Every college football season produces its share of new faces on the scene, as breakout players or rising stars play a huge role in determining the four playoff teams and the conference champions. While these players are instrumental to the success of any team, projecting breakout players for any given season is no easy task. After all, 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.
With kickoff for the 2016 season just a few days away, Athlon Sports is taking a look at 40 players who could be poised for a breakout year from the Power 5 conferences, Notre Dame or the Group of 5 ranks. Players from every position were included, and a few freshmen cracked the list.
College Football's Top 40 Breakout Players for 2016
Noah Brown, WR, Ohio State
Brown was poised to be a key contributor in Ohio State’s receiving corps last season but a season-ending leg injury in August ended his 2015 campaign. Brown is back to full strength and could become the favorite target for quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning’s development is a big reason why Washington is expected to challenge for the Pac-12 title in 2016. As a true freshman last year, he started 12 games and threw for 2,955 yards and 16 scores.
Brandon Bryant, S, Mississippi State
The Bulldogs will have a new defensive staff in 2016, which features first-time coordinator Peter Sirmon. Additionally, key starters Chris Jones (DT), Beniquez Brown (LB), Taveze Calhoun (CB) and Ryan Brown (DE) have departed Starkville. But the cupboard is far from bare for coach Dan Mullen, as the defense features a couple of rising stars to watch in 2016. One of those players is Bryant, who started the final eight games for the Bulldogs at strong safety in 2015. As a redshirt freshman last season, Bryant recorded 63 stops, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions and six passes defended.
Duke Catalon, RB, Houston
Quarterback Greg Ward led Houston in rushing yards (1,108) in 2015, but the Cougars have holes to fill in the ground attack after the departure of the top three running backs from last year’s team. Catalon – a Texas transfer – should be an impact addition for coach Tom Herman.
Donnie Corley, WR, Michigan State
Aaron Burbridge expired his eligibility after a monster 2015 season (85 catches), but the Spartans may have already found their next star at receiver. Corley enrolled in time for spring practice and impressed throughout offseason workouts. The true freshman is expected to play a major role for the Michigan State passing attack in 2016.
James Daniels, OL, Iowa
Daniels was Iowa’s top recruit in its 2015 signing class and wasted no time making an impact last fall. He played in all 14 games for the Hawkeyes and earned two starts, helping to anchor a Hawkeye ground attack that ranked fifth in the Big Ten. Daniels is expected to start at guard in 2016.
Eric Dungey, Syracuse
New coach Dino Babers is a standout offensive mind and was instrumental in developing high-powered attacks at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green over the last four seasons. Dungey showed promise in eight games last fall, throwing for 1,298 yards and 11 scores. He should thrive under Babers’ direction and is due for a breakout year in 2016.
Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia
Eason was rated as a five-star prospect and the No. 2 overall quarterback by the 2016 247Sports Composite and is on track to start the opener against North Carolina under new coach Kirby Smart. He enrolled in time to compete in spring practice and completed 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown in the G-Day scrimmage. Eason should be the top freshman quarterback in the nation this fall.
Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State
After an uneven season of production from Everett Golson and Sean Maguire, Florida State’s quarterback situation should be in better shape in 2016. Maguire may miss the start of the 2016 season due to a foot injury, but Francois is ready to step into the spotlight under center. The redshirt freshman ranked as the No. 64 overall prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite and is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including dynamic running back Dalvin Cook and an improving group of receivers. Coach Jimbo Fisher is one of the nation's best quarterback coaches. Francois is going to make his share of rookie mistakes, but he's also going to develop into a star under Fisher's direction.
Rashan Gary/Bryan Mone, DL, Michigan
Michigan’s defensive line is one of the best in the nation and will get even deeper with the addition of Mone and Gary for 2016. Gary – a five-star prospect – is due to make an instant impact. Mone was slated to be a key contributor last fall but suffered a broken leg in August.
