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CFB's most underappreciated offensive difference-makers

Gerry Broome/Associated Press
East Carolina's Shane Carden was among the most productive QBs in college football last season.

College football has its share of well-established stars. Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Todd Gurley -- we know those guys are difference-makers.

However, for every Winston, Mariota and Gurley, there are at least a handful of players who have their great accomplishments and rare ability go largely unnoticed on a national level.

This list focuses on those guys -- the ones that might not be on the tip of the tongue when discussing college football's best players. These 10 difference-makers have caught my eye and we should all be watching them closely when the 2014 season gets underway later this month.

Offensive linemen were not under consideration for this list, but there are some outstanding ones in the college ranks this season, and we'll talk plenty about them down the road.

Players are listed in alphabetical order:

East Carolina QB Shane Carden


Carden might be one of the few 4,000-yard passers from last season that most fans have never heard of. He put up big-time numbers last season in East Carolina's fast-paced offense, throwing for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns, which earned him Conference USA MVP honors and helped the program to just its second season with double-digit wins. The Pirates are moving to the American Athletic Conference this year, and, with Carden at the helm, they'll be a tough out for their new league foes.

Marshall QB Rakeem Cato


There has been a lot of talk about Marshall having the right schedule and team to run the table and make a case for being one of the four teams in the new College Football Playoff. We know that will take a heck of a run to come to fruition, but if anyone can lead the Thundering Herd there, it's Cato. He's put up huge numbers in his career (8,117 passing yards in last two seasons), and he'll have to keep it going for Marshall to have the type of season it desires. Cato is being mentioned as a darkhorse Heisman candidate, and it's warranted. He can back up any hype he receives, even if he's rarely included in the conversation of college football's top quarterbacks. Before the season's over, he could be among the NCAA's top five in career touchdown passes.


14 for '14 series:
CFB 24/7 counts down the 14 college football players or coaches to watch in varying categories in 2014.

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» Top rivalries in college football
» Top personalities in college football
» Best uniforms in college football
» Best stadiums in college football
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» Hot coordinators in college football
» Best recruiters in college football
» Hot-seat coaches in college football
» Best coaches in college football
» Best names in college football
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» Top Heisman Trophy candidates
» Most explosive athletes in college football
» Most versatile players in college football
» Most freakish athletes in college football
» Scariest players in college football
» Fastest players in college football
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» Smartest players in college football
» Most physical players in college football
» College football players with best intangibles

Duke WR Jamison Crowder


Crowder is the only active player among the "Power Five" conferences that has posted 1,000-plus receiving yards in each of the past two seasons. Now, Crowder and Duke aren't sneaking up anyone this season after another big year for the receiver and a Coastal Division championship for the team. Defenses are going to want to double-team him and keep him blanketed. Head coach David Cutcliffe is creative enough to find ways to get him the ball, though. He's a smaller guy at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, but Crowder is about as explosive and elusive as they come. He's a big-time threat as a returner, too.

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs


As Maryland makes its Big Ten debut, Diggs will be the weapon offensive coordinator Mike Locksley unleashes. The Terps will be creative to make sure he gets plenty of touches. He has good size at 6-foot, 190 pounds and looks like the prototype for the position. He can do it all and has said that he feels more explosive than he did before suffering a season-ending broken right fibula in mid-October last season. If that is indeed the case come the start of this season, good luck stopping him.

Arizona WR Austin Hill


Hill returns as Arizona's go-to guy after missing all of last season while recovering from the ACL tear he suffered during 2013 spring practice. He put up big numbers in 2012 (81 catches for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns) and is a big, strong, physical receiver who can go up and get it. His return is huge for Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats' offense.

Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton


Utah State obviously knows how to adapt -- it played for the Mountain West title last season even though Keeton suffered a season-ending knee injury in early October. Having him back really ramps things up for the Aggies, though. As a sophomore in 2012, Keeton set single-season school records in touchdown passes (27), passing yards (3,373) and total yards (3,992). He can beat you with his legs or his arm, and he's a terrific leader.

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford


Langford bounced between running back and defensive back early in his career, but last year -- his redshirt junior season -- was his first as a full-time rusher, and he was a monster, rushing for more than 100 yards in a school-record eight consecutive games to close out the season. We hear a lot about Big Ten RBs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah -- and we should -- but Langford clearly established himself as one of the league's top runners, too, rushing for 1,422 yards and a Big Ten-best 18 touchdowns. According to STATS, his 725 yards rushing after contact were second among FBS running backs to Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, a fourth-round pick of the Chicago Bears.

Kansas State WR Tyler Lockett


It seems we hear so much about Lockett being undersized -- he's listed at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds. Well, it hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the best receivers in college football. When the Wildcats need a big play, Lockett is the guy they look to. He can change the course of a game on special teams as a returner, too. Kansas State's offense isn't one you would call overly dynamic. Lockett gives it the dose of explosiveness it needs.

Stanford WR Ty Montgomery


Montgomery is coming off shoulder surgery, so he might not be at full throttle right out of the gate this season, but he broke out in a big way last season. He always had the potential but hadn't been able to put it all together. He did last season, though, making 61 catches for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns. Montgomery is a versatile weapon -- you can run him on reverses, throw to him in the slot or out wide, and he can break games open as a kick returner, too. When he went down with an injury early in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl vs. Michigan State, it really bogged down the Cardinal offense. Clearly, he's a guy that's very hard to replace.

Florida State TE Nick O'Leary


O'Leary was one of the three finalists for the John Mackey Award -- an honor given to the nation's top tight end -- last season, but he still is a bit underappreciated for all the things he does for the Seminoles' offense. He runs good routes, blocks at the point of attack and is a very dependable pass-catcher who gains yards after the catch. He's surprisingly elusive at times, too. With Jameis Winston's top target from last season, Kelvin Benjamin -- a first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers -- moving on to the NFL, O'Leary can take some pressure off Florida State's new No. 1 wide receiver, Rashad Greene. Toughness is not an issue for O'Leary -- he's a strong, physical guy.

Follow Charles Davis on Twitter @CFD22.

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