NCAA Football

Ten players ready to become college football stars in 2017

college football stars, John Kelly
Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

With so much turnover from year to year as players matriculate into the NFL ranks, college football stars emerge every single season.

Superstars like Christian McCaffrey, Jamal Adams and Taco Charlton all moved on to bigger and better things this spring. Jobs are there for the taking for those strong enough to claim them. Those are the guys we’re focusing on in this article.

From a quarterback that has a fresh start to an emerging safety set to take the SEC by storm, we’re taking a look at players who will make their own mark in 2017.

The following 10 players — five on offense and five on defense — are the next college football stars set to take the nation by storm.

John Kelly, running back, Tennessee

With both Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd out of the picture, it’s Kelly’s chance to shine as the lead back for the Vols in 2017. It’s a role he’s embracing wholeheartedly this spring.

“I’m always confident, and I feel like I’m ready to embrace any role that they throw me in,” Kelly said, per Wes Rucker of 247sports.com. “Right now it’s being a leader to the younger guys and also being a centerpiece for our offense, so I’m definitely trying to make sure I take care of business and handle all the responsibilities they give me.”

Based on what Kelly has been able to accomplish in his limited opportunities as a freshman and sophomore, fans should be excited. In just 138 career carries, Kelly has tallied 795 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, adding another 51 yards on six receptions last year.

Helping Kelly’s cause is the fact that the Volunteers have a very solid offensive line in place now. Throw in the fact that there isn’t much proven depth behind Kelly and it seems clear Butch Jones will rely on his junior back to carry the load.

Taylor Rapp, safety, Washington

The mantle of top playmaker in Washington’s secondary has fallen on the shoulders of young Taylor Rapp now that Budda Baker is a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals.

It’s likely he’ll emerge as the starting free safety this fall, and there is a good chance he’ll see time as a nickel cornerback in certain sets. Simply put, he’s going to be a huge part of what Washington does defensively. And based on what we saw during his freshman season, he’s got the goods to become a superstar.

As a true freshman in 2016, he earned a starting spot, tallied 51 total tackles, intercepted four passes and broke up two more, returning one pick for a touchdown. Even crazier is the fact that those four interceptions came in just two games. He’s still learning how to play.

The sky is the limit for this up-and-coming Huskies star.

Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, Auburn

Stidham’s road to Auburn hasn’t been smooth. He left Baylor after the 2015 season following the broken ankle that ended his promising freshman campaign. Then he spent a season not playing as he attended McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas.

Now he’s fighting for a starting job in Gus Malzahn’s dynamic offense — a job he should win handily over incumbent starter Sean White, though Malzahn won’t name a starter any time soon.

New teammate, running back Kam Martin has already said Stidham “looks like an SEC starter,” both in terms of talent and leadership.

“When Jarrett first got here, he told me that he wanted to be a leader from the jump,” Martin said, via Tom Green of AL.com. “That’s what he did. Every day, Jarrett is breaking out of the group. He’s stepping up and trying to be a leader.”

During his only season at Baylor, Stidham was electric. He completed 68.8 percent of his passes while throwing 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Clearly, he has the physical talent to make big plays on big stages.

If the Tigers have any chance of living up to Malzahn’s vision of competing for a championship in 2017, then Stidham will need to be the man behind center. We predict he will be, and that he’ll elevate that offense in a major way.

Rashan Gary, defensive end, Michigan

Despite being the top-ranked prospect from 2016, Gary struggled to stand out much last season. However, given the fact he was competing with the likes of Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst Jr. (21.5 sacks between them), we’ll cut him some slack.

Now that all three of those stars are no longer at Michigan, Gary has no excuse not to explode. The 6-foot-5, 287-pound behemoth is already well ahead of where Charlton was as a second-year player from a physical standpoint. Now it’s up to Gary to take his natural talents to the next level while exhibiting the mental toughness it takes to dominate on the defensive line.

This is something Gary recognizes already as his biggest challenge.

“I’m doing all I can to make strides and get better day-by-day and, I think, so far I have,” Gary said in April, via Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. “I’m coming along. I still need to challenge myself to be more vocal, be more assertive. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

This kid was the consensus No. 1 overall prospect last year for a reason. We expect to see big things from this big man in 2017.

Deon Cain, wide receiver, Clemson

Fans of ACC football have seen Cain develop into a touchdown-scoring machine the past two seasons. And now that Mike Williams and Artavis Scott are both working to become NFL stars, it’s Cain’s turn to become the next big-time Clemson star.

A burner who has averaged 18.1 yards per catch the past two years, Cain has caught touchdowns nearly once every five times he’s hauled in a pass (14 touchdowns on 72 receptions).

He’ll be the go-to guy downfield for whoever ends up winning the starting quarterback spot for Dabo Swinney’s offense in 2017.

