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 2018 season and the players returning. Regardless of the position, breakout players will have a huge role in shaping the national championship and playoff picture. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is likely to supplant Jalen Hurts as the team's starter after an impressive performance in the win over Georgia. With a full season of snaps, Tagovailoa is likely to challenge for all-conference honors. Other names like Georgia running back D'Andre Swift, Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses, Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and Florida State running back Cam Akers are also poised to deliver a breakout campaign in 2018.
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 30 potential breakout stars for 2018.
CFB's Top 30 Early Projected Breakout Players for 2018
Cam Akers, RB, Florida State
New coach Willie Taggart inherits plenty of talent to work with on offense next fall. One of those weapons for the first-year coach is Akers – a five-star recruit from the 2017 signing class. Akers shared carries with Jacques Patrick last fall and still ended up with 1,025 yards and seven rushing scores and caught 16 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. He should take on even more carries in 2018.
Jhamon Ausbon, WR, Texas A&M
With Christian Kirk off to the NFL, new coach Jimbo Fisher is looking for a go-to receiver for quarterback Nick Starkel. Ausbon showcased his potential by catching 50 passes for 571 yards and three scores as a true freshman last fall. Look for Ausbon and fellow sophomore-to-be Camron Buckley to be more involved in the passing game next year.
Trajan Bandy, CB, Miami
With cornerback Michael Jackson and safety Jaquan Johnson back for their senior years, Miami should have one of the nation’s top defensive backfields in 2018. In addition to those two players, coordinator Manny Diaz has Malek Young at the other corner spot and safety Sheldrick Redwine. But the player to watch this offseason is Bandy. As a freshman in 2017, he broke up six passes, registered 25 tackles and intercepted one pass. Bandy should have a bigger role in Miami’s defense next fall. Another name to watch in Coral Gables: Wide receiver Jeff Thomas.
Tarik Black/Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan
Michigan’s passing attack could take a significant step forward in 2018 if quarterback Shea Patterson is eligible after transferring in from Ole Miss. But regardless of who starts at quarterback for coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines have two emerging targets on the outside. Peoples-Jones caught 22 passes for 277 yards as a true freshman last season and should see his role and overall comfort factor with the offense increase in 2018. Fellow true freshman Tarik Black caught 11 passes through three games but suffered a season-ending injury. His return should provide a boost for this receiving corps.
Hunter Bryant, TE, Washington
Washington’s passing attack needs new weapons to emerge after receiver Dante Pettis expired his eligibility at the end of the 2017 season. Bryant flashed potential in nine games last year, catching 22 passes for 331 yards and a touchdown. Look for quarterback Jake Browning to throw plenty of passes in his direction next fall.
Tre Bryant, RB, Nebraska
Bryant was off to a fast start in 2017, but he was sidelined after the first two games due to injury. Through Nebraska’s first two contests, Bryant rushed for 299 yards and two touchdowns, averaging a healthy 5.9 yards per carry mark. New coach Scott Frost should find plenty of ways to get the ball in Bryant’s hands in 2018.
Stephen Carr, RB, USC
USC’s offense will have to reload in 2018, as quarterback Sam Darnold, running back Ronald Jones and receiver Deontay Burnett all jumped to the NFL a year early. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Tee Martin. Carr is a future star in Los Angeles after rushing for 363 yards and three scores as a freshman in 2017. He should be the feature back for USC in 2018.
Dontye Carriere-Williams, CB, Wisconsin
The Badgers are set to replace both starting cornerbacks this offseason. Nick Nelson declared early for the NFL Draft, and Derrick Tindal expired his eligibility after the Orange Bowl. Carriere-Williams played as Wisconsin’s third corner in 2017 and finished with 30 tackles and six pass breakups. With another offseason to develop under coordinator Jim Leonhard, Carriere-Williams should be ready to anchor the cornerback spot for the defense.
