17. RB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska: With the exception of maybe Montee Ball and Silas Redd, no one running back is as important to a team as Burkhead is to Nebraska. He takes some of the rushing load off of dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez, and he should be in the Heisman discussion all season long if the Cornhuskers remain in the Big Ten race.
18. DE Barkevious Mingo, LSU: The junior defensive lineman recorded eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2011 while rotating in and out of the game along the deep LSU line. While he is a pass-rushing force, he also plays the run very well. We heard his name a lot last fall; expect to hear it even more in 2012.
19. WR Keenan Allen, California: The junior receiver recorded nearly 100 catches for over 1,300 yards last season while dealing with a quarterback in his first year starting in Jeff Tedford's Cal offense. He has very good size, speed and strength at 6-3 and 195 pounds, and he has sure hands as well.
ICONTyler Eifert should see his numbers rise in 2012 with Michael Floyd onto the NFL.
20. TE Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish need to make up for the lost production of receiver Michael Floyd, so expect Eifert’s numbers to jump from his solid 2011 totals of 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns. He has good size, hands and quickness, so he already serves as a de facto wide receiver in Brian Kelly’s offense.
21. DT Kawann Short, Purdue: The junior is one of the better pass rushers from the tackle position, registering 6.5 sacks along with 17 tackles for loss in 2011. The run-stopping machine is often overlooked because he plays in West Lafayette, but the 6-3, 310-pounder is certainly a first-round NFL talent.
22. LB Shayne Skov, Stanford: The middle linebacker was the best player on the Cardinal defense before suffering a season-ending knee injury and only playing in three games last fall. Back for his senior season, he will be even more relied upon as Stanford breaks in a new quarterback — making a strong defense and run game even more imperative for David Shaw’s squad.
23. OL Barrett Jones, Alabama: The Outland Trophy winner and All-American has excelled at right guard and left tackle in his time in Tuscaloosa. And this season, he will try his hand at center, where he will replace William Vlachos, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy as the country’s top center last season. The 6-5, 311-pounder has never played center before, but this kid is a winner. Don’t expect any dropoff in production to occur.
24. WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia: As an inside receiver, few players are as exciting to watch with the ball in his hands as Austin, who is one of the most dynamic players in the country. The senior will get even more looks in this offense no matter whether he is lined up in the 'diamond' formation or in the slot. Clemson and LSU found out in 2011 just how dangerous Austin can be wherever he is lined up on the field.
25. WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee: Da’Rick Rogers may get more pub, but the 6-4, 200-pound junior has shown this spring that he is healthy and ready to bounce back from the torn left ACL he suffered in the Vols’ third game last season. Before the injury, he was leading the SEC in receptions and receiving yards per game. And he’s eager to prove that his freshman campaign — which included seven touchdowns and a per-catch average just shy of 26.0 — was just the beginning of something special.
26. QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma: The veteran Sooners signal-caller has his detractors, but no one can deny his productivity in Norman throughout his career. He looked a bit lost when Ryan Broyles, OU’s top receiver, went down with injury last year. But if Trey Metoyer can carry over his strong spring to the regular season, Jones may have a new top weapon as well as a journey toward the BCS title game.
27. QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech: The big dual-threat signal-caller started off 2011 slowly, but he had a huge second half as he became more comfortable in the Hokies offense. He was always a run threat, but he has a strong arm as well. If he limits his mistakes, he could have more leeway in his second year as a starter.
28. DT/DE John Simon, Ohio State: The Buckeyes defensive lineman can harass the quarterback as well as stop the run. Jonathan Hankins sometimes overshadows the 6-2, 270-pounder, but Simon’s consistency and flexibility is crucial to the fortunes of the Buckeyes defensive line. He has starting experience at both defensive tackle and end, and his motor is non-stop.
29. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: The son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews and cousin of current NFLers Clay Matthews and Casey Matthews headlines an offensive line that, along with fellow tackle Luke Joeckel, is one of the biggest strengths of the entire A&M squad. His pass-blocking ability is elite, and he’s one of the best tackles in the country.
30. DE Brandon Jenkins, Florida State: The Seminoles have one of the filthiest defensive lines in the country, and the unit will be even stronger with their Class of 2012 haul. But the senior Jenkins is the headliner of the bunch, and he passed up NFL riches to play one more year in Tallahassee. He’s quite simply one of the nation’s best pass rushers and is the leader of FSU's defense under coordinator Mark Stoops.
31. QB Keith Price, Washington: The junior seamlessly took over for Jake Locker in Seattle last fall, recording 36 touchdowns and holding his own in Washington’s Alamo Bowl showdown with Robert Griffin III and Baylor. The sky is the limit for Price, who has the coaching of Steve Sarkisian to lean on.
32. DE Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: I could have easily taken Jeffcoat’s linemate Alex Okafor here, as the pairing combined for 29.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in 2011. But I think Jeffcoat, who was the top defensive recruit in the Class of 2010, could win Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2012. His consistent pressure off the edge in Manny Diaz’s defense could lead to a huge season.
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