Each season always brings a new cast of college football stars. Whether it’s touted true freshmen living up to the hype in their first season on campus, a sophomore ready to emerge in their second year, or an upper classmen taking on a bigger role, there’s no shortage of breakout player options in the preseason.
Which players might emerge with a breakout year in 2015? Here’s a list of 25 players on the rise for this season, headlined by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Auburn signal-caller Jeremy Johnson.
College Football's Top 25 Players on the Rise for 2015
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Clemson has won at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons and has a good shot at extending that streak to five in 2015. Watson is the biggest reason for optimism and potential at contending for the ACC Championship, as the sophomore is expected to be at full strength in his recovery from a torn ACL by the season opener. The Georgia native ranked as the No. 41 recruit in the 2014 signing class and completed 93 of 137 passes for 1,466 yards and 14 scores in his debut. Watson also rushed for 200 yards and five scores last season. The departure of coordinator Chad Morris was a big loss for Clemson, but with Watson’s return and a talented group of skill players, the Tigers will be among the ACC’s best on offense in 2015.
2. Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
Johnson varies slightly in style to former starter Nick Marshall, but Auburn’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat in 2015. The Alabama native ranked as the No. 11 pro-style quarterback in the 2013 signing class and has played well in limited action over the last two years. Johnson completed 29 of 41 passes for 422 yards and six scores in 2013 and threw for 436 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. He also has two starts under his belt, including one against Arkansas (2014). Johnson may not have the dynamic mobility of Marshall, but the junior is going to have a huge season directing the offense for coach Gus Malzahn.
3. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette was regarded as the No. 1 player in the 2014 247Sports Composite and certainly didn’t disappoint in his Baton Rouge debut. In 13 appearances, Fournette rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 scores. He also made an impact on special teams, averaging 26 yards per kickoff returns and one touchdown. With LSU struggling to find consistent production from its passing game, the ground attack will have to carry the offense in 2015. With Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard out of eligibility, Fournette should see an uptick in carries and production next year and should be considered a lock for All-SEC honors this offseason.
4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
With quarterback Jameis Winston off to the NFL, the focus for Florida State’s offense shifts to the ground attack and talented sophomore Dalvin Cook. As a true freshman last season, Cook rushed for 1,008 yards and eight scores and caught 22 passes for 203 yards. The Miami native averaged 141.3 rushing yards over his final three games, including 6.9 yards per carry in the Rose Bowl against Oregon. Cook was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and is poised to push for All-American honors in 2015.
5. Adoree' Jackson, CB/WR, USC
Jackson is one of the Pac-12’s most explosive players and one of the nation’s top all-around playmakers. The Illinois native caught 10 passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns last season and scored four times on special teams. Jackson also recorded 49 tackles (four for a loss) and broke up 10 passes in 2014.
6. Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
Clemson ranked first nationally by holding opponents to just four yards per play in 2014. But coordinator Brent Venables will have his hands full this spring, as the Tigers return only two starters and lose several standouts from the front seven. Lawson is expected to be one of the defense’s top linemen after recording 34 tackles and 3.5 sacks in a backup role last season.
7. Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers was expected to play a meaningful role in Michigan’s secondary last season, but the New Jersey native was sidelined after three games due to a leg injury. With a full offseason to recover, Peppers is ready to become a key contributor for the Wolverines. New coordinator D.J. Durkin plans to use Peppers as a safety in 2015, which should allow the No. 3 prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite to emerge as a impact defender for Michigan this year.
8. JuJu Smith, WR, USC
The biggest void on USC’s offense heading into 2015 is at receiver with the departure of Nelson Agholor. Last season, Agholor led the Trojans with 104 catches for 1,313 yards and 12 scores. Coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t hurting for options at receiver with the emergence of Smith, along with the addition of a talented recruiting class for 2015. Smith ranked second on the team with 54 catches for 724 yards and five scores last season and is expected to emerge as quarterback Cody Kessler’s go-to target in 2015.
9. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
It’s no coincidence Oklahoma State’s improvement on offense late in the year came with Rudolph at the helm. The Cowboys scored at least 30 points in five games against Power 5 opponents. Rudolph was the quarterback for two of those efforts, including an impressive 38-35 win over Oklahoma and a 30-22 bowl win over Washington. The South Carolina native finished 2014 with 853 passing yards and six scores in three appearances. Rudolph needs more help from his supporting cast in 2015, but the potential is certainly there for the sophomore to earn All-Big 12 honors.
10. Rod Johnson, OT, Florida State
Florida State’s offensive line struggled to find consistency through the first half of 2014 but performed better late in the season. The line’s improvement was largely due to Johnson taking over at left tackle and shifting All-American Cameron Erving to center. Johnson started the final five games of 2014 and will be one of the ACC’s top offensive linemen in 2015.
11. Malik Zaire, QB, Notre Dame
Zaire isn’t guaranteed the starting job for 2015, as Everett Golson remains in the mix after throwing for 3,445 yards last season and enters next season with 23 starts under his belt. However, all signs point to Zaire emerging as Notre Dame’s No. 1 option under center. In seven appearances last season, Zaire completed 21 of 35 passes for 266 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for 187 yards and two scores. The Ohio native’s most-impressive outing took place against LSU in the Music City Bowl, throwing for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding 96 yards and a score on the ground in the upset win over the Tigers. With a strong supporting cast in place, Zaire has all of the necessary pieces for a breakout year.
12. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Alexander is one of two Clemson players to make this list. The Florida native was forced to redshirt in 2013 due to injury but quickly emerged as the team’s top defensive back last season. Alexander started all 13 games, recorded 21 tackles and six pass breakups, while also playing the most snaps by a freshman in school history. Alexander should be one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks in 2015.
13. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense doesn’t have many question marks entering spring ball, but the linebacker corps is looking for a new starter after the departure of Curtis Grant. There should be a flawless transition from Grant to McMillan, as the Georgia native was regarded as the top recruit in the Big Ten for the 2014 signing class. McMillan played in 14 games last season and recorded 54 tackles, one interception and 2.5 sacks.
14. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon leaves big shoes to fill at running back for Wisconsin, but new coach Paul Chryst is inheriting a rising star in Clement. The New Jersey native was Gordon’s top backup in 2014 and rushed for 949 yards and nine scores on 147 attempts. Clement never recorded more than 17 rushing attempts in a game last year, so there’s plenty of room for his overall production to grow with more carries in 2015. He also rushed for 547 yards as Wisconsin’s No. 3 running back in 2013. Clement may not match Gordon’s 2,587 rushing yards from last season, but he should be one of the Big Ten’s top running backs in 2015.
15. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite and big things are expected from the Texas native in 2015. With the Longhorns replacing Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond, Jefferson has a clear path to major snaps or a starting role. Expect Jefferson to be one of college football’s top freshmen performers.
16. Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
Since joining the SEC in 2012, the Aggies have averaged 41.3 points per game. Life after Johnny Manziel presented a few challenges in 2014, but the arrow on Texas A&M’s offense is pointing up headed into 2015. Allen started the final five games for coach Kevin Sumlin, including a four-touchdown performance against Auburn and a 294-yard effort against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. The Arizona native finished 2014 with 1,322 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. Allen will be pushed by talented freshman Kyler Murray this offseason, but the edge in experience should help the sophomore hold onto the starting job. With a talented receiving corps returning, Texas A&M’s passing offense should be among the SEC’s best once again in 2015.
17. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
The insertion of Dobbs into the starting lineup in late October sparked Tennessee to a 4-2 finish over its last six games. The Georgia native threw for 192 yards against Alabama after replacing Nathan Peterman in the first half and guided the Volunteers to a 45-42 upset win over South Carolina by accumulating 467 total yards and five scores. Dobbs also played well in the bowl win over Iowa by accounting for 205 yards and three scores. The junior should have more help from his supporting cast in 2015, as Tennessee should be healthier at receiver, and a young offensive line has a full offseason to grow. Dobbs should push for All-SEC honors in 2015.
18. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
Over the last five seasons, Baylor’s starting quarterback has averaged 4,031 yards and 30 touchdowns. With Bryce Petty off to the NFL, the keys to a high-powered offense are in Russell’s hands. Of course, he has to hold off a challenge this offseason from sophomore Chris Johnson and talented true freshman Jarrett Stidham. However, there’s a clear edge in experience for Russell, as he has one start under his belt and completed 48 of 85 passes in 2014. The Texas native torched Northwestern State for five scores and 438 yards last year and completed 8 of 17 passes for 82 yards in relief of Petty against Texas Tech. With one of the nation’s top receiving corps in place, Russell – if he wins the job – will be next standout quarterback for coach Art Briles.
19. Nate Gerry, S, Nebraska
Gerry surprisingly earned only honorable mention by the coaches All-Big Ten team last season. The South Dakota native started all 13 games in 2014 and recorded 88 tackles and five interceptions. New defensive backs coach Brian Stewart should help Gerry develop into one of the Big Ten’s top performers at safety in 2015.
20. Budda Baker, S, Washington
Washington’s secondary experienced its share of ups and downs last season. However, after playing freshmen and sophomores in major roles in 2014, the Huskies should see improvement from a secondary that gave up 55 passing plays of 20 yards or more. Baker was regarded as the No. 55 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite and played significant snaps as a true freshman. In 13 games, Baker recorded 80 tackles, one sack, one interception and six pass breakups.
21. Christian McCaffery, RB, Stanford
For the first time since the 2007 season, the Cardinal did not have a rusher reach the 1,000-yard mark in 2014. That one-year 1,000-yard rusher drought could be short-lived, as McCaffrey is primed for a breakout season in 2015. As a true freshman in 2014, he recorded 300 rushing yards (seven yards per carry) and caught 17 passes for 251 yards and two scores. McCaffrey recorded at least 57 rushing yards in three out of the final four games, including 77 against Utah on Nov. 15.
22. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
The future of the Arizona State backfield appears to be in good hands with Richard leading the way in 2015. The Sun Devils also return D.J. Foster (1,081 rush yards in 2014), but the senior is expected to shift to more of a running back/receiver role in 2015. Richard was solid in limited action last year, rushing for 478 yards and four scores on 84 attempts. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark against a tough Utah defense on Nov. 1 and contributed 41 yards on seven attempts in the bowl win over Duke. Richard should have no trouble exceeding last year’s numbers in 2015.
23. Harold Brantley, DT, Missouri
Missouri has been a factory for All-SEC talent at defensive end over the last two seasons, but don’t overlook Brantley’s contributions to the defense in 2014. The Pennsylvania native made six starts as a freshman in 2013 and emerged as the team’s top interior player last year. In 14 games, Brantley recorded 30 tackles (five for a loss) and three pass breakups. With two seasons under his belt, Brantley should be poised for his best year in a Missouri uniform.
24. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
McDowell was a huge catch on the recruiting trail for coach Mark Dantonio, and the Michigan native didn’t disappoint in his true freshman campaign. McDowell played in all 13 games and recorded 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks. With Lawrence Thomas expected to move to defensive end this spring, McDowell is expected to take on a bigger role with the line for 2015. Expect to see McDowell wreaking havoc against opposing Big Ten offensive lines this year.
25. Wyatt Teller, OG, Virginia Tech
Teller redshirted in his first season at Virginia Tech and made the transition from defensive end to the offensive line. And despite not starting a full season, Teller emerged as the Hokies’ top lineman. Teller started 13 games, including the final six as a starter. The Virginia native should be an All-ACC performer in 2015.