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HOME-GROWN TALENT: 10 college football players from the Southern Crescent to watch

Special photo / Henry County’s Jamal-Rashad Patterson has an opportunity to be a big contributor this season for Stanford.

Special photo / Henry County’s Jamal-Rashad Patterson has an opportunity to be a big contributor this season for Stanford.

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Special photo / D’Mario Gunn went from Jones County to Luella to Georgia Military College to a starting safety for Georgia State.

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Special photo / Amarlo Herrera made the transition from North Clayton to the SEC with Georgia look easy. He’s part of one of the top returning defenses in the country.

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Special photo / Union Grove’s Donovan Johnson returns for Wofford as one of the top rushers in the Southern Conference.

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Special photo / Ola’s Tre McBride became the first true freshman wide receiver to see playing time at William & Mary since 2005.

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Michael Pimentel/GoldenBearSports.com / Avery Sebastian was known as Avery Walls at Union Grove and Eagle’s Landing Christian in high school.

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Special photo / Riverdale’s Hakeem Smith has developed into a star at Louisville.The redshirt junior safety was named first team All-Big East last season.

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Special photo / Former Union Grove standout Mark Speir is a returning starter for Richmond.

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Special photo / Former Luella standout Rod Sweeting has become one of the top cornerbacks in the country.

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Special photo / Former Riverdale standout Lavelle Westbrook is a starting cornerback for No. 3-ranked Georgia Southern.

Clayton News Daily/Henry Daily Herald staff writer Brian Paglia picks 10 players from the Southern Crescent who should have the biggest impact on the biggest stages this college football season.

D’Mario Gunn

GEORGIA STATE

Position: Safety

Year: Senior

Vitals: 6-1, 185

High School: Luella

At Luella: Gunn transferred to Luella from Jones County before his junior year and became an immediate impact player for the Lions. Gunn teamed with Rod Sweeting (Georgia Tech) and Detrick Bonner (Virginia Tech) to form one of the top secondaries and wide receiving groups in the state. In Luella’s 2008 playoff year, Gunn was an All-Region and All-Southern Crescent selection after posting over 300 receiving yards with four touchdowns.

At Georgia State: Gunn spent two years at Georgia Military College, a junior college in Milledgeville, Ga., before signing with the Panthers. It didn’t take long for Gunn to make his presence felt. Playing in 11 games, Gunn had 24 tackles, two interceptions and two pass breakups as a part-time starter at cornerback. Both interceptions came in a game against Murray State, making him the first Panther in Georgia State history to have two interceptions in one game.

This season: Georgia State lost two-year starting safety Brandon Jones to graduation, so the Panthers moved Gunn over from cornerback. He’ll compete with junior transfer Rashad Stewart for the starting job and figures to have the right combination of size and all-around skills to handle the position.

Big game: Sept. 8, at Tennessee. The Volunteers featured pre-season second team All-American wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers from Calhoun, Ga., who last season caught 67 passes for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. It’ll be Gunn and the Panthers secondary’s biggest test of the season.

Amarlo Herrera

GEORGIA

Position: Linebacker

Year: Sophomore

Vitals: 6-2, 245

High School: North Clayton

At North Clayton: A sidekick to star Clarence Jackson as a junior, Herrera developed into a linebacker with unparalleled tenacity by his senior season. He had a monster senior season — a school-record 151 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and two sacks — on his way to all-region, all-state and the Clayton News Daily/Henry Daily Herald Clayton County Player of the Year honors.

At Georgia: Herrera entered the Bulldogs program as part of the “Dream Team” recruiting class of 2011, but he was a bit under the radar. By the end of the season, Herrera had earned a way into the linebacker rotation appearing in all 14 games and starting eight. He finished his freshman season with 37 total tackles, three tackles for loss and one forced fumble.

