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 Davey O'Brien Award is given to the best quarterback in college football. Last year's winner was Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Davey O'Brien Award Winner:
Matt Barkley, USC
As long as Barkley can stay healthy, he should have a massive season. The senior has a tremendous supporting cast to work with, including one of the best receivers in the nation, Robert Woods. The offense has a number of other good receivers and two talented running backs in Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.
Furthermore, Barkley has an offensive line that should protect him well and provide plenty of time to distribute the ball to his play-makers. At this point in his college career, he looks poised for a dominant year.
Barkley laid claim to the Trojans' starting quarterback position as a freshman in 2009, completing 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,735 yards and 15 touchdowns. The freshamn also threw 14 interceptions. The 6-foot-2, 220 pounder improved his production in the Trojans' 12 games in 2010 by completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,791 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
The junior had some huge outings last season, connecting on 69 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns with 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, USC has recruited a lot of talent and should have a replacement that will be good enough to allow its signal-caller to thrive. Beyond the big name stars to work with like Woods and Redd, the Trojans have a lot of talented depth. Wide receiver Marqise Lee could turn into a household name this season, and sophomore tight end Randall Telfer is yet another weapon for Barkley to work with. USC is loaded for bear, with Barkley leading the way.
There will probably be other quarterbacks who produce more than Barkley in 2012; the Trojans are likely to blow out many opponents, so the senior will probably be handing the ball off a lot in the second half of games. As a result his touchdowns and yards could trail other quarterbacks.
Still, Barkley enters the season as the top quarterback in the nation. The national media and coaches are already projecting him to take home a ton of honors, so as long as he stays consistent in 2012, he is the heavy favorite to win the Davey O'Brien Award.
Davey O'Brien 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.
Thomas recorded accomplishments last year - his first as a starter - that no other Hokie quarterback had been able to do - including Michael Vick. Thomas set the school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, running for 627 yards and 11 scores. He also completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,013 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
All that combined, the redshirt sophomore set a school record of 3,482 yards of total offense and led Virginia Tech to an 11-3 record. He improved throughout the season and was a Second-Team All-ACC selection. Thomas's best game came against Miami, but he struggled in the 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 his leading targets in 2011. They both have moved on, so Virginia Tech needs some young receivers to step up for Thomas.
The Hokies 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 the signal-caller in the second half of the season.
Thomas is not only massive but he has a cannon for an arm. The Hokies quarterback can throw the ball to all parts of the field, having the power to drive the ball both 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, plus improve his reading of defenses, field vision and footwork.
Thomas has a powerful arm, 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 O'Brien Award just like Newton and Tebow in the past. Thomas is the kind of quarterback who has been all the rage in college football.
Davey O'Brien Award Dark Horse:
Tyler Wilson , Arkansas
Wilson is the top quarterback in the SEC and has turned into a highly-efficient signal-caller. The style that Wilson plays with illustrates a competent quarterback who has impressive decision-making, all while being an accurate passer. On top of that, he has a strong arm and good mobility.
Wilson led Arkansas to an 11-2 record last season. The team's only losses came against the National Championship participants, Alabama and LSU. Wilson completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,638 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2011. He also ran for four touchdowns.
Wilson didn't thrive against the Crimson Tide and Tigers, but he didn't play terribly. The redshirt junior completed 36-of-57 passes for 389 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in those two games.
If Arkansas had any continuity, Wilson could be neck-and-neck with Barkley for the O'Brien Award. Unfortunately for him, this looks like a very challenging season. The school is in turmoil after firing head coach Bobby Petrino this spring. Petrino ran the Razorbacks' offense and gave Wilson good preparation for the next level.
On top of losing the coach who ran the offense, Wilson has lost a trio of talented college receivers. Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs all moved on to the NFL.
The Razorbacks do have some talent around Wilson with wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and running back Knile Davis. Wilson also has a quality offensive line, but Arkansas is having to replace a lot while taking on the toughest conference and division in college football.
Even though Wilson will have some big obstacles to overcome, he is one of the most polished quarterbacks in college football. The redshirt senior does everything well and should produce well this year. It probably won't be enough to surpass the likes of Barkley and Thomas, but Wilson is good enough to make a push for the O'Brien Award.
Honorable Mentions: Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, Washington quarterback Keith Price, Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, TCU quarterback Casey Pachall, Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel, Missouri quarterback James Franklin, Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege and Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel.