- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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We're only halfway home in the 2011 college football season, but there are already plenty of emerging star players who have helped put their teams in position to win conference titles or even a BCS national championship. Many of the names are familiar, but a few are new.
Russell Wilson, Wisconsin
Wilson, an NC State transfer, has the Badgers smelling roses -- or even more. He leads FBS players in passing efficiency with a 216.9 rating, completing 74.8 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and one interception in No. 4 Wisconsin's 5-0 start.
Trent Richardson, Alabama
Richardson, a junior from Pensacola, Fla., is carrying the load without 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in the backfield, running for 729 yards with 11 touchdowns in the No. 2 Crimson Tide's 6-0 start. He has five straight 100-yard games, the second-longest streak in Alabama history.
LaMichael James, Oregon
LSU's defense and a dislocated elbow might be the only things that slow James this season. After gaining only 54 yards in a 40-27 loss to the Tigers in the opener, James has produced three consecutive 200-yard performances for the No. 9 Ducks, including 288 yards on 23 carries in a 56-31 rout of Arizona on Sept. 24.
Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden picked up where they left off last season for the No. 6 Cowboys, even without departed offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who is now West Virginia's coach. Blackmon has 46 catches for 534 yards with six touchdowns for the country's highest-scoring offense.
Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma
Despite playing in the No. 3 Sooners' deep receiver corps, Broyles has 47 catches for 598 yards with seven touchdowns and has had 100 receiving yards or more in 15 of his past 20 games. Broyles is four catches shy of breaking former Purdue receiver Taylor Stubblefield's NCAA career record of 316 receptions.
Dwayne Allen, Clemson
Who said a tight end can't play in a spread offense? Allen has been one of Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd's favorite targets, catching 22 passes for 340 yards with four touchdowns. Allen caught a touchdown pass in each of the No. 8 Tigers' victories over Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech.
Barrett Jones, Alabama
Jones, who started at right guard the previous two seasons, has been forced to wear many hats for the No. 2 Crimson Tide this year. Jones, a junior from Memphis, Tenn., has started all six games at left tackle but also has lined up at left guard, right tackle and center. He's the anchor of a line paving the way for the SEC's No. 1 rushing offense.
David DeCastro, Stanford
DeCastro, a senior from Bellevue, Wash., and left tackle Jonathan Martin have been the stalwarts of No. 7 Stanford's rebuilt offensive line. The Cardinal have allowed only two sacks on 155 pass attempts, tied for the fewest in the country. Protecting quarterback Andrew Luck is a big reason for Stanford's 13-game winning streak, the longest in the country.
David Molk, Michigan
Molk, a senior from Lemont, Ill., is the anchor of No. 11 Michigan's offensive line, which has allowed only two sacks in 125 pass attempts, tied for the fewest in the country. Molk has started 35 games at center for the Wolverines, who lead the Big Ten in rushing and rank No. 2 in total offense and scoring during their surprising 6-0 start.
Joe Looney, Wake Forest
The school with the smallest enrollment among FBS schools has one of the sport's biggest offensive lines. The Demon Deacons' five offensive linemen weigh an average of 314 pounds, and Looney is one of the biggest at 320. He was the team's highest-rated lineman in each of the first five games and leads in knockdown blocks during a 4-1 start.
Nate Potter, Boise State
Broncos quarterback Kellen Moore's quick release makes it nearly impossible for opponents to pressure him, but he also gets really good protection. Potter, a homegrown product from Boise, Idaho, is nearly impossible to move, which is a big reason that Moore has been sacked only twice in his past 253 pass attempts dating back to last season.
Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
Ingram, a senior from Hamlet, N.C., has provided plenty of defense and even some points for the No. 15 Gamecocks this season. Ingram leads the SEC with 5½ sacks and is fourth with 7½ tackles for loss. He scored touchdowns on a 68-yard run on a fake punt and 5-yard fumble return against Georgia and a fumble recovery in the end zone against Vanderbilt.
