Long considered one of the nation's top athletes for his prowess on the gridiron and track, Griffin achieved full-blown superstardom in 2011. His colorful personality (Superman socks) endeared him to the public, while his remarkable production (3,998 passing yards, 36 passing touchdowns; 644 rushing yards, nine rushing touchdowns; 192.3 efficiency rating) made him a Waco legend. Griffin led Baylor to its best finish in 25 years and became the school's first Heisman Trophy winner.
2 of 51Robert Beck/SI
Fredette was something of a known commodity before the year, having averaged 22.1 points as a junior at BYU. But in 2011, he became a national phenomenon. The Jimmer was the country's most captivating player by a landslide, managing to score at will against defenses that were often focused exclusively on stopping him. He had three 40-point games in a three-week span in January and a career-high 52-point outing against New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament. The national player of the year is now a Sacramento King, the 10th pick in the NBA draft.
3 of 51Greg Nelson/SI
What a year for one of the most dominant athletes in the U.S. today. In March, the then-23-year-old Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history when he battered light heavyweight belt holder Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Jones then defended his title twice, against Rampage Jackson and Lyoto Machida. All told in 2011, "Bones" took out a world champion, two former world champions and an undefeated top contender (Ryan Bader).
4 of 51John W. McDonough/SI
OK, so we cheated a little -- Newton was on our list of breakout players last year for his Heisman season at Auburn. But he broke through on an entirely different level in 2011. After critics questioned whether his arm and makeup would lead to NFL success, all Newton has done is rewrite the book on what we should expect from rookie quarterbacks. He opened the year with back-to-back 400-yard games. Through Week 16, his 13 rushing TDs were an NFL record and his 3,893 passing yards were a rookie record. He had accounted for 34 total TDs -- and revived the career of Steve Smith. He couldn't immediately turn the previously moribund Panthers into a playoff contender, but he made them a team every opponent has to respect.
5 of 51Darren Carroll/SI
OK, so we cheated a little again -- Tseng also was on our list of breakout players last year for winning two majors, being the LPGA's player of the year at age 21 and rising to No. 5 in the world. But Tseng's 2011 was so dominant and attention-grabbing that she deserves recognition in this space again. The Taiwanese golfer won 12 worldwide events, including two more Grand Slam titles to become the youngest player, male or female, with five career majors. Needless to say, Tseng is now comfortably atop the world rankings.
6 of 51Bob Martin/SI
It's hard to call Djokovic's 2011 season a breakthrough, if only because the 24-year-old Serb has been in the top four since 2007. But, as with Yani Tseng, Djokovic went from excellent to out of this world in 2011. After going to a gluten-free diet at the end of 2010, Djokovic won three Grand Slams and 10 titles overall on his way to securing the No. 1 ranking. His 2011 season (70-6) will be debated as one of the greatest of all time.
7 of 51David E. Klutho/SI
It's worth noting here that Blake Griffin and Kevin Love made last year's list of breakout athletes because of their terrific starts to the 2010-11 NBA season; they, of course, continued to impress well into 2011. So we'll make Rose the NBA headliner on this list. The Bulls' point guard obviously was no slouch before '10-11; the previous season, his second, he averaged 20.8 points and made the All-Star team. But Rose truly broke out last season when he led Chicago to a league-best 62-20 record and became the NBA's youngest MVP at age 22. The electrifying floor leader averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds while showing improvement with his three-point stroke and defense.
8 of 51John Biever/SI
Limited by injuries yet again, the Cardinals' third baseman played just 97 games in 2011, his third big league season, but he was at full health in October and it showed. Freese hit .397 with five home runs and 21 RBIs during St. Louis' march to the World Series title and won MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series. In Game 6 of the Fall Classic, with the Cardinals down to their last strike, Freese delivered the game-tying two-run triple. In the 11th he hit a walk-off home run, forever cementing his place in baseball history.
9 of 51Al Behrman/AP
As a Notre Dame sophomore last season, the 5-9 point guard averaged 19.3 points during the NCAA tournament (up from 14.2 during the regular season) and scored 28 points -- outperforming player of the year Maya Moore -- in a semifinal upset of Connecticut. Oh, and you may have heard about the Twitter shout-outs from Lil Wayne. (The charismatic Diggins has more than 130,000 followers herself.) Diggins and the Irish lost the title game to Texas A&M, but they're back this season with another highly ranked team with championship aspirations.
