The top returning rusher in college football, Abdullah said he questioned how his friends could meet such fates.
“If it could happen to them,” he said, “it could happen to any student-athlete in this room today.”
On Tuesday, at the conclusion of the Big Ten media days, the senior running back from Nebraska addressed his peers and an audience of several hundred as the student-athlete speaker at the league’s 43rd annual Kickoff Luncheon.
“Nothing is guaranteed, but if we continue to strive to educate ourselves athletically, academically and personally, then maybe, just maybe, one day we can reach our full potential,” he said.
Abdullah turned down an opportunity to leave for the NFL after he rushed for 1,690 yards last season. In his 10-minute speech, he talked of the importance of an education, the value of personal sacrifice and the essence of the student-athlete.
He said he learned a great deal from his beginnings at Nebraska in 2011.
Abdullah started school in Lincoln as one of three true freshmen at his position. In his first opportunity to carry the football in practice before that season, he took a toss and saw open field ahead.
He said he thought it was his moment to shine until he was “completely destroyed" by star linebacker Lavonte David.
“As I sat there, humiliated and embarrassed,” Abdullah said, “in that moment I learned a very valuable lesson: that in life, there’s always going to be somebody stronger than you; there’s always going to be someone faster than you; and oftentimes there’s going to be somebody smarter than you.
“But you cannot let that deter you from your goals.”
Abdullah played sparingly as a freshman but has since developed into a team leader and has accumulated nearly 3,000 yards in his career. He enters this fall with the chance to leave Nebraska as its first three-time 1,000-yard rusher.
The other two running backs in his freshman class transferred.
Abdullah has pushed forward, clearing new hurdles regularly. On Tuesday, he conquered a fear of speaking in front of a large crowd and earned a standing ovation at the end of his speech.
Early in his message, he described himself as a true “Big Ten guy.” His freshman year at Nebraska marked the school’s first year in the league.
“I’m proud to be able to say the Big Ten is the only conference I’ve ever known,” Abdullah said. “And for the universities of Rutgers and Maryland, who are entering the Big Ten this year, you, too, will soon realize that the academic and athletic prestige of the Big Ten is second to none.”
But the struggles of the baseball team at Pennsylvania’s Clairton High School were becoming too personal for Boyd. He was the catalyst for Clairton football’s state-record winning streak, but baseball is his natural sport. In the spring of 2012, the baseball team’s losing streak was the football squad's ignominious reciprocal. At that time, the football team had won 47 in a row. The baseball team, dubbed in local papers as the “Bad News Bears,” was setting the pace with its 48th consecutive loss.
“Keep hearing that the baseball team is losing and losing, it really hurt me because I’m representing Clairton, not just the football team,” Boyd said. “So me and the other guys rallied up and joined the team.
Inserted at shortstop and batting second, Boyd hit a home run in his first at-bat of his first career high school baseball game. The losing streak -- and the nickname -- was dropped that day.
Boyd quit the baseball team days later. He finished what he set out to do, saving Clairton from at least one black eye in a city battered and bruised from the steel industry’s 30-year decline in Western Pennsylvania.
Now a sophomore wide receiver at Pitt, Boyd, who set school freshman records with 85 catches and 1,174 yards last season, continues to shoulder the load of bringing positive publicity to the Monongahela River town stricken with a declining population and burgeoning poverty.
“There’s no upside there. It’s all negative. The only positive thing there is sports,” Boyd said. “It’s really rough growing up there.”
From 2008 to 2012, census numbers show nearly 30 percent of residents were under the poverty line, more than double the state average.
“In Clairton, we don’t have much so [sports are] what we hang our hat on. We’re the epitome of blue collar and guys coming from the gutter,” said Eric Fusco, a Clairton native and assistant coach at Clairton High who mentored Boyd. “When you truly come from the bottom and you’re not just saying it, you have nowhere else to go but up. I’ve met people like him -- I’m like him -- but it’s personal with him.”
A town such as Clairton tends to swallow its young as survival often supersedes a scholarship, one of the few outs the town provides. Boyd surrounded himself with like-minded individuals in Clairton teammates Trenton Coles, Titus Howard and Terrish Webb, who are now all with Boyd on the Panthers’ roster. If danger ever presented itself and Boyd was slow to react, his friends were prepared to pull Boyd away.
