Heading into the 2012 college football season, WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation's leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises, and the next fall's stars could be the headline players next April for the 2013 NFL Draft. We also will project the winners of the postseason awards that are given out to the best of college football.
The Paul Hornug Award is given to the most versatile player in college football. Last year's winner was Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin.
Paul Hornug Award Winner:
De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon
With LaMichael James in the NFL, the game-changer Thomas figures to receive a massive work load as a sophomore. He has unique talent to continue to provide the Ducks with the same electrifying play-making ability that James had. There is going to be some interior competition from Kenjon Balmer, but right now it looks like Thomas will receive the more diverse work load.
Barner and Thomas both returned three punts last year while James and Cliff Harris received the majority of punt returns. However, Thomas, a freshman, laid claim to the kick-return duties. He averaged 27 yards per kick return with two brought back for touchdowns.
Thomas carried the ball on offense 55 times for a whopping 595 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 46 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns. Thomas played both running back and wide receiver. This year he is expected to do more of the same, although with more carries as a back.
There is no doubt that Thomas is one of, if not, the fastest players in college football. The 5-foot-9, 173-pounder is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. Ergo the sophomore is a perfect fit in the Ducks fast-paced, spread-option offense. As long as Thomas stays healthy, Oregon is going to get a ton of production out of him this season. The Ducks plan on turning to Thomas and Barner to replace James and quarterback Darron Thomas.
Additionally, it sounds as if De'Anthony Thomas will take over punt-return duties for the team. With the sophomore showing his versatility as a runner, receiver, punt returner and kick returner, he should have a massive season. That makes Thomas the favorite to bring home the Hornug Trophy.
Paul Hornug Award Runner-Up:
Jordan Poyer, Oregon State
There are a number of similarities between Poyer and last year's winner Brandon Boykin. Both are cornerbacks who had extensive playing time on special teams. Boykin also played some offense. The Beavers have considered playing Poyer on offense over the past two seasons, but he has made only one reception. Still, Oregon State gets a lot of him.
Poyer had his best season in 2011, recording 57 tackles, four interceptions and 12 passes broken up. He also averaged 22.7 yards per kick return and 14.1 yards per punt return. Poyer had 34 tackles, two interceptions and four passes broken up as a sophomore in 2010. He has averaged 12 yards per punt return and 26 yards per kick return in his career.
Poyer should continue to gain exposure as senior for his prowess on defense and special teams. The 6-foot, 190-pounder is very quick and athletic. The Beavers will lean on Poyer heavily, so he stands a good chance of competing for the Hornug Award.
Paul Hornug Award Dark Horse:
Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
It was tough to make the final call, but USC's Robert Woods and Clemson's Sammy Watkins will probably be protected from hits by decreasing their special teams duties this season. Woods is entering the season banged up, and Watkins is suspended for the first two games of the season. Considering those issues, both players may be used sparingly on special teams.
Mathieu didn't win the award last year, but he was a top candidate. The sophomore was a Heisman Trophy finalist, but was edged out for the Hornug Award by Boykin. The Bulldogs corner was involved in all phases of the game with offense, defense and special teams contributions. Mathieu is a star on defense and returning punts, but is not used as diversely as Poyer or Thomas.
Mathieu was one of the best players in college football in 2011. He led LSU in tackles with 76 and also racked up 7.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and nine passes broken up. Additionally, Mathieu served as a punt returner averaging 16 yards per return with two brought back for touchdowns. He compiled 57 tackles with 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, two interceptions and seven passes broken up as a freshman.
While one might think that Mathieu (5-9, 175) is destined to come back to earth in 2012, he is a pure football player with off-the-charts instincts. Mathieu finds a way to make game-changing plays on a routine basis. He is always cognizant of where the ball is and how he can force it free.
Even though quarterbacks and offensive coordinators may game plan against Mathieu, he is the rare player who should still produce well. Mathieu's a tremendous punt returner. He may make enough game-chaning plays on defense and special teams to take the Hornug Award along with a number of other postseason honors.
Honorable Mentions: USC wide receiver Robert Woods, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Oregon running back Kenjon Balmer, California wide receiver Keenan Allen, Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks, West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery.