Predicting which WRs will have a breakout year this fall
The 2018 college football season features a significant amount of turnover at the wide receiver position. Of the 12 receivers on Athlon's postseason 2017 All-America Team, only three are back for 2018. Ole Miss' A.J. Brown, West Virginia's David Sills, Buffalo's Anthony Johnson, Arizona State's N'Keal Harry and Georgia State's Penny Hart round out the best players returning at this position, but there's a lot of room for new stars to emerge and deliver a breakout season this fall.
With fall practice around the corner, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2018. The third installment in the offseason breakout player series focuses on wide receivers. Of course, 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 2018? Athlon has compiled 30 names to watch, along with a few others to consider.
College Football's Top 30 Breakout WRs for 2018
30. Jovon Durante, FAU
Despite losing Kalib Woods and Kamrin Solomon, FAU’s receiving corps should rank near the top of Conference USA. Willie Wright returns after a standout freshman season, and coach Lane Kiffin should get help from Durante after sitting out 2017 due to transfer rules. The West Virginia transfer caught 25 passes as a freshman with the Mountaineers in 2015 and grabbed 35 receptions for 331 yards in ’16.
29. Ventell Bryant, Temple
Frank Nutile’s emergence at quarterback provided a spark for Temple’s offense in the second half of 2017. There’s plenty of optimism for that momentum to carry into 2018, as Nutile has a full offseason to work as the starter, and the Owls return Isaiah Wright and Bryant at receiver. Bryant was slowed by a hamstring injury early in the 2017 season and finished with 29 catches for 280 yards. With a full offseason to return to 100 percent, Bryant should resemble the receiver that caught 54 passes for 895 yards and four touchdowns in 2016.
28. Laviska Shenault/Juwann Winfree, Colorado
Colorado loses its top three receivers from last season, so there are plenty of opportunities for playmakers to emerge in 2018. Shenault and Winfree have each flashed potential in limited action, with Winfree finishing 2017 with 21 catches for 325 yards and two touchdowns. Shenault generated offseason buzz by grabbing two touchdowns in Colorado’s spring game.
27. Theo Howard, UCLA
With the departure of Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews, new UCLA coach Chip Kelly is looking for a No. 1 receiver to emerge. It’s safe to assume Howard is due for more targets in 2018 after finishing third on the team with 56 catches for 594 yards and four touchdowns last fall. The former four-star recruit is coming off the best performance of his career, catching eight passes for 119 yards and a touchdown against Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl.
26. Riley Ridley, Georgia
Ridley hopes to parlay his national championship performance (six catches for 82 yards) into a breakout year in 2018. The brother of former Alabama standout Calvin Ridley has caught 26 passes in his first two years of action. With Javon Wims out of eligibility, there’s an opportunity for Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman to be even more involved in 2018.
25. Devin Butler/Nykeim Johnson, Syracuse
Pencil in a Syracuse receiver for a breakout season. Coach Dino Babers has produced a 1,000-yard receiver in back-to-back years, and it’s likely the next player to reach that mark is either Butler or Johnson. Butler caught 33 passes for 327 yards and a score last fall, while Johnson nabbed eight receptions for 68 yards. Johnson is likely to work out of the slot, with Butler’s size (6-3) helping to fill the void left behind by Steve Ishmael on the outside.
24. Ty Lee, MTSU
With Richie James sidelined for most of 2017 due to injury, Lee emerged as the go-to target and an all-around weapon for quarterback Brent Stockstill. He caught 79 passes for 955 yards and five scores over 13 contests and earned second-team All-Conference USA honors. If Stockstill can stay healthy, Lee’s totals should climb even higher in 2018.
23. Tyron Johnson, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State must replace two 1,000-yard receivers, but there’s not a lot of concern about this position for coach Mike Gundy. In addition to Jalen McCleskey, Dillon Stoner and Johnson are poised for an increased role in 2018. Johnson -- a transfer from LSU -- flashed potential last fall by catching 18 passes for 193 yards and three touchdowns. With another offseason to develop, he should emerge as the top big-play threat for the Cowboys.
22. Quez Watkins, Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles must replace their top two statistical receivers (Korey Robertson and Allenzae Staggers) from last season, along with standout running back Ito Smith (40 catches). Those three players combined to catch 160 of the 246 receptions for Southern Miss last fall. Watkins is ready for an increased role for coach Jay Hopson, as he caught 23 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman.
21. Terren Encalade, Tulane
Encalade made the most of his opportunities last season, finishing fifth in the American Athletic Conference by averaging 18.7 yards a catch on just 39 receptions. Also, Encalade’s catches and receiving yards (730) from 2017 were the most in a season in his career. He closed out the year by posting back-to-back 100-yard games, including 186 in a win over Houston.
20. D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss
Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu should have no trouble finding open receivers in 2018. A.J. Brown ranks as the top returning receiver this season, while DaMarkus Lodge is back after catching 41 passes for 698 yards in 2017. Metcalf delivered a strong freshman campaign, catching 39 passes for 646 yards and seven touchdowns. With another offseason to work with Ta’amu, look for Metcalf to become an even bigger part of the Rebels’ passing game in 2018.
19. Tay Martin, Washington State
Mike Leach has to replace his top two receivers from last season, but the cupboard isn’t empty on the outside. Martin caught 31 passes for 366 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman and ended the year by posting seven receptions for 51 yards against Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl.
18. Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Texas
After catching 37 passes for 431 yards and a touchdown last fall, Humphrey is poised to be more involved with the passing game in 2018. The Texas native generated plenty of offseason buzz for his performance in the spring and capped the session by catching seven passes for 100 yards in the Orange-White Game.
17. Tyler Johnson, Minnesota
Johnson’s 2017 season was cut short due to injury, but a 10-game stint showcased his potential. The Minnesota native caught 35 passes for 677 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 19.3 yards a catch. He should easily surpass those totals with a healthy year in 2018.
16. Dredrick Snelson, UCF
Tre’Quan Smith left early for the NFL, but quarterback McKenzie Milton has plenty of weapons at his disposal for 2018. Snelson finished second on the team with 46 catches for 695 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He should slide into the No. 1 role under new coach Josh Heupel.
15. Olabisi Johnson/Preston Williams, Colorado State
The Rams have two intriguing options to replace Michael Gallup’s production in 2018. Johnson averaged 21.9 yards a reception in 2016 and finished second on the team with 595 yards on 41 catches last fall. Williams -- a Tennessee transfer -- ranked as the No. 47 overall prospect by the 247Sports Composite in the 2015 signing class.
14. Jalen Hurd, Baylor
A good bit of the offseason buzz out of Waco points to Hurd emerging as a key receiver for the Bears in 2018. The Tennessee transfer made the switch from running back to receiver after leaving Knoxville during the 2016 season. Hurd led the Volunteers in rushing in back-to-back years (2014-15) and recorded 451 yards over seven appearances in ’16. He also posted 67 receptions at Tennessee.
13. Brendan O’Leary-Orange, Nevada
Nevada’s offense led the Mountain West in conference-only matchups last season by averaging 307.4 passing yards a game. With the return of quarterback Ty Gangi and two standout receivers, the Wolf Pack should claim the title of the league’s best passing attack once again. O’Leary-Orange is one of those receivers, as he finished third on the team with 39 catches for 618 yards and four touchdowns last fall. After a strong sophomore campaign, O’Leary-Orange should be even more involved in 2018.
12. Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M
Christian Kirk’s departure leaves a big void at receiver for new coach Jimbo Fisher. However, Ausbon appears primed to step up for the Aggies in 2018. In his true freshman campaign last season, Ausbon ranked second on the team with 50 catches and finished third with 571 receiving yards.
11. Damonte Coxie, Memphis
Replacing Anthony Miller’s production and value in the passing game won’t be easy. However, coach Mike Norvell has a rising star in Coxie. As a freshman in 2017, he caught 21 passes for 323 yards (15.4 ypc) and three scores. He should be the go-to target for quarterbacks Brady White or David Moore this season.
10. Parris Campbell, Ohio State
With Dwayne Haskins taking over for J.T. Barrett this fall, the Buckeyes could look to attack downfield more in the passing game. That’s good news for Campbell, as he’s one of the fastest players in the Big Ten and returns to Columbus after catching 40 passes for 584 yards and three touchdowns in 2017.
9. Tyler Vaughns, USC
Vaughns emerged as a key target for Sam Darnold last season and is poised for a bigger role in 2018 with a new quarterback leading the offense. As a redshirt freshman last fall, Vaughns caught 57 passes for 809 yards and five scores. With Deontay Burnett leaving early for the NFL, Vaughns should be the No. 1 receiver for the Trojans.
8. T.J. Vasher, Texas Tech
All signs point to Vasher becoming the next star receiver in Lubbock. He averaged 18.8 yards a reception on 29 catches last fall, adding 545 receiving yards and six scores. The sophomore should rank among the Big 12’s top receivers in 2018.
7. Jalen Reagor, TCU
As a true freshman last fall, Reagor led the way in TCU’s receiving corps. He led the team with 576 receiving yards and eight scores on 33 receptions and also averaged 17.5 yards a catch. With John Diarse and Desmon White leaving Fort Worth, Reagor is poised even more targets in 2018, allowing the sophomore to challenge for All-Big 12 honors.
6. Hakeem Butler, Iowa State
With Allen Lazard departing Ames, Butler is set to become the No. 1 receiver for Iowa State. As evidenced by last season, that’s a role Butler is ready to assume. He caught 41 passes for 697 yards and seven touchdowns last fall, earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. Butler should push for 1,000 yards in 2018.
5. Juwan Johnson, Penn State
Johnson provided one of the top moments from Penn State’s 2017 season, as he grabbed a seven-yard pass from quarterback Trace McSorley on 4th-and-goal as time expired to beat Iowa. He finished the year with 54 catches for 701 yards but is primed for even bigger things in 2018. With DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki departing Happy Valley, Johnson should be the No. 1 target for McSorley.
4. Tarik Black/Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan
Black and Peoples-Jones were two key pickups for coach Jim Harbaugh in the 2017 signing class, and both players will be counted upon even more in 2018. Black caught 11 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown through three games but suffered a season-ending foot injury. Peoples-Jones grabbed 22 receptions for 277 yards over 13 games. With Shea Patterson at the helm, look for both players to fulfill their recruiting hype with a solid sophomore campaign.
3. CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Lamb almost doesn’t qualify as a breakout candidate after catching 46 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman last fall. However, as his performance indicated, Lamb is just scratching the surface of his potential and a 1,000-yard season could be in the works for 2018.
2. Tee Higgins, Clemson
Higgins is a physically gifted (6-4, 200) target for Clemson quarterbacks, and a player just starting to reach his potential. The Tennessee native ranked as a 5-star recruit in the 2017 signing class and caught 17 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman last fall.
1. Jerry Jeudy/Henry Ruggs/DeVonta Smith, Alabama
Let’s cheat a little here and list all three Alabama sophomore receivers in this space. With Calvin Ridley off to the NFL, Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith are set to headline the Crimson Tide receiving corps in 2018. All three players made an impression as freshmen -- Jeudy averaged 18.9 yards per catch, Ruggs caught 12 passes for 229 yards and six touchdowns, while Smith caught the game-winning touchdown in the national championship game.
Others to Watch: Kobay White, Boston College; Miles Boykin, Notre Dame; Damon Hazelton, Virginia Tech; Ricky Smalling, Illinois; Aaron Cephus, Rice; Brandon Childress, Central Michigan; Chico McClatcher, Washington; Van Jefferson/Tyrie Cleveland, Florida; Dalton Schoen, Kansas State: Thomas Hennigan, Appalachian State; Lucky Jackson, WKU; Traveon Samuel, Troy; Keenen Johnson, Tulsa; Britain Covey, Utah; A.J. Richardson/Octavius Evans, Boise State