Nick Gates, OL, Nebraska
After a strong freshman season, Gates is slated for an even bigger role on Nebraska’s offensive line in 2016. The Las Vegas native is moving from right tackle to the left side to protect the blindside of quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Gates started 10 games last fall.
Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama
Just how loaded was Alabama’s defensive line last season? Consider this – Hand was the No. 5 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite and has only 23 tackles as a reserve the last two years. Expect those totals and his playing time to change significantly in 2016. With A’Shawn Robinson leaving for the NFL and Jarran Reed expiring his eligibility, Hand is expected to start and easily have the best season of his career in Tuscaloosa.
Jake Hanson, C, Oregon
Oregon’s line features three new starters for 2016, but left tackle Tyrell Crosby and guard Cameron Hunt should ease the transition for this group. And there’s talent waiting to emerge for coach Mark Helfrich, including Hanson as the unit’s starting center. He redshirted last year and was considered a three-star prospect in the 2015 signing class.
Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
With Joey Bosa off to the NFL, Hubbard is poised to build off a promising redshirt freshman season. In 13 games and limited snaps, Hubbard recorded 6.5 sacks and ranked fourth on the team with eight tackles for a loss.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
After two seasons of uncertainty at quarterback, Louisville has found its answer under center. Jackson is still developing as a passer, but the sophomore is a dynamic playmaker. He accounted for 2,800 total yards and 23 overall scores last season.
Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA
Paul Perkins jumped to the NFL after recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but the Bruins are still in great shape at running back. Jamabo was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and recorded 403 yards and four touchdowns on just 66 attempts. He should push for 1,000 yards this fall as UCLA’s go-to back.
Cece Jefferson, DE, Florida
Jefferson was one of the cornerstones of Jim McElwain’s first signing class at Florida, and the sophomore is expected to fill the void left behind by Jonathan Bullard’s departure to the NFL. Jefferson recorded 29 tackles (8.5 for a loss) and 3.5 sacks in limited snaps last year.
Ronald Jones, RB, USC
Jones was one of the top recruits in USC’s 2015 signing class, and the Texas native wasted no time making an impact. He led the team with 987 yards and eight rushing scores and is slated for more carries in 2016 after recording only 153 attempts last year.
Arden Key, DE, LSU
New coordinator Dave Aranda plans to utilize Key as a hybrid end/linebacker this season. The Georgia native should thrive in that role, as he recorded five sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss as a true freshman in 2015. Key is already one of the SEC’s top pass rushers.
Daylon Mack, DT, Texas A&M
Texas A&M’s rush defense finished 13th in the SEC last season, but help is on the way from a former five-star recruit. Mack made an instant impact as a true freshman in 2015, recording 32 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and one forced fumble. He’s slated to move into a starting role this season.
Hercules Mata’afa, DL, Washington State
Mata'afa is slated to anchor the Washington State defensive front after recording seven sacks as a freshman in 2015. As a full-time starter in 2016, expect Mata'afa to approach 10 sacks as the Cougars' top presence off the edge.
Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame
Three starters must be replaced on Notre Dame’s offensive line, but coach Brian Kelly has a good foundation to build around with the return of Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey. Nelson started 11 games last season and is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top offensive guards in 2016.
Jarrell Owens, DL, Oklahoma State
Emmanuel Ogbah leaves big shoes to fill off the edge for the Cowboys, but the sophomore tandem of Owens and Jordan Brailford is a promising duo for coach Mike Gundy. Owens flashed potential in a limited stint last year, recording three sacks and 11 stops in 13 appearances. He’s slated to take on a starting role for 2016.
Drew Richmond, OL, Tennessee
Richmond ranked as the No. 54 prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite and used a redshirt year to develop in his first year on campus. The redshirt freshman is penciled in at left tackle and adds to a strong foundation up front for the Volunteers.
Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
Rypien is primed for a huge season in 2016. He was pressed into the starting job as a true freshman last year after Ryan Finley suffered a season-ending ankle in mid-September. Rypien played in 11 games and threw for 3,350 yards and 20 scores.
Bo Scarbrough/Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
Replacing standout running backs seems to be an annual tradition in Tuscaloosa. Scarbrough and fellow sophomore Damien Harris are the next stars on the ground for coach Nick Saban. Scarbrough is primed to take over the starting job after recording 104 yards and one score on 18 carries last year.
LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
With quarterback Connor Cook departing, the focus of Michigan State’s offense shifts to the ground attack. Scott led the Spartans with 699 yards and 11 scores as a true freshman last year and is expected to shoulder more of the workload in 2016.
Jeremy Sprinkle, TE, Arkansas
Hunter Henry will be missed, but the Razorbacks already have a capable replacement waiting in the wings. Sprinkle caught 27 passes for 389 yards and six scores last year and will be a safety valve for Arkansas’ new quarterback.
Justin Stockton, RB, Texas Tech
DeAndre Washington was one of the nation’s most underrated running backs during his career at Texas Tech. It’s no secret Washington will be missed, but coach Kliff Kingsbury has a capable replacement waiting to emerge with Stockton entering his junior year. He’s displayed big-play ability in limited snaps (6.02 ypc in 2015) and has rushed for 763 yards over the last two years.
Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
Sweat suffered a serious leg injury as a high school senior but managed to recover in time to play in all 13 games as a true freshman. The Virginia native showed flashes of dominance off the edge, recording 41 tackles (five for a loss), two sacks and one interception.
Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford
The defensive line is one of coach David Shaw’s biggest concerns in 2016. But this unit should get a boost from the emergence of Thomas, who recorded 39 tackles (10.5 for a loss) and 3.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman last season.
Trent Thompson, DL, Georgia
Thompson ranked as the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2015 247Sports Composite and played in 12 games as a true freshman. The Georgia native started six of the games he appeared in and registered 25 stops. At 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds, Thompson has the necessary size to plug the interior of Smart’s 3-4 scheme, or he could shift to the outside as an edge player. The talent and versatility is there for Thompson to make a huge impact in 2016.
Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
Marquise Williams departs after earning second-team All-ACC honors, but there’s not much concern at quarterback for the Tar Heels. Trubisky has passed for 1,014 yards and 11 scores over 21 career appearances.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB, Illinois
As a true freshman last fall, Vaughn shared the backfield workload with Josh Ferguson and finished with the team lead in rushing yards (723) and scores (six). With Ferguson out of eligibility, Vaughn will handle even more of the workload for the Fighting Illini.
Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State
Weber steps into the No. 1 role for Ohio State’s backfield with big shoes to fill in replacing Ezekiel Elliott. While Elliott will be missed, Weber should ensure there’s not much of a drop in production from the ground game. The Detroit native was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and redshirted last fall.
Chris Westry, CB, Kentucky
Kentucky went with a youth movement at cornerback last season, which should pay off for coach Mark Stoops in 2016. Derrick Baity started the final four games for the Wildcats at one corner spot, while Westry started all 12 games on the other side. The 6-foot-3 Florida native recorded 36 stops, one sack, eight pass breakups and two interceptions. Westry will be a key cog in Kentucky’s defense (and bowl hopes) for 2016.
Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
Clemson has some holes to fill up front, but the cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Brent Venables. Wilkins is one of the next standouts in the trenches for the Tigers after playing in all 15 games as a true freshman last fall and recording 33 tackles and two sacks.
Joe Williams, RB, Utah
Devontae Booker will be missed at running back, but Williams showed he was capable of handling 25-30 carries a game late last year. Williams rushed for 399 yards and three touchdowns over the final three games of 2015 and is slated to headline the Utes’ rushing attack this fall.
Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Williams is one of the anchors for Charlie Strong’s rebuilding effort on offense. The Texas native started all 12 games at left tackle as a true freshman last season and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors.