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Fourteen can't-miss college football recruits to watch in the 2014 season

Byron Cowart is a strong, fast defensive end rated as the top recruit in his class. Sound familiar? Photo: Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP

Byron Cowart is a strong, fast defensive end rated as the top recruit in his class. Sound familiar?

When the 2014 college football season begins later this month, the focus will naturally be on what’s happening in the present. Depth charts, injury reports, rankings and other things pertaining to the here and now will dominate the national discourse.

Behind the scenes, coaches will be hard at work wooing elite high school players, trying to better their program’s long-term prospects. The goal is to have recruiting classes firmed up in time for National Signing Day on Feb. 4. While some of the nation’s top prospects have already made verbal commitments, many remain undecided -- and those who have pledged may wind up changing their minds at some point down the road.

In honor of the 2014 season, here are 14 recruits to keep tabs on in the coming months. This list includes players in the class of '15 (seniors), '16 (juniors) and '17 (sophomores).

Byron Cowart, 2015, DE

How does Cowart compare to some of the other defensive ends who Rivals.com rated as the No. 1 overall recruit in recent classes, such as Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand (2014), Ole MissRobert Nkemdiche ('13) and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney ('11)? It’s too early to say. What seems clear ­-- despite him not making much of a difference in last year’s 52-7 blowout loss to Miami Central (Fla.) High in the state title game -- is that Cowart, with his imposing blend of size (6-foot-3, 252 pounds) and athleticism, has the potential to be a disruptive force in opposing backfields at the next level. Although Florida and Florida State look like strong contenders to keep Cowart in state, he has plans to visit Oregon.

Torrance Gibson, 2015, ATH/QB

Gibson is listed as an athlete by Rivals.com, but he wants to play quarterback at the next level. While scouts say his passing needs refinement, Gibson’s athleticism could make him an excellent fit in an up-tempo spread offense. Gibson listed his top seven schools in order earlier this summer: Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma, Central Florida, Miami and Ohio State. A recent trip to Columbus, however, appears to have vaulted the Buckeyes ahead of the pack. Don’t expect a decision from Gibson any time soon: The dual-threat signal-caller plans to take official visits, according to reports. As a junior at American Heritage (Fla.) High last season, Gibson passed for 1,864 yards with 19 touchdowns while amassing 1,032 yards and 10 scores on the ground.

Iman Marshall, 2015, CB

USC is considered the favorite to reel in the 6-1, 194-pound cornerback out of Long Beach Poly (Calif.) High, which produced 2014 Trojans commits John “JuJu” Smith and Rahshead Johnson. Marshall recently took an unofficial visit to USC’s campus. Other Pac-12 programs, such as UCLA and Stanford, could be in play, but Marshall has also expressed interest in exploring schools in different parts of the country, including Florida State and Notre Dame. Marshall’s father told Rivals.com that his son’s recruitment is “wide open at this point.” Marshall, who shined at showcase events this summer, including Nike’s The Opening, is rated as the No. 1 cornerback in the class of '15.

Soso Jamabo, 2015, RB

Less than a week after being named to the All-Tournament team following a strong showing at The Opening, Jamabo excelled in the prestigious Nike Peach Jam with his Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, the Texas Titans. While his defensive prowess on the hardwood has drawn plenty of attention, Jamabo is more highly regarded as a football prospect. The 6-2, 203-pound standout from Plano West (Texas) High is the No. 4-ranked running back in the country, according to Rivals.com, and has garnered scholarship offers from USC, Oregon, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma, among other top programs. Though Jamabo flashes tremendous speed and athleticism, scouts say his size and build differentiate him from other players at his position. One reporter compared Jamabo to NFL Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson and Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving.

George Campbell, 2015, WR

Campbell is one of the fastest players in his class -- he has been clocked at 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is said to possess a quick first step for someone his size (6-3, 183 pounds). Yet Campbell is still mastering the finer points of being a wide receiver. Some observers have said, for instance, that his hands could use some work. Campbell committed to Michigan last July but decided to re-open his recruitment a few months later. Campbell had planned to wait until the Under Armour All-America Game in January to announce his decision, but recent reports suggest he may not need that long. Whichever program lands Campbell will be tasked with tapping into his immense athleticism-based potential.

Damien Harris, 2015, RB

Harris is the top-ranked running back and No. 4-ranked player in his class, according to Rivals.com. Though he initially committed to Michigan, Harris decided to back out of his pledge in January -- shortly after Campbell elected to re-open his recruitment -- and recently released a list of top five schools that doesn’t include the Wolverines (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio State, Texas A&M). To make matters worse for Michigan fans, the Buckeyes are considered strong candidates to land Harris. The Berea, Ky., native was named the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year last year after rushing for 2,621 yards and 42 touchdowns at Madison Southern (Ky.) High. Harris is expected to announce his college decision on Dec. 13.

Sam Bruce, 2016, WR

Do not be fooled by Bruce’s diminutive size. At 5-8, 178 pounds, Bruce is a savvy playmaker who is tough to corral in the open field. While Bruce, who is transferring to South Florida power St. Thomas Aquinas High, has drawn plenty of praise for his prowess as a wide receiver, fans may come to recognize him for an entirely different reason. His nickname, “Samborghini,” is impeccable (not to mention excellent fodder for graphic design artists). Bruce committed to Miami last month on the same day as four-star running back Jordan Scarlett. At the Rivals Five-Star Challenge in Baltimore this summer, several players in attendance -- the majority of whom were members of the class of 2015 -- marveled at his athleticism. 

