on his season last year, 294 attempt for 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns, James is fully capable of handling a massive workload. Chip Kelley did a good job of keep James touches in check, allowing him to only eclipse the 30 carry mark twice, against only Stanford and USC, arguably the two best defensive teams in the Pac-10 last year.

While James isn’t much of a receiver out of the backfield, only totaling 4 catches last year, I expect him to see some more work in that department as Oregon lost it’s top to receivers to graduation. I also expect his rushing carries to be slightly lower and mixed more with Barner, as Oregon did in the BCS Title Game. However, James is still what makes this offense go, and he’ll be a great crutch for Darron Thomas while he’s still getting used to some of his new targets on the outside.

8) Jared Crick - DT - Nebraska - SR
Bo Pelini has really taken what he learned under Nick Saban to heart and has turned Nebraska into one of the better defensive program’s in the country. Everyone got enamored with Ndamukong Suh in the 2009 season, but he was just as good for the two years prior to that. It just goes to show that most people pay attention to the offensive side of the ball, but hey, that’s the way the game is. However, I must say, Ndamukong Suh should have been the first defensive player to win the Heisman since Charles Woodson. Clearly, it’s not about awarding it to the best player in college football, more so to the best offensive player on the top team in college football award. See: Troy Smith, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, and Mark Ingram. But I digress.

Back to Jared Crick. He was a first team All-American in 2010 as he totaled 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. The 6’6” 285lbs Crick can play inside or outside, and he totaled 70 tackles in 2010, which is a heck of a lot for a defensive lineman, especially one that plays most of his snaps on the interior. But, should we really be surprised? Ndamukong Suh recorded 76 and 82 tackles respectively in 2008 and 2009. Playing next to and learning from Suh helped out Crick immensely, and Crick continues to get better on his own.

I think a fair comparison to former for Crick would be former Wisconsin standout J.J. Watt in terms of a size perspective. However, Crick is far more athletically gifted than Watt, but he’s got Watt’s motor as well. Crick still has the frame to get bigger and keep on developing, but he’ll have NFL teams salivating as his skills could translate to a 3-4 DE, 4-3 De, or even a 3-technique DT in the 4-3.

9) Kellen Moore - QB - Boise State - SR
For all the flak that the Broncos took last year after falling to Nevada, you still have to acknowledge that they’re a very solid football team, and one of the most dynamic offensive squads in all of college football. That offense is triggered by quarterback Kellen Moore. A lefty thrower standing just 6’0” 187lbs, I’ve seen a lot of people compare him to a poor man’s left-handed Drew Brees. And that’s actually not a bad comparison.

Moore’s completion percentages have been outstanding as they read 69.4%, 64.3%, and 71.3% in his three years as a starter. The big issue for him this year will be who he’s going to throw to as both Titus Young and Austin Pettis went in the NFL Draft. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem as the Boise State system is pretty plug-n-play friendly. Moore totaled 3,845 yards and threw just 6 interceptions while tossing 35 touchdown strikes in 2010. He’ll be put to the test early as they’ll take on the Georgia Bulldogs the first week of the season.

Moore, despite the rumored lack of arm strength has shown pretty good ability at throwing the ball downfield, but he’s best at throws under 20 yards. He’ll make good use of throwing into windows on crossing routes and pick plays, much like Kurt Warner in his early years with the St. Louis Rams. Moore should post some gaudy numbers even with the new receivers, but that’s mostly due to a weak schedule that Boise will take on. Now, if he shreds Georgia the first week, watch out.

10) Cordy Glenn - G - Georgia - SR
Yes, I went there. I’m guessing no reader expected me to dip into the offensive line category, but I did, and Cordy Glenn is certainly worth it. In most draft circles, he’s probably the highest rated senior prospect at this point for the 2012 NFL Draft. Now, while I fully acknowledge there’s other players that should be in consideration (see my list of players 11-20), Glenn is deserving of this spot.

At 6’5” 320lbs, Glenn is a big-mover that can play multiple positions. While he doesn’t have the athleticism to play left tackle, he’s done it. In all, he started all 13 of the Bulldogs games at left guard in 2010, but played 4 games at left tackle in 2009, and has played 4 games at right guard over the course of 2008 and 2009.

Glenn’s a decent pulling guard, but is at his best when he’s in-line blocking. Just to show you how strong Trent Richardson is, Glenn’s bench press max is 375 lbs and his squat is 465 lbs. However, when you’re Glenn’s size, you have some natural strength about you. Glenn should continue his ascension as a senior this year and should be the top interior lineman in the 2012 Draft.

Prospects 11-20.

11. Marcus Lattimore - RB - South Carolina
12. Michael Floyd - WR - Notre Dame
13. Courtney Upshaw - LB - Alabama
14. Denard Robinson - QB - Michigan
15. Zach Brown - LB - North Carolina
16. Ryan Broyles - WR - Oklahoma
17. Quinton Coples - LB - North Carolina
18. Mark Barron - S - Alabama
19. Alfonzo Dennard - CB - Nebraska
20. Brandon Weeden - QB - Oklahoma State

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