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 2020 season and the players returning: regardless of the position, breakout players will have a huge role in shaping conference title races and the national championship and playoff picture. Joe Burrow's breakout year was a big reason why LSU hoisted the national title trophy after beating Clemson, while Ohio State dominated the Big Ten once again behind Justin Fields in his first season as the starter.
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 35 potential breakout stars for 2020.
CFB's Top 35 Early Projected Breakout Players for 2020
David Bailey, RB, Boston College
AJ Dillon leaves big shoes to fill in Chestnut Hill after three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. However, new coach Jeff Hafley has another running back ready to emerge, as Bailey gained 844 yards and seven rushing scores over 148 attempts in 2019. Entering his junior year, Bailey has attempted 16 or more carries in just three games. However, each of those performances resulted in 100 or more yards on the ground. Boston College also returns one of the ACC’s top offensive lines for 2020, so Bailey should find plenty of running room next fall.
Big Kat Bryant/Derick Hall, DL, Auburn
Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown leave big shoes to fill on Auburn’s defensive line next season. However, coordinator Kevin Steele and line coach Rodney Garner should keep this unit performing at a high level. Bryant and Hall combined for 3.5 tackles for a loss in reserve roles last year but have the talent to break out in the trenches for 2020.
Noah Burks, LB, Wisconsin
The Badgers are losing two key linebackers – Zack Baun and Chris Orr – but this position is still in good shape for 2020. Burks’ play in 2019 is a big reason why, as the Indiana native posted his best season in a Wisconsin uniform. In 14 appearances, Burks collected 36 tackles (seven for a loss), two sacks, one interception and three pass breakups. Burks seems to be scratching the surface of his potential and could be primed for an All-Big Ten-caliber senior year.
Chevan Cordeiro, QB, Hawaii
New coach Todd Graham may not run the same offense as former coach Nick Rolovich did, but Cordeiro should break out and emerge as one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks next fall. The Hawaii native has started four games over the last two years and enters 2020 with 1,291 passing yards and 14 touchdowns to five picks. With Cole McDonald off to the NFL, Cordeiro is the unquestioned starter going into spring practice.
Jerrion Ealy, RB, Ole Miss
Ealy wasted no time making an impact in his first season in Oxford. The five-star prospect led all Ole Miss running backs with 722 rushing yards and six touchdowns, while also recording four runs of 40 or more yards. Ealy also chipped in 20 catches for 172 yards and a score and added another touchdown on special teams. New coach Lane Kiffin inherits promising pieces on offense and should find plenty of ways to utilize Ealy's all-around and big-play ability in 2020.
Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida
Elam was a big-time pickup on the recruiting trail for Florida and capped his freshman year in Gainesville with a standout performance (two tackles and one interception) in the Orange Bowl. The Florida native played in all 13 games for the Gators last season, collecting 11 tackles, three interceptions and four pass breakups. With CJ Henderson departing early for the NFL, Elam is slated to step into a starting role for the Gators in 2020.
Kyle Ford/Drake London/Bru McCoy, WR, USC
USC is loaded with talent in the receiving corps, but Michael Pittman’s departure opens up an opportunity for another threat to emerge in 2020. London, Ford and McCoy were all key signings for the 2019 recruiting haul, with London (39 catches for 567 yards) putting together the most productive season. Both Ford and McCoy were able to use a redshirt year last fall. All three will see an uptick in opportunities in 2020.
Trace Ford, DE, Oklahoma State
With a loaded offense and a defense that returns nearly intact, Oklahoma State has the pieces in place to push for a trip to the Big 12 title game. Additionally, the defense can count on a jump in production from players like Ford. As a true freshman in limited time last season, the Oklahoma native picked up four tackles for a loss, three sacks, nine quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He could emerge as one of the Big 12's top pass rushers in 2020.
Chase Garbers, QB, California
How big of a difference does a healthy Garbers make to California’s offense? Consider this: He went 7-0 when starting and playing for more than a half in 2019. Garbers threw for 1,772 yards and 14 touchdowns to just three picks in nine overall appearances and added another 223 yards and three scores on the ground. Former NFL coordinator Bill Musgrave is set to take over the play-calling duties in Berkeley next season, and the veteran assistant should help Garbers elevate his play in 2020.
Tyler Goodson, RB, Iowa
Iowa hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last two seasons, but that streak is likely to end in 2020. Goodson emerged as the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 back by the end of the 2019 season and finished with 638 yards and five touchdowns over 134 attempts. He also caught 24 passes for 166 yards and reached the end zone in each of his last four games.
Eric Gray, RB, Tennessee
Gray finished second to Ty Chandler in rushing yards for Tennessee’s offense in 2019, but the Memphis native looked like the best running back on the roster at the end of the year. Gray torched Vanderbilt for 246 yards and three scores in the regular season finale and posted 86 yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts against Indiana in the Gator Bowl. As a true freshman last fall, Gray finished the year with 539 yards and four touchdowns. Tennessee’s offensive line should rank as one of the best in the SEC next fall, giving Gray a chance to push for 1,000 yards if he’s the No. 1 running back.
Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
Notre Dame has to replace both starting safeties this offseason after Alohi Gilman left for the NFL and Jalen Elliott expired his eligibility in South Bend. Hamilton is the answer at one of those spots after a terrific freshman season. In 13 games, he accumulated four picks, 41 tackles (one for a loss) and six pass breakups.
Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State
Ohio State accumulated 54 sacks in 2019 but players responsible for over half of the production (32.5) won’t return next fall. The biggest departure up front is Chase Young (16.5 sacks), and it’s no secret he won’t be easy to replace. Harrison – a five-star recruit in the 2019 signing class – played in all 14 games last season and flashed potential with 3.5 sacks and 24 tackles (five for a loss). The Buckeyes will be counting on the Ohio native to take on an even bigger role in the trenches for 2020.
Sam Hartman, QB, Wake Forest
Jamie Newman transferred to Georgia, but Wake Forest is set at quarterback with Hartman’s return to the lineup. As a true freshman in 2018, he threw for 1,984 yards and 16 touchdowns and ran for 275 yards before suffering a season-ending leg injury. Key target Sage Surratt passed on the NFL for one more year in Winston-Salem, giving Hartman an All-America candidate to throw to as he looks to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC in 2020.
Dax Hill, DB, Michigan
Hill made an instant impact in his first season with the Wolverines. The Oklahoma native played in all 13 games, recording 36 tackles (three for a loss), one interception and three pass breakups. Hill’s speed and overall coverage ability will be a huge asset for a Michigan secondary looking to replace cornerback Lavert Hill and safety Josh Metellus.
James Hudson, OL, Cincinnati
Hudson was forced to sit out the 2019 season as a result of transfer rules but was able to play in the Birmingham Bowl win over Boston College. The former four-star recruit garnered accolades for his play in that game by earning a spot on the Associated Press All-Bowl Team. Hudson should start at left tackle Cincinnati’s line next fall, which will help bolster an offensive line that had an uneven 2019 season.
Frank Ladson/Joseph Ngata, WR, Clemson
Tee Higgins is off to the NFL, but Clemson’s receiving corps isn’t hurting for talent. Justyn Ross (66 catches) and Amari Rodgers (30) headline the proven options, while Ladson and Ngata are ready to take on bigger roles after combining for 26 catches as true freshmen in 2019. Both players rated as four-star prospects out of high school and add to a deep group of weapons for quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Dontae Lucas, OL, Florida State
Lucas was a bright spot on Florida State’s offensive line in 2019 and figures to be a key piece of the 2020 group under new coach Mike Norvell. The Florida native played in 11 games with seven starts as a true freshman last fall. A leg injury suffered in the Sun Bowl could keep him out of spring practice.
Davis Mills, QB, Stanford
With K.J. Costello leaving Stanford as a graduate transfer, Mills has a clear path to the starting job in 2020. The Georgia native made six starts in place of Costello last season and threw for 1,960 yards and 11 touchdowns to five picks. Mills completed 65.6 percent of his passes and set a new Stanford single-game record with 504 passing yards in a loss to Washington State.
James Mitchell, TE, Virginia Tech
Mitchell played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2018 but did not record a catch. A year later, Mitchell emerged as a key cog in Virginia Tech’s passing attack by grabbing 21 receptions for 361 yards and two touchdowns. With Damon Hazelton transferring and fellow tight end Dalton Keene off to the NFL, Mitchell should see more opportunities his way after averaging 17.2 yards a catch last season.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2020
Tiawan Mullen, CB, Indiana
Mullen – the brother of former Clemson standout cornerback Trayvon Mullen – quietly had a standout freshman campaign for the Hoosiers. The Florida native recorded 29 tackles (3.5 for a loss), two forced fumbles and 13 pass breakups over 13 contests. After grading out as one of the top cornerbacks in the Big Ten by Pro Football Focus and earning honorable mention all-conference honors, Mullen seems poised to jump into the mix as one of the top defensive backs in the conference next fall.
Evan Neal, OL, Alabama
With Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills entrenched at tackle, Neal kicked inside to guard and started all 13 games in a standout freshman season for the Crimson Tide. With Wills off to the NFL, Neal seems likely to slide back to the outside and play at tackle. The Florida native should be more comfortable there, after ranking as the No. 1 overall tackle and No. 7 prospect in the 2019 signing class by the 247Sports Composite.
Joseph Ossai, LB, Texas
change at coordinator and scheme should help Ossai build off a promising sophomore campaign. He saw action in all 13 games for the Longhorns in 2019, recording 90 tackles (13.5 tackles for a loss), five sacks and one forced fumble. Ossai delivered a monster performance (six TFL) in the Alamo Bowl win over Utah and should push for all-conference honors after picking up honorable mention accolades in 2019.
Jayson Oweh, DE, Penn State
etur Gross-Matos’ departure leaves a void in the trenches for coordinator Brent Pry to fill, but the Nittany Lions have plenty of talented options waiting to compete for snaps. Oweh is one of those players, as the New Jersey native has accumulated seven sacks and seven tackles for a loss in limited snaps over the last two years. The athletic sophomore should team with Shaka Toney to form one of the Big Ten’s top defensive end combinations for 2020.
