Top 30 breakout players for 2012

Updated: August 29, 2012, 5:17 PM ET
By Travis Haney

With the 2012 college football season now just one day away, we know all about the teams expected to be in the BCS championship hunt and the star players who figure to be in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

But a big part of the excitement of the season's first few weeks are the surprises and breakthrough performances that weren't as easy to see coming. With that in mind, who will emerge as the breakout players of 2012?

The term "breakout player" can be interpreted a lot of different ways by a lot of different people, but our focus in putting together this ranking was to try to identify the players most likely to have the biggest jumps in performance this season.

As a result, this list is a mix of first-year players poised to make an impact, part-timers from 2011 with the potential to be difference-makers for their teams and established veterans ready to become stars.

I limited the ranking to players from the AQ conferences and those positions that allow for the most noticeable on-field impact (sorry, but there aren't offensive linemen or fullbacks on this list). Here is a look at the top 30 breakout player candidates for 2012:

1. Jadeveon Clowney, Sophomore DE, South Carolina Gamecocks

Clowney was good as a freshman. He could soon be great. That's the consensus of coaches, both in Columbia and outside it, when asked this spring and summer about Clowney.

The in-state product had 36 tackles -- eight sacks -- in a relatively limited number of snaps as a rookie. Then-coordinator Ellis Johnson tried to put him in positions in which he could be successful in getting to the passer. And it worked. He had six QB hurries and five forced fumbles, on top of being among the SEC's leaders in sacks.

Opposing coaches have told me they aren't particularly thrilled about the idea that Clowney really still had a lot to learn, schematically. There's a lot of growth potential, in other words.

This season could be when Clowney carves his candidacy for national defensive awards -- maybe even the Heisman -- in 2013. A top-10 selection in the 2014 draft could then follow. But this is the crucial foundational year, make no mistake.

There was some chatter from Steve Spurrier about Clowney playing some middle linebacker, but that could have been a bluff on the Ball Coach's part. Veteran line coach Brad Lawing all but laughed at the notion. He clarified that Clowney will play the same kind of rush-end spot that the school's all-time sacks leader, Eric Norwood, did when he was a Gamecock.

2. Braxton Miller, Sophomore QB, Ohio State Buckeyes