This season: Georgia is loaded with experienced linebackers and Herrera figures to resume his role as the Bulldogs’ primary reserve at middle linebacker. That means his breakout season might be a year away, but Herrera figures to be an important part for one of the nation’s top returning defenses.

Big game: Oct. 6, at South Carolina. The Bulldogs will probably go into Columbia, S.C., with a top 10 defense and team. The Gamecocks should be, too. They’ll also have running back Marcus Lattimore. One of the top recruits coming out of high school, Lattimore took the SEC by storm as a freshman, rushing for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was on his way to another big year last season before a devastating mid-season knee injury. Lattimore is back, which means Herrera and the Bulldogs linebackers will have a lot of tackles to make.

Donovan Johnson

WOFFORD

Position: Running back

Year: Junior

Vitals: 5-8, 190

High school: Union Grove

At Union Grove: The diminuitive running back was a force to be reckoned with in high school. Even as Union Grove dissolved during a tumultuous 2007 season, Johnson was a beacon of the future, earning all-region honors as a kick returner. Then he exploded on the scene as a junior — 16 touchdowns, over 1,500 rushing yards and more all-region and All-Southern Crescent recognition. He was the focal point of then coach Steven Collins’ spread rushing attack which saw the Wolverines go 8-3 to make the playoffs.

At Wofford: Johnson was a contributor right away for the Terriers. In 11 games as a freshman, he rushed for 353 yards on 53 carries with two touchdowns. He followed that up with a break-out sophomore season, rushing for 967 yards on 110 carries and nine touchdowns. His 8.8 yards per carry led the Southern Conference and tied a Wofford single season record. Three times he eclipsed the 100-yard mark in a game, including a season-high 173 yards on 10 carries against Samford.

This season: Johnson and senior full-back Eric Breitenstein (team-high 1,474 rushing yards) figure to form the top backfield — again — in the Southern Conference. Both are included with 39 Football Championship Subdivision running backs on the College Football Performance awards watch list.

Big game: Oct. 13, at Georgia Southern. Wofford is going to need a big game from Johnson if the Terriers hope to challenge Georgia Southern for the Southern Conference title. And the Eagles will have defensive tackle Brent Russell, the reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, ready to take on Johnson.

Tre McBride

WILLIAM & MARY

Position: Wide receiver

Year: Sophomore

Vitals: 6-1, 190

High school: Ola

At Ola: McBride was arguably the school’s top all-around athlete. He ran track, played basketball, but really shined on the football field. A three-year starter, McBride capped his high school career with an impressive senior season — 10 touchdowns, 9.8 yards per carry, 25 yards per reception and over 1,500 all-purpose yards. He began the year on the Clayton News Daily/Henry Daily Herald’s ‘12 Most Wanted’ list and ended it on all-region and all-Southern Crescent lists.

At William & Mary: No true freshman wide receiver had played for the Tribe since D.J. McAulay in 2005, let alone on a top 5 nationally-ranked team ... until McBride. He started off slow with eight catches in William & Mary’s first nine games, but went out with a bang. In the Tribe’s final two games, McBride had a combined six catches for 90 yards. He finished the season with 14 catches for 146 yards and 29 rushing yards on four carries. He was named the William & Mary QB Club Rookie of the Year.

This season: The Tribe is coming off a disappointing 5-6 season. It’ll look to McBride to help lead the resurgence. He’s projected to step into the starting lineup opposite senior wide receiver Ryan Moody. They figure to form a receiving corps that should be William & Mary’s biggest strength.

Big game: Sept. 1, at Maryland. The Terrapins are reeling after going 2-10 last season, which means a strong FCS team like William & Mary could make an early-season statement with an upset victory over an ACC program. Maryland has a young secondary that features one senior, one junior and two sophomores, so McBride could be poised for a strong game.

