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 Deshaun Watson? Or which receiver could be the next Calvin Ridley in 2016? 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 15 potential breakout stars for 2016.
15 College Football Breakout Candidates for 2016
Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning was pressed into the spotlight as a true freshman in 2015, but the California native responded with a solid campaign, throwing for 2,955 yards and 16 scores in 12 games. With Vernon Adams, Jared Goff, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan and Mike Bercovici departing the Pac-12 next season, don’t be surprised if Browning pushes for all-conference honors.
Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson
Coordinator Brent Venables heads into another offseason looking to restock one of the nation’s best defenses. The Tigers must replace their top two ends, as Shaq Lawson (12.5 sacks) and Kevin Dodd (12 sacks) are both off the NFL. Bryant flashed potential in his first season on campus, recording 1.5 sacks, 23 tackles (two for a loss) and one pass breakup. Expect to see Bryant take a major step forward as a key contributor to Clemson’s defensive line in 2016.
Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida
Callaway was a key cog in Florida’s passing attack as a true freshman, and his role should grow once again in 2016 – especially if the Gators get consistent production from their quarterbacks. Callaway caught 35 passes for 678 yards and four scores and finished the year with three 100-yard performances. He was also one of the SEC’s top punt returners, taking two returns for a score and averaging 15.5 yards per return in 2015.
Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama
Just how deep was Alabama’s defensive line in 2015? Hand – the No. 5 overall recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – was a third-string end. With A’Shawn Robinson leaving early for the NFL, along with Darren Lake and Jarran Reed expiring their eligibility, Hand should see more playing time next fall. Hand played in 14 games in 2015, recording 16 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and three sacks.
Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
The Buckeyes have some work to do in the trenches this spring. Standout defensive end Joey Bosa left early for the NFL, and defensive tackles Adolphus Washington, Joel Hale and Tommy Schutt expired their eligibility. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for coach Urban Meyer, and Hubbard is poised to be one of the next stars for the Buckeyes. In 13 appearances and less than a full complement of snaps, Hubbard recorded 28 tackles (eight for a loss) and 6.5 sacks.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson showcased his dynamic, dual-threat potential in Louisville’s Music City Bowl victory over Texas A&M. The true freshman gashed the Aggies for 226 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and completed 12 of 26 passes for 227 yards and two scores. Jackson finished 2015 with just under 1,000 yards (960) on the ground and threw for 1,840 yards and 12 touchdowns on 135 completions. The Florida native needs work as a passer, but a full offseason as the No. 1 quarterback in coach Bobby Petrino’s offense should speed up his development.
Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA
With Paul Perkins off to the NFL, Jamabo is poised to step into the No. 1 role in UCLA’s backfield. As a true freshman last season, Jamabo recorded 403 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries and caught five passes for 58 yards. After Noel Mazzone left to take a job at Texas A&M, coach Jim Mora promoted Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator and wants to bring more of a physical presence to the offense. All signs suggest Jamabo will see over 200 carries in 2016.
Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
New coach Clay Helton wants to build USC’s offense around its ground attack, and the pieces are in place to do so in 2016. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Pac-12, and the Trojans return two running backs that eclipsed 900 yards last season. Justin Davis recorded 902 yards in 13 games, while Jones II rushed for 987 yards in 14 games as a true freshman. Davis will see plenty of attempts, but Jones could become the focal point for the ground game as a sophomore.
Arden Key, DE, LSU
Athletic edge rushers are a staple of LSU’s defenses under coach Les Miles. The Tigers generated 34 sacks in 2015 and could push that total even higher in 2016 if Key develops as expected. He started nine games and played in 12 contests as a true freshman in 2015, recording 41 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and five sacks. Key should be an All-SEC player with another offseason to learn from line coach Ed Orgeron.
Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Scarbrough has a build similar to the player he is replacing – Derrick Henry. The Alabama native was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and rushed for 104 yards and one touchdown on 18 attempts in 2015. Scarbrough will share time with Damien Harris, but he could have a huge season in his first year as the No. 1 back in Tuscaloosa.
LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
With quarterback Connor Cook expiring his eligibility, the Spartans will need even more from their ground game in 2016 to push for another Big Ten title. Coach Mark Dantonio has a deep group of options in place, but Scott is the best of the bunch. In 14 games as a true freshman last season, Scott recorded 699 yards and 11 scores - including the game-winner against Iowa in the Big Ten title. Expect to see more from Scott in 2016.
Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
Sweat suffered a torn ACL and dislocated knee during the senior year of his high school career. Considering the seriousness of the injury, Sweat was a candidate for a redshirt year in 2015. However, the Virginia native played more as the season progressed and finished with 41 tackles (five for a loss), two sacks, one interception and two pass breakups. With another offseason to add strength in the weight room, look for Sweat to push for All-ACC honors in 2016.
Casey Tucker, OT, Stanford
Stanford has placed an offensive lineman on the All-Pac-12 first-team for eight consecutive seasons. Could Tucker extend that run to nine in 2016? The Arizona native played in five games as a freshman in 2014 and anchored the right side of Stanford’s line in 2015 with 14 starts. Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett will be missed, but the drop-off in production for the Cardinal’s offensive line is minimized with players like Tucker returning next fall.
KaVontae Turpin, WR, TCU
TCU’s offense will have a new quarterback (likely Kenny Hill) in 2016, but Turpin should remain one of the team’s top go-to targets. Injuries hit the Horned Frogs’ receiving corps hard in 2015, which allowed Turpin to emerge as a preferred option for quarterback Trevone Boykin. Turpin caught 45 passes for 649 yards and eight scores, rushed for 116 yards and was one of the top returners on punts and kickoffs in the Big 12. The Louisiana native could be one of the top all-purpose players next fall.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2016
Ishmael Zamora/Davion Hall/Chris Platt, WR, Baylor
We are cheating a bit here and listing three Baylor receivers instead of picking one, but Zamora, Hall and Platt’s place in this article shows why the Bears still have one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps – even with Corey Coleman declaring for the NFL. In limited action last season, Zamora grabbed nine passes, Hall caught five for 77 yards and Platt ranked fourth on the team with 11 catches. Expect all three to be more involved next fall.