Jameis Winston, Florida State
We still didn't expect a freshman to come in and just win the Heisman, even after Johnny Manziel did it in 2012.
Winston had to win the starting job in August, then immediately put together one of the greatest seasons every seen by a freshman. In his debut Winston was thrust into a conference road game, where he had more touchdowns (four) than incompletions (two). Things immediately changed:
He finished with 40 touchdowns in the air, averaging 10.6 yards per completion and leading the Seminoles to an undefeated championship season.
That he was a five-star recruit makes his instant claim to the title of college football's best player no less shocking. And looking back, his struggles in fall camp might've been deceptive:
Exiting spring, [head coach Jimbo] Fisher suspected he had a player with amazing talent, both physical and mental, in Winston. Most everything came easy. So he set out to break Winston down and see how he would handle failure, via practice and scrimmage situations that were extremely disadvantageous to the redshirt freshman. An odd approach for a coach with a young quarterback? Perhaps, but Fisher did not need to build Winston's confidence. Rarely could Fisher break Winston with his traps, and Winston actually seemed to struggle more with routine plays. Some of my sources, in hindsight, think that Winston might have been bored with the long camp.
Andre Williams, Boston College; Kapri Bibbs, Colorado State
Williams entered with just 1,562 career rushing yards. He more than doubled that total, leading the nation in rushing with 2,177 yards and becoming the first running back to break 2,000 yards since UConn's Donald Brown in 2008. Williams' season ended with a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Williams had fumbling issues early in his career, and he suffered nagging injuries to his shoulder, abdominal muscle and hamstring. Still, his role as the team's leading back became clear to Addazio immediately. "In the first spring practice," Addazio said, "he was running guys over and nobody could tackle him."
When strength and conditioning coach Frank Piraino first saw Williams walk into the weight room, he assumed the player was a middle linebacker or a fullback. Then Piraino saw Williams run for the first time. He asked the coach nearest him, "If he's the running back, why is he still playing college football? That guy should be long gone if he's that big and can run like that."
Bibbs was sixth nationally in rushing, racking up 1,741 yards on 281 carries. He tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns, scoring 31 times. He set school records for rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns, and points. All that after running for 415 yards in his previous season ... as a JUCO.
He was helped by the Rams' veteran offensive line, which was full of seniors and led by the Mountain West's best center, Weston Richburg.
Antwan Goodley, Baylor; Chandler Jones, San Jose State
Senior Tevin Reese was supposed to be Baylor's top receiver, but it was junior Goodley who eventually led the Bears in receptions (71), yards (1,339), and touchdown catches (13) after Reese's injury.
"Goodley is a guy that could potentially be a very, very dynamic player," head coach Art Briles said before the season. "He's an exceptional athlete."
Goodley, who'd caught just 19 passes in 24 career appearances and was best known as the country's No. 63 kick returner in 2012, finished 13th nationally in receiving yardage.
Like Goodley, Jones was not his team's preseason all-conference choice at receiver. Jones had finished more than 300 yards behind star Noel Grigsby in each of the tandem's three years. But Jones stepped up as Grigsby went down with an injury in September. Jones finished the season with 79 catches, 1,356 receiving yards, and 15 touchdowns. His eight catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns were crucial to the Spartans' season-ending upset win over BCS-hopeful Fresno State.
Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Amaro was left off of every preseason All-American list. Phil Steele put Oklahoma fullback Trey Millard ahead of him on the preseason All-Big 12 list. He was at least on the media's preseason all-conference list, but nobody expected what Amaro did: 106 catches (four times his 2012 production), 1,352 yards, and seven touchdowns. Amaro topped 100 receiving yards in six games and caught 44 more passes than any other tight end.
Amaro has vowed to come back and have a big season after his injury last season.
"He's a junior, but we may only get one year out of him," Kingsbury said. "He's that talented. I'm excited to see what we can do."
He might still be overlooked, as the Mackey Award didn't consider him a true tight end. But he made our All-America first-team.
Eric Smith, Virginia; Andrus Peat, Stanford; Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech; Justin McCray, UCF
Smith, rated the 106th-best true freshman tackle, became one of the few bright spots in a dismal season at Virginia. He was named to 247Sports' Freshman All-American Team after starting the season's final eight games, which included three 230-yard rushing days.
Peat was one of the nation's top recruits two years ago, but still managed to surprise in his first season as a starter. The tackle was ignored on preseason All-Pac 12 lists in favor of teammates Cameron Fleming, David Yankey, and Kevin Danser, but finished the season second-team all-conference and an honorable mention All-American at Sports Illustrated.
Mason did not register among the top four vote-getters in the media's preseason All-ACC poll, but the Yellow Jackets' guard started every game en route to first-team all-conference honors. The former two-star recruit was named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week twice.
In 2012, McCray was a do-everything lineman for the Knights, splitting time between right guard and right tackle. He was overlooked in favor of teammate Torrian Wilson in preseason polls. By the end of the season, McCray had established himself as one of the conference's best linemen, earning first-team all-conference honors.
Reese Dismukes, Auburn
Dismukes was hardly an unknown entering 2013, having received second-team All-SEC honors from both the coaches and media (and fourth-team honors from Steele). But nobody expected the junior to emerge as the heart of the country's best ground attack. Dismukes was one of six Rimington Trophy finalists and earned first-team All-SEC recognition from the league's coaches.
