August 28, 2011

Buchanan: Ten most explosive players

Methodical, time-consuming drives appealed to legendary coaches such as Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Darrell Royal and Bear Bryant.

But many coaches in today's high-octane game have a different philosophy: Why use 10 plays to score when one or two will do? Besides, fewer plays translate to fewer chances for turnovers.

Consequently, teams spread out, scheme and search for ways to create explosive plays - those cheer-inducing breakaways that generally are defined as those that cover at least 20 yards.

Explosive plays aren't just exciting. They're also vital to success. Auburn and Oregon - the teams that played for the national championship last season - both had more than 80 plays that covered at least 20 yards in 2010.

Explosive plays require explosive players - quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and return men with sprinter's speed who need just one play to cover 80 yards.

Here is a list of the 10 most explosive players entering the season:

10. RB Trent Richardson, Alabama, Jr.
Buzz: Although he was a backup to Mark Ingram and also missed two games last season, Richardson still had 13 plays covering at least 30 yards. Richardson also had at least one 20-yard run in seven games. His touchdowns included a 91-yard kickoff return against Duke, an 85-yard reception against Ole Miss and a 65-yard run against Tennessee. He will be the offensive focal point for the Tide in 2011, which will give him more chances for big plays.

9. WR T.Y. Hilton, Florida International, Sr.
Buzz: FIU works to get Hilton the football in various ways, and for good reason. Last season, he turned in 17 plays - rushes, receptions and returns - that covered at least 30 yards. He returned kickoffs for touchdowns against Louisiana-Monroe (95 yards) and Toledo (89). In a big win over Troy, he had touchdown runs of 80 and 61 yards as well as a 63-yard catch. He also had a 67-yard touchdown catch against ULM, a 43-yard scoring grab against North Texas and a 42-yard catch against Arkansas State. And for cynics who might dismiss him for excelling against small programs, remember that in '09 Hilton returned a kickoff 96 yards for a score against Alabama and he took back a punt for a TD vs. Kansas in 2008 in his first college game. In his career, Hilton has run for a TD, thrown a TD pass, caught a TD pass and returned kickoffs and punts for TDs.

8. WR Damaris Johnson, Tulsa, Sr.
Buzz: Johnson already is the NCAA's career leader in all-purpose yardage with 7,796. Johnson led the nation in all-purpose yards last season, when he scored long-range touchdowns via rushing, passing, punt returns and kickoff returns. He scored nine touchdowns on plays that covered at least 20 yards. His biggest plays were a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Rice, a 67-yard scoring run against Hawaii, a 46-yard scoring run against Southern Miss, a 41-yard touchdown catch against Rice and a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown in an upset of Notre Dame.

7. QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, Soph.
Buzz: Look out, Big Ten defenders, Martinez can escape from a pass rush and turn in a huge play. Or he can just run from scrimmage and turn in a big play. As a redshirt freshman last season, Martinez made an immediate impact by rushing for 737 yards in the first five games. That included touchdown runs of 33, 67, 80, 35, 80 and 41 yards. Martinez posted 15 runs of at least 20 yards and 10 that covered at least 30 despite missing two games because of toe and ankle injuries and playing hurt in four other games.

6. WR Juron Criner, Arizona, Sr.
Buzz: Criner too often is forgotten when big-time receivers are mentioned, but opposing defenses know all about him. He's a major deep threat with excellent speed. In 2010, he had 18 catches that covered at least 20 yards, and eight of those went for at least 40 yards. He had an 85-yard touchdown catch against Oregon, a 52-yarder against Arizona State and a 41-yarder against UCLA. He also had a 21-yard run against Stanford. He doesn't return kicks, though perhaps he should.

5. WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina, Jr.
Buzz: At 6 feet 4 and 229 pounds, Jeffery is a huge wide receiver. Yet he has the speed and agility usually associated with much smaller players, and he can turn short passes into long gains. Last season, Jeffery had 26 receptions that covered at least 20 yards. No other player returning in 2011 had that many. He had a reception of at least 40 yards in eight games, including a 72-yard touchdown against Vanderbilt, a 71-yard touchdown against Tennessee and a 69-yard catch against Auburn.

4. WR Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma, Sr.
Buzz: He gets the ball often and knows what to do with it. Last season, Broyles led the nation with 131 receptions. He turned those into 1,622 yards and 14 touchdowns. He had 21 plays of at least 20 yards and at least one gain of 25 yards in 11 of the Sooners' 14 games. Broyles had touchdown receptions of 81 and 64 yards against Colorado. He also had a 57-yard punt return, although he had a substandard (for him) season as a punt returner in '10. In '09, he was named All-Big 12 as a punt returner after averaging 15.9 yards on 31 returns to rank third in the nation.

3. TB LaMichael James, Oregon, Jr.
Buzz: A sprinter on Oregon's track team, the speedy James is a perfect fit in the Ducks' spread offense and a breakaway threat every time he gets the ball. Last season, he had 15 plays of 20 yards, 11 runs of at least 30 yards and eight of at least 40. James had a play that covered at least 31 yards in eight games. His highlights included a 72-yard touchdown run against Tennessee, a 76-yard touchdown run against Stanford and a 66-yard run against Portland State. He also had an 84-yard touchdown reception against Washington State.

2. WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State, Jr.
Buzz: By October of last season, every team that faced Oklahoma State knew it had to contain Blackmon. Almost no one did. Although he missed one game because of a suspension and was slowed by an injury late in the season, Blackmon still had 24 catches that covered at least 20 yards and 10 that covered at least 40. Blackmon had 20 TD catches and those alone covered an incredible 641 yards (32.1 yards per reception); eight of those covered at least 37 yards. He had a 69-yard touchdown run, too.

1. QB Denard Robinson, Michigan, Jr.
Buzz: Robinson is like a time bomb: Sooner or later, he's going to explode. Each time Robinson tucks the football, opposing fans hold their breath because he always seems one step away from making a big play. Last season, his first as a full-time starter in former coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense, Robinson had 16 runs that covered at least 20 yards and seven that exceeded 30 yards. He had at least one 20-yard gain in nine of the Wolverines' 13 games last season. He scored touchdowns on runs of 87, 72, 47, 32 and 32 yards. He also had 12 pass completions of more than 40 yards. That's more than Stanford's Andrew Luck. A big question with Robinson is how the new Michigan staff will make use of his talents.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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