The one thing Cain needs to do more now that he’ll be a featured weapon is develop his ability to haul in contested passes in the middle of the field where safeties are lurking and make more plays closer to the line of scrimmage. If he takes the next step in his football development, then Cain will follow in Williams’ footsteps as a first-rounder in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Jerome Baker, linebacker, Ohio State

Last season, despite Baker emerging as a rock-solid starter early in the year, he didn’t get much recognition nationally. Of course, the big reason for this is that there were just so many other star defenders on the defensive side of the ball for the Buckeyes, including fellow linebacker Raekwon McMillan.

This is Baker’s year to become a nationally recognized college superstar. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker can straight up fly from sideline to sideline and attacks the line of scrimmage with tremendous instincts and fervor. He racked up 83 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and 3.5 sacks last season and figures to improve those totals dramatically as he enters his second season as a starter.

Baker also showed up big in the passing game, intercepting two passes and taking one of them back for six against Oklahoma.

“He’s not a traditional linebacker,” ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper Jr. wrote of Baker recently. “But he’s fast, can cover pass-catchers, rush the passer and is always in the middle of the action.”

The Buckeyes should feature Baker’s speed in blitz packages to make the most use of his considerable talents. If he stays healthy and continues to ascend as a playmaker this season, then it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear Baker’s name called on Day 1 of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Bryce Love, running back, Stanford

Bryce Love

That Love has some massive shoes to fill is undeniable. All he has to do is somehow make Stanford fans forget about the fact Christian McCaffrey is no longer the mainstay on offense.

Easy peasy, right?

Hardly. But if anyone is equipped to take over for the legendary running back, it’s Love. As a backup to McCaffrey the past two years, all he’s done is average 7.2 yards per carry, 8.2 yards per touch and score seven touchdowns.

In many ways, Love is the ideal man to carry the torch for McCaffrey, and he knows it.

“Christian might have about 10 pounds on me, but he never fit the Stanford mold — the big, downhill back — that people would always talk about,” Love said, via David Lombardi of ESPN. “But he still proved that we can be all-purpose backs. We can come in and do everything that everyone else can do. And that’s my motivation now, too: I want to deliver everything.”

Whether he can live up to the hype remains to be seen. But given the way David Shaw loves to utilized the running game to control the clock, we expect Love to get every opportunity to succeed in 2017. And we expect him to deliver.

Ed Paris, safety, LSU

LSU has become DB U lately, with some of the best collegiate safeties and corners hailing from Baton Rouge. Jamal Adams led the way for the Tigers last year and became one of the top picks in the 2017 NFL Draft (No. 6 overall to the New York Jets). Now that Adams has moved on to bigger and better things, Paris has taken his spot in the starting lineup opposite senior John Battle.

A converted cornerback (was a corner for two-and-a-half years), Paris has naturally taken to his position change and is set up to have a huge season in this capacity for the Tigers in 2017.

“As a corner, I need to know what the linebackers are doing and what the ends are doing,” Paris said, per Nick Suss of SEC Country. “Safety, you just know what everybody’s doing. It broadens my game. It makes me more of a football player. My football smartness is increasing.”

In 13 career games as a corner, Paris only registered 17 total tackles and defended one pass. However, head coach Ed Orgeron doesn’t think that was his natural position and is confident the position change will work out for both Paris as a player and LSU’s defense as a whole.

If it does (and we think it will), then Paris will be one of the biggest up-and-coming stars of 2017.

Mark Andrews, tight end/receiver, Oklahoma

Much like Deon Cain, Andrews has a chance to morph from impact player to dominant starter in 2017. The two players are similar in many ways, including the way they have scored at an incredible rate during their first two seasons.

Playing in 21 games, Andrews has been a role player to this point in his career with the Sooners. With 50 career catches for 807 yards, his impact has been most felt in the end zone. Catching 14 touchdowns, he’s been a key scoring threat and an obvious favorite of Baker Mayfield’s the past couple of years.

Andrews has a real chance to develop into a first-round NFL talent this season.

Now that Dede Westbrook has moved on, look for Mayfield to target his 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end at a much higher rate. We fully expect Andrews to double his yardage total from last year and hit double-digit touchdowns as a primary weapon for Oklahoma.

Garret Dooley, linebacker, Wisconsin

The Badgers are rock solid at most positions, but the outside linebacker spot is a huge question mark heading into 2017. T.J. Watt, Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel are gone, seeking their fame in the NFL. And some serious production needs to be made up in their absence.

Thankfully, Wisconsin saw some really positive things from Dooley last year, especially in the two games he started when Biegel was unable to play. He finished with 40 tackles, six for a loss and four sacks.

Now a fifth-year senior, Dooley is doing all the right things to take over as the guy for the Badgers. He’ll be a starting outside linebacker playing opposite Zach Braun. And if last year was any indication of what he’s capable of doing in that role, he’ll be a big-time player for Wisconsin.

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, Foxsports.com and MSN.com, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.