Jamal-Rashad Patterson

STANFORD

Position: Wide receiver

Year: Senior

Vitals: 6-3, 208

High School: Henry County

At Henry County: Patterson was the picture of a star athlete in high school. On the football field he was nearly unstoppable, catching 144 passes for 3,100 yards and 41 touchdowns during a four-year varsity career. On the track, he was a standout hurdler who won three state titles in the 300-meter hurdles. Off the field, Patterson was a model student. He carried a 4.65 GPA and won the Wakins Award as the nation’s top African-American male high school scholar-athlete.

At Stanford: Patterson arrived at Stanford with much hype as one of the top receiving prospects in the country. So far the hype hasn’t translated into results. In three season, Patterson has six career receptions for 66 yards. His highlight might be a 22-yard touchdown run on a reverse against Arizona State during his freshman season.

This season: Despite the anonymity of the past three seasons, the opportunity is there for Patterson to become a significant contributor. As the Cardinal retools its passing game following the graduation of quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, first-round pick Coby Fleener and several wide receivers, Patterson has started to flash the potential he showed in high school.

Big game: Nov. 17, at Oregon. If Patterson becomes the player this season that experts predicted he could be coming out of high school, then the Ducks will certainly have senior safety John Boyett keep an eye on him. Boyett has been named to watch lists for the Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Jim Thrope Award.

Avery Sebastian

CALIFORNIA

Position: Safety

Year: Sophomore

Vitals: 5-10, 190

High school: ELCA

At ELCA: Before he was Avery Sebastian, the college football player, he was Avery Walls, the high school football nomad. Walls played at Sandy Creek as a freshman, at Union Grove as a sophomore and junior before transfering to ELCA for his senior season. Walls helped elevate the Chargers into state title contenders, rushing for 434 yards and seven touchdowns on 49 carries while finishing with 55 tackles and three interceptions for a team that went 11-1 and lost to state champion Clinch County in the Class A quarterfinals. He played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

At California: Sebastian was an early-enrollee at California. Soon after he took his mother’s last name. Sebastian found a role early on with special teams, where he made most of his nine tackles. Sebastian had a season-high four tackles against Arizona State in the season finale.

This season: Sebastian’s already gained a reputation as a hard-hitting safety. That should help him as he battles Michael Lowe and Alex Logan for one of the vacant starting safety spots.

Big game: Sept. 22, at Southern California. The Trojans return from their two-year bowl ban with one of the most dangerous offenses in the country. Sebastian and the Bears secondary will have to contend with quarterback Matt Barkley (3,528 yards, 39 TDs) and wide receivers Robert Woods (1,292 yards, 15 TDs) and Marquise Lee (1,142 yards, 11 TDs).

Hakeem Smith

RIVERDALE

Position: Safety

Year: Redshirt junior

Vitals: 6-1, 187

High school: Riverdale

At Riverdale: Smith didn’t come with much hype in high school, just production. He was a speedy down-field threat at wide receiver, where he caught 30 passes for 650 yards and five touchdowns as a senior. He was a sure tackler at safety, where he had 44 tackles. Recruiting services rated him a two-star prospect.

At Louisville: After being red-shirted, Smith burst onto the scene. He was the Big East Conference Rookie of the Year in 2010 after leading the Cardinals with 88 tackles. He followed that up with an All-Big East season last year — 84 tackles, nine pass breakups, three forced fumbles and one interception. Smith has been at the forefront of Louisville’s resurgence that has them as the favorite in the Big East this season.

This season: Chances are Smith will get plenty of attention this season. He’s already been named to the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List, presented to the best defensive back in the country, and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy Award Watch List presented to the National Defensive Player of the Year. NFLdraftscout.com has Smith rated the No. 2 safety prospect. Another standout season and Smith could be leaving early for the NFL.

Big game: Oct. 13, at Pittsburgh. Smith has built his reputation on being a big-time tackler against the run. Pittsburgh will feature one of the top running backs in the country in Ray Graham. Though Graham is coming off an ACL injury, he’s still considered an NFL-caliber running back, which should make for some exciting confrontations on the field with Smith.

