We’ll start a new segment here with the start of the college football season barreling down at us. I’m going to put 5 names out for each position as players to watch this year. These are game changers, exciting players, but also people who I think will be heading to the next level.
1. Andrew Luck, Stanford
At 6’4, 235 lbs, Andrew Luck is a prototypical quarterback, groomed in a west coast, pro style offense. He has been well prepared, highly recruited, and finally flourished within Jim Harbaugh’s system, emerging as the number one prospect in the country for the 2012 NFL Draft. He’s got a very strong-arm and excellent mobility for his size, but this year he’ll be challenged to duplicate his previous success without Harbaughat the helm. If you watched any of his games last year, you know he’s calm in the pocket and doesn’t even flinch at pressure, but he has had a very solid offensive line protecting him, a strong run game and solid wide receivers to work with (all raised in the same system). With Head Coach Shaw taking the reigns, Luck should have an easier carry-over from coach to coach, but he has lost some weapons. Still, enough remains for him in Stanford that he should compete for a National Championship. Oregon stands in the way, but expect to see a lot of him in Prime time games.
2. Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Oklahoma had the arduous task of replacing a Heisman winner in Sam Bradford but has done is spectacularly with Jones. Jones is another prototypical size guy at 6’4 216. He’s not quite as mobile as Luck, but he makes up for it with a rocket arm and big play potential. He has had solid offensive line play and running game to help. Ryan Broyles at WR doesn’t hurt. Jones helms the number one team in the nation with little opposition standing between them and the Big 12 Championship. He’ll also feature heavily in the limelight. Thus far, he’s slipped below the radar for the most part, but now with the spotlight of a #1 ranking and National Championship hopes he’ll have a lot more pressure to deal with. If he can manage that and put up preposterous numbers, as he did last year (4718 yards, 38 TDs, 12 picks), he should remain in the 1st day conversation.
3. Nick Foles, Arizona
Most people on the east coast don’t see much of Foles. Arizona hasn’t been in contention in the Pac 10 (12) dominated by Oregon, USC, and most recently Stanford. Combine that with the number of elite college quarterbacks in this conference and it’s easy to see why he is under the radar. At 6’5 235, Foles is yet another elite size, arm guy. He has been a starter for 2 years and each year he has played consistently. The only issue is that the Arizona offense has not been elite. Foles doesn’t turn the ball over much, a plus, but the reason is because he frequently takes the check down instead of making an NFL throw down field. This year Arizona is better than last, with the potential to surprise some people. If Foles can take the next step and begin moving that offense, he can take the step from very good to elite and put his name in the first day rankings.
4. Matt Barkley, USC
Barkley came in to a program struggling through sanctions and turmoil. Carroll bolted for the NFL leaving Kiffin and company in the lurch, but Barkley has quietly put together a very impressive college career. He will likely end up as a 4 year starter in a program known for their NFL quarterbacks, which should speak volumes as to his ability. He’s a bit smaller, 6’2 230, than the other 3, but size isn’t a problem for him. He has improved both years and the next step in his progression is to move into the Luck and Jones category. He’s overshadowed by USC sanctions and a porous defense that can’t hold his leads. Offensively he has this unit moving. His line is excellent and should feature some high draft picks. Naturally, USC has a wealth of WRs and RBs so skill positions shouldn’t be an issue. I expect him to start pushing the ball more this year, improve his yards and touchdowns. If he can keep his interceptions down, he might be heading to the next level.
5. Robert Griffin, III, Baylor
Griffin is a name you might not pick up for a while. Baylor football isn’t prime time material yet, but if he can up his production from last season he can take Baylor to places they’ve not been. He’s a duel threat quarterback, but he has a strong-arm and pocket presence. He is also careful with the ball, throwing only 8 picks last season. Combine that with his 600 rushing yards and you see what I’m talking about. The only problem is that he’s inexperienced and sometimes inaccurate (a symptom of throwing on the run). If he can maintain and improve those numbers he can find his way into the top of the draft (2nd round caliber), but will need some development time at the next level. Still the intangibles, will to win, and physical talents should get him to the next level. He’ll be exciting to watch if you can watch a Baylor game this year.