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Ten redshirt freshmen poised to break out in 2014 spring practice and beyond

Notre Dame's Greg Bryant After redshirting last season, Greg Bryant (1) could play a key role for the Fighting Irish this fall. (Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

After Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston won the 2013 Heisman Trophy in December -- the second straight season in which a redshirt freshman has claimed the prestigious award -- the Seminoles’ star told reporters that college football’s era of seniority was over. “You shouldn’t have to sit back and watch an older fellow lead a team,” Winston said. “You shouldn’t have to wait your turn.”

Winston and 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel are two of the biggest reasons why it’s a good time to be a redshirt freshman. Enjoying a season’s worth of practice, film study and training workouts can be advantageous for newcomers looking to make an impact. For some, that can mean a shot at an invitation to New York. For others, it can bring a chance to play a key role on a team vying for a conference title, or more.

It’s still too early to speculate about dark-horse Heisman candidates among the country’s redshirt freshmen, but there are plenty of names to keep an eye on this spring. Here are 10 players (listed alphabetically) to watch as the 2014 season approaches.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson

Few signees in Dabo Swinney’s 2013 recruiting class were as highly touted as Alexander, but the Immokalee, Fla., native suffered a groin injury during preseason camp and missed all of last season. Now, Alexander is a big name in a Tigers’ secondary that has lost both starting cornerbacks, Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson. Alexander, a former four-star prospect, has lived up to his billing so far this spring. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables even singled him out as an early standout performer. “He’s had a nice first seven, eight practices,” Venables told reporters over the weekend.

Max Browne, QB, USC

Browne came to Los Angeles as the country’s top-rated pro-style passer in the class of 2013. However, former USC coach Lane Kiffin opted last season to limit his quarterback competition to a battle between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, with Kessler eventually winning out. New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian has brought Browne into the fold this spring, which could prove significant on the heels of Wittek’s decision to transfer. Browne is an accurate passer (70.4 percent completion rate in high school) and says that he feels more comfortable after a year of practice. Kessler, who threw for 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns last fall, will have to work hard to fend off the talented Browne.

JOHNSON: Ten quarterback competitions to monitor in 2014 spring practice

Greg Bryant, RB, Notre Dame

Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly thought he had landed an instant-impact player when Bryant, a Rivals.com five-star running back recruit, signed with Notre Dame in 2013. But Bryant’s freshman season came to an early end when he was sidelined by tendinitis in his right knee after having appeared in three of the first four games. Bryant, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston are competing in a three-way battle for the starting running back job this spring, with McDaniel returning as the team’s leading rusher (705 yards, three touchdowns in ’13). Still, Bryant has told reporters that he’s ready to break out. “People are asleep on me right now,” Bryant said recently. “I’m just hungry.”

Riley Ferguson, QB, Tennessee

It isn’t a stretch to say that the Volunteers’ quarterback situation remains in limbo. Tennessee used three different signal-callers during coach Butch Jones’ debut season on Rocky Top, and four passers are vying for the starting job this spring. But it’s Ferguson, the one who didn’t play in 2013, who is arguably garnering the most hype. Coaches have liked what they’ve seen from the quarterback’s arm, the same one that led Butler High in Matthews, N.C, to two state titles. Ferguson may not start against Utah State on opening weekend, but few expect Jones to keep Ferguson on the sidelines for long.

Robert Foster, WR, Alabama

Foster came to Tuscaloosa last year as one of the most coveted wide receiver prospects in the country. However, he wasn’t cleared to practice until just before fall camp, and he slid down the depth chart as a result. While top target Amari Cooper returns this spring, the Crimson Tide have lost Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, who combined for more than 700 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2013. Much will be expected from Foster now that the 6-foot-3, 187-pounder has had a year of experience in the system.

Marcell Harris, S, Florida

Harris, who underwent knee surgery prior to arriving in Gainesville last fall, could become an immediate contributor in the Gators’ 2014 secondary. There should be plenty of new faces on the unit -- Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame, and cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy departed for the NFL draft. Sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III is getting plenty of well-deserved attention this spring, but Harris has reportedly shown few signs of lingering knee problems. He also has a notable pedigree: His father, Mike, played defensive back for Florida from 1994 to '97.

Jermaine Kelly, CB, Washington

A former Rivals.com four-star prospect, Kelly could man one of the Huskies' starting cornerback spots this fall. Junior Marcus Peters is the most proven player in the secondary, but given the chatter that surrounded Kelly during his redshirt freshman season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him emerge as a standout this spring. The duo of Kelly and Peters could be solid for new coach Chris Petersen. It could also bolster a defense that already features potential two-way star Shaq Thompson.

Ra'Shaad Samples, WR, Oklahoma State

There has already been lots of buzz surrounding Samples at spring practice. The Dallas product once fielded offers from Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, but he opted to leave his home state and join coach Mike Gundy’s roster in Stillwater. Samples is already one of the Cowboys’ quicker wide receivers, which should help him compensate for his 5-11 frame. Of course, his size didn’t matter when he had more 2,400 receiving yards in his final two seasons at Skyline High. With the departure of NFL-bound wideout Josh Stewart, Samples is poised to be one of Oklahoma State’s biggest offensive contributors.

Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M

Seals-Jones looked like a star in the making during the Aggies' opener against Rice last season, hauling in a 71-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter. But his campaign was cut short when he went down with a knee injury. Now A&M returns only one starting wideout, Malcome Kennedy, and will break in a new quarterback thanks to the departure of Johnny Manziel. Seals-Jones, who is an imposing 6-5 and 220 pounds, could make a Mike Evans-like impact.

RICKMAN: Looking back at Johnny Manziel's best college highlights

Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State

Thomas made headlines before arriving in Tallahassee when rumors swirled that he wanted a release from his National Letter of Intent. However, after joining the Seminoles, Thomas earned playing time in their first four contests before a shoulder injury forced him to take a medical redshirt. The former five-star recruit should fill in nicely for a linebacking corps that lost key contributors Christian Jones and Telvin Smith. Florida State does have depth at the position, but early indications from spring practice point to Jones playing a key role in the defending champs' quest to repeat.

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