10 of 51Julie Jacobson/AP, Karl B DeBlaker/AP
Selected seventh in the 2010 NHL draft, the 18-year-old center made an immediate impact in Carolina. The league's youngest player last season, Skinner finished with 31 goals and 63 points, earned the distinction of becoming the youngest All-Star in the history of the four major sports leagues and won the 2011 Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. Skinner had 12 goals and 12 assists in his first 30 games of the 2011-12 season before being sidelined with a concussion.
11 of 51Peter Read Miller/SI
In her first year as a senior competitor, Wieber ascended to the top of the world and cemented her status as the U.S. gymnast to watch at the 2012 Olympics. She defeated 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina of Russia at the American Cup in March and then ran away with the U.S. all-around title in August. Wieber, 16, capped a dominant 2011 by winning three medals at the world championships in October, including team and all-around gold, and turning professional.
12 of 51Rich Schultz/AP
The last American fighter to win Olympic gold (at Athens 2004) made his biggest professional breakthrough yet in 2011, beating Arthur Abraham and Carl Froch to win Showtime's Super Six super middleweight tournament and consolidate power in one of boxing's most talent-rich divisions. With 25 wins in 25 pro fights, Ward is up to No. 6 (and rising) in SI.com's pound-for-pound ratings. A much-fancied 168-pound showdown with fellow unbeaten Lucien Bute is one of 2012's most anticipated fights.
13 of 51Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
One day after his 20th birthday, Bayne became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 -- in his second Sprint Cup start. Bayne didn't finish better than 15th in any of his other Spring Cup races this year, though he did get his first Nationwide victory on his 77th career attempt.
14 of 51Kohjiro Kinno/SI
In his first major, the 25-year-old Bradley rallied from five shots down with three holes to play and beat Jason Dufner in a playoff to win the PGA Championship. The dramatic finish marked the second victory of the season for the rookie from St. John's, who won nearly $4 million on Tour in 2011.
15 of 51Al Tielemans/SI
Thirteen games into the Patriots' season, the second-year star had already surpassed 1,000 receiving yards and shattered the single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end. A 2010 second-round pick from Arizona, Gronkowski entered the final week of the regular season with 82 catches, 1,219 yards and 15 touchdowns.
16 of 51Bob Martin/SI
The 21-year-old lefty jumped from No. 34 at the start of the year to No. 2 at season's end thanks to winning six titles, including her first Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Kvitova also led the Czech Republic to its first Fed Cup title as an independent nation.
17 of 51Bill Frakes/SI
Usain Bolt's biggest competition at the 2012 Olympics is likely to come from a fellow Jamaican. Blake, 21, was the man who won the 100 meters at this summer's world championships after Bolt infamously false-started out of the race. Two weeks later, Blake ran the second-fastest 200 meters of all time, 19.26 seconds, second only to the great Bolt.
18 of 51Carlos M. Saavedra/SI
Still looking for the next Mia Hamm, the U.S. team might have found that in Morgan, the youngest player on the World Cup roster (she turned 22 during the competition). Despite not starting during the tournament, Morgan scored her first World Cup goal in the 82nd minute against France in the semifinals and the first goal in the final against Japan, while also assisting on Abby Wambach's headed goal in extra time. Not to mention the fact that she also scored the critical goal in the World Cup playoff against Italy to send the U.S. to Germany in the first place.
19 of 51John Biever/SI
Ball rushed for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns last season ... as Wisconsin's No. 3 running back. Despite inheriting the starting role entering 2011, Ball began the season as an afterthought to transfer quarterback Russell Wilson, whom the school chose to promote as its Heisman candidate. Ball wasn't an afterthought for long. His 38 touchdowns earned him an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony and left him one shy of Barry Sanders' single-season record.
20 of 51Brad Mangin/SI
Kershaw, the No. 7 overall pick in 2006, was already the Dodgers' ace when the season began but he still had just a 26-23 career record with a 3.17 ERA. In 2011, though, he went 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA, leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts to capture the pitching Triple Crown, a feat that earned him the NL Cy Young Award.
