Projecting college football’s breakout players for any given season is no easy assignment. 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 2015 season just a few days away, Athlon Sports is taking a look at 50 players who could be poised for a breakout year from the Power 5 conferences and Notre Dame. Players from every position were included, and a few true freshmen cracked the list.
College Football's Top 50 Breakout Players for 2015
50. Mike Freeze, LB, TCU
The back seven of TCU’s defense must be retooled this offseason. The Horned Frogs lost standout linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet, and the secondary lost three all-conference performers. The linebacker position was a work in progress for coach Gary Patterson in the spring, but Freeze made a push for a starting job after enrolling early in spring practice. The three-star recruit is penciled in as one of TCU’s starting linebackers.
Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2015
49. Andrew Brown, DT, Virginia
After battling injuries in his freshman campaign, the Virginia coaching staff hopes for bigger and better things from Brown in 2015. As a five-star recruit, Brown was pegged as an impact newcomer in the ACC last year. But Brown never got on track, finishing with four tackles in six games. He needs to be a difference maker for the Cavaliers in 2015.
48. Nazair Jones, DT, North Carolina
Jones is a key cog in new coordinator Gene Chizik’s efforts to improve North Carolina’s defense in 2015. As a redshirt freshman last season, Jones recorded 35 stops (7.5 for a loss), 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. With another offseason to develop in the weight room, as well an offseason to learn under Chizik and new line coach Tray Scott, look for Jones to make an even bigger impact this fall.
47. Steven Parker, S, Oklahoma
The Sooners certainly have room to improve in the defensive secondary after giving up 24 plays of 30 yards or more last season. Cornerback Zack Sanchez is one of the best in the nation, but new secondary coach Kerry Cooks is looking for players to step up at the other positions. Parker is expected to take on a bigger role this season after playing in 13 games in 2014. The sophomore recorded 31 tackles, one sack and six pass breakups in limited action.
46. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Joe Wickline is one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation, and the Longhorns will be looking for improvement up front after inconsistent play in 2014. Four starters are back, but the lineup and starters may change with added competition through the recruiting ranks. Williams enrolled in time to compete in spring practice, and the true freshman is pushing for the starting job at left tackle.
45. Derwin Gray/Damian Prince, OT, Maryland
Gray and Prince are two reasons to be optimistic about improvement for Maryland’s offensive line in 2015. This duo was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for the Terrapins in 2014 and redshirted in their first season on campus. Gray suffered a shoulder injury in the spring, but he should return in September. Prince also battled injuries late in fall camp. This redshirt freshman duo should anchor the Maryland offensive line for the next few seasons.
44. Thomas Sirk, QB, Duke
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is one of the best quarterback/offensive minds in college football. Expect Cutcliffe to work his magic once again in 2015, as Sirk replaces Anthony Boone as the Blue Devils’ starter. The junior was sharp in limited action last season, throwing for 67 yards and three touchdowns on 10 completions. He also added 238 rushing yards and eight scores.
43. Robert Foster/ArDarius Stewart, WR, Alabama
Alabama’s passing attack has to be retooled this offseason. Quarterback Blake Sims has expired his eligibility, and the Crimson Tide must replace the top three receivers from last year, including No. 1 target Amari Cooper (124 catches in 2014). Foster and Stewart are the leading candidates to replace Cooper as the go-to option in the passing attack. This duo combined for 18 catches last season.
42. Jeb Blazevich, TE, Georgia
Georgia’s receiving corps is a question mark, but the concerns over this unit could be eased if Blazevich is more involved in the passing attack in 2014. As a true freshman last year, Blazevich caught 18 passes for 269 yards and two scores. The North Carolina native should be in the mix for All-SEC honors in 2015.
41. Michael Dieter, OL, Wisconsin
It’s safe to assume Wisconsin will field a strong offensive line once again in 2015. However, the Badgers are dealing with a few injuries and overall uncertainty about the position battles in the trenches this fall. There’s work to be done up front, but the coaching staff should feel secure in three positions (left tackle Tyler Marz, center Dan Voltz and Dieter at right guard). After a redshirt season in 2014, Dieter is poised to be a key cog in Wisconsin’s revamped line.