K’Lavon Chaisson, LB, LSU
With Arden Key headed to the NFL, coordinator Dave Aranda needs to find a player to create havoc off the edge in 2018. Chaisson – a four-star recruit from the 2017 signing class – should get an extended look in the fall. He played in 12 contests and recorded 4.5 tackles for a loss in limited action.
Ty Chandler, RB, Tennessee
With John Kelly moving onto the NFL, Chandler should take over as the lead back for new coach Jeremy Pruitt. As a freshman in 2017, Chandler rushed for 305 yards and two scores on 71 carries. The Tennessee native showcased his potential by rushing for 120 yards on 22 attempts against Kentucky on Oct. 28.
Damonte Coxie, WR, Memphis
With Anthony Miller and Phil Mayhue out of eligibility, Memphis’ high-powered offense will have a new No. 1 receiver in 2018. Coxie could be the next star receiver for coach Mike Norvell after catching 21 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2017.
Tee Higgins/Amari Rodgers, WR, Clemson
The Tigers must replace two out of their top three receivers from 2017, but coach Dabo Swinney has the next wave of standouts ready to step up on the outside. Hunter Renfrow is back as the leader of the receiving corps, but Higgins and Rodgers are poised for an increased role. Higgins was a five-star recruit in the 2017 signing class and caught 17 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. Rodgers grabbed 19 passes for 123 yards in his Clemson debut last fall.
Gary Johnson, LB, Texas
Johnson was a key pickup from the junior college ranks in the 2017 signing class and emerged as one of the leaders for coach Tom Herman’s defense. Over 13 appearances, Johnson recorded 60 tackles, including 10 in the Texas Bowl win over Missouri. Six of those stops went for a loss, and Johnson also recorded two sacks, four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He should be in the mix for All-Big 12 honors this fall.
Joshua Kaindoh, DE, Florida State
New coordinator Harlon Barnett has a few personnel losses to address this offseason but returns a promising core of talent to build around in 2018. Kaindoh is one of those pieces, as he registered 6.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks as a freshman last year. With Josh Sweat moving onto the NFL, Kaindoh should see more snaps and make an even bigger impact off the edge in 2018.
Dylan Moses/Mack Wilson, LB, Alabama
With Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans finishing their playing careers in Tuscaloosa after the national championship game, Moses and Wilson are the new anchors for the interior of the linebacker unit. Moses accumulated 30 stops as a true freshman in 2017, and Wilson recorded 40 tackles over 12 games. Injuries limited both players late in the year, but a return to full strength over the offseason should allow this duo to emerge as one of the SEC’s top tandems at linebacker.
Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
Baker Mayfield leaves big shoes to fill in Norman, but Oklahoma’s offense should be in good hands with Murray at the controls. Coach Lincoln Riley can spend the offseason building an offense that is designed to Murray’s strengths, which is likely to utilize his legs more than the one Mayfield ran in 2017. After starting his career at Texas A&M in 2015, Murray transferred to Norman and sat out 2016 due to NCAA rules. He saw limited work in 2017, completing 18 of 21 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 142 yards on 14 attempts.
Jeffrey Okudah, CB, Ohio State
Okudah was the top-ranked cornerback by the 247Sports Composite in last year’s signing class and appeared in 14 games for Ohio State’s defense in 2017. Okudah accumulated 17 tackles, one pass breakup and recovered a fumble during his time on the field. With Denzel Ward leaving for the NFL, Okudah should take over a full-time role in 2018.
Jawon Pass, QB, Louisville
Pass has all of the necessary talent to become coach Bobby Petrino’s next star pupil under center. The Georgia native ranked as the No. 204 overall recruit in the 2016 signing class by the 247Sports Composite. After a redshirt year, Pass appeared in six games as Lamar Jackson’s backup in 2017. In limited action, Pass completed 23 of 33 passes for 238 yards and two scores and rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts.
Malcolm Perry, QB, Navy
Perry started the 2017 season at slot back but shifted back to quarterback late in the year. The Tennessee native provided a spark for Navy’s offense, as he rushed for 282 yards in a win against SMU, posted 250 rushing yards against Army and tallied 114 in the bowl victory against Virginia. With Memphis reloading, Perry’s emergence at quarterback late in the year could elevate Navy to the top spot in the AAC West in 2018.
Jaelan Phillips, DL, UCLA
Phillips ranked as the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2017 247Sports Composite but was limited to just seven games due to injury. The California native recorded 21 tackles (seven for a loss) and 3.5 sacks in his freshman campaign. Look for Phillips to be a key cog in Chip Kelly’s defense for 2018.
Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU
The Horned Frogs will have a new quarterback in 2018 after Kenny Hill finished his eligibility. Regardless of whether Justin Rogers or Shawn Robinson takes the first snap next year, the quarterback needs to get the ball in Reagor’s hands. As a true freshman in 2017, he caught 33 passes for 576 yards and eight scores.
Kenny Robinson, S, West Virginia
Robinson made an impact for West Virginia’s defense as a true freshman in 2017 and is only going to get better with another offseason to work under coordinator Tony Gibson. Robinson played in all 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 46 tackles. He also broke up three passes and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State
It’s no secret the Nittany Lions are going to miss running back Saquon Barkley. But coach James Franklin has recruited well, as Sanders – a former five-star recruit in the 2016 signing class – is poised to take over the No. 1 role in the backfield. Sanders rushed for 184 yards as a freshman in 2016 and recorded 191 yards and two touchdowns last year. Look for Sanders to push for 1,000 rushing yards as Penn State’s lead back this fall.
Jordon Scott, DL, Oregon
Oregon’s defense showed marked improvement in coordinator Jim Leavitt’s first season in Eugene. And with a solid core in place for 2018, more improvement on the stat sheet should be expected. Scott saw action in all 13 games for the Ducks as a true freshman in 2017 and recorded 34 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and two sacks. With another offseason to work under Leavitt and develop in the weight room, Scott is only going to become more disruptive against Pac-12 offensive lines.
Shakif Seymour/Art Thompkins, RB, Toledo
Toledo has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in seven out of the last eight seasons. Even though Terry Swanson has finished his eligibility, it’s a safe pick to assume that run of success on the ground will continue in 2018. Seymour and Thompkins combined for 1,331 yards and 14 rushing scores last year. Regardless of which running back starts, coach Jason Candle’s backfield is in good hands.
Dillon Stoner, WR, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State possessed the nation’s best receiving corps in 2017, but this unit is set to undergo some renovations with the loss of James Washington and Marcell Ateman. Stoner could emerge as the No. 1 target for the Cowboys after catching 44 passes for 576 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman in 2017.
D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel closed out standout careers in Athens by combining for 2,572 yards and 31 rushing scores in 2017. While this duo will be missed, the cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Jim Chaney and coach Kirby Smart. Swift rushed for 618 yards and three touchdowns on just 81 carries as a freshman in 2017. He should see an increased role and is likely to emerge as the feature back in 2018.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Tagovailoa jumped into the national spotlight with his performance against Georgia in the national championship and should be the starting quarterback for Nick Saban in 2018. The sample size is small, but the Hawaii native has been impressive every time he’s received snaps. Tagovailoa completed 49 of 77 throws for 636 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 133 yards and two scores in nine appearances in 2017. Look for Tagovailoa to challenge for first-team All-SEC honors next fall.
Juwan Washington, RB, San Diego State
Can the Aztecs have a running back reach 2,000 rushing yards for the third year in a row? That’s a tall task for Washington, but he’s showed plenty of ability in limited work. With Rashaad Penny out of eligibility, Washington is set to thrive as the team’s No. 1 back. In 13 games last year, Washington ranked second on the team with 759 yards and seven touchdowns.
Dexter Williams, RB, Notre Dame
Josh Adams declared for the NFL Draft, but the backfield isn’t hurting for options for coach Brian Kelly. Williams has been impressive in limited action over the last three years, which included 360 yards and four touchdowns on just 39 carries in 2017. With a full workload coming in 2018, Williams should push for 1,000 yards.