“If [they] didn’t stop me,” Boyd said, “I probably could have jeopardized my future.”
Boyd was never more reliant on the town that raised him than during the Christmas holiday in 2011, just months before Boyd took it upon himself to end the baseball streak. Boyd was playing on Clairton’s basketball team and was on the court during the fourth quarter when he looked to the stands to see his mother, Tonya Payne, missing. With the win secured, he figured she just ducked out early.
As Payne left the gym, she bumped into Fusco, who saw the look of shock and disbelief on her face. Her home was on fire.
Fusco walked to the sideline and told the coach to pull Boyd, who was still oblivious to the fire less than two blocks from the gym. As he left the court, Boyd said he expected a congratulatory handshake from his coach. Instead, he pulled Boyd close. An electrical fire was ripping through Boyd’s home, the one he had lived in nearly his entire life.
“There wasn’t any damage on the outside, but the inside was ruined everywhere,” Boyd said. “I managed to save the bit that I can. It was a heartbreaking moment for me.”
The family was homeless, and not long after, the house’s owner decided to tear it down instead of rebuilding. But the town’s youth football president quickly sought out Payne, offering an empty room in a building he owned only a few houses down from Payne’s previous home. The youth league’s vice president helped set up a bank account for donations, while local businesses in Clairton and up and down the Monongahela turned tip jars into donation buckets. Raffles were held. Rival high schools chipped in.
“We were truly blessed because in a month’s time it was like we never had the fire,” Payne said.
It all resonated with Boyd. When it came to committing to a college, Boyd felt a loyalty to the region. So when Tennessee and West Virginia made late pushes, Boyd was conflicted but never decommitted from Pitt.
“I felt with all that support, how can I leave?” Boyd said. “I can get help from a lot of people, and it’s not even from family or friends. It’s the people out there that respect us as a family and see what we’re doing and that it’s all positive. ... If I went far, I don't think people would have my back like in Pittsburgh.”
So when Boyd moved 13 miles up the Monongahela Valley to Pittsburgh’s campus, he carried with him a civic duty. Clairton, with all of its baggage, helped Boyd to a college scholarship, and he responded with a season unmatched by any freshman receiver in school history, Larry Fitzgerald included. With Aaron Donald, Tom Savage and Devin Street now in the NFL, coach Paul Chryst views Boyd as the core piece that can elevate a Pitt program from a forgettable 30-year period.
The same way he did for Clairton.
And that's a very good thing, according to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"You've got to go win," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "Finally! You've got to go win. No longer can you have a traditional name behind you and four coaches with statues in front of the stadium and 90,000 people every week and you're automatically going to be ranked ... in the top 20.
"That football side now matters."
Like many college football observers, Fitzgerald is no fan of preseason polls and the influence they had on the national championship race. His favorite part of the playoff setup is that the only rankings that matter will come from the selection committee, which will release its first Top 25 list on Oct. 28.
"If we don't get in there, it's our fault," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't win. [Athletic director] Jim Phillips and I didn't schedule the right games, and myself, the staff and the players, we didn't win. We have nobody else to blame. Because if you win our league and you play a competitive schedule, you're going to be in the final four."
Fitzgerald admits he didn't mention the national championship much in recruiting before this season. Northwestern plays in a major conference but lacks the tradition or name recognition of many frequent preseason poll participants. Fitzgerald even pointed to last year -- Northwestern was ranked before the season based on a 10-3 mark and a bowl win in 2012, but stumbled to a 5-7 season -- as evidence that preseason forecasts are often off base.
"It's no longer about your sex appeal, your preseason hype and how many of your fans click on websites for votes anymore," Fitzgerald said. "It's gone. ... If you haven't played anybody in the nonconference schedule, are you going be that impressive when the [first] vote comes out?"
Michigan State has more tradition than Northwestern, but the Spartans are viewed more as an emerging power than a traditional one, especially after a 13-1 season in 2013. MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who thinks his team would have won the national title if a playoff system had been in place last season, saw the BCS model as one that rewarded teams too much for who they were, not what they were.
