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College football’s 15 biggest breakout stars in 2018

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Young men stepping up and defying expectations.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In a college football season full of upsets and thrilling performances, fans have also witnessed a plethora of breakout stars emerge in 2018.

The season has been full of incredible seasons from both upperclassmen and players in their first and second years on campus. Young men stepping up and defying even the greatest expectations with seasons that seem unbelievable.

It’s not limited to offensive players either as several defensive stars have emerged across the country. From the secondary to defensive lines, several playmakers have arrived seemingly out of nowhere to become elite defenders this season.

Here are college football’s 15 biggest breakout stars in 2018.

 

Dwayne Haskins, quarterback, Ohio State Buckeyes

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While Ohio State’s fan base will always hold fond memories of J.T. Barrett, the transition to Haskins has provided a tremendous upgrade to the offense.

The redshirt sophomore came into 2018 with just 57 pass attempts on his resume. Two years of learning and developing in this offense have turned him into one of college football’s best quarterbacks with the numbers and wins to back it up.

Haskins enters Week 12 with the fourth-most passing yards (3,280) and second-most touchdown passes (33) in the nation. He is also one of just two quarterbacks with 3,000-plus passing yards, 30-plus passing touchdowns and a completion rate over 65 percent. If Haskins can come up big and deliver a win over Michigan, he could put the Buckeyes right back into the College Football Playoff conversation.

 

Antoine Wesley, wide receiver, Texas Tech Red Raiders

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Despite a slew of changes at the quarterback position, Texas Tech’s junior wide receiver is still in the midst of an unbelievable breakthrough.

Wesley entered the year with just 137 receiving yards to his name in his sophomore season. He has passed that yardage total in a single game on four separate occasions in 2018 on his way to a phenomenal season.

Wesley ranks second in the nation in receiving yards (1,347) and is tied for fourth in receptions (78). After a slow start to the season, Wesley has recorded four consecutive games with 115-plus receiving yards. Breakout seasons don’t get much better than what we’ve seen from Wesley this year.

 

Eno Benjamin, running back, Arizona State Sun Devils

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Once a four-star recruit and a under-the-radar member of a deep 2017 recruiting class at running backs, Benjamin has found life in his sophomore season under the leadership of Herm Edwards.

Benjamin came out of his first three games with 179 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown on 42 carries. He turned things since then with 100-plus rushing yards in six of his past seven games, including a 312-yard performance.

The sophomore ranks third in rushing yards (1,295) and has become a touchdown machine as of late. As Arizona State’s program continues to rise in the Pac 12, much of the credit and attention should go to Benjamin.

 

Tylan Wallace, wide receiver, Oklahoma State Cowboys

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The transition from being a freshman to a sophomore at a national program can be difficult and even more so when your team is going through a major change at quarterback.

Wallace stepped into a meaningful role the season right as quarterback Mason Rudolph left campus. Despite Oklahoma State’s offense undergoing a major change, the sophomore receiver has stepped up into a role as one of the country’s leading big-play receivers.

Wallace has not only emerged as Oklahoma State’s go-to receiver but one of the nation’s best weapons as well. He is third in receiving yards (1,282) and leads receivers with 60-plus receptions in yards per catch (18.9). Coming off 200-plus yard games in two of the last three weeks, it seems clear the electrifying sophomore saved his best stuff for right now.

 

Chase Hansen, linebacker, Utah Utes

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This is one of the best stories in football this season. Hansen came to Utah as a quarterback then moved to safety as a sophomore and stuck there until his third position change this offseason.

The third change has been the charm as Hansen has become a game-changing linebacker who causes havoc for opposing offenses. Hansen has done it all this season with three pass deflections, two interceptions, five sacks and a jaw-dropping 19 tackles for loss.

There are no proper words to capture what Hansen’s season has been like and his journey is one of the more remarkable stories in college athletics. He has become one of the country’s best defenders and likely paved a way to an NFL career thanks to his breakout senior season.

 

Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Clemson Tigers

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Kelly Bryant is a very capable starting quarterback who can start for dozens of marquee programs across the country. In a matter of weeks, Lawrence replaced him as a true freshman quarterback and turned this offense into an unstoppable force.

Lawrence’s raw numbers might not jump out compared to top quarterbacks across the country. However, Lawrence’s ability to throw 19 touchdowns and approach 2,000 passing yards on only 228 pass attempts is incredible. If you projected Lawrence’s numbers to match the pass attempts of his peers, he would be right up there with the nation’s leading passers.

The freshman’s arm strength is off the charts and he is only getting more comfortable at the collegiate level and in Clemson’s high-powered offense with each week he takes the field. We’ve seen flashes of greatness already and those flashes might soon turn to long stretches of dominance.

 

Quinnen Williams, defensive end, Alabama Crimson Tide

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While it’s rare for a starter to be unheralded on Alabama’s defensive, Williams was just that entering the season. He showed glimpses of potential as a redshirt freshman in 2017, but he took it to a sensational level this season.

Williams has emerged as a leading candidate for the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to the nation’s best defensive player, with five sacks and 14 tackles for loss this season. Even more impressive, he has generated 34 total pressures and 38 total stops, according to Pro Football Focus. Williams has been the breakout defensive star in college football this year, and it will only lead to even greater success in his professional career.

 

Nico Evans, running back, Wyoming Cowboys

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On a team where Josh Allen previously stole the show so often, Evans has emerged as the focal point of Wyoming’s offense with a running game that has become a staple this year.

Evans rolled into the season with 108 rushing yards on 36 carries and never looked impressive. All of that changed for him as a senior with a breakout 190-yard performance against New Mexico State in the season opener.

The senior’s kickoff to his final season has set the tone for all the great things he has done this year. Evans ranks seventh in the nation in rushing yards (1,166) despite missing two games this season. He is capping off his final year in college with a bang and making a case for an NFL future as well.

 

Rondale Moore, wide receiver, Purdue Boilermakers

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There is nothing better than seeing a true freshman step foot on to the field for the first time and instantly become a star of his program. That’s been the story at Purdue, where Moore quickly became the fan base’s favorite player.

Highlight plays have simply become routine for the teenage wide receiver. From his 70-yard touchdown against Boston College, an ankle-breaking touchdown run against Northwestern to his explosive kickoff returns, fans have started to expect an eye-popping play every week.

As he heads into Week 12, Moore is closing on on 1,000 receiving yards and has already contributed 566 kickoff return yards, 163 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns on the season. If any college football fans haven’t witnessed Moore’s game-changing abilities yet, there are still two games left to watch Purdue’s highlight machine.

 

Kyler Murray, quarterback, Oklahoma Sooners

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It’s unbelievable to think we will only get to witness Murray’s greatness for this lone season. Following the departure of Baker Mayfield, Murray has brought excitement and jaw-dropping moments to Oklahoma’s offense every Saturday.

Murray ranks eighth in passing yards (3,038), third in passing touchdowns (32) and has the highest quarterback rating (212.9) in the nation. Meanwhile, the junior remains a dynamic runner with 640 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the year.

We’re far beyond talking about Murray as purely one of the best passers in the country. He joins Haskins in the rare company of players with 3,000-plus passing yards, 30-plus passing touchdowns and a completion rate over 65 percent. Murray’s rushing ability makes him one of the most exciting players in the nation and the biggest threat to Tua Tagovailoa’s Heisman Trophy campaign.

 

Grant Delpit, safety, LSU Tigers

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On a defense loaded with talent, one of the biggest players to step up this year for LSU has been its star sophomore safety.

Named to ESPN’s Freshman All-American Team in 2017, the Tigers have witnessed even more growth and production from him as a sophomore. Delpit has become the ultimate weapon in Dave Aranda’s defense with five interceptions, five sacks, six pass deflections and 9.5 tackles for loss on the year.

Delpit just turned 20 during the season and he is already establishing himself as one of the biggest ballhawks in the nation. The sophomore can do it all on the defensive side of the ball and LSU fans should be ecstatic that they’ll get to see him play for another season.

 

Gardner Minshew, quarterback, Washington State Cougars

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After losing Luke Falk to the NFL, it seemed unlikely we’d see Washington State in serious contention this season. Now as the race for a spot in the College Football Playoff heats up, Minshew has the Cougars clawing for a chance to get in.

Mike Leach’s offense has unlocked Minshew’s potential and turned him into a star. A year after he threw 16 touchdown passes and seven interceptions at East Carolina, the senior has already thrown 29 touchdowns to seven interceptions as a senior for the Cougars.

They are one win shy of a 10-win season and just one bad play against USC shy of a perfect record. In a position no one expected them to be in, Minshew just needs two wins and a little fortune to get this team into the CFP.

 

Dillon Mitchell, wide receiver, Oregon Ducks

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There are few things more enjoyable on a football field than a great quarterback and wide receiver displaying their talents and great chemistry on a weekly basis.

Mitchell didn’t do very much as a sophomore with inconsistent stretches. So, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if he didn’t come through this year. Yet in spite of many of his teammates not stepping up and the offense battling its own consistency, Miller has been the consistent bright spot for this offense and doubled his yardage and touchdown totals from 2017.

There are clearly some issues Oregon’s offense needs to figure out — changes that take an offseason to take place. Hopefully, Mitchell and quarterback Justin Herbert both return for their senior seasons and provide Oregon’s fan base with even greater success in 2019.

 

Jermar Jefferson, running back, Oregon State Beavers

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When Jefferson enrolled at Oregon State in June, no one could have imagined he would contribute this quickly. When starting running back Artavis Pearce went down with an injury, Jefferson stepped into the featured role and never looked back.

The true freshman stole the show in his second collegiate game with 265 total yards and four rushing touchdowns. Big games have become routine for the 18-year-old running back with six 100-yard games this season. He has become one of the nation’s leading rushers and it’s all being done as one of the youngest players in college football.

 

Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback, Alabama Crimson Tide

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There couldn’t be a list of breakout players without Tagovailoa. The quarterback who saw little playing time before his heroics in the 2018 CFP National Championship has elevated his game in his first full season as the starter.

Frankly, looking at Tagovailoa’s 28 touchdown passes, 2,525 passing yards and 67.9 percent completion rate doesn’t do him justice. He is often pulled from games in the third quarter after blowing teams out and Alabama still features its running game heavily, so he can’t even pad his numbers like its a pass-heavy offense either.

There are far more stunning statistics that demonstrate why he is running away with this year’s Heisman Trophy. He is playing at an NFL-caliber level and he is only a sophomore with less than 12 starts to his name. It’s impossible to get any more impressive than that from a breakout star.

 

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