Projecting college football’s breakout players for any given season is no easy assignment. After all, each person has a different take on what a “breakout player” is, and college football is always home to several new faces throughout the season. While it’s difficult to label breakout players, the new stars of any season can have a huge impact on conference championship or national title races.
Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2015
The Big 12 has several names waiting to emerge as breakout players for 2015, including three quarterbacks in Baylor’s Seth Russell, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. There’s no shortage of talent on defense, as Oklahoma State’s Vincent Taylor and Texas’ Malik Jefferson are names to watch in the fall.
Predicting the Big 12's Breakout Players for 2015
Mike Freeze, LB, TCU
The back seven of TCU’s defense must be retooled this offseason. The Horned Frogs lost standout linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet, and the secondary lost three all-conference performers. The linebacker position was a work in progress for coach Gary Patterson in the spring, but Freeze made a push for a starting job after enrolling early in spring practice. The three-star recruit is penciled in as one of TCU’s starting linebackers.
Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2015
Shelton Gibson, WR, West Virginia
Dana Holgorsen’s high-powered offense is looking for new playmakers at receiver after the departure of Kevin White (109 catches in 2014) and Mario Alford (65 receptions). Jordan Thompson is the team’s leading option at receiver, but the Mountaineers have a collection of young receivers pushing for snaps. Gibson redshirted in his first season with the Mountaineers and caught four passes for 60 yards in 2014. The Ohio native took a step forward in the spring and caught four passes for 84 yards in the final scrimmage. Gibson should be one of the go-to targets for quarterback Skyler Howard in 2015.
Dravon Henry, S, West Virginia
High expectations followed Henry in 2014, and the true freshman turned in a solid debut for coordinator Tony Gibson. In 13 games, Henry recorded 45 tackles (one for a loss), two interceptions and two pass breakups. With cornerback Daryl Worley and safety Karl Joseph established as stars, combined with Henry’s development, the Mountaineers should have one of the nation’s top defensive backfields.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson is only a true freshman, but high expectations surround the Mesquite, Texas native in 2015. Jefferson ranked as the No. 10 overall player in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete in spring ball. Jefferson recorded five stops (one for a loss) in the Orange-White scrimmage and is expected to start at linebacker this season.
Related: Big 12's 2015 All-Conference Team
Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State
With the departures of quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett, Kansas State has to lean on its defense in 2015. With six starters back, there’s plenty of talent for coordinator Tom Hayes to rely on. Lee is another impact defender to watch for Hayes, as he impressed in 13 games as a freshman last season. Lee recorded 19 tackles and 4.5 sacks in limited action and should push for all-conference honors in his first full year as a starter.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Mahomes isn’t guaranteed the starting job yet, as he will compete with Davis Webb in the fall for the No. 1 spot. However, Mahomes showcased his upside as a true freshman and his case for the starting spot in seven games last season. He completed 105 of 185 passes for 1,547 yards and 16 scores and tossed only four picks. In the season finale against Baylor, Mahomes threw for 598 yards.
Mike Mitchell, LB, Texas Tech
After giving up 41.3 points per game last season, Texas Tech’s defense will be under the microscope in 2015. New coordinator David Gibbs should help this unit improve, and seven returning starters certainly helps the rebuilding process. Mitchell was a five-star recruit in the 2013 signing class and redshirted in his only year at Ohio State. The Texas native sat out 2014 due to transfer rules but is expected to be a key cog in Gibbs’ defense this season.
Steven Parker, S, Oklahoma
The Sooners certainly have room to improve in the defensive secondary after giving up 24 plays of 30 yards or more last season. Cornerback Zack Sanchez is one of the best in the nation, but new secondary coach Kerry Cooks is looking for players to step up at the other positions. Parker is expected to take on a bigger role this season after playing in 13 games in 2014. The sophomore recorded 31 tackles, one sack and six pass breakups in limited action.