A 2012 arrest was part of his overhaul:
[His high school coach] maintains a close relationship with Dismukes and his father. The coach called the arrest "the best thing to ever happen to him" because it brought him back to reality. [...]
In April, Dismukes came back a more determined player. His focus was back on football, on being a leader, on doing the right things. He told reporters, "I walk a lot straighter line."
Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State; Michael Sam, Missouri; Vic Beasley, Clemson; Randy Gregory, Nebraska
Nebraska's Randy Gregory, a transfer from Arizona Western Community College, racked up 16 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, garnering first-team All-Big Ten honors. Gregory was named the sophomore defender of the year by College Football News and a Hendricks Award semifinalist.
Calhoun wasn't even a starter in 2012. He was left completely off the preseason All-Big Ten lists. By the end, he was the conference's top defensive lineman. Calhoun recorded 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks and was named a second-team All-American by at least five outlets and first-team all-Big Ten by coaches and media.
Former two-star recruit Sam made 9.5 sacks in three seasons of sporadic starts. In 2013, he finished with 48 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, and 11.5 sacks. He was named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year by the conference's coaches and became Mizzou's first unanimous All-American in more than 50 years.
Despite a solid 2012, nobody would have thought that Vic Beasley would be the most productive defensive end in South Carolina. He was overlooked by voters in the preseason All-ACC poll and garnered third-team status from Steele. But the junior recorded a staggering 23 tackles for loss and 13 sacks and finished a Lombardi and Bednarik semifinalist and first-team All-American per SB Nation and four other outlets. Not bad for a converted offensive player:
Before the 2012 season, Swinney came to Beasley with a proposition: commit himself for three months to learning, playing and developing as a defensive end. If it didn't work out, Swinney promised Beasley a chance to move to running back for his final two seasons.
Beasley, Calhoun, and Sam were all among six Hendricks Award finalists despite not appearing on its 22-player preseason watch list, making that watch list the year's most worthless.
Ramik Wilson, Georgia; Myles Jack, UCLA; Kelby Brown, Duke
Wilson had recorded just 10 tackles in two seasons and was not considered among the conference's top 16 linebackers, but he became one of the SEC's best defenders. He led the SEC with 133 tackles, including four sacks, and was a first-team all-SEC pick by coaches and the Associated Press.
Jack burst on the national scene in November, when the true freshman made an appearance at halfback and immediately ran for 120 yards on just six carries. He featured in the UCLA offense for three weeks, totaling 265 yards and six scores, but it was on defense where Jack made his presence known: 76 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. He took home the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Award on both offense and defense and is the campus' new star.
"Man, we were walking on campus after the Washington game and everyone was yelling, 'Myles! Clickclack Jack! Boobie!" said [Eddie] Vanderdoes, a freshman defensive end. "All the women were swooning."
Brown, who sat out much of his first three years due to injury and didn't play in 2012, was crucial to Duke's run to the ACC title game. He finished third in the conference with 114 tackles and picked off his first two passes. He also picked up National Defensive Player of the Week honors from the Walter Camp Foundation after a 14-tackle performance in the Blue Devils' Virginia Tech upset.
Lorenzo Doss, Tulane; Charles Gaines, Louisville
Doss showed signs of his potential in 2012, receiving honorable mention All-Conference USA recognition as a true freshman. But he might've had the best statistical output by any 2013 corner: seven interceptions, two pick-sixes, nine passes broken up, and 34 tackles. He was named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year by SB Nation and a second-team All-American by Walter Camp and Sports Illustrated.
Gaines played wide receiver for Louisville in 2012, catching 11 passes for 172 yards and being suspended twice. He converted to cornerback in the spring and excelled, picking off five passes and recording 22 tackles. He was named first-team All-AAC.
Robert Nelson Jr., Arizona State; Jeremy Cash, Duke
It was Alden Darby, not Nelson, garnering preseason accolades among the Sun Devils' safeties. But Nelson, who had only one start prior to 2013 (a four-tackle, one-interception performance against Arizona in 2012), quickly became one of the Pac-12's best defenders. He joined Darby on the conference's first-team defense after recording 57 tackles and six interceptions.
Jeremy Cash, who transferred to Duke from Ohio State, earned first-team All-ACC recognition from the league's media and finished one vote short among the league's coaches. Then he emerged as a face of the new Duke:
When Cash decided to transfer to Duke, he understood the skepticism about his choice, going from a traditional college power to a traditional college project.
"Coming here, most people thought: ‘He can't play,'" Cash said. "I just let my play silence all the doubters."
Cash recorded 121 tackles for the Blue Devils and intercepted four passes. He was not among the conference's top four vote-getters for preseason accolades and was omitted from Phil Steele's four preseason all-conference teams.
Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State
Gonzalez, a true freshman who wasn't rated by any recruiting service and received an offer from Arizona State nearly two months after Signing Day, made 25 of 30 field goal attempts and 63 of 65 extra points. He was seventh nationally and second amongst kickers with 138 points scored and a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award.
Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
Kaser struggled in his first two seasons as the Aggies' punter, failing to win the starting job and fighting through injuries. In his third season, he became a weapon. Kaser registered a 47.4 yards per punt average, dropped 38.6 percent of his punts inside the opponent's 20 yard-line, and kicked nearly 40 percent of his punts over 50 yards. Kaser was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award and SB Nation's first-team All-American.
Jerome Miron, USA Today; Kevin C. Cox, Getty; Don McPeak, USA Today; Christian Petersen, Getty
Who were your biggest surprises of 2013? And who's your early surprise pick for 2014?