The emergence and development of young talent can play a critical role in any team’s position in the race to win a college football national championship or conference title. And unpredictability of finding the next star or breakout player is also what makes preseason predictions difficult.
The 2014 college football season ended on Monday night with Ohio State’s 42-20 win over Oregon, but it’s never too early to look at what’s ahead in 2015. The Buckeyes and Ducks had the obvious star players entering the 2014 campaign. However, the emergence of linebacker Darron Lee (Buckeyes) and running back Royce Freeman (Ducks) helped to answer two key question marks for their team over the course of the season.
Spring practice is still a month or two away for some teams, but let’s take a look at 10 potential breakout stars for 2015.
10 Early Picks for CFB’s Breakout Players in 2015
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
New coordinator Kevin Steele certainly isn’t hurting for young talent. Adams is one of the SEC’s top young defenders after recording 66 tackles (five for a loss) and five pass breakups as a true freshman in 2014. The Texas native ranked as the No. 31 overall prospect in the 2014 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and should be in the mix for a full-time starting job with the defense slated to lose one starting safety (Ronald Martin) and a cornerback (Jalen Collins). Look for Adams to become one of the top players in the LSU secondary and contend for All-SEC honors next season.
Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State
Apple started 14 of 15 games in Ohio State’s run to the national championship this season, and the New Jersey native is poised for even bigger things in 2015. The Buckeyes aren’t losing much on defense, but standout cornerback Doran Grant expired his eligibility after the national title. With Grant moving to the NFL, Apple is expected to become the No. 1 cornerback for Ohio State. And the rising sophomore is ready for the promotion. In 15 games this season, Apple recorded 53 tackles (5.5 for a loss), three interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Apple should emerge as one of the Big Ten’s top cornerbacks next year.
Budda Baker, S, Washington
Baker was pegged as the top recruit in Washington’s 2014 signing class, and the true freshman certainly lived up to the hype. Baker recorded 80 tackles (fourth on the team), one interception, six pass breakups and two forced fumbles. The Washington native earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2014 and will be a key cog in the rebuilding effort on defense next season. The Huskies had two freshmen and two sophomores listed as starters for the Cactus Bowl matchup against Oklahoma State. Although youth in the secondary can be problematic, the early experience and playing time should pay off for Baker and the other Washington defensive backs in 2015.
Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon was the best running back in college football this season, but Wisconsin’s rushing attack is in good hands with Clement. As Gordon’s backup in 2014, Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine scores (6.5 yards per carry). He rushed for 105 yards in the bowl win over Auburn and recorded 164 yards on 13 attempts against Illinois. Clement averages seven yards per rush through his first two seasons in Madison and is due for a breakout campaign with the opportunity to record 250-275 carries next season.
Deon Hollins, LB, UCLA
The Bruins had to replace their top three statistical players in generated sacks from 2013, and the pass rush just wasn’t the same early in the 2014 season. UCLA ended the year with 29 sacks – tied for eighth in the Pac-12 – and improved over the course of the 13-game slate. Hollins came on strong over the final few weeks of 2014, recording six of his nine sacks in the final four games. Hollins was dominant at the line of scrimmage against Kansas State (three sacks) and recorded four tackles and a sack against USC.
Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
With two starts already under his belt, Johnson is the heavy favorite to replace Nick Marshall as Auburn’s starting quarterback in 2015. In 2014, Johnson completed 28 of 37 passes for 436 yards and three scores, including a 12 of 16 performance for 243 yards against Arkansas in the season opener. The Montgomery native also started as a true freshman in 2013 and completed 17 of 21 passes for 201 yards and four scores. Johnson isn’t as dynamic as Marshall was on the ground, but he is more advanced as a passer heading into the 2015 season. Coach Gus Malzahn is one of the top offensive minds in college football, and Johnson should thrive as the full-time starter in an offense that’s capable of averaging 35-40 points a game.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
Clemson’s defense led the nation by limiting opponents to just four yards per play in 2014. But coordinator Brent Venables has his work cut out for him in 2015, as the front seven has to be revamped with the departures of ends Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes, along with defensive tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. Lawson is a key piece in the rebuilding effort and played in all 13 games in 2014. The South Carolina native recorded 34 tackles (11 for a loss) and 3.5 sacks. With the departure of Beasley, the Tigers need Lawson to generate around 10 sacks in 2015.
Hassan Ridgeway, DT, Texas
The Longhorns ranked second in the Big 12 by limiting opponents to just 4.7 yards per play in 2014. Coach Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford have holes to fill in order for this defense to perform at a high level next season, with the biggest departure coming at defensive tackle. Malcom Brown was arguably the top defender in the Big 12 this season, recording 72 tackles (a high number for an interior lineman), 6.5 sacks for a loss and two forced fumbles. Ridgeway started the final 10 games at nose tackle in 2014 and recorded 43 tackles (11 for a loss) and six sacks. The Texas native had a significant jump in terms of production and playing time from 2013 to 2014. Expect Ridgeway to anchor the defensive line for Strong and Bedford next year.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys had a significant amount of roster turnover prior to the 2014 season and regressed in the win column to a 7-6 finish. However, the future looks bright in Stillwater, as quarterback Mason Rudolph (a true freshman in 2014) gave the team a spark in the final three games of the season. Rudolph completed 49 of 86 passes for 853 yards and six touchdowns and guided the team to a road win over Oklahoma and a bowl victory over Washington. After struggling with injuries and inconsistency at quarterback this season, the Cowboys have a future star in Rudolph ready to take a step forward next year.
Travis Rudolph, WR, Florida State
With the departure of quarterback Jameis Winston, receiver Rashad Greene, tight end Nick O’Leary and four offensive line starters, Florida State’s offense is in transition for the 2015 season. While there are new faces cracking the starting lineup, there’s no shortage of talent available for coach Jimbo Fisher. Rudolph caught 38 passes for 555 yards and four scores as a true freshman this year. The Florida native grabbed 11 of his 38 receptions over the final two games, including a 96-yard performance in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. Rudolph and Ermon Lane were two of the top receiver prospects in the 2014 signing class, and both players looked like future stars in Tallahassee in their freshman debut.