Dalton Risner, C, Kansas State
B.J. Finney leaves big shoes to fill on Kansas State’s offensive line. The All-Big 12 center started 52 consecutive games in his career and was a Rimington Trophy semifinalist in 2014. Risner redshirted in his first year on campus and is expected to anchor the center position for coach Bill Snyder in 2015.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Rudolph’s emergence in the final three games of 2014 is one of the biggest reasons for optimism in Stillwater this season. Rudolph closed out last season by passing for 853 yards and six passing scores on 49 completions and guided Oklahoma State to a 2-1 mark in the final three games of the year. In the bowl win over Washington, Rudolph passed for 299 yards and two touchdowns. With an improving offensive line and a deep corps of receivers at his disposal, Rudolph should be able to build off a solid finish to 2014 and emerge as one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks.
Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence and Bryce Petty each produced big seasons in coach Art Briles’ offense at Baylor. And Russell has been handed the keys to the high-powered attack after completing 48 of 85 passes for 804 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014. In each of the last four years, Baylor’s starting quarterback has surpassed 3,850 passing yards and 29 scores. Expect Russell to easily eclipse those marks in 2015.
Kent Taylor, TE, Kansas
Quarterback play is a big question mark for new coach David Beaty after Michael Cummings was injured in the spring game. It’s uncertain if Cummings will make it back by the opener, but if he doesn’t play in 2015, Beaty is expected to turn to Montell Cozart or true freshmen Carter Stanley or Ryan Willis. In addition to the quarterback concerns, the Jayhawks also lack proven options at receiver. Taylor should alleviate some of the concerns from this group, as the Florida transfer is eligible after sitting out 2014 due to NCAA rules. Taylor ranked as the No. 79 recruit in the 2012 signing class.
Vincent Taylor, DT, Oklahoma State
Coordinator Glenn Spencer should have one of the most improved defenses in the Big 12 in 2015. The Cowboys return seven starters, and the overall depth and experience for this unit should be better this season. The defensive tackle position is one of the few positions of concern for Spencer, as last year’s starters – James Castleman and Ofa Hautau – expired their eligibility. Taylor played in 10 games in 2014 and recorded 13 tackles and continued his development with a strong spring performance.
Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2015
Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
The secondary is usually a strength under Gary Patterson’s watch at TCU, but this unit will be a work in progress in 2015. The Horned Frogs must replace standout cornerback Kevin White, as well as All-Big 12 safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett. Texada joins Derrick Kindred as the returning starters for Patterson, and both players will have to anchor the unit early in the year. Texada started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and recorded seven pass breakups and 31 tackles. Texada should be even better as a sophomore.
Demond Tucker, DT, Iowa State
After the Cyclones allowed 246.3 rushing yards per game last season, coach Paul Rhoads wasted no time searching for upgrades. Tucker is one of two junior college recruits brought to Ames to play immediately on the defensive line. The No. 38 recruit in the 247Sports Composite of junior college recruits and was a NJCAA first-team All-American in both years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. Tucker has to adjust to the Big 12 level, but he could be a difference-maker for the defense.
Mike Warren, RB, Iowa State
Iowa State ranked ninth in the Big 12 by averaging only 124.1 rushing yards per game last season. Assuming the Cyclones have better luck in the health department up front, there should be more consistency and production from the ground attack. Of course, coordinator Mark Mangino also needs a go-to running back to emerge. Last season’s top two running backs (Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy), leaving Warren and sophomore Tyler Brown as the leading candidates. Warren was a three-star recruit and redshirted in his first season in Ames.
Dede Westbrook, WR, Oklahoma
It’s no secret Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard is one of the Big 12’s best receivers. But coordinator Lincoln Riley needs to find other options to take some of the pressure off of Shepard in 2015. Westbrook only recorded two touches in the spring game but finished with 50 yards. The junior college product has big-play potential for the Sooners and his explosiveness should help the passing attack stretch the field.
Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Joe Wickline is one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation, and the Longhorns will be looking for improvement up front after inconsistent play in 2014. Four starters are back, but the lineup and starters may change with added competition through the recruiting ranks. Williams enrolled in time to compete in spring practice, and the true freshman is pushing for a starting spot. If Williams continues to develop in the fall, he should start at one of the tackle positions for Wickline.