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Manziel, Clowney among top midseason developments

Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press
Penn State freshman Christian Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in completions and passing yards.

We're at the halfway point of the college football season, and while there have been a few upsets sprinkled throughout the first seven weeks, everything else has pretty much gone the way we thought it might.

Alabama and Oregon are still the elite of the elite. Ohio State and Clemson, along with a handful of others, are still in BCS Championship Game chase mode.

While the first half might have lacked drama in terms of team play, there was no shortage of storylines surrounding players in college football. Below, I have listed the nine biggest player developments of the season's first half.

QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

Tom Rossley, the ex-Packers quarterbacks coach who moved on to the same position at Texas A&M, loved what he saw from Manziel in high school. While other schools were recruiting Manziel at other positions, Rossley's fists were bleeding from banging the table so hard for Manziel to play quarterback at A&M. The man who was once Brett Favre's position coach for six years ultimately was proven right.

One season after winning the Heisman Trophy, Manziel is being forced by teams each week to throw the ball more and run less often. Take away the opener against Rice in which he was suspended for the first half, Manziel is averaging 348 passing yards per game, completing 73 percent of his throws, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in that stretch.

TCU coach Gary Patterson, a good friend of mine, told me he had Manziel in his high school football camp for three summers. "He wasn't the tallest, he wasn't the fastest, and he didn't throw the prettiest ball," Patterson said. "But all he did was win." That's how I still view Manziel. Put him side by side with any other top college quarterback, and 10 out of 10 NFL scouts will take the other guy. In the end, however, I'm not sure the other guy will affect the outcome of the game as much as Manziel will.

WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M

Manziel pegged his teammate the "best receiver in college football," and an argument can be made. Evans, a third-year sophomore, has come a long way from his days as a highly rated basketball prospect who averaged more than 18 points and 8 rebounds in high school.

Much was made last month of Manziel's big day against Alabama's defense, which has multiple NFL-ready players. But Evans was on the receiving end of seven of Manziel's passes, hauling them in for 279 yards and bailing his quarterback out multiple times. Evans, a big target at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, is currently first in the SEC and third in FBS with 737 receiving yards.

QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

Interesting story about Bridgewater: Randy Shannon recruited the quarterback to Miami, but when Shannon was fired, Bridgewater decommitted. Florida became interested, but wanted him to play either wide receiver or defensive back. Like Rossley with Manziel, Charlie Strong saw a different path for Bridgewater, so he swooped in, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It's really been a non-development with Bridgewater this season more than it has been a development. He's exactly what many of us thought he was: One of the best players in college football. The competition hasn't been great and won't be for the rest of the season, but you can see refinements in his game, which tells me he's constantly looking for ways to get better, spending lots of time studying film and working with his coaches. He has a complete grasp of Strong's offense, and he's a big reason why Louisville will likely end up in a BCS bowl game with an undefeated record.

QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

It's early, very early, but Hackenberg is already being compared by some to Andrew Luck. Not sure about that, but the true freshman looks like he's going to be an NFL quarterback one day.

I watched him beat Michigan on Saturday in overtime and came away very impressed. He completed 23 of 44 passes for 305 yards with three touchdowns. It was Hackenberg's third 300-yard game of the season, and he leads the Big Ten in completions (132) and passing (278.7 yards per game). I was especially impressed with how he handled things late in regulation by driving the Nittany Lions 80 yards in the final 50 seconds, accounting for all 80 yards (79 passing, 1-yard rushing TD) to send the game into overtime.

Hackenberg, a five-star recruit, committed to Penn State early, but was allowed to get out of his commitment after the Penn State scandal resulted in severe sanctions against the football program. To his credit, Hackenberg stayed. You have to love that in the kid. It says a lot about his character.

QB Sean Mannion and WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State

When I was on the road scouting back in the day, I spent a lot of time on the Oregon Trail. I loved going up and down Old Highway 99, between Eugene and Corvallis, for the sights and boysenberries. Sweetest things you'll ever taste.

Now scouts are spending a lot of time on that road visiting the campuses of Oregon and Oregon State. At the latter stop, they are keeping their eyes on the quarterback (Mannion) and his talented wide receiver (Cooks), FBS leaders in passing and receiving yards and touchdowns.

Many people wrote Oregon State off after the Beavers opened with an embarrassing loss at home to Eastern Washington. But they haven't lost since, and Mannion and Cooks, who have formed perhaps the most lethal QB-WR duo in college football, are a big reason why.

Mannion looks like an NFL quarterback at 6-5, 220 pounds. At 5-10, 186 pounds, Cooks doesn't look the part. But he sure knows how to play. Mike Riley's challenge now will be trying to keep both juniors around Corvallis for another year.

Maybe he can offer them boysenberries.

DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

I'm not certain how NFL teams still feel about Clowney, but if I were choosing a player to build my defense around today, I'd take UCLA's Anthony Barr over the South Carolina defensive end who has just nine solo tackles and two sacks to his credit this season. Barr is a more versatile, certainly more consistent player.

Clowney hasn't played poorly this season, despite what his numbers say, but he hasn't played up to media hype, which was built around one play in last season's Outback Bowl. He's a good player, could be a great one if he works at it, but the jury is still out on that. I think he bought into the hype. He even admitted openly that he hung out this past summer, taking trips with friends instead of continuing to work out. And his poor conditioning showed early in the season.

The whole incident in which he told Coach Steve Spurrier 30 minutes before the Kentucky game a few weeks back that he wasn't playing, drawing Spurrier's ire, is a bad sign. He already had a reputation of taking plays off. He can't afford to do that at the next level.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State

In June, the Texas Rangers drafted Winston in the 15th round of the Major League Baseball draft. He stayed in school. Good decision.

Florida State has a chance to win a national championship, and Winston has a lot to do with it. His chances of winning a national title and becoming the second straight freshman to win the Heisman Trophy will increase if he can help the Seminoles beat Tajh Boyd and Clemson on Saturday in the biggest game of the week.

Like Hackenberg, the other freshman on this list, Winston has a future in the NFL. He and his game are already mature beyond their years.

QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

I was stunned at what Oregon did to Washington on Saturday. I thought it would be a much closer, lower-scoring game. And that thought was based mostly on Washington's defense.

That Oregon was able to put up 45 points against the Huskies is amazing. It showed me that Mariota's a pretty good quarterback. In fact, he has to be the favorite right now to win the Heisman Trophy.

I don't think Mariota's a product of the Oregon system. I think he could run anyone's system.

Hot 100 seniors
In his midseason update of the top 100 seniors in college football, Gil Brandt has UCLA LB Anthony Barr No. 1 and a previously unranked player in his top 5. More ...

DT Will Sutton, Arizona State

I speak to a lot of college football teams and their players about preparing for the NFL, what they should and shouldn't be doing. I always ask if they know anything about horse racing. The usual reply is, no, they have no idea, so I tell them about handicap races in which weights are added to the horses to balance the field. "Adding just 3-5 pounds to a 2,000-pound horse can throw him off completely," I say. "Imagine what adding just 5 pounds can do to your game." Then we discuss the difference between adding "good" and "bad" weight.

I think Sutton added a lot of bad weight in the offseason, which resulted in lost quickness. He was a dominant player for the Sun Devils last year; playing at around 270 pounds, he recorded 23.5 tackles for loss, including 13.5 sacks. This year, listed at 305, Sutton has been missing in action; in six games he has just 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack.

It will be interesting to see if Sutton drops the weight after the season in preparation for the NFL draft.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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