With the 2021 college football season less than 15 days away, a new wave of stars and standouts are ready to emerge at wide receiver. Having an elite passing game is essential to winning in this era of college football, so the development of some of the names on this list could be crucial to the outcome of a conference title race. LSU's Kayshon Boutte, USC's Drake London, Oklahoma's Marvin Mims and North Carolina's Josh Downs are just a few of the names we expect to have a breakout year this fall. In the Group of 5 ranks, Arkansas State's Corey Rucker, Kent State's JaShaun Poke and Western Michigan's Jaylen Hall and Skyy Moore are just a few of the players projected to have big seasons of their own.
With fall practice underway, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2021. Determining what player fits the breakout tag isn’t easy. 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.
Who are the next breakout stars at wide receiver for 2021? Athlon has compiled 25 picks and some names to watch:
College Football's Top 25 Breakout Wide Receivers for 2021
25. Brenden Rice, Colorado
The son of NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice only recorded nine touches in his first season on campus. However, he certainly made the most of those opportunities. Rice caught six passes for 120 yards and took two of those for touchdowns. He also averaged 18.5 yards per kickoff return and returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown. Rice should be more involved in Colorado’s offense in 2021.
24. Kyle Williams, UNLV
Williams quietly had a strong debut for coach Marcus Arroyo last season, catching 35 passes for 426 yards and two scores. The California native also got better as the year progressed, torching San Jose State with nine receptions for 110 yards and posting 144 yards on 10 catches versus Hawaii. Assuming the Rebels can get more consistency out of their quarterbacks, Williams has a chance to place on the All-Mountain West team in 2021.
23. Ja’Shaun Poke, Kent State
Whether it’s Poke or Syracuse transfer Nykeim Johnson, someone is going to catch a ton of passes in Kent State’s offense this year. Isaiah McKoy departed to the NFL after leading the team in receptions and yards in each of the last two seasons, leaving Poke (21 catches for 326 yards and three scores) as the presumptive No. 1 target for quarterback Dustin Crum.
22. Agiye Hall, Alabama
Alabama’s receiving corps will miss DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, but this group doesn’t lack for talent. But how the breakdown in receptions and playing time looks is uncertain with the personnel turnover, and even more so after the addition of Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams. Hall may not start right away, but as the freshman showed in the spring game (four catches for 72 yards) that he’s too talented to leave off the field.
21. Isaiah Hamilton, San Jose State
Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither departed San Jose State after accounting for 86 of the team’s 183 receptions last year. Hamilton was an effective No. 3 target last season for the Spartans, catching 13 passes for 206 yards and two scores. However, a bigger workload in 2021 should help Hamilton perform closer to the level that saw him catch 43 balls for 718 yards and four scores in ‘19. The junior seems poised to be the No. 1 option for quarterback Nick Starkel this year.
20. Malik McClain, Florida State
Second-year coach Mike Norvell is likely to turn to a couple of newcomers on offense to help spark an offense that managed only 25.8 points a game last season. McClain – a four-star prospect in the 2021 signing class – is one of those newcomers to watch this fall. The Alabama native enrolled in time to compete in spring practice and made an early impression with a touchdown grab in the Garnet and Gold Game. The Seminoles need difference-makers to emerge outside, and McClain is someone who can change the game right away for this offense.
19. Jalen Cropper, Fresno State
Fresno State’s offense is poised for take off in 2021, as second-year coach Kalen DeBoer returns an all-conference contender at quarterback (Jake Haener), a deep collection of receivers, and an All-America candidate at running back in Ronnie Rivers. Cropper is an all-purpose weapon for DeBoer to deploy, and his all-around versatility was on display in last year’s limited season. Cropper accounted for four carries, nine kickoff returns and caught 37 passes for 520 yards and five scores. With a full slate of games on tap in 2021, Cropper could be among the nation’s leaders in all-purpose yardage.
18. Xavier Worthy, Texas
Worthy signed with Michigan out of high school for the 2021 class but was granted his release and eventually ended up at Texas in April. The California native was the No. 62 prospect by the 247Sports Composite and wasted no time making an impression in fall practice for the Longhorns. With three of the team’s top wide receivers from last season moving on, Worthy will have every opportunity to push for major snaps under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian.
17. Brennan Presley, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State has to reload at receiver following the departures of Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner, but this position is usually restocked without much of a blip under coach Mike Gundy. Presley figures to be one of the new stars for Gundy in 2021 after a strong performance against Miami in the Cheez-It Bowl. After recording just one reception for seven yards prior to the postseason, Presley emerged in a big way by torching the Hurricanes for six catches and 118 yards and three touchdowns.
16. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave will dominate the targets in Ohio State’s passing game, but there’s room for another receiver to emerge, especially with Jameson Williams transferring to Alabama. Smith-Njigba – a five-star recruit in the 2020 signing class – showed flashes of potential as a freshman last fall, catching 10 passes for 49 yards and a score.
15. Corey Rucker, Arkansas State
Explosive is the easiest way to sum up Rucker’s debut last season. The Mississippi native was used sparingly early on, catching seven passes through Arkansas State’s first five games. However, Rucker capped the 2020 season with a breakout performance, catching nine passes for 310 yards (most by an FBS freshman in a single game) and four scores versus ULM. Rucker probably won’t record 300-plus yards in every Sun Belt game, but the sophomore should connect frequently with quarterback Layne Hatcher in ’21.
14. Skyy Moore/Jaylen Hall, Western Michigan
Behind rising star quarterback Kaleb Eleby and big-play threat D’Wayne Eskridge at receiver, the Broncos averaged 41.7 points a game in the abbreviated 2020 season. Eskridge is now in the NFL, but with Eleby coming back, Western Michigan won’t have any trouble lighting up the scoreboard once again. Moore and Hall combined for 37 receptions for 711 yards and 11 scores last year. Of Hall’s 12 receptions, seven of those went for scores. Expect both players to be more involved this season.
13. Jyaire Shorter, North Texas
Scoring points won’t be a problem for North Texas once again, but coach Seth Littrell’s offense needs a new No. 1 receiver to emerge with Jaelon Darden off to the NFL. The Mean Green won’t have to look long for that option, as Shorter has already flashed big-time potential. In 2019, he caught 24 passes for 473 yards and nine touchdowns and grabbed four receptions for 97 yards prior to a season-ending leg injury.
12. Rakim Jarrett, Maryland
Keeping Jarrett at home in Maryland was a big-time recruiting win for coach Mike Locksley in the 2020 signing class. And Jarrett paid immediate dividends for the Terrapins’ passing game, catching 17 passes for 252 yards and two scores in just four games. With a full offseason to develop a better rapport with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, Jarrett is primed for a big year in College Park.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten QBs for 2021
11. Wan’Dale Robinson, Kentucky
The addition of new play-caller Liam Coen and a couple of transfers (Robinson and new starting quarterback Will Levis) has provided optimism Kentucky can find a spark on offense and improve on last year’s scoring average (21.8 ppg). Meshing all of the new pieces may take a few games, but Robinson’s all-around playmaking ability can help this offense right away. The Kentucky native is back in the Bluegrass State after spending two seasons at Nebraska. During his stint with the Cornhuskers, Robinson caught 91 passes for 914 yards and three scores and ran for 580 yards and four touchdowns over 134 attempts. Finding ways for Robinson to impact the game and take advantage of his versatility is a must for Coen in his debut.
10. Jermaine Burton/Arian Smith, Georgia
With George Pickens sidelined indefinitely due to a torn ACL, Georgia will need the rest of its receiving corps to step up and help quarterback JT Daniels. The Bulldogs aren’t hurting for talent here, as Kearis Jackson returns, and running back James Cook could split outside as a receiver. Also, coordinator Todd Monken has to be intrigued with the development of Burton and Smith. The former caught 27 passes for 404 yards and three scores as a true freshman last fall, while Smith grabbed two receptions after being limited to just four games due to injury.
9. Dontario Drummond/Braylon Sanders/Jonathan Mingo, Ole Miss
Pencil in an Ole Miss receiver for a breakout season. With Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah departing, the Rebels have a need for a new go-to target (or two) for quarterback Matt Corral. Drummond and Mingo were next behind Moore with 25 and 27 catches, respectively, last season. However, Sanders showed a knack for big plays by catching 14 passes for 370 yards and four scores. The addition of transfers Jalen Knox (Missouri) and Jahcour Pearson (WKU) bolstered the depth here, but Mingo, Drummond and Sanders would seem to be the best bet for big-time production in Oxford this fall.
8. Parker Washington, Penn State
Penn State’s offense was up and down throughout the abbreviated Big Ten season in 2020, but there’s hope for improvement and stability with the arrival of new play-caller Mike Yurcich. The former Texas and Oklahoma State coordinator inherits one of the conference’s top receivers in Jahan Dotson, along with an emerging star in Washington. As a true freshman last season, Washington grabbed 36 receptions for 489 yards and six scores. Washington did not record a 100-yard game but tallied eight receptions that went for 20-plus yards.
7. Josh Downs, North Carolina
Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome leave big shoes to fill in the receiving corps after combining for 109 catches and 14 touchdown grabs last year. Who steps up to help quarterback Sam Howell this fall? Look for Downs to be one of those options. He caught seven passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns last season, with four of those catches coming in the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M. Downs is ready for a bigger role in 2021.
6. Jaden Walley, Mississippi State
Fans in Starkville know how good Walley was last season, but the rest of the SEC will likely take notice in 2021. The Mississippi native caught 52 passes for 718 yards and two scores as a freshman last fall, which included a string of four consecutive 100-yard games in the second half of the year. With a full offseason to work in coach Mike Leach’s offense, look for Walley to build on last season’s strong freshman debut with a better sophomore encore.
5. Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee
As evidenced by UCF’s 21 completions of 40-plus yards last year, new Tennessee coach Josh Heupel likes to push the ball downfield. The change in scheme and outlook for the Volunteers’ offense should benefit a handful of players in Knoxville, with Hyatt likely one of the biggest benefactors. The South Carolina native wasn’t afforded many opportunities last fall but still posted a strong freshman season (20 catches for 276 yards and two scores). In an offense suited for his skill set, look for Hyatt to deliver a breakout season and a push for All-SEC honors should be within reach.
4. Quentin Johnston, TCU
The Max Duggan-to-Johnston connection had a promising debut in 2020 and is just getting started in Fort Worth. Johnston ranked as the No. 71 prospect in the ’20 signing class and worked his way onto the field right away. The Texas native caught two passes in the opener versus Iowa State and closed the year by posting 114 yards versus Oklahoma State and 133 against Louisiana Tech. Johnston ended the year by averaging a whopping 22.1 yards per catch over 22 receptions for 487 yards and two scores. Additionally, his three receptions of 50-plus yards tied for the most among Big 12 receivers.
3. Marvin Mims, Oklahoma
Mims is known around the Big 12 and at Oklahoma after a terrific freshman season, but look for him to make the jump to national superstar in 2021. The Texas native made a fast impression last fall, catching six touchdown passes in the Sooners’ first four games. Mims finished the year on a high note, grabbing seven receptions for 101 yards against Iowa State and caught a 27-yard touchdown versus Florida in the Cotton Bowl. For the year, Mims posted 37 receptions for 610 yards and nine scores. Doubling his catches and collecting more than 1,000 receiving yards is within reach this fall.
2. Kayshon Boutte, LSU
With Ja’Marr Chase opting out of 2020, along with the in-season departures of Terrace Marshall and Arik Gilbert, LSU’s receiving corps was in flux for most of last year. However, the absence of those three players opened the door for Boutte to thrive in December. Over the team’s final three games (Alabama, Florida and Ole Miss), he accounted for 27 catches for 527 yards and four scores, pushing his season total to 45 receptions for 735 yards and five touchdowns. Boutte should be in for a monster statistical year as the No. 1 target in Baton Rouge.
1. Drake London, USC
London isn’t an unknown commodity after a standout sophomore season (33 catches for 502 yards and three scores), but he’s poised to go from All-Pac-12 to a spot among the top receivers in college football. The 6-foot-5 target led all receivers in the Pac-12 with 11 receptions of 20-plus yards and averaged at least 15 yards per catch in five of USC’s six contests in 2020. With Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns off to the NFL, look for London to see an uptick in targets and overall production this season.
Others to Watch
Ajou Ajou/Joseph Ngata, Clemson
Justyn Ross is back as the No. 1 target. Will Ajou or Ngata step up into the No. 2 role?
Elijhah Badger, Arizona State
Badger is mentioned here, but Arizona State has a talented group of youngsters ready to emerge on the outside for quarterback Jayden Daniels.
Elijah Canion, Auburn
Canion had a promising performance (three catches for 80 yards and a score) in the Citrus Bowl, but due to the depth ahead of him, only recorded snaps in one other contest last year. He could be the No. 1 target for quarterback Bo Nix this fall.
Mookie Cooper, Missouri
Cooper is dealing with an injury late in preseason practice, so he could be slowed early in the year. However, the Ohio State transfer could eventually emerge as the No. 1 target for quarterback Connor Bazelak.
Jacob Copeland, Florida
The Gators lost receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, along with All-American Kyle Pitts at tight end. Can Copeland (23 catches for 435 yards in 2020) become the No. 1 target for quarterback Emory Jones?
Nathaniel Dell, Houston
Transfers Jaylen Erwin (UCLA) and KeSean Carter (Texas Tech) have added needed depth to Houston’s receiving corps, but Dell (29 catches for 428 yards last season) could still deliver a big season as the No. 1 target for quarterback Clayton Tune.
Demond Demas, Texas A&M
Demas played sparingly in his first season with the Aggies. However, the five-star prospect is too talented to be on the sidelines for long in College Station.
Kyren Lacy, Louisiana
The Ragin’ Cajuns are deep at receiver, so Lacy may not see a massive increase in targets and overall production. But there’s no doubt the Louisiana native is a player on the rise after catching 28 passes for 364 yards and four scores last year.
Jalen Nailor, Michigan State
Michigan State’s quarterback play was up-and-down throughout the abbreviated 2020 season, but that didn’t stop Nailor from showcasing his potential. In seven games, Nailor averaged 19.8 yards per catch on 26 receptions for 515 yards and four touchdowns.
Trea Shropshire, UAB
The Blazers have to replace their top two receivers from last season, but Shropshire (five catches for 180 yards and one touchdown) shined in the Conference USA title game and could be a sign of things to come in 2021.
Jordan Watkins, Louisville
The departures of Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick leave a void in the passing game for coach Scott Satterfield. Watkins saw time on special teams and caught eight passes for 57 yards last season and should be in line for a bigger role in 2021.
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