Senior College Football Columnist

Top 10: The most pleasant surprise players of the spring

It's always interesting to see and hear about which players look poised to have breakout seasons after emerging in the spring. We hear more and more about these types of guys nowadays thanks to the way the sport is covered, and sometimes these players live up to the hype. Sometimes not. This week's Top 10 list: the most pleasant surprise guys of the spring:

1. Wes Lunt, Oklahoma St., QB: The lanky Illinois native wasn't one of the most highly touted quarterbacks in the 2012 recruiting class -- Rivals had him as the 7th best pocket passer; Scout tabbed him as a three-star prospect, while ESPN ranked him as the 42nd best QB in the class -- but he wasn't little time creating some buzz at the college level. Before spring ball, Cowboy OC Todd Monken said he would be shocked if the 6-4, 211-pounder early enrollee won the vacant OSU QB job, but sure enough Lunt did, overtaking Clink Chelf and J.W. Walsh.

"He has a good demeanor," coach Mike Gundy says of Lunt. "He has a good knowledge of the game. He makes mistakes -- Brandon Weeden made mistakes in his first year even though he was a more mature player -- but some players have a calm demeanor and are able to execute better than others in critical situations and he showed signs of that. He has a lot of work ahead of him, but we feel like he has a very bright future."

2. Danny Shelton, Washington, DT: The U-Dub defense was brutal in 2011, ranking 108th in scoring D and 106th in total D. They also were No. 87 in TFLs and No. 76 in run defense. Still, the revamped Huskies had some holes in the middle of that defense to replace, starting with massive Alameda Ta'amu, a fourth-round pick of the Steelers. The new Washington defensive staff though is very, very excited about the development of Shelton. The 6-1, 325-pound sophomore, who made 11 tackles last season, adjusted to the new system and techniques the best, U-Dub DL coach Tosh Lupoi says.

Lupoi knows plenty about disruptive D-linemen from producing more than his share at Cal. He says Shelton, a former state champion shot putter, has (former Cal first-rounder) Tyson Alualu-type hands and strike but is 325-pounds (as opposed to Alualu's 295) and that Shelton has the heft and explosiveness to be a two-gap defensive end at the next level. Better still, Shelton is smart and coachable.

3. Steven Manfro, UCLA, RB/WR/KR: If Bruins fans hadn't heard about the redshirt freshman before spring, they almost certainly did by the end of UCLA's spring game when the 5-10, 190-pounder lit up the Rose Bowl making big play after big play. It's crazy to think that the guy who had almost 3,500 rushing and receiving yards and 39 TDs from scrimmage his senior year in Southern California at Valencia High only had offers from Wyoming and UCLA. The new Bruins staff is lucky to have him though. Manfro, who lists Maurice Jones-Drew and Danny Woodhead as his favorite athletes, has earned the nickname "the White Mamba" for his exploits on the field. UCLA coaches say Manfro – pegged as more quick than fast -- "flashed" in every practice they had and can be a line-up-all-over the field difference-maker as well as game-breaker for all of the Quick Game stuff new OC Noel Mazzone wants to run. The kid's family also has an amazing backstory, as detailed here by Fox's Lisa Horne.

"I'm excited about him," says Mazzone, who has a strong group of weapons out of the backfield that also include Jonathan Franklin and Jordon James. "He's a perfect hybrid for what we do. He can run routes. He's flexible enough to get in the slot. He's a back that can run in between the tackles and can play in the slot."

4. Steven Jenkins, Texas A&M, OLB: The Aggies D was really shaky in 2011, ranking No. 70 in scoring defense, and new DC Mark Snyder inherits a unit that does not seem SEC ready. Snyder, a former DC at Ohio State and USF, knew he had two capable LBs in Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart and found out this spring, he's got a third quality linebacker in Jenkins. The former JC transfer really stepped up and appears to be an ideal fit in the way Snyder uses his WILL backer for the new scheme. Last year, Jenkins started six games (3 TFLs, 1 sack) but expect a lot more big plays from the undersized backer in 2012. "I like him a lot," said Snyder. "He reminds me of (speedy former Buckeye OLB standout) Cie Grant. 'Jenk' can run and he's a really good blitzer."

