Living up to excessive hype is never easy. For young men who aren’t even old enough to legally drink, it’s even harder to overcome the immense pressure associated with huge expectations. This is absolutely the case for college football stars who enter the upcoming season with what seems like the weight of the world resting on their shoulders.
Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner set the bar exceedingly high. Can he do better this year?
A highly touted safety missed the entire 2016 season and is expected to practically morph into the next iteration of the late, great Sean Taylor. Can he live up to the hype?
These are among the eight college football stars facing the most pressure in 2017.
1. Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 15, 2016
Despite slipping a bit late in the year, nobody could come close to matching what Jackson accomplished last season. He was an easy pick as the 2016 Heisman winner after racking up 5,114 yards from scrimmage and 51 total touchdowns.
Throughout the season, he had many signature Heisman moments, including this one.
Unfortunately, Jackson may have hit his peak one year too soon. There has only been one player in the history of college football to win the coveted award twice, and that man was Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (1974 and 1975).
Many NFL scouts wonder about Jackson as a viable NFL quarterback. He’s not exactly a prototypical pocket passer and often feels phantom pressure, which causes him to move outside the pocket.
Needless to say, Jackson is facing some serious pressure to not only prove he’s more than a one-year phenom but to also prove he can make big-time quarterback plays — reading the field from the pocket in the face of pressure to hit receivers in tight windows.
What the Louisville quarterback does this season will have significant bearing on his perceived future as a potential pro passer.
2. Derwin James, safety, Florida State
Perhaps no defensive player in the nation faces as much pressure to live up to the hype as James, whom we highlighted as a dark horse Heisman candidate.
There’s no doubt James is worthy of all the expectations. As a freshman in 2015, he absolutely dominated every field he took en route to 91 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
A player who almost has enough size to slide into the box as a linebacker (6-foot-3, 211-pounds), James hits like a Mack truck and has tremendous instincts about where the ball is going. Last season before getting injured, he showed off his ball skills with a gorgeous interception.
Should James stay healthy and exhibit the same qualities that enticed us so much in his freshman campaign, then it’s not a stretch to say he will end up as a top-10 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
3. Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC
Darnold has NFL scouts very intrigued. His accuracy is off the charts, and while arm strength isn’t his greatest asset he can still make all the throws.
— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) January 3, 2017
Head coach Clay Helton absolutely made the right call inserting Darnold into the starting lineup against Utah. Even though the Trojans lost that game, Helton stuck with the redshirt freshman, who went on to rattle off nine straight wins to close out the season with a magnificent victory over Penn State.
Perhaps the most impressive thing Helton was able to do is throw touchdowns at such a high volume while simultaneously keeping interceptions down. He finished the season with a 67.2 completion rate, throwing 31 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.
The Trojans have championship aspirations. The only way they’ll meet them is if Darnold continues ascending and becomes a viable Heisman candidate throughout the upcoming campaign. His legacy is on the line, both at the collegiate level and as a potential top pick in the NFL draft.
4. Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State
Heading into last season, there weren’t a ton of expectations associated with Penn State, though we were very excited to see Barkley in action. Fast forward one year and suddenly the Nittany Lions are expected to do big things, with Barkley as the catalyst behind the team’s offensive success.
Entering his junior campaign, Barkley is being mentioned as a potential Heisman candidate. He also has a chance, if he lives up to those expectations, to follow in the footsteps of Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey as a top draft pick.
Based on his career trajectory, it’s certainly possible Barkley can pull off those feats. He significantly boosted his production last year compared to his freshman season, totaling 1,898 yards and 22 touchdowns from scrimmage.
One of the best things about Barkley is that he gets stronger as the game gets longer. This allows head coach James Franklin to batter defenses into submission late in games. For Penn State to emerge as a playoff team at the end of the year, Barkley must continue to evolve and grow as a player. This means becoming more involved in the passing game and getting into the end zone more often.
5. Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Alabama
What Hurts was able to accomplish last year as a true freshman was something to behold. He totaled 3,734 yards while throwing 23 touchdowns, nine interceptions and rushing in 13 scores.
Unfortunately, Hurts was exposed a bit as an erratic passer as the season concluded. His final three games, including the championship bout against Clemson, Hurts completed just 47.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 109 yards per game with just two touchdowns through the air.
Now, it’s quite possible the Crimson Tide can simply bully their way to a national championship thanks to Hurts’ ability to run and a running back corps that includes freshman Najee Harris (one of the top impact freshman in 2017), Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough.
However, it really seems more likely that Hurts will need to evolve as a pure passer in order to help Nick Saban avoid a second-straight season that doesn’t end with a title. Adding to the pressure, Hurts has freshman phenom Tua Tagovailoa breathing down his neck.
6. Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 25, 2016
To say Rosen’s 2016 campain was disappointing would be underrating the circumstances. Before the 2016 season began, he was hyped as one of college football’s most exciting young stars after a dazzling, albeit up-and-down freshman year.
Then Rosen was rocked in Week 1 by Myles Garrett and Co. in a game that the Bruins botched from the start. It wasn’t the start he needed, and it ended up portending the doom that was to come. Rosen would miss the second half of the season with nerve damage to his throwing shoulder, and it wasn’t until this spring that we finally saw him doing Rosen-type things on the practice field.
Looking ahead to 2017, Rosen must prove he’s fully healthy. He must prove he’s not a “mess off the field” and that he’s more accurate than his sub-60-percent career completion rate suggests. Now, it’s worth pointing out that the Bruins did Rosen no favors with drops by receivers, but still, he needs to get that up to around 65 percent or higher, realistically.
UCLA doesn’t face team-wide pressure to win a title or bust like many of these other squads. But Rosen personally has a lot of questions he needs to answer this season.
7. Derrius Guice, running back, LSU
Leonard Fournette. He’s pretty much a Louisiana demigod at this point, having smashed well over a dozen LSU records during his tenure as a student-athlete at Baton Rouge. It’s not going to be easy following that act, but that’s the task in front of Guice, who showed up pretty darn well last year when Fournette couldn’t play.
A dangerous dual-threat back, Guice is a better natural receiver than Fournette ever was. He totaled 1,493 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, starting eight games.
He’s also incredibly strong, as you’re about to find out.
— Aaron Moffitt (@AaronTMoffitt) June 23, 2017
Not only does Guice have the pressure of following in Fournette’s footsteps, but he’s the only proven back the Tigers have heading into the upcoming season. If he were to either not live up to his hype or, God forbid, get injured, there is no guarantee LSU can conjure another back to carry the load.
Throw in the fact that LSU isn’t exactly quarterback U, and it’s a given head coach Ed Orgeron is going to give him the work he can handle and then some.
8. J.T. Barrett, quarterback, Ohio State
Since exploding onto the scene as a freshman in 2014, Barrett has been pretty underwhelming as a quarterback, if we’re being honest.
He couldn’t beat out Cardale Jones in 2015, and the two of them did an awkward dance throughout that season. Then as the undeniable starter last season, Barrett never really was able to generate anything consistently special as a passer.
What we have is a quarterback who, in the past two seasons, has averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt, throwing 35 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
He’s not losing many games for the Buckeyes, but he certainly isn’t showing up big in big games, either. Case in point, last year in the final two games, Barrett threw no touchdowns and three interceptions against Michigan and Clemson.
If the Buckeyes are going to emerge as playoff contenders this upcoming season, then Barrett will need to pick his game up in a big way. He’s got to get back to the electric form we witnessed in 2014, which at this point feels like a decade ago.