The definition of a breakout player in college football varies from each analyst or fanbase, but one thing is certain when looking ahead at the next season and the players returning. Regardless of the position, breakout players will have a huge role in shaping the national championship and playoff picture. Which quarterback could be the next Lamar Jackson or Sam Darnold? Or which running back could emerge like LSU's Derrius Guice or Auburn's Kamryn Pettway? Both of those questions could be answered this spring.
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. The unpredictability of finding the next star or breakout player is also what makes preseason predictions difficult.
Spring practice is still a month or two away for some teams, but let’s take a look at 10 potential breakout stars for 2017.
10 Early College Football Breakout Candidates for 2017
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Alabama’s front seven is set for an offseason makeover after linebackers Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster and linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson expired their eligibility. The losses are significant for coach Nick Saban, but as usual, there’s no shortage of promising talent waiting in the wings. Evans is a player due for a larger role after finishing 2016 with 53 tackles (4.5 for a loss), four sacks and one forced fumble. Evans recorded the first two starts of his career in 2016 following a season-ending injury to Shaun Dion Hamilton in the SEC Championship. Evans will be a major part of Alabama’s front seven next fall.
Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan
Gary was the No. 1 overall prospect in last year’s signing class and played in all 13 games for the Wolverines. As a true freshman, Gary recorded 27 tackles (five for a loss), one sack and seven quarterback hurries. Michigan’s defensive line was loaded with experienced talent and depth last season, so Gary wasn’t needed for a starter workload in snaps. With Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Taco Charlton departing from the trenches, Gary should assume a starting role and produce in a big way for coach Jim Harbaugh’s defense.
Rasheem Green, DL, USC
USC is one of the frontrunners to claim a spot in the College Football Playoff next year. Quarterback Sam Darnold is back to lead a dynamic offense, but the Trojans need to solidify a few spots on defense. Standout nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu departs after earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2016, with safety Leon McQuay and linebacker Michael Hutchings headlining the other key departures. Green should be one of the answers in the trenches after recording 55 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and six sacks in his first full season as a starter. With another offseason to work under coordinator Clancy Pendergast, Green is primed for a monster 2017 campaign.
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
The combination of Dana Holgorsen’s offense and Grier’s passing ability should be a lethal mix for West Virginia in 2017. As a true freshman at Florida in 2015, Grier played in six games and threw for 1,204 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also added 116 yards and two scores on the ground. West Virginia’s passing game has ranked lower than fifth in the Big 12 in each of the last two seasons, but Holgorsen and the staff have adapted the offense to utilize the talent at running back. With Grier eligible in 2017, the Mountaineers should have one of the better passing games in the Big 12.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2017
Caleb Kelly, LB, Oklahoma
Jordan Evans leaves big shoes to fill at linebacker, but Kelly is ready for a bigger role after playing in 11 games as a true freshman last fall. Kelly finished 2016 with 36 tackles (three for a loss) and one sack. He ended the year on a high note by recording 12 stops in the Sugar Bowl win over Auburn. Kelly should be one of the breakout stars for Oklahoma’s defense in 2017.
Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
Stanford’s backfield will have a new look in 2017, as Christian McCaffrey left for the NFL after recording 6,987 all-purpose yards over the last three seasons. But the cupboard is far from empty for coach David Shaw. Love averaged 7.8 yards per rush in limited action (29 carries) as a freshman in 2015 and recorded 783 yards and two scores on 111 carries as McCaffrey’s backup last fall. It’s no secret McCaffrey will be missed. However, Love is more than capable of finishing 2017 as one of the top rushers in the Pac-12.
Nyqwan Murray/Auden Tate, WR, Florida State
With Travis Rudolph (56 catches) off to the NFL, Murray and Tate shift from secondary targets to the primary weapons for quarterback Deondre Francois. Both players flashed potential in limited action in 2016. Murray grabbed 27 catches for 441 yards and five catches, while Tate nabbed 25 receptions for 409 yards and six scores. Both players could be in the mix for All-ACC honors next fall.
Shea Patterson, QB, Ole Miss
Patterson was headed for a redshirt year prior to a season-ending injury to quarterback Chad Kelly. Rather than hand the controls on offense to Jason Pellerin, coach Hugh Freeze pulled the redshirt from Patterson and the starting nod for the last three games of 2016. Patterson showcased the potential that made him a five-star prospect, as he threw for 880 yards and six touchdowns and added 169 yards on the ground. New coordinator Phil Longo engineered one of the top offenses at the FCS level, and the Rebels have a talented group of playmakers returning at receiver for Patterson to utilize.
Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
Stidham was one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and was pressed into duty at Baylor as a true freshman following a season-ending injury to starter Seth Russell. In 10 appearances with the Bears, Stidham showcased his potential with 1,265 passing yards and 12 touchdowns and completed 68.8 percent of his passes. Stidham left Baylor after coach Art Briles was fired in May and spent 2016 out of football at McLennan Community College. Stidham ranked as the No. 1 junior college prospect by the 247Sports Composite and should immediately upgrade an Auburn passing offense that ranked last in the SEC in 2016.
Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame
With DeShone Kizer off to the NFL and Malik Zaire leaving as a graduate transfer, Wimbush is set to take over the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. The New Jersey native ranked as the No. 45 recruit in the 2015 signing class and completed three of five throws for 17 yards in two games in 2015. After taking a redshirt year in 2016, Wimbush is ready to assume the controls of Notre Dame’s offense.