21 of 51Gary Bogdon/SI
Sullinger (17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds last season) was the best true center in the land as a freshman and a huge reason why the Buckeyes won the Big Ten and landed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. He then surprised many by returning to Columbus instead of being a high NBA lottery pick.
22 of 51Carlos M. Saavedra/SI
After failing to record a catch in the 2010 regular season as an undrafted rookie from UMass, Cruz has led the Giants in every vital receiving category, besting Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. He's also become one of the league's best big-play receivers, as evidenced by his 99-yard touchdown against the Jets in Week 16. With one game to go, Cruz ranked third in the NFL in receiving yards (1,308, on 76 catches) to go with eight TDs.
23 of 51Robert Beck/SI
The 26-year-old Simpson entered 2011 with no career wins and six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour. But he emerged as a force this season with two victories, 12 top 10s and $6.3 million in earnings, good for second on Tour. Simpson also led the Tour in scoring average, helped the United States win the Presidents Cup and cracked the top 10 in the world rankings.
24 of 51John Bazemore/AP
The bubbly 16-year-old is set to be the next great U.S. female swimmer after winning five medals at the summer's world championships, including three golds. She broke the American record to capture the 200-meter backstroke at worlds, and, in October, set the short-course world record in the event. Franklin won the U.S. Grand Prix series title (over Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte) and FINA's female swimmer of the year but opted not to accept any prize money to retain future NCAA eligibility.
25 of 51Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
The busy WEC veteran has made the most of his debut year in UFC. The 28-year-old lightweight won four fights in a ninth-month span while racking up a Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night and Submission of the Night. He was to face Nick Diaz at UFC 141 on Dec. 30 with a chance to be the only five-time UFC winner in 2011.
26 of 51Greg Nelson/SI
Aldridge carried the injury-ravaged Blazers last season, averaging career highs of 21.8 points and 8.8 rebounds and ranking in the top 20 in Player Efficiency Rating. The five-year veteran was considered the biggest All-Star snub.
27 of 51Miguel Tovar/AP
Boxing's youngest reigning world champion is a red-haired Mexican known as "Canelo," who won four fights this year to improve to 39-0 with 29 knockouts. The 21-year-old junior middleweight continues to convert the doubters with one dominant performance after another -- and an all-Mexican clash of unbeatens with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (rumored for spring 2012) would certainly provide his biggest stage yet.
28 of 51Greg Nelson/SI
Mathieu's penchant for creating game-changing turnovers earned him the nickname "Honey Badger," and his big-play ability helped earn LSU a spot in the BCS title game. Though detractors are quick to point out that Morris Claiborne is actually LSU's best cover corner, Mathieu tallied 70 tackles, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two defensive touchdowns as a sophomore and delivered momentum-swinging punt returns in crucial games against Arkansas and Georgia.
29 of 51Dave Martin/AP
The 16-year-old became the youngest winner in LPGA Tour history when she rolled to a five-shot victory at the Navistar LPGA Classic in September. Two weeks later, the LPGA granted Thompson's petition to join the Tour despite being two years short of the required age minimum. The Florida teen thus can play on the Tour full time in 2012. (She also won a title on the European Tour in December.)
30 of 51Ric Tapia/Icon SMI, Peter Read Miller/SI
Von Miller and Aldon Smith
The Broncos' Miller (third pick in 2011 draft) and the 49ers' Smith (seventh pick) have waged a spirited race for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award (Patrick Peterson, Ryan Kerrigan and J.J. Watt have been in the mix, too). Entering Week 17, Miller had 11.5 sacks while emerging as an every-down difference maker; pass-rush specialist Smith had 14 sacks, a half sack behind Jevon Kearse's rookie record.
31 of 51Al Tielemans/SI
Napoli spent five decent years with Anaheim but despite hitting 92 home runs in that time, the catcher was mostly underappreciated, even by the Angels, who traded him to the Blue Jays last offseason. Toronto then turned around and sent him to Texas, where he became a star, hitting a career-high 30 home runs and ranking 10th in the AL in OPS and fourth in percentage of baserunners caught stealing. In the postseason, Napoli hit .328 to help the Rangers come within one win of a World Series title.