"A lot of it was, early in the season, they started their polls quite early, and I think some of the points you were given were based on your past," Dantonio said. "... You were still getting points from being ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season."
The coaches were part of the problem, too, at least those who voted in a poll that was part of the BCS selection process.
"People would favor their own conference, so they'd get voted in whether it was right, wrong or indifferent," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "It's a little more transparent now than what it was before, which is good."
Another good thing for the lower-profile Big Ten programs is the emphasis the committee will have on selecting league champions. Like their colleagues from other leagues, the Big Ten coaches expect their league champion to qualify for the playoff.
So if Maryland can navigate a division featuring Ohio State and Michigan State, among others, and win the league title, why shouldn't it make the playoff? Just because of its name?
"You're going to have a chance to be in the national championship," Edsall said. "Before, that might not be the case. At least now, people are going to see how teams are playing."
“I cannot overstate it,” Freeze said of Engram’s absence. “We changed last year when he went out. We were not the same.”
Early on against Vanderbilt, Texas, Auburn and Texas A&M, Ole Miss averaged 466 yards and 35.75 points per game. Week 7 against LSU -- the same game Engram rolled his ankle in the second half -- the Rebels racked up 525 yards and 27 points in a dramatic upset victory. But down the stretch in losses against Missouri and Mississippi State, the offense faltered, failing to score more than 10 points in either game. Without Engram, there was no one to work the middle of the field and keep the safeties honest. Quarterback Bo Wallace began forcing the ball and threw six interceptions in November alone as the Rebs limped to an 8-5 finish.
A healthy Engram should mean greater consistency for Ole Miss in 2014. He and fellow freshman Treadwell are a year wiser, and Wallace’s arm is finally back to 100 percent after never fully rehabilitating from shoulder surgery prior to last season. Moncrief might be off to the NFL now, but there is plenty to like about the depth of the receiving corps, especially 6-foot-3 sophomore Quincy Abedoyejio, whom Wallace said is the best route-runner and the fastest receiver of the bunch.
Even though the receivers deserve their fair share of acclaim, don’t sleep on Engram. He might not be a household name yet, but to the people who matter most he’s held in high esteem. As junior defensive end C.J. Johnson said, “I think it will be key to keep him healthy.”
“Evan is a little faster than people give him credit for, I think,” Johnson added. “He’s tough, really long, really athletic, has good hands. He can really cause some problems in the slot.
“Having Evan and the skill set he has is pretty special.”
Asked in May what Engram brings to the table, offensive coordinator Dan Werner said simply, “The fact that he’s almost a wide receiver.”
“He’s got the talent of a wide receiver, but he’s more physical so he can play inside. Now we’re getting him matched up on linebacker and safeties a bunch. That’s just a total mismatch.”
But it’s not just Engram who is poised to wreak havoc on SEC defenses this season. The entire league seems to be strong at tight end. When the John Mackey Award watch list came out last month, Engram and six other SEC players were on it: Rory Anderson, Hunter Henry, O.J. Howard, Malcolm Johnson, Jay Rome and C.J. Uzomah. The seven total selections (compared to five the year before) were more than any other conference in college football.
So on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We ran the offensive player results earlier on Tuesday, and up now are the results from the defense.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- defensive player in the Big Ten?
S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: "I like watching Randy Gregory and the way he can tackle people. We got a lot of good players in this conference, so that's kind of tough to say. But I like his motor, I like the way he gets after people, and I like his excitement. I like guys that are out there having fun, and you can tell he has fun the way he plays."
DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State: "A lot of them left last year. Hmm ... I'd have to say Shilique Calhoun because he's the only other name I really know. He makes plays. Other than that, I watched his film and I wasn't really sure what the hype was -- but then, somehow, in our game he comes out with two forced fumbles and three sacks or something like that. So the guy is a playmaker and he gets the job done."
LB Mike Hull, Penn State: "That's tough. There's a lot of good players, but I really follow a lot of the linebackers. So I'd say Jake Ryan. He's a solid linebacker, makes good plays and has really good fundamentals. Just have respect for Michigan."
