Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of 50 breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
50 College Football Breakout Players for 2014
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Had Alexander not suffered a groin injury in fall camp, it’s likely he would have played a major role in Clemson’s secondary last season. Alexander ranked as the No. 30 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and was widely considered one of the nation’s top freshmen on the defensive side. Although the groin injury prevented Alexander from getting involved last year, it allowed him extra time to learn the defense. The redshirt freshman is slated to crack the starting lineup for the opener against Georgia.
Devon Allen, WR, Oregon
With a knee injury expected to sideline Bralon Addison for the 2014 season, the Ducks need new targets to emerge for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Addison isn’t the only loss at receiver in Eugene, as Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins (85 receptions in 2013) have expired their eligibility. Allen closed out a breakout spring with two catches for 94 yards and two scores in the spring game. And the gridiron isn’t the only place Allen is making news this offseason. He won the U.S. track title in 110 hurdles in late June and won USA Track & Field athlete of the week honors in early July. Allen has the speed and athleticism to become one of the Ducks’ top playmakers in 2014.
Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State
Brandin Cooks earned the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s No. 1 receiver last season, so Bolden and the other Oregon State receivers have big shoes to fill in 2014. Despite the loss of Cooks, the Beavers still have options in the passing game. Junior Richard Mullaney caught 52 passes last season, and tight end Connor Hamlett is back after grabbing 40 catches in 2013. Bolden caught only six passes for 62 yards, but he averaged 20.6 yards per kickoff return. The sophomore is projected for a bigger role in the passing game in 2014, and his explosiveness will help quarterback Sean Mannion stretch the field this year.
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
Baylor’s receiving corps is one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Antwan Goodley (18.9 yards per catch in 2013) and seniors Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller. But with Tevin Reese departing, the Bears are looking for a new speed threat for quarterback Bryce Petty. Coleman impressed as a freshman in 2013, catching 35 passes for 527 yards. And in a good sign for Coleman’s development, the best game (seven receptions for 88 yards) of his 2013 campaign was the Fiesta Bowl. Expect the sophomore to become an even bigger target for Petty in 2014.
Stacy Coley, WR, Miami
Regardless of who starts at quarterback for the Hurricanes, expect to see more of Coley in Miami’s gameplan this year. As a true freshman in 2013, Coley caught 33 passes for 591 yards and seven scores. And Coley showed plenty of big-play ability, averaging 17.9 yards per reception. The freshman seemed to get stronger as the year progressed, catching 11 passes over the final three weeks, including five receptions for 81 yards against Virginia. The ACC has a handful of talented receivers, but Coley will be one of the ACC’s best in 2014.
Maliek Collins/Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska
Nebraska’s defensive line is young, but there’s no question the coaching staff has to be excited about the talent in place. End Randy Gregory is one of the top defensive players in the nation, and the combination of Collins and Valentine is a promising duo for coordinator John Papuchis. Valentine got better as the season progressed in 2013, capped by recording a sack and two tackles for a loss against Iowa. He finished 2013 with 21 tackles (five for a loss) and one sack. Collins wasn’t as active on the stat sheet last year, recording 12 tackles and one sack. However, Collins and Valentine both will see a larger role in the defense in 2014. And with both players checking in over 300 pounds, opposing offenses won’t have much room to run on the interior against Nebraska.