5. Zach Boren, Ohio State, FB: Techincally, it's hard to categorize the 246-pound senior, a starter since his freshman year, as too much of a surprise but the guy proved to be a revelation of sorts to the new Buckeye offensive staff. "We honestly didn't know what kind of role he would have in our system," OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "But once we put the pads on, it was very clear that: 'We gotta find a place for this guy.' "

Herman described Boren as a "slithery" inside-the-tackles guy who can be a one-cut runner and will fit well for a team that wants to run the Inside Zone over and over and over. Boren also has good hands and can be one of those move-around guys that becomes a headache for rival defensive coordinators. Herman also was very high on the emergence of versatile Jordan Hall with the way he grew up on and off the field this off-season, but keep an eye on Boren in 2012, who should prove to be much more than just a blocking back.

6. Jordan Thompson, WVU, WR: Geno Smith already had some dangerous weapons to work with in his second season in this offense, starting with Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey. If spring ball is any indication, WVU has added to its arsenal in the tiny early enrollee from Texas who size apparently scared off every other FBS program in the country. And, that's fortunate for the Mountaineers. This spring, the 5-7, 159-pounder, a k a "Squirt." flashed some of the wicked elusiveness and burst that Austin displayed shredding defenses last season. WVU OC Shannon Dawson who helped plucked Thompson out of a powerhouse program in Katy, TX, said they were actually not worried that Thompson was too small to play major college football.

"I knew he was a good player from watching him on tape, but I didn't know how competitive he was, and you really don't until you get him on your team," said Dawson. "But we knew that, like Tavon, he played at a good program, won a lot of games and could make people miss. We weren't overly worried about his size. When Tavon Austin reported, he weighed 157 pounds. Jordan actually reported at 159. And we saw how tough he was because he got the crap knocked out of him just about every single day and he'd keep popping right back up."

7. Marcus Mariota, Oregon, QB: When word got out that Darron Thomas was jumping early to the NFL, folks close to the Ducks program weren't in a panic because they'd seen how dangerous young Bryan Bennett could be running Chip Kelly's offense. They'd also knew they had a smooth, swift 6-4 redshirt freshman from Hawaii in Mariota who would push Bennett hard for the starting job. And that's exactly what Mariota has done. He also looked more impressive in the Ducks nationally televised spring game, breaking off TD runs of 82 and 14 yards. As we've said, before it's risky to put too much stock in a spring performance, much less one spring game because of the variance of the circumstances, but Kelly had to be very pleased with how his young QB looked in his first chance under a spotlight.

"He's got that Hawaiian Island, laid-back, cool-breeze kind of attitude," Kelly told the Register-Guard after the spring game. "And it helps him."

8. James Kittredge, Michigan State, DT: The Spartans defense once again should be pretty nasty, but they do have to replace Jerel Worthy on the inside of their line. Enter Kittredge, a 6-3, 285-pound former Vandy O-lineman from New Jersey, who created a lot of buzz inside the MSU program this spring.

"He's tough, has a great motor and is quick-twitch," said DC Pat Narduzzi.

9. Everett Golson, Notre Dame, QB: We've talked a lot about him here over the past few months, so he's a bit further down this list because his shining performance this spring amid an unproven group of ND QBs shouldn't be all that surprising. Brian Kelly has struggled containing his enthusiasm about the 5-11 dual-threat redshirt freshman. Golson threw two TD passes, made some nice runs and, probably best of all, was the only Irish QB who didn't turn the ball over in their spring game. Of course, like all of his competitors in that battle to win the job Golson's still developing as his coach noted:

"Quarterback is an art and a science," Kelly told reporters after the ND spring game. "He has the art part down. It is the science and consistency he needs. The stats really don't mean anything to me. What I did not like is that he has to get the plays in quicker, he has to recognize the signaling or else we are going to get flags thrown all over the place."

10. Armonze Daniel, Marshall, LB: Thundering Herd DC Chris Rippon has been around some excellent talent in his days at Syracuse and Ole Miss. Rippon raved about the 6-3, 225-pounder's athleticism as Daniel has gone from being a high school safety to college linebacker, a similar move the veteran coach saw Keith Bulluck make when they were at Syracuse. In fact, Rippon says the redshirt freshman's ahead of where Bulluck was at the same stage of the transition. Both Daniel and another coveted former recruit DB Keith Baxter have the potential to make big impacts on the Marshall D this fall.

 
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