George Pickens, WR, Georgia
Pickens paced the Georgia offense in receptions (49), receiving yards (727) and touchdown catches (eight) as a true freshman in 2019. The addition of Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman alleviates concerns under center with Jake Fromm’s departure to the NFL, and new coordinator Todd Monken won’t be afraid to open up the passing game. With Newman’s ability to push the ball downfield in this offense, Pickens should be in for a huge 2020 season.
Zacch Pickens, DL, South Carolina
The Gamecocks are losing a key piece of their defensive line with Javon Kinlaw off to the NFL. However, coach Will Muschamp has recruited well up front, with Pickens – a five-star prospect in the 2019 signing class – ready to step up into a larger role. Pickens played in all 12 contests in his first year on campus, recording 16 stops and a quarterback hurry in a reserve role. After garnering valuable experience in 2019, Pickens should turn some of that potential into production this fall.
Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma
Lincoln Riley won’t hand the starting job to Rattler, as he has to battle with Tanner Mordecai for the No. 1 spot this spring. However, it will be tough to keep the Arizona native on the sidelines after a full offseason to learn the offense. The five-star prospect completed seven passes for 81 yards and a touchdown in three games of limited work in 2019. With Riley’s track record of developing quarterbacks and the high-powered scheme in place, Rattler could post huge numbers in his first season as Oklahoma’s starter.
Wan’Dale Robinson, WR, Nebraska
Robinson delivered a solid freshman season for the Cornhuskers, as he ran for 340 yards and three touchdowns and added 40 catches for 453 yards and two scores. Those numbers helped Robinson finish sixth in the Big Ten by averaging 102.9 all-purpose yards a game. With another offseason to develop under coach Scott Frost, Robinson should be an even bigger factor in Nebraska’s offense next season.
Tyler Shelvin, DL, LSU
The box score doesn’t adequately describe how big of an impact Shelvin has on LSU’s defense. The Louisiana native played in all 15 games for the Tigers in 2019, recording 39 tackles (three for a loss) and two pass breakups. However, Shelvin was instrumental to LSU’s run defense, helping the group hold teams to just 120.8 yards a game on the ground. Shelvin won’t post huge statistical numbers, but he’s a key cog up front for coach Ed Orgeron’s defense.
Ainias Smith, WR, Texas A&M
Most of Smith’s 2019 production came at the receiver position, but he started to see snaps at running back in the Texas Bowl win over Oklahoma State. Smith ended the year with 22 catches for 248 yards and three touchdowns and posted 54 rushing yards over seven carries. He also averaged nearly 12 yards (11.9) on punt return attempts. Smith’s 2020 position isn’t settled, but after a promising freshman campaign, coach Jimbo Fisher has to find ways to get the all-purpose threat involved next season. Smith’s teammate DeMarvin Leal is another name to watch in the breakout category for 2020.
Tykee Smith, S, West Virginia
Attrition took a toll on West Virginia’s secondary last season, which pressed Smith into receiving major snaps as a true freshman. The Pennsylvania native aced his debut for the Mountaineers and emerged as a key cog for the next couple of years. Smith recorded 51 tackles (2.5 for a loss), one sack, four pass breakups and two interceptions. He will be one of the headliners for West Virginia’s secondary in 2020.
Mika Tafua, DL, Utah
Kyle Whittingham’s defense consistently churns out standouts in the trenches, and the front will be looking for new standouts to emerge with the departures of end Bradlee Anae and tackles John Penisini and Leki Fotu this offseason. Tafua recorded 47 tackles (8.5 for a loss), three sacks and two pass breakups in 14 games as a starter opposite of Anae in 2019. With Anae off the next level, Tafua should become Utah’s top pass rusher next season.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon
Thibodeaux wasted no time making an impact on Oregon’s defense last fall. After ranking as one of the top recruits in the 2019 signing class, the California native recorded 35 tackles (14 for a loss), nine sacks and a forced fumble. Thibodeaux seemed to get better with every snap, as 10.5 of his tackles for a loss came over the final six contests. Assuming Thibodeaux builds off his finish to 2019, he should rank among the nation’s top defensive linemen next fall.
Demitri Washington, LB, Boise State
Boise State’s top three leaders in sacks – Curtis Weaver, Chase Hatada and Sontane Lui – won’t return for 2020. Restocking the defensive front and finding players to rush the quarterback are two key offseason priorities for coordinator Jeff Schmedding. Washington should check both of those boxes in 2020 after picking up 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss as a reserve last season.
Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State
Ohio State’s receiving corps is still in good shape despite losing K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor. Chris Olave (49 catches) is back, but quarterback Justin Fields should look for Wilson more in 2020. As a true freshman last season, Wilson recorded 30 catches for 432 yards and five scores. Additionally, the Texas native already made his mark in Ohio State’s biggest rivalry, as his first 100-yard game in his Buckeye career came against Michigan (three catches for 118 yards).