Rashan Gary, 2016, DE/LB

Gary is the No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2016 and has already drawn scholarship offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Penn State and USC, among other programs. Though Gary is 6-4, 290 pounds, he is explosive enough to dunk a 16-pound shot put, which should scare any offensive lineman tasked with blocking him. Gary, a two-sport athlete at Scotch Plains (N.J.) High, where he amassed 58 tackles including 13 for loss at nose tackle as a sophomore, is transferring to two-time reigning state champion Paramus Catholic (the alma mater of top '14 cornerback Jabrill Peppers) for this season. Gary reportedly said he will play defensive end and linebacker at his new school. The Paramus, N.J., native may be two years away from stepping foot on a college campus, but he’s already considered one of the top high school players in the country.

Dylan Moses, 2017, LB/RB

Those who follow recruiting are no doubt already familiar with Moses. He became a national story when LSU offered him a scholarship shortly after completing seventh grade, and Moses verbally committed to the Tigers in September 2013 (he is still considering other schools, according to reports). The Baton Rouge, La., native has grabbed attention with his ripped physique and athleticism, and was featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine for its “Kids in Sports” issue. As a freshman at University Lab (La.) High, Moses rushed for 475 yards and seven touchdowns and recorded 176 tackles. What will he do for an encore? Though Rivals.com has yet to rank '17 prospects, Moses is considered one of the top players in his class.

Jacob Eason, 2016, QB

Eason committed to Georgia just last month ­-- on the same day as five-star offensive tackle Ben Cleveland -- yet he is already being compared to former Bulldogs standout and Detroit Lions starter Matthew Stafford. Eason, who has drawn scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Ohio State, among other programs, passed for 2,941 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore at Lake Stevens (Wash.) High. Eason, at 6-5, 207 pounds, fits the mold of an elite pocket passer. "I see a guy who is really that prototypical drop-back passer, huge arm, intelligent, doesn't rush throws and doesn't try to force throws," Rivals.com West Coast recruiting analyst Adam Gorney said. Eason is the top-ranked pro-style passer and the No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2016, according to Rivals.com.

Nick Bosa, 2016, DE

Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa recorded 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season to earn freshman All-America honors and emerge as one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten. Joey’s younger brother, Nick, may have an even brighter future at the next level. The 6-4, 255-pound defensive end racked up 14.5 sacks and earned first-team all-state accolades last season at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High. He looks poised for an even bigger season this fall. Rocco Casullo, the 13-year head coach at Aquinas, told Cleveland.com that Nick is the most advanced player he has coached in “understanding philosophies, techniques, our defensive schemes.”

Josh Sweat, 2015, DE

It is not hard to see why Sweat has been likened to Jadeveon Clowney. They are both strong, freakishly athletic defensive ends considered among the top prospects in the country. (Clowney was No. 1 in 2011, while Sweat is No. 11 in '15, according to Rivals.com.) To get a taste of Sweat’s physical prowess, check out this video of him tossing four-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey to the ground in a one-on-one drill. Sweat was clocked at 4.46 in the 40-yard dash and measured at 39 inches in the vertical jump at the Nike SPARQ Combine at The Opening in July despite being hampered by a hip flexor injury. Sweat finished second in the SPARQ rankings competition, behind Destrehan, La., wide receiver Kirk Merritt. Florida State and Virginia Tech are among current the favorites to land Sweat, who will take official visits to Georgia, Ohio State and Oregon, in addition to the Seminoles and Hokies.

Malik Jefferson, 2015, OLB

Another player who opened eyes at the Nike SPARQ Combine at The Opening was Jefferson, the No. 2 outside linebacker in the class of 2015. At 6-2, 225 pounds, Jefferson was clocked at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash and 4.19 in the shuttle, recorded a 39.7-inch vertical jump and threw the power ball 42 feet. With his staggering combination of speed, power and linebacking know-how, it’s not surprising Jefferson counts more than 25 scholarship offers, including ones from Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oregon. While Texas and Texas A&M will look to keep the Mesquite, Texas, native within state lines, Jefferson recently announced on Twitter that he will take official visits to UCLA, Ohio State and Stanford.

Blake Barnett, 2015, QB

Those who had any interest in learning what a scholarship offer from Alabama looks like should thank Barnett. (Of course, he’s not the only prospect to tweet out his offers.) Barnett, the No. 3-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2015, passed for 2,322 yards and 22 touchdowns at Santiago (Calif.) High last season and was named MVP at the Elite 11 quarterback competition in Beaverton, Ore., in July. He shined in the 7-on-7 tournament and appears to have already developed some chemistry with fellow Alabama commit Calvin Ridley, the No. 2-ranked wide receiver in '15. Barnett and Ridley have the makings of a lethal quarterback-wide receiver duo. In the meantime, Crimson Tide fans will have to settle for Jacob Coker-to-Amari Cooper.

Two college football players to keep an eye on

Sports Illustrated's Martin Rickman and Zac Ellis predict that Alabama QB, Jacob Coker and Marshall QB, Rakeem Cato are two players that could have big seasons ahead of them.

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