S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: "It's tough to say ... but there's some defenses that stand out. Michigan State's defense always stands out. It's more of a concerted effort; their whole unit plays with a good energy that I like. I'll always be watching them during the season, and they'll always stand out to me. If we're watching Illinois' offense and they played Michigan State, they'll just kind of stand out as one of the best teams defensively."
So, on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We'll have the defensive player poll later on Tuesday. Here are the offensive results.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- offensive player in the Big Ten?
QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: "Ameer Abdullah. When we played them at Nebraska, watching him run around, he made our defense look bad. We had a pretty good defense this past year, and watching him run around, he was like a water bug. You couldn’t tackle him."
RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: "Shane Wynn, that’s my boy. He also played in the Offense-Defense [All-American] Bowl with me and Melvin. So I’ve known Shane for a little while just like I’ve known Melvin. And Shane Wynn, he’s electrifying. He gets the ball in his hands, he can stop on a dime, he’s really fast, and he’s a really crafty route runner. So I like watching him play."
OT Brandon Scherff, Iowa: "I’d say Braxton Miller or Melvin Gordon. Braxton makes those dead plays turn into 50-yard touchdowns. All those unreal plays. I remember last year playing him; he did some pretty unreal things. And Melvin Gordon is just a great football player. He’s tough and physical, and it’s fun to watch him."
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State: "I know Shane Wynn, he’s here. He’s like a little midget over there [laughs]. That’s my friend; we’re good friends. He’s good, he’s explosive -- and you see how little he is? He can make a lot of plays, and it’s just fun to watch him. And I don’t know who else. Melvin Gordon, I’ve seen a couple highlights of him and he’s pretty solid, too. … If I had a chance to pick him or Carlos [Hyde], I don’t know. We’ll see. Well, Carlos, yeah, Carlos."
Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah preps his Kickoff Luncheon speech
Umm, what else can we ask?
James Franklin was just asked whether playing on natural grass is an advantage. Yep, we're out of questions, media day is over.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 29, 2014
A public service reminder from Nebraska's Bo Pelini
I heard just end of odd exchange that ended when Bo Pelini said: "There is football played outside of the SEC, contrary to popular belief."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) July 29, 2014
Huskers' Abdullah a dual threat at media days
Force is strong at Penn State
James Franklin just called his strength coach a Jedi. The force is flowing through Penn State.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 29, 2014
B1G fashion statements
Ohio State's Urban Meyer on LeBron coming home
Urban Meyer fielding questions about LeBron's return this morning. Said it's big in recruiting and he could play H-back or TE for him.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 29, 2014
The Maryland Terrapins wide receiver wasn’t fully cleared to participate in the spring game as he continued his rehabilitation from the broken leg that sent him prematurely to the sideline last season, but he was at least going to be allowed to go through warm-ups, which nearly qualified as a feast for a guy starving for football.
Even if the Terps had just stopped at giving Diggs a pair of cleats to lace up again, though, that might have been enough to hold him over until the fall based on his emotional reaction on the road to recovery.
“Seeing as how I love football so much, it almost brought me to tears just to be able to put my cleats back on,” Diggs said at Big Ten media day. “I was so happy.
“Towards the end of spring I did kind of get my feet wet a little bit. I didn’t play in the game or anything, but I did warm up with the team on game day. It was nice just to be back out there to be honest with you. I’m just looking forward to the season. It’s been a long time coming.”
Too long for both the football-crazed Diggs and the Terrapins, who missed his game-breaking ability on the perimeter. Diggs had a productive start before his fluky injury against Wake Forest.
Diggs already had caught 34 passes for 587 yards with three touchdowns before Maryland had to put him on the shelf, and even if it just had to replace his output it would have been a challenge for the offense. But Diggs wasn’t the only notable player hurt for the Terps in their final season before moving to the Big Ten. A lengthy disabled list that included as many as 13 players ruled out by late November made it difficult not only to compete in the ACC, but also to gauge how they might do in a more grueling conference this fall.
Certainly having Diggs back will go a long way toward helping Maryland make a mark in its new league, and he pronounced himself “110 percent right now” heading into training camp. But the trick will be making sure both he and the rest of the Terps can stay that way, avoiding some of the bad luck that has cursed them over the past couple of seasons.
