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 2019 season and the players returning: regardless of the position, breakout players will have a huge role in shaping the national championship and playoff picture. Breakout quarterbacks led the way for playoff teams in 2018, as Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) and Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) all delivered a prolific season in their first year as a starter. The 2019 season features a couple of breakout candidates from top teams, including end Xavier Thomas at Clemson, running back Najee Harris at Alabama and receiver Chris Olave at Ohio State.
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 2019.
CFB's Top 30 Early Projected Breakout Players for 2019
Salvon Ahmed, RB, Washington
Myles Gaskin has finished his eligibility, so the Washington backfield will have a new look in 2019. However, coach Chris Petersen won’t have to search too far for the new go-to option. Ahmed is poised for a breakout year after spending the last two seasons as Gaskin’s backup. The Washington native has rushed for 996 yards and 10 touchdowns on 165 carries over the last two years.
Francis Bernard, LB, Utah
Utah’s defense has to restock at linebacker following the departures of Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. However, Bernard – a transfer from BYU – is ready to assume a starting role for coach Kyle Whittingham. He collected 38 tackles (five for a loss) as a reserve for the Utes in 2018. After working as a running back as a freshman at BYU in 2015, Bernard shifted to linebacker in ’16. That season, he collected 79 stops, two sacks and three picks.
Max Borghi, RB, Washington State
With James Williams off to the NFL, Borghi is slated to take over as Washington State’s No. 1 running back. As a freshman in 2018, Borghi recorded 366 rushing yards (5.1 ypc) and eight scores. Additionally, Borghi showcased his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and be a safety valve for his quarterback, grabbing 53 receptions for 374 yards and four touchdowns.
K’Lavon Chaisson, LB, LSU
Chaisson was poised for a breakout year in 2018 but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Miami. With a full year to heal, look for Chaisson to be a disruptive force for LSU’s defense in 2019.
Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss
Corral ranked as a top-100 recruit in the 2018 signing class and garnered valuable reps as the backup to Jordan Ta’amu in his first year on campus. Since Corral only appeared in four games, he was able to preserve a redshirt season for 2019. In those four appearances, Corral completed 16 of 22 throws for 239 yards and two touchdowns to one pick. He also added 83 rushing yards and two scores.
Samuel Cosmi, OL, Texas
After taking a redshirt year in 2017, Cosmi emerged as a key cog in Texas’ offensive line in ’18. He started 13 out of the 14 games for the Longhorns and earned honorable mention Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. With left tackle Calvin Anderson departing, Cosmi could flip from the right side to take over at left tackle in 2019.
Jordan Davis, DL, Georgia
Davis emerged over the second half of the season as a key cog in Georgia’s run defense. The Charlotte native finished his freshman campaign with 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries. With Davis helping to clog the interior of the Bulldogs’ line, coach Kirby Smart’s team should have one of the top run defenses once again in the SEC.
Tommy DeVito, QB, Syracuse
Eric Dungey has finished his eligibility, but the Orange are in great shape at quarterback. DeVito is poised for a breakout year after spending the 2018 season as Dungey’s backup. He played in eight contests, completing 44 of 87 throws for 525 yards and four touchdowns. DeVito ranked as a four-star prospect out of high school and will take control of the high-powered Syracuse offense this spring.
Palaie Gaoteote IV, LB, USC
Gaoteote could be the next star linebacker at USC. He played in 10 games for the Trojans as a freshman in 2018, collecting 38 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and two sacks. Gaoteote’s development will be crucial, as he will likely to be tasked with replacing Cameron Smith in the middle of USC’s linebacker group.
Jonathan Garvin, DL, Miami
Garvin’s play in 2018 was overshadowed a bit by Joe Jackson, but the junior is poised to challenge for All-ACC honors next fall. In 13 appearances last year, Garvin collected 60 tackles (17 for a loss) and 5.5 sacks.
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Alabama’s backfield is loaded despite Damien Harris finishing his eligibility and Josh Jacobs moving on to the NFL. Harris finished second on the team with 783 yards and accumulated four rushing scores in 2018. The former five-star recruit is slated to move into the No. 1 role at running back for coach Nick Saban.
John Hightower/CT Thomas, WR, Boise State
With Sean Modster and A.J. Richardson out of eligibility, Boise State is losing its top two receivers from 2018. However, coach Bryan Harsin’s group is stocked with potential breakout options. Hightower averaged 16.3 yards per catch last season, while Thomas collected 41 receptions for 535 yards.
Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
With Justice Hill sidelined for the last three games of 2018 due to injury, Oklahoma State got an early look at what Hubbard can bring to the offense in ’19. He gashed West Virginia for 134 yards on 26 attempts and collected 145 in the bowl victory versus Missouri. Hubbard recorded 740 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 124 attempts last season.
Hunter Johnson, QB, Northwestern
Johnson transferred from Clemson to Northwestern prior to the start of the 2018 season. And with Clayton Thorson out of eligibility, Johnson is slated to assume the starting job for coach Pat Fitzgerald. The former five-star recruit should be an impact addition for the Wildcats, helping to keep this team in the hunt for the Big Ten West Division title next fall.
Carlo Kemp/Kwity Paye/Josh Uche, DL, Michigan
We will cheat a little and group three players from Michigan’s defensive line in this space. The Wolverines are losing ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, along with tackle Bryan Mone. Kemp recorded 17 tackles working on the interior of the line in 2018, while Paye and Uche combined for 13.5 tackles for a loss in limited snaps.
