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August 25, 2005

Key players set to emerge among nation's best

Every college football season virtually unknown players transform into big-time stars. That is the nature of the sport. Predicting who will next be part of that fortunate group is far from an exact science, but there are several telling factors.

Some talented backups are finally getting the chance to start after sitting behind All-Americans. Other highly touted recruits have recently recovered from injuries. Some veterans are suddenly surrounded by the weapons needed to elevate their own production.

Several players fall into those categories this season and we've selected 10 as Rivals.com's breakout performers.

1. Marshawn Lynch (California)

The Bears might produce the nation's only 2,000-yard rusher for the second consecutive season.

Lynch looked spectacular in back-up duty last season for J.J. Arrington, averaging 8.8 yards per carry and running for back-to-back 100-yard games down the stretch.

The sophomore, who was ranked Rivals.com's No. 2 running back from the class of 2004, might have a better offensive line than Arrington, and with the addition of 15 pounds in the offseason, he will be able to handle more carries with his muscular 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame.

Key Stat from 2004: 8.8 yards per carry.

2. Chad Jackson (Florida)

Think of how many great receivers the Gators have produced. None averaged more yards per catch than did Jackson, their latest deep threat, a year ago.

Jackson's 22.3 yards per reception set a school record last season. But, the 6-1, 205-pound junior didn't get a chance to make very many plays, catching just 29 passes.

That will change with Urban Meyer in the swamp. Look for Jackson to get more touches and be mentioned among the SEC's top wideouts soon.

Key Stat from 2004: 22.3 yards per reception (school record).

3. Xavier Adibi (Virginia Tech)

Meet the new enforcer of the Hokies defense. Adibi was set to play that role last season as a freshman, but a torn biceps muscle suffered in the season opener forced him to miss six games and big portions of others.

The 6-3 sophomore linebacker has returned bigger and healthier. He has bulked up to 229 pounds (he arrived in Blacksburg at 208 three years ago), and has been a dominating force in training camp. Look for him to deliver some of the biggest hits of the season.

Key Stat from 2004:: Seven solo tackles, forced fumble against Georgia Tech.

4. Joseph Addai (LSU)

If most programs lost their leading returning rusher for the season, it would be disastrous. At LSU, it might not even matter.

Addai, a 6-0, 210-pound senior running back, might have started even if Alley Broussard hadn't torn an ACL last week. The athletic veteran is a better receiver and has only needed more touches to put up big stats in the past. Now, he will get that chance. He will be the main man in another deep rotation of backs and will be relied upon heavily with the Tigers' quarterback situation looking a bit unsettled.

Key Stat from 2004: 6.8 yards per carry.

5. Michael Bush (Louisville)

A lot of college football fans might remember this name. Bush was one of Kentucky's top prep quarterbacks of all-time and turned down a handful of elite programs to become the first big-time prospect to sign with Louisville.

Bush was moved to running back when he got to campus and has been overshadowed by other offensive weapons during his first two seasons in college. But, now the spotlight is all his.

With Eric Shelton and Lionel Gates gone, Bush will be carrying the Cardinals running game and at 6-3, 250 pounds he is more than capable of handling a heavy amount of carries. He will also have the luxury of having the best offensive line in the Big East blocking for him.

Key Stat from 2004: 5.6 yards per carry.

6. Cody Hodges (Texas Tech)

Looking for a scary thought for Big 12 defenses? No Texas Tech quarterback has ever had a better group of receivers to work with than Hodges, a fifth-year senior who was officially named the starter earlier this week.

Jarrett Hicks (6-4, 209) and Joel Filani (6-3, 214) both provide big targets and Hicks was named first-team All-Big 12 last season. Throw in converted five-star quarterback Robert Johnson (6-2, 207) and Hodges should have little trouble putting up the type of gaudy stats that former Red Raiders signal callers have produced. He has only seen mop-up duty in the past, but coach Mike Leach raves about his pocket presence and has worked wonders with career backups before.

Key Stat: Has thrown only 12 career passes.

7. Kamerion Wimbley (Florida State)

Seminoles coaches believe they have found their next great defensive end in Wimbley.

The 6-4, 255-pound senior has gained a considerable amount of muscle in the last two years and is playing with a new level of confidence. He was given the Hinesman Award as the most dominating player in spring practice.

Wimbley should also benefit from having arguably the nation's top linebacking corps behind him. Look for him to double his career sack total of 4.5.

Key Stat from 2004: Five quarterback hurries in a single game against Wake Forest.

8. Ernie Wheelwright (Minnesota)

What will it take to convince Glen Mason to throw the ball more? How about a big, athletic receiver like Wheelwright.

At 6-5, 215 pounds, the sophomore is a tempting target and a touch matchup for any cornerback. Last season, he proved to be one of nation's top deep threats, racking up 654 receiving yards on just 30 catches.

With the return of a great offensive line and star running back Laurence Maroney, Wheelwright could be the extra weapon the Gophers need to be a contender in the Big Ten.

Key Stat from 2004: 21.8 yards per catch.

9. Lance Leggett (Miami)

Don't be surprised if this 6-3, 185-pound sophomore quickly turns out to be the favorite target of Miami's new quarterback, Kyle Wright.

Leggett doesn't have the experience of some of the other members of the Hurricanes' talented receiving corps, but he might have the most potential. The former five-star recruit showed promise as a freshman, making 17 catches for 349 yards. He has fully recovered from a broken foot suffered in the spring and could triple those numbers this fall.

Key Stat from 2004: Four of his 17 catches went for touchdowns.

10. Sedrick Ellis (USC)

This 6-1, 285-pound nose tackle stayed on the sidelines for most of the Trojans back-to-back runs to national titles. That's what happens when you're backing up All-American Mike Patterson.

But, Ellis will be a pivotal part of their quest for a third consecutive title. He dominated spring drills and could be commanding double teams by midseason.

Key Stat from 2004: Two tackles.


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