“We had our rough spate of injuries, but we always look for the positive,” Diggs said. If we stay healthy, it’s all about potential. We’ve got a lot of potential, so let’s keep it that way. We’re looking forward to playing football, and that’s the bottom line. As far as staying healthy, we’ll do the best we can like any other team.
“For me, I feel like I’m faster than I was before. They say when you break a leg you get a little taller. Well, I got a little faster -- so I got both of those.”
That means Diggs might have to lean over a little further to tie his cleats. And as fast as he already was before the injury, he might need to lace those shoes up a little tighter as well.
Several coaches in the Big 12 and Pac-12 told ESPN.com last week that they liked Pelini's proposal, which would give recruits a chance to sign as soon as they were offered a scholarship. The intent would be to slow down the recruiting process and make coaches accountable for offers, which currently are extended with zero consequences.
"It makes so much sense," Pelini told ESPN.com on Monday. "People say, 'Oh, let's just have an early signing day.' Why have a signing day at all? It would solve a lot of problems. I haven't heard a lot of reaction from conference administrators and people like that, but I would love to see it, at least start talking about it."
But getting a radical recruiting idea -- or any recruiting proposal -- through the convoluted legislative process isn't easy. It's downright impossible.
"That's the frustrating thing," Pelini said. "We as coaches talk. I just think for this to move forward, you've got to get everybody in the same room. There has to be a willingness to change. Why does everything take so long? You have to go through this committee and that committee and then you get the feedback."
Several Big Ten coaches recently have made recruiting proposals to reform a process that seems to be getting increasingly flawed. The Maryland Terrapins' Randy Edsall would like to prevent scholarship offers from being extended until a prospect's senior season. The Michigan Wolverines' Brady Hoke would like official visits to be allowed at the end of a prospect's junior year to ease the financial burden on players' families.
Most Big Ten coaches favor an earlier signing date -- Hoke wants it on Aug. 1 -- and earlier official visits, ideally during a short window in June when they're conducting high school camps. But coaches from other leagues don't want any changes to the calendar.
"I don't want to expediate recruiting any more," Auburn Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com last week. "It's too fast now."
Iowa Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz calls that "a laughable excuse."
"Is anybody paying attention to anything?" Ferentz said. "The facts are recruiting is accelerated, and the facts are people and families are traveling at record amounts.
"But we choose not to address it."
Ferentz and his Big Ten colleagues will continue to push for changes to the recruiting calendar. But they're not holding their breath.
"Get everybody in the same room and let's figure out what works," Pelini said. "I don't think it's that difficult."
Keep in mind there's always some projection in these lists after reaching out to coaches, scouts and other media members for their input. The goal is to pinpoint who we think will be the 25 best players for the 2014 season, meaning it's not merely a list of the 25 returning players who've been the best players in the league to this point.
Today, we look at selections 20-16:
20. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches and earn SEC Freshman of the Year honors from the coaches. He's added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, and at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, will be even tougher to defend with his physicality, sure hands and run-after-the-catch ability. With Donte Moncrief leaving early for the NFL, Treadwell is moving from slot receiver to the Rebels' outside receiver spot and will get plenty of chances for big plays.
19: Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: The Michael Sam-Kony Ealy tandem at defensive end last season was ultra-productive, but go back and look at the havoc the 6-3, 260-pound Golden caused despite playing only 40 percent of the snaps. He had 13 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks, and steps up this season as a senior as the Tigers' top finisher off the edge. Missouri has produced its share of talented defensive linemen under Gary Pinkel, and Golden is poised to join that fraternity.
18. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said Nkemdiche is a tackle all the way for the Rebels, although he's certainly athletic enough to play outside in certain situations. He plans to play at 285 pounds this season after playing closer to 300 as a freshman. He's also healthy after racking up eight tackles for loss last season and eager to prove that he can be as dominant as any interior defensive lineman in this league and maybe the country.
17. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Some of the best news for the 5-9, 223-pound Davis is that the Gamecocks are deep at running back, so they'll be able to keep him fresh. He was a dynamo last season in his first full season as a starter and finished with 1,183 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Davis is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and caught 34 passes a year ago. He turns missed tackles into touchdowns and had two scoring runs of more than 50 yards last season.
16. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: Even though Derrick Henry has generated plenty of buzz over the way he played in the bowl game last season, the 6-2, 218-pound Yeldon is still the Crimson Tide's feature back. He'll be gunning for his third straight 1,000-yard season in 2014 and has averaged at least 6 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons. Yeldon led the SEC in rushing in league games last season with an average of 123.5 yards per game. He's as adept at running over you as he is at running by you.
How would you guys react, hypothetically, if you're eligible for a bowl this year?
"How would you react if you were on a bowl ban?" Belton asked, before some mild back-and-forth. "I'm just saying, like, if you were a kid in a program and you were in a bowl ban, it would be exciting. That's what I'm saying."
Belton, a senior, didn't seem to want to get his hopes up. This is his final season, after all, and he's already been forced to come to terms with the fact he'll end his career without another postseason berth. Maybe the only thing worse than that realization is believing otherwise -- only to find disappointment yet again.
"We just continue to work on what we have to do to get better," he said Monday afternoon. "That's something the guys don't think about. All we're trying to do is prepare for UCF."
But there might be some cause for hope. NCAA president Mark Emmert reduced the sanctions on scholarships last season, and Emmert acknowledged last fall that further reductions could be considered this August or September. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the results of the annual Mitchell Report -- which, in all likelihood, will once again be a glowing one for Penn State.
Granted, that's still not a guarantee there'll be a reduction. But it doesn't mean Penn State is locked into its current penalties either. Really, at this point, it's anyone's guess.
"We don't know any more than you guys, to be honest," said kicker Sam Ficken, also a senior. "Obviously, we hope it's lifted. But, if not, we're going to approach the season the same way. That's not going to affect how we play the 12 regular-season games.
"If we get to that point and we're able to do that, that's awesome. That would be a good way to go out. But if it doesn't happen? Well, I still had a heck of a time at Penn State. We all play for each other and play for the fans, and that's not going to change."
Five Pennsylvania congressmen -- including U.S. Rep Glenn Thompson, who invited James Franklin to the State of the Union Address -- signed a two-page letter to Emmert on Thursday to request an elimination of the sanctions. They wrote the penalties "harm innocent student athletes and further erodes the increasingly specious credibility of the [NCAA]."
The politicians also asked Emmert to answer two questions in a timely fashion. For one, they wonder how the NCAA can reconcile its mission statement with the fact many of those affected were high school students at the time of the Consent Decree's enforcement. And, two, if the NCAA already acknowledged it lacked authority to fine Penn State for criminal activity of a former employee, how can it still insist on punitive measures?
Senior linebacker Mike Hull wasn't asked about all the political jargon or whether this group, or that report, would be successful in restoring bowl games or past wins. But he did address that possibility of a bowl game, of a last hurrah for him and the Penn State seniors.
"We talk about it as players off the field a little bit, but we really don't want to get our hopes up," he said. "We want to take it one day at a time, one game at a time, and play the same way regardless of whether we're going to a bowl game or not. It's a special place at Penn State."
No. 20: Washington DT Danny Shelton
2013 stats: Started all 13 games, made a career-high 59 tackles, recorded a pair of sacks and blocked two kicks.
Why he's ranked here: The first of four Washington defensive players who will appear during the countdown, Shelton -- who is listed at 6-foot-2, 339 pounds -- is as imposing a defensive lineman as can be found in the country. An All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection a year ago, he enters his senior year with 115 career tackles and is an elite defender against the run.
Shelton has started the past 28 games for the Huskies, including a stretch last year in which he played through a left shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. If Washington takes the next step under new coach Chris Petersen, Shelton will likely be a main reason. Looking down the road, he has the potential to be one of the first defensive tackles selected in the 2015 NFL draft and has also twice been named first-team Academic All-Pac-12.
No. 19: Oregon State OL Isaac Seumalo
2013 stats: Integral part of the offensive line that blocked for QB Sean Mannion as he set the Pac-12 single-season record with 4,662 yards passing.
Why he's ranked here: From the day Seumalo stepped foot onto the Corvallis, Oregon, campus, he has been one of the Beavers’ best players. He didn’t redshirt in 2012, has started all 25 games he’s played in and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection a year ago playing predominately at center. He’s already been named to the preseason watch lists for the Rimington Trophy, Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award. Where Seumalo winds up on the line this year -- he started a pair of games at right tackle last year -- is still to be determined and will likely have as much to do with the development around him as anything else.
At Pac-12 media days last week, Oregon State coach Mike Riley said he’s thinking of pairing Seumalo with Sean Harlow at the two guard positions. “I'd like that picture physically inside against all the interior guys that we see in there,” Riley said. It could take some time before that situation gets ironed out because Seumalo is still recovering from a foot injury he suffered during the Hawaii Bowl that kept him out of spring practice. Riley doesn’t anticipate the injury will keep him out during the regular season, but didn’t rule out the possibility he could sit the first week against Portland State.
18. Washington CB Marcus Peters
2013 stats: Recorded 55 tackles, 5 interceptions, defended 14 passes and recovered 2 fumbles.
Why he's ranked here: Along with USC defensive end Leonard Williams (first team), Peters (second) was one of two defensive players to receive first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honors as a sophomore last season. His five interceptions (tied for fifth) and 14 passes defended (tied for first) were among the best numbers in the conference. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Peters the Huskies’ most important player on defense this season as the lone returning starter in the secondary. For new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, Peters will ideally serve as a measure of consistency while the rest of the secondary takes shape early in the season.
Peters has the attention of NFL scouts, too. Among underclassmen, ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Peters as the No. 2 corner in the country and currently has him as the No. 19 player on the Way-Too-Early 2015 Big Board . Peters has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
17. Washington DE Hau'oli Kikaha
2013 stats: Among the conference leaders with 13 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss.
Why he's ranked here: What Shelton means to the Huskies on the interior, Kikaha means to the pass rush. In 13 games a year ago, Kikaha recorded 13 sacks to rank second in the Pac-12 behind Stanford's Trent Murphy, who led the nation with 15. Not only did his sack total rank second in the conference last year, but it fell just 1.5 sacks shy of Jason Chorak’s single-season school record from 1996.
Kikaha finished last season on a high note when he was named defensive MVP of the Fight Hunger Bowl after he registered three sacks, nine tackles and a forced fumble in Washington’s win against BYU. With an inexperienced secondary playing behind him, Kikaha’s role as a pass-rusher will be even more important this year, especially considering the level of quarterback play expected across the conference.
16. Stanford S Jordan Richards
2013 stats: Recorded 69 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions and defended 3 passes.
Why he's ranked here: The top-ranked safety in the conference (at this point Richards is still a more proven commodity than USC's Su'a Cravens), Richards will be an All-American candidate playing in what has the potential to be one of Stanford’s best secondaries in years. Even playing next to Ed Reynolds last season, who left early for the NFL and was drafted by Philadelphia in the fifth round, Richards proved to be the most consistent player in the Cardinal’s secondary. He’s fast enough to stay with players in coverage and strong enough to step into the box and help against the run.
Richards is currently on the watch lists for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award and was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection the past two seasons. With Reynolds gone, Richards will see extended playing time next to a different safety for the first time in his Stanford career. As things sit, Kyle Olugbode, Zach Hoffpauir and Kodi Whitfield figure to be the top three candidates for that role and none of them has much experience -- or in Whitfield’s case, no experience as a safety in college football.
25-21: 25. Stanford DE Henry Anderson; 24. Utah WR Dres Anderson; 23. USC S Su'a Cravens; 22. Oregon RB Byron Marshall; 21. Arizona WR Austin Hill
This is a ranking of who we think the best 25 players will be over the course of the 2014 season.
Monday, we kicked this series off with the first five names. Today, we continue with Nos. 20-16.
20. Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas: Health is the only concern with Gray. Because when he’s healthy, Gray is a devastating combination of speed and power. There’s a reason the Longhorns have never lost when Gray has gotten 20 carries, which included victories over Oklahoma and Kansas State last year. A torn Achilles ended his 2013 season prematurely. But Gray has been cleared for fall camp, which is a good sign for the Longhorns and a bad one for the rest of the Big 12.
19. Bryce Hager, LB, Baylor: Hager is the Bryce Petty of the Baylor defense, with a pair of second-team All-Big 12 seasons behind him. Hager has recorded 195 tackles over the past two seasons and is one of the most seasoned players in the league. He missed the spring rehabbing from a season-ending groin injury, but should be 100 percent when the Bears begin fall camp. If Baylor avoids a drop off from last year’s breakout defensive campaign, Hager’s steady play will be a major reason why.
18. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas: Diggs is the most outspoken player in the league, even foreshadowing during Big 12 media days that coach Charlie Strong might have to weed out certain players. Diggs will be a four-year starter and the unequivocal leader of the Texas defense. He should be more comfortable back at cornerback after a stint last season at the nickel. With cornerbacks Jason Verrett, Justin Gilbert and Aaron Colvin all gone, Diggs figures to be the new class of the position in the league.
17. Chucky Hunter, DT, TCU: The Horned Frogs might not have star end Devonte Fields this season. But they should still be stout up front, thanks to the return of Hunter, who is coming off an All-Big 12 season. Fellow tackle Davion Pierson is one of the most underrated players in the league. And the two form arguably the best one-two punch at defensive tackle in the league.
16. Ben Heeney, LB, Kansas: Don’t blame Heeney for the Jayhawks’ 3-9 record last year. The Big 12’s top returning tackler spearheaded a defense that gave opposing offenses fits at times in 2013, despite getting virtually no assistance from the Kansas offense. With nine starters back, the Jayhawks could create even more problems for the offenses of the Big 12. Especially with Heeney manning the middle.
Coming Wednesday: Nos. 15-11
20. Kelby Brown, Duke Blue Devils
Year: Redshirt senior
Brown has been an integral piece to Duke's turnaround, bouncing back from a knee injury to record 114 tackles last season. He is one of three returning 100-tackle players on the Blue Devils' defense in 2014, and he will start for a fourth time in five years. Brown should also provide a boost to the pass rush, having made 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2013.
19. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State Seminoles
Position: Defensive back
Ramsey has already made his mark on what should be another outstanding secondary, as the former five-star recruit earned freshman All-America honors last season as a 14-game starter. He is the first FSU corner to start as a true freshman since Deion Sanders did in 1985. Ramsey thrived again this spring, as he was one of three players to earn the Seminoles' Hinesman Award (spring standout). Ramsey now steps into the role formerly held by Lamarcus Joyner, the anchor of last season's secondary, which led the nation in pass defense.
18. Nick O'Leary, Florida State
Position: Tight end
O'Leary returns for his senior season as one of Jameis Winston's top targets, as FSU searches for answers at receiver behind Rashad Greene. O'Leary enters 2014 as arguably the nation's top tight end, this after a 2013 campaign that saw him haul in 33 receptions for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. He is back to 100 percent after missing the end of the spring following a motorcycle accident. And, in case you haven't heard, he comes from good lineage: His grandfather is golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
17. Karlos Williams, Florida State
Position: Running back
Williams entered FSU as a five-star prospect at safety. He moved to running back last year and did not disappoint, finishing second on the team in rushing, with 730 yards. He scored 11 touchdowns and averaged 8.0 yards per carry. He helped turned the momentum of the BCS title game by converting a fake punt in the second quarter. Now Williams is the top man in the backfield for the Seminoles, and the possibilities seem endless for an athlete who finally has a full year of playing the position under his belt.
16. Kevin Parks, Virginia Cavaliers
Position: Running back
Year: Redshirt senior
Parks was one of the more overlooked players in the ACC last season, a byproduct of Virginia's winless conference campaign. Still, the Salisbury, North Carolina, native became the first Cavalier to rush for 1,000 yards since Alvin Pearman in 2004, tallying 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns. Listed at a generous 5-foot-8, Parks did plenty of speed training this offseason in hopes of making more explosive plays. He will be the leader of a crowded backfield that should help take pressure off new quarterback Greyson Lambert.