College football lost a majority of its most popular players to the NFL, but there’s a new wave of superstars ready to earn the spotlight in 2018.
While offensive players — particularly quarterbacks and running backs — typically draw the most attention, we’ve also included a couple of defenders expected to have a breakout year. Some of these athletes are recognizable, but they’ll be national names next season.
Stephen Carr, running back, USC
Following the departures of Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones II, the USC backfield will have a fresh look in 2018. But while the coaching staff must oversee a quarterback competition, Stephen Carr is the clear choice to succeed Jones. A highly touted prospect in 2017, Carr notched 5.6 yards per carry during his freshman season. He totaled 363 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, adding 17 receptions for 188 yards. Although the offensive line remains an issue, there’s enough volume for Carr to put up big numbers.
Travis Etienne, running back, Clemson
Clemson has good reason to use both Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster rather than feature one, but the former is an especially explosive back. As a freshman, Etienne amassed 766 yards and 13 touchdowns on 107 carries for an impressive average of 7.2 yards. He displayed elite speed on four runs of 50-plus yards, which tied for 10th-most nationally. Considering he only logged double-digit carries twice all season, that’s an impressive feat. Feaster should be a 1,000-yard runner for another playoff-contending Clemson team.
Joshua Kaindoh, defensive end, Florida State
Although Florida State endured a challenging 2017, there’s so much talent on the roster that it shouldn’t take the program long to rebound. Joshua Kaindoh is among the most promising players, considering he notched four sacks and six hurries in a backup role as a freshman. The former top recruit will handle a much larger snap share after the departures of Josh Sweat and Jalen Wilkerson. Additionally, it’ll help to have Demarcus Christmas and Brian Burns demanding extra attention up front. Kaindoh will be a nightmare to contain in 2018 and beyond.
Tarik Black, wide receiver, Michigan
Following two years of failing to match expectations, pressure is starting to mount for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. The offense has struggled to consistently run the ball against top competition and lacked an aerial attack capable of atoning for that problem. Tarik Black wouldn’t have completely changed the latter point, but he sure would’ve helped. Michigan’s leading receiver managed 307 yards, and Black had 149 in just three appearances prior to a season-ending injury. His return will provide a major boost to the Wolverines offense.
Malcolm Perry, quarterback, Navy
Zach Abey ran for 1,413 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, yet the quarterback is about to lose his job. Navy turned to Malcolm Perry in the Military Bowl, and the move signaled a long-term change at the position. In 2017, he amassed 1,485 yards from scrimmage and accounted for 14 touchdowns while contributing as a running back. Perry’s number of carries might even double as he commands the triple-option attack. Yes, his per-carry efficiency will drop, but Perry is an obvious 1,000-yard rusher if he stays healthy.
Dwayne Haskins, quarterback, Ohio State
Since the Buckeyes put together a few blowouts in 2017, Dwayne Haskins entered a handful of games behind J.T. Barrett. So, barring an unexpected rise from Joe Burrow or Tate Martell, Ohio State will be Haskins’ team next season. He’s certainly not a running threat like Barrett, but Haskins is a more confident passer. That revealed itself when he engineered a comeback victory over rival Michigan on the road. Haskins, who posted a 70.2 completion percentage in 57 attempts as a freshman, has a promising future for the Big Ten power.
Trevon Hill, defensive end, Virginia Tech
Provided he recovers from offseason surgery, Trevon Hill has massive potential in Virginia Tech’s aggressive defense. In his first season as a starter, Hill collected 46 tackles with 9.5 stops for loss and a team-high 5.5 sacks, adding seven hurries. The 6’3″, 245-pounder is explosive off the edge, so he’s not a product of being surrounded by All-ACC talents in Tremaine Edmunds, Tim Settle and Andrew Motuapuaka. They’re all chasing the NFL, so 2018 will be Hill’s first opportunity to command the spotlight.
Kyler Murray, quarterback, Oklahoma
Baker Mayfield leaves an enormous void at Oklahoma. He was a three-time Heisman Trophy contender, three-time Big 12 champion and two-time NCAA record-setter in efficiency. Fortunately for the Sooners, they know exactly who will be replacing Mayfield: Kyler Murray. While he’s not a comparable passer, the system is designed to help the quarterback. He completed 18 of 21 attempts last year. Sustainable? Of course not. But that suggests Murray, who is a greater mobile threat, is already comfortable with the offense. Oklahoma will remain the favorite in the Big 12 thanks to him.
Miles Sanders, running back, Penn State
The Nittany Lions are losing an All-American, but they’re replacing him with a 5-star. Miles Sanders is set to succeed Saquon Barkley, a certain first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. Barkley’s three-down ability limited Sanders to small roles, so he’s managed just 429 yards from scrimmage in two years at the school. That’s going to change in a major way, however, considering Barkley averaged 21.8 touches in 2016 and 2017 combined. Sanders has always possessed the talent; now, he has the opportunity.
D’Andre Swift, running back, Georgia
Georgia has become this decade’s “Running Back U.” Knowing that, it shouldn’t be a surprise the Bulldogs have a quality replacement ready to assume the starting role following the graduations of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Last season, D’Andre Swift collected 618 yards on 81 carries for an impressive average of 7.6 yards. He scored three touchdowns, adding 17 receptions for 153 yards and another score. Georgia returns four starters on the offensive line, so Swift should rise from third-stringer to one of the nation’s most productive backs.
Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback, Alabama
In fairness to Jalen Hurts, this position battle isn’t decided. But after seeing how Tua Tagovailoa sparked Alabama’s offense during the national championship, it would be stunning if the southpaw didn’t win the starting job. Tagovailoa completed 49 of 77 passes as a freshman, throwing 11 touchdowns with only two interceptions. Despite the loss of Calvin Ridley, Tagovailoa has already showed he’s unlikely to lock on to one target. He should give Nick Saban the first truly game-changing quarterback of the decade-long Crimson Tide dynasty.
Juwan Washington, running back, San Diego State
Donnel Pumphrey topped the 2,000-yard mark in 2016. Rashaad Penny followed suit last season. Juwan Washington sure looks capable of continuing the remarkable trend. In two years at San Diego State, he’s collected 1,200 yards on 182 carries for a 6.6-yard average. Washington — who also has three kick-return touchdowns — will assume the featured role in 2018. Best of all, the Aztecs return the entire offensive line. The loss of fullback Nick Bawden should not be overlooked, but there’s plenty of confidence SDSU will develop a replacement to help Washington thrive next season.