Cole Kmet, TE, Notre Dame
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book will be looking for a couple of new targets next season, as receiver Miles Boykin and tight end Alize Mack departed for the NFL. Kmet was a four-star recruit in the 2017 signing class and caught two passes in his first year on campus. Kmet was more involved in ’18, grabbing 15 receptions for 162 yards.
Leon O’Neal, S, Texas A&M
Texas A&M enters the offseason looking to shore up its pass defense, but coordinator Mike Elko is slated to lose safety Donovan Wilson. However, one of the reasons for optimism in the defensive backfield for the Aggies surrounds the potential of O’Neal. He capped his freshman season by recording six tackles (one for a loss), one interception and a pass breakup in the win over NC State in the Gator Bowl.
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
With Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon out of eligibility, the Buckeyes will have a revamped receiving corps next season. The cupboard isn’t bare for new coach Ryan Day. K.J. Hill (68 catches), Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor are back for 2019. However, after catching 12 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in ’18, Olave is primed for a bigger role next season.
Ronnie Perkins, DE, Oklahoma
New coordinator Alex Grinch should maximize Perkins’ talent over the next few seasons. The Missouri native impressed as a true freshman, recording 37 tackles (eight for a loss), five sacks and one pass breakup over 14 contests.
Ricky Person, RB, NC State
With a new quarterback taking over for NC State in 2019, coach Dave Doeren may lean a little more on his running backs next fall. Reggie Gallaspy finished his eligibility in ’18, which leaves Person as the likely No. 1 back for 2019. The former four-star recruit rushed for 471 yards and two touchdowns on 112 carries in his first year on campus last season.
Mike Rose, LB, Iowa State
Rose started all 13 games for coach Matt Campbell’s defense in 2018, finishing the season with 75 tackles (nine for a loss) and two pass breakups. The Ohio native earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors for his freshman performance and should be a key piece of the Cyclones’ defense next fall.
Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon
Sewell was an impact addition through the freshman ranks for coach Mario Cristobal in 2018. The Utah native started the first six contests at left tackle but a high-ankle sprain sidelined him for the next six games. Sewell returned to start the Redbox Bowl and is poised to rank among the Pac-12’s top offensive linemen in 2019.
Ricky Slade, RB, Penn State
Saquan Barkley passed the torch to Miles Sanders prior to the 2018 season, and Sanders rushed for 1,274 yards and nine scores as the top running back for coach James Franklin. Sanders departed early for the NFL, handing Slade the go-to role in the backfield for 2019. The five-star recruit received limited carries in ’18, recording 257 yards and six touchdowns on 45 carries. Penn State has recruited well at this position in recent years and is adding two standout freshmen to the mix this offseason. However, look for Slade to have a breakout year in 2019.
Alontae Taylor/Bryce Thompson, CB, Tennessee
Taylor and Thompson were thrown into the fire and showed promise as true freshmen in 2018. Taylor collected 40 tackles and two pass breakups, while Thompson recorded 34 stops, seven pass breakups and three interceptions. Thompson graded out as the top freshman cornerback in college football by Pro Football Focus.
Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
Clemson heads into 2019 looking to replace ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, along with Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins on the interior of the line. While those losses are significant, the next wave of stars is in place. Thomas ranked as the No. 3 overall recruit in the 2018 signing class and recorded 10.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks as a reserve. With a full complement of snaps coming, Thomas should challenge for All-ACC honors in 2019.
Tre Turner, WR, Virginia Tech
Turner finished the 2018 season on a high note. After catching just 10 passes through Virginia Tech’s first seven games, the freshman grabbed 16 over his last five appearances. Additionally, Turner posted 99 receiving yards in the 41-20 win over Marshall and caught a 40-yard score in the Military Bowl against Cincinnati. Turner’s 20.6 yards per catch average ranked fourth among ACC receivers in 2018.
Cole Van Lanen, OL, Wisconsin
Is Van Lanen the next star tackle out of Madison? The early signs suggest he is. After a redshirt year in 2016, Van Lanen played in 14 games in ’17 and 13 in ’18. Van Lanen also made a start and graded out as one of the nation’s top tackles according to Pro Football Focus. Van Lanen should thrive with a full-time starting role in 2019.
Maurice Washington, RB, Nebraska
With Devine Ozigbo out of eligibility, Washington is set to become the No. 1 running back for coach Scott Frost’s offense next fall. As a true freshman in 2018, Washington flashed potential, rushing for 455 yards and three touchdowns on just 77 carries. He also added 24 catches for 221 yards and a score.
Seth Williams, WR, Auburn
The Tigers are losing their top two receivers (Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton), but coach Gus Malzahn’s team has plenty of talent in the pipeline. As a freshman last fall, Williams caught 26 passes for 534 yards and five touchdowns. Also, he led all SEC receivers by averaging 20.5 yards per catch.
Marvin Wilson, DL, Florida State
With Brian Burns leaving Tallahassee to go to the NFL and Demarcus Christmas out of eligibility, the Seminoles will be counting on Wilson to dominate in the trenches next season. The former five-star recruit is primed for a breakout interior on the interior of Florida State’s front after recording 42 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and one forced fumble. Hybrid linebacker/safety Jaiden Woodbey is another player to watch in Tallahassee for a breakout season in 2019.