Devon Still, Penn State
Still, a senior from Wilmington, Del., has anchored one of the country's best defenses. He has 30 tackles, nine tackles for loss and two sacks for the Nittany Lions, who rank in the top five nationally in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and pass-efficiency defense.
Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
Worthy, a 310-pound junior, wore No. 95 against Notre Dame to honor Michigan State great Bubba Smith, who died this past summer. Worthy is still playing inspired football for the country's No. 1 overall defense, totaling 10 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery during the No. 23 Spartans' 4-1 start.
Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
Merciless is the perfect word for the star of Illinois' aggressive defense, which has helped the No. 16 Illini reach 6-0 for the first time since 1951. Mercilus, a junior from Akron, Ohio, leads the Big Ten with 8½ sacks, 10½ tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
Upshaw leads what is arguably the country's best linebacker corps, which is a big reason that the No. 2 Crimson Tide lead FBS teams in run defense and scoring defense and rank in the top four nationally in total defense and pass defense. Upshaw has 18 tackles and leads the SEC with 8½ tackles for loss.
Chase Thomas, Stanford
Thomas has been a steady force throughout his college career and has played even better after No. 7 Stanford lost linebacker Shayne Skov to a season-ending knee injury in the third game. Thomas leads Pac-12 players with five sacks and is second in the league with seven tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.
Luke Kuechly, Boston College
Don't blame Kuechly for the Eagles' dreadful 1-5 start. He is on pace to lead the country in tackles for the second season in a row with 99 stops in six games. He also leads FBS players with 58 solo tackles and is second in the ACC with 7½ tackles for loss. Kuechly had 23 tackles in a 20-19 loss to Duke on Sept. 17.
DeQuan Menzie, Alabama
Opponents take a sizable risk throwing to either side of the field against the Crimson Tide's secondary, but there might be more hazard in throwing to Menzie's side this season. Menzie, a junior college transfer who was hurt much of last season, has 19 tackles, six pass breakups, one interception and a fumble recovery.
What hasn't the No. 1 Tigers' "Honey Badger" done this season? Mathieu, a 5-foot-9 sophomore from New Orleans, leads the SEC with four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He also has 41 tackles, five tackles for loss, 1½ sacks, six pass breakups and two interceptions.
Mark Barron, Alabama
Barron has recovered from a torn pectoral muscle sustained last season to re-establish himself as the country's top safety. He has 30 tackles, 1½ tackles for loss, four pass breakups, one interception and a fumble recovery for the Crimson Tide.
Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma
Jefferson, a sophomore from Chula Vista, Calif., has intercepted four passes in the past two games. Named the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2010, Jefferson is fourth on the team with 28 tackles to go with four tackles for loss and two sacks. He intercepted three passes in a rout of Ball State and had an interception and a sack in a rout of Texas.
Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State
Sharp, a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award last year, is doing a lot more than punting this season. He has averaged 49.2 yards on 15 punts, which would lead the country if he'd punted enough times. Sharp, a junior from Mansfield, Texas, also leads FBS players with 27 touchbacks on kickoffs and is 9-for-10 on field goal attempts.
Chandler Catanzaro, Clemson
Catanzaro, a sophomore from Greenville, S.C., has made 10 of 12 field goal attempts, and he's 5-for-6 on attempts of 40 yards or longer. For his career, his accuracy on attempts from longer than 40 yards (73.3 percent) is better than his percentage from inside the 40 (68.4 percent). Catanzaro went 5-for-5 on field goals in last week's 36-14 victory over Boston College.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Abdullah, a freshman from Homewood, Ala., has been explosive nearly every time he's touched the ball for the Cornhuskers this season. He ranks No. 2 nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 31.9 yards per return, and is one of only three players to rank in the top 25 nationally in kickoff and punt returns. He had a school-record 211 yards on five kickoff returns in a rout of FCS foe Chattanooga.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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