32 of 51Shelly Castellano/ICON SMI
The top pick in the 2011 draft grabbed the early Calder Trophy lead by scoring 13 goals and 34 points in his first 34 NHL games. Part of Edmonton's impressive stable of young talent, which includes winger Taylor Hall (the first pick in 2010), the supremely skilled 18-year-old center has drawn raves from teammates and foes alike. "He's a very level-headed young man," Calgary Flames coach Brent Sutter told The Calgary Sun . "He handles everything really well -- very grown, very mature for his age."
33 of 51John W. McDonough/SI
The dynamic forward thrilled traditionalists and new-age stat wonks alike as his ultra-efficient scoring lifted a pedestrian Arizona team all the way to the Elite Eight and made him the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. His block sealed Arizona's first-round victory against Memphis, his late three-point play against Texas pushed the Wildcats into the Sweet 16 and his dismantling of Duke (32 points, 13 rebounds) put his team into its first regional final since 2005.
34 of 51Simon Bruty/SI
Already well known in recruiting circles as one of the nation's top prep prospects, Watkins achieved more widespread fame as a true freshman at Clemson. Despite missing time with nagging injuries in the season's final weeks, Watkins racked up 1,153 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns while leading Clemson to the ACC title and an Orange Bowl berth. In addition to earning numerous Freshman of the Year honors, Watkins received All-America honors as a kick returner and finished the season ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yardage.
35 of 51Fred Vuich/SI
We wouldn't quibble with the notion that McIlroy had already broken out before 2011. So consider this an acknowledgement that the 22-year-old went from really good to becoming a household name this year -- and not just for his highly publicized relationship with WTA No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. After collapsing at the Masters, McIlroy rebound with a wire-to-wire, eight-shot romp at the U.S. Open, where his 16-under 268 was a tournament record and made him the youngest player to win the event since 1923.
36 of 51Bill Frakes/SI
A third-round pick in 2010 after just one year of college football at Miami, the tight end showed potential toward the end of his rookie year, but nobody could have expected the season he's put together in 2011. Displaying rare size and speed that make him nearly impossible to defend, Graham has become a favorite target of Drew Brees. He tied Tony Gonzalez's record of four straight 100-yard games and became the first Saints tight end to surpass 1,000 yards -- in just his third season of football at any level. Playing in a prolific offense with one of the game's best QBs, it'll be fun to see what he can do with some experience.
37 of 51Simon Bruty/SI
It's rare that a 30-year-old tennis player has what could be described as a breakout year. But with a new fitness routine and commitment to his body, Fish climbed into the top 10 for the first time in his 11-year career and surpassed Andy Roddick as the No. 1 American. Fish won a title in Atlanta, reached the finals in Montreal and Los Angeles and qualified for the exclusive ATP World Tour Finals.
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Underrated in his own homeland (he's not a regular starter for Spain), the dimunitive playmaker has flourished in England, where he drifts between the lines while leading Manchester City's charge for the title. Through Dec. 26, the 25-year-old Silva led the Premier League with eight assists to go with five goals in 18 games.
39 of 51Fred Vuich/SI
The 2010 Nationwide champ sustained a broken left ankle during a testing run at Road Atlanta on Aug. 3. Four days later, he not only raced, he won. The 27-year-old would go on to win two more races and finish fifth in his first career postseason appearance. Just imagine what he could do next year when he's healthy.
40 of 51John Biever/SI
As a rookie in 2007, Kennedy had been part of a trio of young arms that was supposed to maintain the Yankees' dominance. Instead, he pitched just 15 games for New York in parts of three seasons and was traded to Arizona in a three-team deal in December 2009. After going 9-10 in 2010, Kennedy went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA and 198 strikeouts in 2011 and led the NL in winning percentage.
41 of 51John Biever/SI
On a team loaded with quality pass-catchers, Nelson has been arguably Green Bay's biggest offensive playmaker outside of Aaron Rodgers in 2011. After catching just 45 balls for 582 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games in 2010, Nelson broke out in the playoffs, with 21 catches for 286 yards and two scores. He hasn't slowed down in the 2011 regular season, either. Nelson, a 2008 second-round pick from Kansas State, entered the season finale with 59 receptions and team receiving highs of 1,101 yards, 12 touchdowns and 18.7 yards per catch (up from 12.9 last season).
42 of 51John W. McDonough/SI
Gordon would've received much more attention for his fine third season had he had not missed 25 games because of injuries. As it was, the shooting guard averaged 22.3 points and 4.4 assists, easily career bests and indications of why the NBA-owned Hornets made Gordon their centerpiece acquisition in the Chris Paul trade.
43 of 51Adam Hunger/Reuters
Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin
The two rookies, particularly winger Marchand, made their presence felt during Boston's march to its first Stanley Cup since 1972. The feisty Marchand, who scored 11 goals in 25 postseason games, proved to be a major irritant to the Vancouver Canucks in the Cup final. Center Seguin, the second pick in the 2010 NHL draft, blossomed with the start of the 2011-12 season, scoring 14 goals and 31 points in his first 32 games while going plus-26. Marchand, who started plus-25, earned the league's First Star honors for the week ending Dec. 25 by scoring four goals to up his team-leading total to 15.
44 of 51Porter Binks/SI
Our 2010 list included Brittney Griner , and now we take note of Griner's Baylor teammate. Sims, a 5-9 point guard, was the 2010-11 National Freshman of the Year after a season in which she tied a school record with nine three-pointers in a 37-point performance against Oklahoma and led the Big 12 in three-point shooting at 45.3 percent. Sims has joined Griner in leading the Lady Bears to an unbeaten start and No. 1 ranking in 2011-12.
45 of 51Bob Rosato/SI
The Braves' Kimbrel set the rookie saves record of 46 while cruising to NL Rookie of the Year honors. He faded in September, along with his team, but he was almost unhittable for most of the summer, at one point recording 38 consecutive scoreless outings.
46 of 51Antonio Calanni/AP
Entering the 2010-11 season, Cavani was coming off a successful World Cup run with Uruguay where he played third fiddle to more established stars Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. Napoli had picked up Cavani during the summer from Palermo, but no one expected what would happen next. Thirty-three league goals later, some of which were simply unbelievable, Cavani had helped fire Napoli to the Champions League for the first time since Diego Maradona's heyday.
47 of 51Mike Segar/Reuters
The classic all-action pressure fighter, ''Bam Bam'' scored three big victories this year to improve to 29-0-1. With knockouts in 10 of his past 11 fights, Rios' reputation for crowd-pleasing brawls is only growing as the stakes increase. Though he lost his lightweight title on the scale when he couldn't make weight for a Dec. 3 defense against Great Britain's John Murray (TKO 11), the 25-year-old Rios can look forward to bigger fights (and paydays) at 140 pounds.
48 of 51Robert Beck/SI
The Masters was the official breakthrough moment in America for Schwartzel, 27, who'd proved himself an up-and-coming player on the European Tour, where he'd won seven times since turning pro at 18. The South African became the first Masters champion to finish with four consecutive birdies as he rallied to win his first major. Ranked ninth in the world, Schwartzel was 15-of-15 in cuts made on the PGA Tour in 2011.
49 of 51Bill Frakes/SI
Heisman voters who prescribe to the "best player on the best team" creed should have voted for Wing. The freshman from Australia was arguably LSU's most valuable player, helping the Tigers win the field-position battle in every game. His pinpoint placement limited LSU's opponents to just six return yards all season, while his fiery disposition -- seen most infamously on his trick-play touchdown against Florida that was overturned for taunting -- earned him a level of national recognition rarely attained by specials teams players.
50 of 51Charles Platiau/Reuters
The second half of her year was a struggle, but the first was historic. In January, Li became the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final when she knocked off No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the Australian Open semifinals. Li lost the final to Kim Clijsters, but the 29-year-old went one step further in the next major, the French Open, where Li defeated four top-10 players to win the historic Slam. (Another WTA note: U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur made our list last year, but she also broke out with her first major this year.)
51 of 51John Biever/SI
No, the passing statistics don't look fantastic. And no, the Broncos' offense doesn't always look pretty. But the second-year quarterback took over a 1-4 team and helped lift it into playoff position with seven wins in eight games, orchestrating five fourth-quarter comebacks in that time.
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