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Kansas State coaches knew LB Terry Pierce had a bright future even before he was named Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2000. Still, they didn't expect the 19-year-old to become the team's leader so soon. Pierce (6'3", 252) has shed 8 pounds, cut his 40 time (4.67), set LB records in about every lift and matured so much that the Wildcats coaches have moved him to the middle. But he's just one of the players around the country rising helmet and shoulder pads above the comp this spring.
Phillip Buchanon, CB, Miami
Bookend CB Mike Rumph will make some preseason All-America teams, but it was Buchanon who gave the Hurricane WRs the most problems this spring. The 5'11", 182-pound junior spent hours talking shop with WR Santana Moss, and is playing much more aggressively. "He's got all the speed, quickness and footwork you could want," says Miami DB coach Mark Stoops. "He could be as good as any corner in the country."
Larry Johnson, TB, Penn State
A wall-mounted TV that fell on TB Omar Easy's head in January gave him a concussion, but it didn't turn PSU's running back picture upside down. LJ did. The 6'2", 220-pound junior added seven pounds while retaining his 4.45 speed. He has moved past Easy and Eric McCoo by attacking holes, something the anemic Lions (10th in Big Ten rushing) didn't see much of in 2000. Another good sign: Amazingly, Easy showed soft hands by catching the TV -- even after it hit him in the head.
Bernard Riley, DT, USC
If new coach Pete Carroll is going to turn the underachieving Trojans into a Rose Bowl threat, Riley needs to dominate in the fall like he did this spring. A quick and powerful 305-pounder, Riley has as much ability as the departed Ennis Davis and could be even more productive under Carroll's tutelage. In SC's first scrimmage, Riley had four tackles behind the line, including two sacks.
Wilson Thomas, WR, Nebraska
Sure, the Huskers don't throw it much, but replacing Matt Davison and Bobby Newcombe as vertical threats still is Nebraska's biggest concern -- and QB Eric Crouch's key ingredient to making a bid for the Heisman. Enter the rangy Thomas, a former blue-chip basketball prospect. The 6'5", 205-pound junior has displayed improved route-running skills and has shown he is physical enough to beat the jam at the line.
Jason Witten, TE, Tennessee
After visiting the NFL's Titans, Vols offensive coordinator Randy Sanders -- with visions of Frank Wychek in his head -- says he's committed to making the H-Back a force in the UT attack. Big talk, considering Vols TEs have snagged just 17 passes in the last four years. But Witten, a 6'5", 265-pound freshman, could be in for a breakout season. A converted DE with the speed to go deep, Witten had nine catches in Tennessee's first two scrimmages.
This article appears in the April 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.