Spring ball is coming to a close and with it, we head into a long summer waiting for college football season to start. Spring is when we start to hear hype around, well, everyone — no coach has ever gone into a press conference and said a player looks terrible in practice. So, what better time to start thinking about college football’s potential breakout players?
As always, there is no shortage. With a constant churn of graduations and NFL draftees, that’s part of the natural cycle for nearly every team. So, without further ado, here are 20 college football players ready to become stars.
Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback, Alabama
It may be obvious, but Tagovailoa is as primed for a breakout season as anyone in recent college football memory. Coming off the bench in the national title game and leading your team to a walk-off overtime victory earns you that title. Tagovailoa will — barring something unforeseen — start for the Crimson Tide this year, and it’s hard see things going badly. Not only will he have help from a defense that is consistently one of the best in the country, but, remember, Tagovailoa’s three-touchdown performance against Georgia was against Georgia, one of the best defenses in the country, in the freaking national championship game. There’s no question about whether he can do it on a big stage, against the best, because he already did. In a sense, the 2018 season is the easy part for Tagovailoa.
Kyler Murray, quarterback, Oklahoma
Somebody’s gotta replace Baker Mayfield after the Heisman Trophy winner departed Norman for the NFL. Murray — a redshirt junior — is up to the task. A former five-star recruit, Murray was the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in his class by 247’s composite score. When he got into games last season, Murray was dynamic, throwing for three touchdowns on 21 passing attempts and running for 142 yards on 14 carries. The Sooners will be pairing him with a receiving corps that doesn’t lose much and run game that was quietly the best in the country last season by S&P+. Oh, and he also has Lincoln Riley, who brought Oklahoma to the Rose Bowl his first season at the helm. Murray should thrive with that type of support system.
Tarik Black, wide receiver, Michigan
It looked like Black was well on his way to a breakout last season as a freshman before suffering a year-ending foot injury against Air Force. He’ll be healthy heading into the 2018 season, though. And, in all likelihood will be one of Shea Patterson’s top targets. It’s no secret that the Wolverines’ passing game was a bona-fide disaster last season, with Black’s injury one in a litany of contributing factors. His comeback will be one of the linchpins upon which their offense depends this season. Expect Patterson to target Black — and fellow sophomore wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones — heavily. Grant Perry, Michigan’s leading receiver last season, had all of 307 yards to his name. Black — in just three games — had nearly half of that, at 149. Especially now that Patterson is under center, Black’s name will be one to watch.
Cam Akers, running back, Florida State
Akers, a five-star recruit in the class of 2017, received a heavy amount of hype before last season along with the rest of the Seminoles. When Florida State fell flat, what was quietly a solid freshman year from Akers didn’t get the attention it deserved. Putting up 1,025 yards and averaging 5.3 per carry was no small feat behind an abjectly bad offensive line last season, so give Akers credit for what he’s done. But make no mistake, come September the Seminoles will likely look more like the team we expected last season and with that, Akers’ star will shoot upwards. With a year of experience under his belt, and a much better passing game to help him out, the sky is the limit for the sophomore.
Dwayne Haskins, quarterback, Ohio State
Haskins is still in competition to replace J.T. Barrett as the Buckeyes’ starter under center, but no one who saw him play last year will be surprised to learn he’s the favorite. Haskins put in as impressive a performance as anyone could’ve asked for when Barrett went down with an injury at Michigan last season. His stat line from that game — six-of-seven passing for 94 yards — doesn’t do it justice. Haskins was arguably the biggest reason the Buckeyes walked out of the Big House with a victory, keeping the offense moving after Barrett — its catalyst — went down. A full season of Haskins will be worth watching, to say the least.
D’Andre Swift, running back, Georgia
Losing Sony Michel and Nick Chubb would be a lot more alarming for the Bulldogs if Swift wasn’t right behind them on the depth chart. Despite being below those two on the depth chart last season, Swift still scampered for 618 yards — averaging 7.6 per carry — as a true freshman. A former five-star recruit, Swift is the sure-fire pick to start for the Bulldogs at the onset of next season. And there’s no reason to believe he won’t fit in seamlessly. Everything we saw from Swift last year suggests he’ll live up to the hype. He may turn into a workhorse back, and Heisman Trophy contender. Don’t expect Georgia’s run game to take a step back next season when he’s in the backfield.
Michael Dwumfour, defensive tackle, Michigan
Dwumfour was the belle of the Wolverines’ spring ball this season. From defensive coordinator Don Brown on down, Michigan coaches and players couldn’t stop raving about Dwumfour, who figures to replace Maurice Hurst at defensive tackle. Unlike most of the players on this list, Dwumfour wasn’t a highly-touted recruit. He comes into his third year in Ann Arbor having barely seen the field, and spring practice hype is often just that. But Dwumfour’s was certainly a level above anyone else on the Wolverines’ roster and given Brown’s propensity to churn out pass rushers, it would be far from surprising if Dwumfour broke out this fall. At minimum, he’s worth keeping an eye on.
Jaelan Phillips, defensive end, UCLA
We haven’t talked much about the Bruins’ defense this offseason. After UCLA hired Chip Kelly as their head coach, that side of the ball could fly under the radar for the foreseeable future. So, it’s easy to forget the Bruins have 2017’s No. 1 overall recruit sitting in their back pocket at defensive end. Phillips played just six games last season but had a noticeable impact, putting up 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. That was in limited time on the field. Though Phillips suffered a hand and wrist injury in January that could keep him out, its severity is unknown. If healthy for the start of the 2018 season, Phillips should be a full-time starter and he should be downright terrifying to any offensive lineman unfortunate enough to line up across him.
Najee Harris, running back, Alabama
It pays to have depth. Harris was the top-rated running back in the 2017 recruiting class by 247’s composite score — and the second-ranked recruit overall — and saw just 61 carries his freshman year. He’ll still split time in the backfield with Damien Harris in 2018, but with Bo Scarbrough having departed for the NFL, Najee Harris is next in line for snaps. In those 61 carries, Harris averaged a neat 6.1 yards, putting up three touchdowns. Alabama’s offense will have a lot of different faces next season with Tagovailoa under center, Harris in the backfield and star receiver Calvin Ridley playing in the NFL. But it’s hard not to think this won’t be one of the more dynamic ‘Bama offenses in recent memory. The Tide were 23rd in offensive S&P+ last season, but if Harris lives up to the hype and Tagovailoa’s national championship game performance wasn’t a fluke, that number could easily shoot upwards.
Chase Young, defensive end, Ohio State
As Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis exit Columbus, Young will slot right in on the edge. Young already has 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss to his name — and that was as a freshman, as a backup. A former five-star recruit who ranked in the top-10 of the class of 2017 by 247’s composite, Young could be an instant star this year. Perhaps the biggest testament to the job Urban Meyer has done is how easily Ohio State can handle key players graduating or leaving for the NFL. The Buckeyes didn’t miss a beat last season after Joey Bosa, among others, left. They likely won’t miss a beat this year either after Hubbard, Lewis, and a host of others — including cornerback Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick — went to the NFL. Players like Young are the reason why.
Tyjon Lindsey, wide receiver, Nebraska
If you’re a believer that Scott Frost can turn around the Cornhuskers, Lindsey should be one of the main beneficiaries. The Las Vegas native was a top-10 receiver in the class of 2017 by 247’s composite score, but didn’t do much his freshman year. Playing for a Nebraska offense that was, generously speaking, bad, Lindsey had just 12 receptions for 76 yards last season. That was in part due to his place on the depth chart, but that should rise this year. Not only was Lindsey a heralded recruit, but Demornay Pierson-El graduates. Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman — the Huskers’ two leading receivers in 2017 — are still in Lincoln, but Lewis is in line for more snaps nonetheless. Should Frost rejuvenate Nebraska, expect Lewis to break out.
Davis Mills, quarterback, Stanford
The Cardinal’s quarterback battle is still shaking out, but if Mills can win it, he should make a quick impact. The redshirt freshman was the top-ranked pro-style quarterback of 2017 in 247’s composite. Despite working through injury, Mills should be able to beat out K.J. Costello. Stanford’s passing game, while far from disaster, left something to be desired last season. Any offense featuring Bryce Love at running back rank do higher than 29th in S&P+, and Mills is a good way to get it there. If he can’t win the starting job, it may be time to ditch the hype train, but Mills was a five-star recruit for a reason. He should make a big impact once on the field for the Cardinal.
Justin Shorter, wide receiver, Penn State
The Nittany Lions’ offense is going to look a whole lot different next season. Not only is Saquon Barkley gone, but receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki also found homes in the NFL. As for offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, he’s now head coach at Mississippi State. So Shorter, a five-star receiver in Penn State’s incoming class, could have a role to play pretty fast. Lucky for him, Trace McSorley is still in State College at quarterback, and though the Nittany Lions will likely take a step back, their offense will likely be fine. But Shorter, the top-ranked receiver in the 2018 class by 247 composite score, will be key in that.