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
Cooper didn’t make a huge impression on the stat sheet last year, recording 202 rushing yards, 29 passing yards and three receptions for 54 yards. However, expect that to change significantly in 2014. The sophomore is an all-purpose threat for the Gamecocks and should see some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. Cooper is also expected to handle returns this year.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
Cravens was one of the top defensive players in the 2013 recruiting class and ranked as a five-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite. And as a true freshman, Cravens certainly didn’t disappoint last year. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors after recording 52 tackles, four interceptions and one forced fumble. Cravens should benefit from the addition of coordinator Justin Wilcox, as well as another year to participate in offseason practices. Expect Cravens to push for All-America honors this year.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Carlos Hyde was the first back to top 1,000 yards under coach Urban Meyer, and his departure to the NFL is a big loss for Ohio State’s offense. Hyde’s tough running will be missed, but the Buckeyes aren’t hurting for options. Elliott is expected to handle the bulk of the carries, with Dontre Wilson, Warren Ball, Curtis Samuel, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn all expected to contribute to the rotation in 2014. Elliott impressed in limited action last year, rushing for 262 yards on 30 carries (8.7 ypc). He may not handle 250 carries, but Elliott will headline a deep and talented Ohio State backfield.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
It’s a bit of a stretch to put Floyd on this list after he recorded 55 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks last year. However, we think the sophomore goes from All-SEC contention to All-America honors and earning national recognition. Floyd should anchor one of the edges in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, and the sophomore is expected to push for 10 sacks.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The No. 1 player in the 247Sports Composite rankings for 2014 could have a monster season in Baton Rouge. The LSU offensive line is one of the best in the SEC with four returning starters, and with a young quarterback (Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings) slated to start, expect the Tigers to lean on the ground attack. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Fournette has the size and skill-set to be an every-down back in the SEC. If he gets enough carries, the Louisiana native could finish near the top of the conference in rushing yards.
Will Gardner, QB, Louisville
Teddy Bridgewater is gone, but with Bobby Petrino at the controls, Louisville’s offense is expected to be one of the best in the ACC. Gardner is the frontrunner to replace Bridgewater under center and this will be the Georgia native’s first taste of extended snaps. In six appearances last year, Gardner threw for 112 yards and two touchdowns on eight completions. Gardner will have a few growing pains in his first season as the starter, but Petrino’s track record suggests quarterback play won’t be a problem at Louisville in 2014.
Joshua Garnett/Kyle Murphy, OL, Stanford
Four starters depart from a Stanford offensive line that was one of the best in the nation last year. However, there’s not much concern from coach David Shaw about the protection for quarterback Kevin Hogan. Left tackle Andrus Peat is an Athlon Sports All-American for 2014, and the line has breakout players like Garnett and Murphy ready to emerge. Murphy played in 13 contests last year, while Garnett made an appearance in 14 and started against Washington State. Both Garnett and Murphy should push for All-Pac-12 honors this year.
Jared Goff, QB, California
Some may not consider Goff a breakout player after he threw for 3,488 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. However, with California expected to improve overall in the second year under coach Sonny Dykes, along with the return of a talented receiving corps, Goff could approach 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2014. As expected with any freshman quarterback, Goff had his share of ups and downs last season. He threw for 336 yards and one touchdown against Washington and completed 32 of 58 passes for 489 yards against Washington State. Goff finished the year by throwing for less than 200 yards in back-to-back games against Colorado and Stanford. With another offseason under his belt, look for Goff to take a step forward in his development and show a better overall command of the offense.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Fans around the SEC are familiar with Henry through recruiting and his limited playing time last year, but it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Henry rushed for 382 yards and three scores last season, capped by a 100-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl. The Florida native should provide the thunder to T.J. Yeldon’s lightning in 2014, as his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame is a handful for opposing defenses. Don’t be surprised if Henry surpasses the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.
Darian Hicks, CB, Michigan State
The Spartans no longer have Darqueze Dennard manning the “No Fly Zone” in East Lansing. But coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn’t too worried about his secondary in 2014, as junior Trae Waynes is a likely All-American and Hicks is ready to step up and replace Dennard at the other cornerback spot. Hicks played in all 14 games and recorded only two tackles, but the sophomore is primed for a bigger role in Michigan State’s defense this year.
Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Oklahoma State
Hill drew significant praise from coach Mike Gundy at Big 12 media days, and it’s clear the junior college recruit is going to play a major role in Oklahoma State’s offense this year. Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich plan to use Hill in an all-purpose role and indicated the junior will touch the ball 15-20 times each week. The Georgia native possesses elite speed and won the Big 12 indoor 200 meters title this year. Expect Gundy to get Hill involved in a variety of ways in 2014.