Mark Speir

RICHMOND

Position: Offensive line

Year: Redshirt junior

Vitals: 6-6, 295

High school: Union Grove

At Union Grove: Speir was a dominant blocker, the likes of which the Wolverines had never seen. While his first season as a starter in 2007 was a forgettable 3-7 campaign, he anchored a formidable offensive line the following season. Union Grove started 7-0 and finished 8-3 to return to the state playoffs. Speir started every game his junior and senior seasons, and didn’t allow a sack his final year. He was recruited by Mike London, who is now the head coach at the University of Virginia.

At Richmond: After redshirting his freshman year, Speir has become one of the Spiders’ most durable and dependable lineman. He made his first career start Sept. 5, 2010 against Virginia and started eight more games that season. He started all 10 games last season for a Richmond team that vastly underachieved. The Spiders went 3-7 two years after making the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals.

This season: As Richmond tries to climb back into respectability after a down year, Speir will once again be a staple on the offensive line.

Big game: Sept. 29, Old Dominion. Richmond gets it first conference test the last Saturday in September from an Old Dominion team that’s No. 8 in the pre-season rankings. Speir and the Spiders offensive line will have a big challenge against Monarchs defensive tackle Chris Burnette, a first-team All-CAA selection in the pre-season. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound senior had 49 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season.

Rod Sweeting

GEORGIA TECH

Position: Cornerback

Year: Senior

Vitals: 6-0, 184

High school: Luella

At Luella: Sweeting moved from Miami before high school and brought his Florida speed with him to Luella. For the next four years, Sweeting was a nightmare to cover at wide receiver and to account for on defense at cornerback. He had 36 receptions for 723 yards and 10 touchdowns with 58 tackles and two interceptions as a senior, helping the Lions reach the state playoffs for the first time in school history.

At Georgia Tech: After two years as a reserve cornerback, Sweeting got his chance to start as a junior. He didn’t disappoint. He started all 13 games and finished with 56 tackles, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. For that, Sweeting was named honorable mention All-ACC.

This season: Sweeting enters 2012 with 39 games of college football experience and an influential voice in the Georgia Tech locker room. He also has some NFL draft hype beginning to build. Some draft services say a solid season could help Sweeting rise from a mid-round prospect into one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC and the country.

Big game: Oct. 6, at Clemson. Let’s assume Sweeting gets the challenge to cover Tigers wide receiver Sammy Watkins. That makes for one of the better individual match-ups of the season. Watkins and Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd formed one of the most productive tandems in the country last season, and that puts Sweeting in the spotlight in a compelling conference game.

Lavelle Westbrook

GEORGIA SOUTHERN

Position: Cornerback

Year: Junior

Vitals: 6-0, 174

High school: Riverdale

At Riverdale: Westbrook was one of Riverdale’s most athletic and exciting players. He was a solid defensive back, who earned all-region honors as a junior and senior. But he was electrifying at wide receiver and on special teams. He was a big play waiting to happen on offense and returning kicks. With Hakeem Smith (Louisville), there might not have been a more talented secondary in Clayton County.

At Georgia Southern: It didn’t take long for Westbrook to contribute. He played in all 13 games as a freshman and finished with 32 tackles, five pass breakups, three tackles for loss, two interceptions and a sack. Westbrook’s tackle total jumped to 60 last season. He added four pass breakups, one interception and one fumble recovery.

This season: Westbrook entered fall camp as one of the Eagles’ starting cornerbacks and one of their most experienced players. Georgia Southern enters the season ranked No. 3 in the FCS and the preseason favorite to win the Southern Conference, but needs Westbrook to provide veteran leadership to a secondary that will start one senior, one junior and two sophomores.

Big game: Nov. 17, at Georgia. Playing the big in-state school is always a challenge for the Eagles. It should be especially so for Westbrook and a Georgia Southern secondary that has to deal with Bulldogs returning quarterback Aaron Murray.