J.T. Daniels, quarterback, USC
Daniels, currently battling with Jack Sears and Matt Fink, isn’t a lock to win the starting job in his first year with the Trojans, but he may have the highest ceiling of any quarterback on USC’s 2018 roster. The five-star recruit was the second-ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2018 by 247’s composite score. Moreover, he walks into a situation where he’ll be suited to succeed. The Trojans lost Darnold — along with running back Ronald Jones and receiver Deontay Burnett — but still have a breadth of talent. If Daniels is good enough to start as a true freshman, and he may well be, he could easily be an instant star. Keep his name on your radar coming into the fall.
Sam Ehlinger, quarterback, Texas
This is Tom Herman’s second year as head coach in Austin, and the Longhorns will really start to see his impact. Texas’ 7-6 record last season was underwhelming, but the Longhorns didn’t have a ton of talent left over from the Charlie Strong years and lost close games against USC, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Couple that with a 2018 recruiting class that ranks third in the country, per 247’s composite score, and Texas could make a leap this year. Ehlinger could be the linchpin. The former four-star had an up-and-down freshman year, but should grow in his second year in college, and it’s hard not to trust Herman’s offensive prowess. If Ehlinger can capitalize on the talent around him, he could get Texas back to relevance.
Tee Higgins, wide receiver, Clemson
Higgins found himself buried on the Tigers’ depth chart in his freshman year. But he managed to make an impact nonetheless, putting up 345 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 receptions. He should play a much bigger role in 2018. A former five-star recruit, Higgins was the second-ranked receiver in the class of 2017, per 247’s composite score. He crushed Clemson’s spring game, scoring twice and putting up 118 receiving yards on four catches. That could be a precursor to the fall. Higgins is more than poised for a breakout.
Lorenzo Lingard, running back, Miami
The Hurricanes’ offense was a tad underwhelming last year, ranking just 36th in S&P+ and scoring just three points in the ACC title game against Clemson. Lingard can help turn that around. A five-star recruit, Lingard officially enrolled at Miami in January. He could easily make an instant impact, as neither Travis Homer nor Robert Burns come into the season with an iron grip on the starting job. In Miami’s spring game, Lingard had six carries, one less than Homer and one more than Burns. Don’t be surprised at all if he ends up being the starter. The ‘Canes need their offense to be better if they want to keep competing in the ACC, and Lingard will be key to doing so.
Brock Wright, tight end, Notre Dame
After losing Equanimeous St. Brown, the Irish will need someone to step up and replace his production in the passing game. That person could well be Wright, a former four-star recruit who ranked second among tight ends in the 2017 class, per 247’s composite score. Wright didn’t notch a catch last season, but he excelled in blocking situations. He should start seeing some targets this year though. Given Wright’s pedigree, he could quickly become one of Brandon Wimbush’s preferred targets. Notre Dame didn’t get much production from the tight end position last year, as Durham Smyth had just 244 yards in his senior season. Wright is more than likely to change that.
Dillon Stoner, wide receiver, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are losing James Washington — the Biletnikoff Award winner in 2017 — and Marcell Ateman, both of whom notched over 1,100 receiving yards last year. Needless to say they’ll have to replace that production, and Stoner is the obvious choice. The redshirt sophomore went for 576 yards and six touchdowns on 44 receptions last year and will only get better. Losing Mason Rudolph at quarterback will sting for Oklahoma State, but Stoner has already proven he can be productive. With more targets, he could easily turn into a star. The Cowboys’ passing game will likely take a step back with all those losses, but Stoner is a good reason for optimism.
Scott Frost, head coach, Nebraska
Fine, we’re cheating by putting a coach here, and Frost’s 2017 season with UCF probably counts as a breakout. But Nebraska’s situation is downright fascinating right now, and it’s hard not to be enthralled by Frost as a potential savior. The Cornhuskers hit rock bottom last season, going 4-8 and missing a bowl for just the third time since 1969. But Frost’s recruiting class is 22nd in the country. From afar, there seems to be a different kind of energy around Nebraska, as athletic director Bill Moos recently joked about Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh running scared of the Huskers. Nobody will mistake the Cornhuskers as title contenders right now, but Wisconsin is losing a lot of talent and the Big Ten West is already week. Frost could easily make waves in Lincoln, and fast.