2013 Preseason Award Projections: Rodgers Award

By Charlie Campbell
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Heading into the 2013 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 this coming fall’s stars could be the headline players next April for the 2014 NFL Draft. We also will project the winners of the postseason awards that are given out to the best of college football.

The Johnny Rodgers Award is given to the best returner in college football. Last year’s winner was West Virginia’s Tavon Austin

Rodgers Award Winner:

De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon

One of the top returners in college football is already out for the season. Florida’s Andre Debose went down with an ACL injury, and if he were healthy, he would have been one of the top favorites for this award. However even with a healthy Debose, Thomas may be the best bet to win the Rodgers Award.

Unlike many returners, Thomas gets opportunities on kickoffs and punts. Many returners go back for either punts or kickoffs, but Thomas gets returns on both units. He averaged 27 yards per kick return with two brought back for touchdowns in 2011. Last year, the sophomore averaged 24.3 yard per kick return with a kick brought back for a touchdown against Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. On punt returns, he averaged 17 yards per attempt with a score. Thomas has the game-breaking speed and elusive moves in the open field to be a threat to score any time he touches the ball.

There is no doubt the 5-foot-9, 173-pound Thomas is one of the fastest players in college football. The junior could easily produce a number of long returns in 2013. Helping Thomas to win the award is the hype and attention that has surrounded him dating back to his freshman season. It would surprise nobody if Thomas wins the Rodgers Award.

Rodgers Award Runner-Up:

Stefon Diggs, Maryland

Maryland on is counting on Diggs to be a big-time player on offense and special teams. He was one of the top recruits in the nation and decided to stay local by attending Maryland. The freshman caught 54 passes for 848 yards with six touchdowns last year. Diggs had a big impact on special teams as well. He averaged 10 yards per punt return and 28.5 yards on his kick returns. Diggs had two kicks brought back for touchdowns.

The 6-foot, 195-pounder is an explosive weapon who is a deep scoring threat. The sophomore could be even better in 2013 now that he has a year of experience. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Diggs ends up winning the Rodgers Award as a this season or next.

Rodgers Award Dark Horse:

Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson, Kansas State

It was a tough call for the final spot. USC wide receiver Marqise Lee is an electric play-maker, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Trojans try to protect him from injury by reducing his return opportunities. If they weren’t teammates, Thompson or Lockett each would be favorites to win the Rodgers Award. Collectively, the duo give the Wildcats perhaps the best special teams unit in the nation. Thompson and Lockett were elite last year and consistently provided good field position for the Kansas State offense.

Thompson led the nation in punt returns in 2012 with an average of 20 yards per return. He had an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown in the season opener and all year he produced good returns for the Wildcats. Thompson also averaged 33 yards on 10 kick returns.

Lockett, on the other hand, was one of the nation’s best kick returners last season. Tavon Austin was 29th in the nation in kick returns in 2012 while Lockett was third. Lockett averaged 33 yards per kick return with two brought back for touchdowns. The sophomore also had three punt returns for 44 yards.

Kansas State plays excellent special teams football with Thompson and Lockett providing good field position. If one was given both punt and kick return duties, he could easily win the Rodgers Award, but Thompson and Lockett could essentially knock each other out of the running for the award by both deserving consideration, but not outshining their teammate.

Honorable Mentions: USC wide receiver Marqise Lee, Miami running back Duke Johnson, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, SMU wide receiver Der’Rikk Thompson, Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay and Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene.

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