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 Maxwell Award is given to the best player in college football. Last year's winner was Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
Maxwell Award Winner:
Matt Barkley, USC
The Maxwell Award is dominated by quarterbacks. Even though the award is stated to go to the best player in college football, it always goes to an offensive player, and a quarterback wins in a typical year. The last time a non-quarterback to win the Maxwell Award was Penn State running back Larry Johnson - back in 2002. With that being the case, it would be a surprise if the award didn't go to Barkley this season.
As long as Barkley can stay healthy, he should have a massive season. Barkley has a tremendous supporting cast to work with, including one of the best receivers in the nation in Robert Woods. The offense has a number of other good receivers and two talented running backs in Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.
Barkley also has an offensive line that should protect him well and provide plenty of time to distribute the ball to USC's playmakers. He looks poised for a dominant year to cap his college career.
Barkley laid claim to the Trojans' starting quarterback position as a freshman and completed 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,735 yards and 15 touchdowns. However, he also threw 14 interceptions. In USC's 12 games in 2010, the 6-foot-2, 220 pounder improved his production by completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,791 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Barkley had some huge outings as a junior, completing 69 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards with 39 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He really improved his decision making. Barkley is adept at reading defenses quickly and working through his progressions. He has mastered a West Coast offense.
Even though Barkley lost his left tackle, Matt Kalil, to the NFL, the Trojans have recruited a lot of talent and should have a replacement who will be good enough to allow the senior quarterback to thrive. USC also has a lot of talented depth behind the big name stars like Woods and Redd. Wide receiver Marqise Lee could turn into a household name this season, and sophomore tight end Randall Telfer is another weapon for Barkley to work with. The Trojans are loaded with Barkley leading the way.
Barkley looks like this year's version of Luck, so I think he will win the Maxwell Award.
Maxwell Award Runner-Up:
Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
The athletic skill set with Thomas is off the charts. He is very much in the mold of Cam Newton or Tim Tebow in that he can burn college defenses with running or passing. The 6-foot-6, 262-pound Thomas has the tools to dominate at the collegiate level, and he could be on the cusp of a massive 2012 season.
In 2011, his first year as a starter, Thomas recorded accomplishments that no other Hokie quarterback had been able to do, including Michael Vick. Thomas set the school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback as he ran for 627 yards and 11 scores. Thomas also completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,013 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The redshirt sophomore set a school record of 3,482 yards of total offense last season, leading Virginia Tech to an 11-3 record. He was a Second Team All-ACC selection and improved throughout the year. Thomas' best game came against Miami, but he struggled in two games versus Clemson.
One challenge for Thomas will be breaking in some new receivers. The Hokies have recruited well, but Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale were the quarterback's leading targets last season. They both have moved on, so Virginia Tech needs some young receivers to step up for Thomas.
The team also lost running back David Wilson, but that should only allow Thomas to make more plays with his arm or legs. A three-game stretch of Clemson, Miami and Florida State will provide a nice test for him in the second half of the 2012 season.
The massive signal-caller has a cannon for an arm. He can throw the ball to all parts of the field with the power to drive the ball outside the numbers and in the deep part of the field.
Thomas still has plenty of room for improvement as a passer. He needs to get more accurate, improve his reading of defenses, field vision and footwork.
Beyone his powerful arm, Thomas has great size, mobility and toughness. He is just raw and needs a lot of development. It wouldn't be surprising if Thomas has a massive season and grabs the Camp Award just like Newton. The kind of quarterback that Thomas is, has been the rage of college football.
Maxwell Award Dark Horse:
Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
The Maxwell Award typically goes to quarterbacks, but a running back has a shot at it if he has a massive season. Randle could be poised for one, and thus he is the dark horse to overcome the quarterback bias.
With Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon in the NFL, the Cowboys are going to lean heavily on Randle in 2012. He has the size and talent to be a bell-cow back who carries an offense. Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy said Randle will take on a much bigger load this season. He only averaged 16 carries per game last season. Word out of Stillwater is that Randle has been working relentlessly this offseason and is preparing for a bigger work load per direction of the coaching staff.
Randle, a first year starter in 2011, had big shoes to fill with Kendall Hunter in the NFL. Randle didn't disappoint as he was massively productive. The sophomore averaged 5.9 yards per carry with 1,216 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns. Randle also chipped in 43 receptions for 266 yards and two scores. He was a First-Team All-Big XII selection for his breakout sophomore campaign.
Randle was listed at 6-foot-1, 194-pounds last year, but reports are that he has added muscle mass this offseason. Randle has the size to be a bigger power back. However, he runs smaller with some slashing quickness and elusiveness. Randle has a serious skill set and is capable of beating collegiate defenses on sheer talent.
It will help the junior that the team has a number of offensive linemen returning. Randle also plays in the Big XII, where there are few quality defenses, so he should see have plenty of big games in 2012. It wouldn't be surprising if Randle runs for something between 1,500 and 2,000 yards with 30 touchdowns this season. He could easily put his name in Heisman consideration.
Honorable Mentions: Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, USC wide receiver Robert Woods, California wide receiver Keenan Allen, Washington State wide receiver Marquess Wilson, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and North Carolina running back Giovanni Bernard.