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July 31, 2010

Five players ready for breakout seasons

The guys we're profiling in this story aren't exactly no-names. They just aren't quite big names -- at least not yet.

That figures to change this season.

We're betting that these five players will have established themselves as star performers by the end of the 2010 season. They have performed well enough in part-time situations to make us believe they're ready to deliver breakthrough seasons as they capitalize on expanded roles.

A couple of them already proved their worth by delivering standout performances late last season.

In one case, a special teams standout is getting ready to help a traditional power reconstruct a once-proud defense that has fallen upon hard times. We also have a linebacker continuing a family tradition and a wide receiver trying to match the accomplishments of his most recent predecessors.

You may not know their names now, but you should be familiar with them by the end of November.

Former Missouri star Jeremy Maclin led the nation with 202.4 all-purpose yards per game in 2008 before going to the Philadelphia Eagles with the 19th overall pick in the NFL draft. Danario Alexander took over for Maclin last season and topped the nation with 1,781 receiving yards.

Could Jackson be next in line?

His 2009 statistics (37 catches for 458 yards and two touchdowns) might not seem noteworthy, but he came on strong late in the season after replacing an injured Jared Perry in the starting lineup. Jackson, a junior, caught 19 passes for 274 yards in Missouri's final three regular-season games.

Conventional wisdom suggests Missouri might spread the ball around more this season, but if anyone on the roster is likely to put up the numbers Maclin delivered in 2007 and '08 and Alexander compiled in '09, Jackson's the guy.

He scored on a 70-yard catch-and-run in a late-season win over Iowa State last year and also ran untouched into the end zone on a 37-yard sweep against Kansas. He figures to get many more opportunities to showcase that big-play ability this season.

Missouri's recent track record for producing top-flight receivers suggests he's due for a breakthrough season.

Missouri already has an emerging star quarterback in Blaine Gabbert, who threw for 3,593 yards, 24 touchdowns and just nine interceptions last season, his first as the starter. Gabbert just needs to find a new favorite target now that Alexander and Perry have completed their careers.

The comfort level Gabbert established with Jackson late last season should pay plenty of dividends this fall.

Linebacker U. will have an entirely new look this season.

Each of Penn State's three starting linebackers from last season -- Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull -- were selected in the most recent NFL draft. Their departure has forced the Nittany Lions to find three new starting linebackers.

Don't be surprised if Mauti develops into the best of the bunch.

Mauti missed the 2009 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during an August scrimmage. Mauti also sat out all of spring practice, though the knee problem shouldn't affect his readiness for the 2010 season.

That injury likely will serve as a mere speed bump on Mauti's road to stardom.

Mauti was one of only three true freshmen to play every game for Penn State two seasons ago. He made 26 tackles overall and showed his enormous potential by delivering seven stops and forcing a fumble in a 46-17 rout of Michigan.

Mauti, a sophomore, already is part of Penn State royalty. His father, Rich, lettered at Penn State in 1975 and '76 before playing eight seasons in the NFL as a receiver with the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins. His older brother, Patrick, played wide receiver at Penn State from 2006-09.

Look for Michael to deliver the kind of season that should make his father proud.

Florida State's chances of contending for an ACC title in the first season of the Jimbo Fisher era depend on whether the defense rebounds from a dreadful 2009 season.

The Seminoles' chances of improving their defense could rest on whether sophomore Reid delivers a breakthrough season.

Reid already has made quite a name for himself. He was the nation's leading punt returner last season, with an average of 18.4 yards per attempt. His 48-yard punt return helped set up the winning touchdown in a 29-26 victory over Maryland that made the Seminoles bowl eligible.

This season, he figures to make an even greater impact on defense.

Reid picked off a pass against Miami and scored on a 63-yard interception return against BYU last season in a part-time role, but he could develop into the star of Florida State's secondary this season. Reid is just 5 feet 9, but he makes up for his lack of height with a surplus of athleticism and competitiveness.

After signing with Florida State as the No. 4 cornerback and the No. 27 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, Reid showcased his breathtaking potential this spring. In one scrimmage, he picked off four passes and returned one for a 35-yard touchdown.

Reid doesn't have a starting job locked up just yet. He spent spring practice sharing first-team reps with senior Ochuko Jenije, junior Dionte Allen and redshirt freshman Xavier Rhodes.

But there's little question that Reid has the greatest upside of any Florida State cornerback.

"He's growing up," Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder said. "He's making plays. His instincts are incredible. He'll jump on things he's probably not supposed to, but he just goes out and makes plays."

Florida State is counting on him to make plenty of them this fall.

California's string of seven consecutive seasons with at least one 1,000-yard rusher ended last season.

Look for Vereen to start a new streak this fall.

Vereen nearly kept the streak alive when he ran for 952 yards and earned honorable mention all-Pac-10 honors despite starting just four games. He spent most of the season backing up Jahvid Best, who entered the year as a Heisman contender before running into injury problems.

Vereen played well enough for California to feel confident in its rushing attack even without Best, who entered the NFL draft after the season and went to the Detroit Lions with the 30th overall selection.

"Shane Vereen is coming back, and he can carry the load," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "I think he has proven that."

Vereen, a junior, proved his ability to carry the load with his performances in the final four games of the 2009 season. He rushed for a combined 566 yards on 108 carries against Arizona, Stanford, Washington and Utah. He gained at least 92 yards in each of those games.

He even outdueled Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart in Cal's 34-28 victory over Stanford.

Gerhart was sensational that day, as he rushed for 136 yards and four touchdowns. Vereen was better. He ran the ball 42 times -- the most carries by any Cal player in eight years -- for 193 yards and three touchdowns.

"He's a proven guy -- a guy that I know is going to give us everything he has," Cal running backs coach Ron Gould said.

Wynn is beginning his sophomore season, but he already has the poise of a senior.

Wynn made that abundantly clear during the Poinsettia Bowl.

After Utah fell behind 14-0 to California, Wynn didn't panic. He instead maintained a steady demeanor and threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns as Utah rallied for a 37-27 victory over the Golden Bears.

"He's unflappable," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said afterward. "Ice water in his veins."

That trait helped Wynn make an immediate impact.

Wynn took over as Utah's starting quarterback eight games into the season last year, making him just the third true freshman starting quarterback at the school since 1972. Coaches had planned to redshirt him, but those plans ended in Game 8, when Terrance Cain was benched at halftime in favor of Wynn, who hadn't played a down all season.

Wynn threw for an average of 249.4 yards in his five starts while battling the likes of TCU, BYU and Cal. He finished the season 104-of-179 for 1,329 yards with eight touchdown passes and four interceptions.

Wynn heads into his sophomore season as a legitimate challenger for All-Mountain West Conference honors. He should team with running backs Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata to give Utah one of the nation's top backfields.

Utah is investing heavily in Wynn. The Utes must replace seven starters on defense, yet they expect to compete for an MWC title and should open the season in the national rankings. Utah won't have a chance of reaching those goals unless Wynn has a big season.

If those expectations are bothering Wynn, he won't let it show. He simply will respond the same way he reacted to that early deficit in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Actually, he will respond the way we expect all the guys on this list to respond this season as they develop into household names.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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