40. Grant Haley, CB, Penn State
Penn State’s secondary should be among the best in the Big Ten this season. Coordinator Bob Shoop is making a couple of tweaks to this unit, as Jordan Lucas shifts from corner to safety, opening the door for Haley to start. He played in 13 games for the Nittany Lions as a true freshman last season, recording 18 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups.
39. Marquavius Lewis, DE, South Carolina
Improving the performance of the defensive line is a huge priority for new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke this offseason. The Gamecocks registered only 14 sacks last year and surrendered 212.2 rushing yards per game. Lewis is expected to be an impact junior college recruit for Hoke after two standout years at Hutchinson Community College. The South Carolina native was the Jayhawk Conference Defensive Player of the Year and registered 11 sacks in 2014.
38. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Texas A&M’s receiving corps was already one of the best in the nation, and the rich are about to get a little richer in 2015. True freshman Christian Kirk is expected to push for a starting job at one of the inside spots in Texas A&M’s receiver lineup. The Arizona native ranked as the No. 25 recruit in the 2015 247Sports and is expected to be one of the SEC’s top freshman performers in 2015.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2015
37. Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
Jalen Hurd returns after leading Tennessee with 899 rushing yards in 2014, but the Volunteers’ backfield will be even deeper with the addition of Kamara from the junior college ranks. Kamara started his career at Alabama and transferred after one year in Tuscaloosa. In nine games in 2014, Kamara rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 scores with Hutchinson Community College. Expect Kamara and Hurd to share the workload in Tennessee’s backfield, which has the potential to emerge as one of the best in the SEC this season.
36. Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State
With the departures of quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett, Kansas State has to lean on its defense in 2015. With six starters back, there’s plenty of talent for coordinator Tom Hayes to rely on. Lee is another impact defender to watch for Hayes, as he impressed in 13 games as a freshman last season. Lee recorded 19 tackles and 4.5 sacks in limited action and should push for all-conference honors in his first full year as a starter.
35. Deon Hollins, LB, UCLA
UCLA’s pass rush needs a spark after recording only 29 sacks in 13 games last season. Could Hollins be the answer for new coordinator Tom Bradley? The Texas native led the team with nine sacks, with six of those coming over the final four games of 2014. Hollins recorded three sacks against Kansas State and one in the 38-20 win over rival USC. The junior’s ability to get to the quarterback should help UCLA create a lot of havoc at the line of scrimmage.
34. Boom Williams, RB, Kentucky
If last season’s finale against Louisville was any indication of what to expect from Williams in 2015, the sophomore is in for a huge year. On 18 carries against the Cardinals, Williams recorded 126 rushing yards and two scores and caught three passes for 13 yards. Williams only received 74 carries, but he averaged a healthy 6.6 yards per carry and accumulated 115.9 all-purpose yards a game in 2014.
33. Dravon Henry, S, West Virginia
High expectations followed Henry in 2014, and the true freshman turned in a solid debut for coordinator Tony Gibson. In 13 games, Henry recorded 45 tackles (one for a loss), two interceptions and two pass breakups. With cornerback Daryl Worley and safety Karl Joseph established as stars, combined with Henry’s development, the Mountaineers should have one of the nation’s top defensive backfields.
32. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
It wasn't unexpected, but coach Jim Mora officially appointed Rosen as UCLA's starter for Week 1 last week. The California native was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and the No. 1 ranked quarterback by the 247Sports Composite. If Rosen is as good as advertised, the concerns about the quarterback spot after losing Brett Hundley will dissipate.
31. De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR, Nebraska
Pierson-El is expected to miss at least the first month of the season due to a foot injury. However, the sophomore is expected to be a key cog in Nebraska’s offense when he returns, as new coach Mike Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf planned to take full advantage of his ability to generate big plays. Pierson-El will see touches in a variety of ways, including quick passes or fly sweeps. He is also one of the nation’s top punt returners.
30 Josh Harvey-Clemons, S, Louisville
Even though Louisville is breaking in four new starters in the secondary, don’t expect much of a drop-off in terms of performance in the pass defense. Harvey-Clemons is a big reason why the Cardinals should have one of the top defensive backfields in the ACC this season, as the Georgia transfer is eligible after sitting out 2014 due to NCAA rules. The Georgia native started 11 games with the Bulldogs in 2013 and recorded 66 tackles. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Harvey-Clemons is a physically imposing figure in the secondary for coordinator Todd Grantham.
29. Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
The secondary is usually a strength under Gary Patterson’s watch at TCU, but this unit will be a work in progress in 2015. The Horned Frogs must replace standout cornerback Kevin White, as well as All-Big 12 safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett. Texada joins Derrick Kindred as the returning starters for Patterson, and both players will have to anchor the unit early in the year. Texada started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and recorded seven pass breakups and 31 tackles. Texada should be even better as a sophomore.
28. Wyatt Teller, OG, Virginia Tech
The emergence of Teller in the second half of 2014 is a reason for optimism on Virginia Tech’s offensive line this year. Teller started the last six games for the Hokies last season and enters 2015 as one of the top guards in the ACC. After struggling to find consistency up front over the last few years, Virginia Tech’s line could be poised to turn a corner with Jonathan McLaughlin and Teller anchoring the left side.
27. Trey Marshall/Derwin James, DB, Florida State
Jalen Ramsey is the unquestioned star of Florida State’s secondary, but the junior could have some company on the All-ACC team in December. Marshall (a sophomore) and James (a freshman) are expected to be impact defenders for the Seminoles. Marshall recorded 12 tackles in limited action last season, while James – a five-star recruit – is a physical freak poised for an impact debut in 2015.
26. Charles Harris, DE, Missouri
Even though Shane Ray and Markus Golden have departed, there’s not a ton of concern at defensive end for Missouri. After all, the Tigers continue to produce standout ends under line coach Craig Kuligowski. All signs point to Harris as the next star off the edge. The sophomore played in all 14 games as a reserve last season and recorded 19 tackles and two sacks.
25. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
Just how high is Arizona State on Richard and fellow sophomore Kalen Ballage at running back? The coaching staff moved senior D.J. Foster out to receiver for the 2015 season. There was a huge need at receiver with the loss of Jaelen Strong, but there’s plenty of confidence in the available options at running back for coach Todd Graham. Richard averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 84 attempts last year, finishing 2014 with 478 rushing yards and four scores.
24. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Stanford’s string of six consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher was snapped in 2014. But the Cardinal could reverse that trend with McCaffrey a bigger part of the offense in 2015. As a true freshman last season, McCaffrey rushed for 300 yards on 42 carries and caught 17 passes for 251 yards and two scores. McCaffrey is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top all-purpose players.
23. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Hyatt is the first of two Clemson players to make the breakout list for 2015. The Tigers’ offensive line will be under the microscope early in the season, as quarterback Deshaun Watson is recovering from a torn ACL, and there’s only one returning starter up front. But Hyatt’s emergence could go a long way in solidifying this group before a critical showdown against Louisville in a few weeks. The true freshman was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and is expected to protect Watson’s blindside this fall.
22. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Mahomes isn’t guaranteed the starting job yet, as he will compete with Davis Webb for the No. 1 spot. However, Mahomes showcased his upside as a true freshman and his case for the starting spot in seven games last season. He completed 105 of 185 passes for 1,547 yards and 16 scores and tossed only four picks. In the season finale against Baylor, Mahomes threw for 598 yards.
21. Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
Johnson is the lone returning starter in the offensive trenches for coach Jimbo Fisher. While breaking in four new starters is never ideal on the line, having Johnson back after a promising stint last season is a good place for Fisher and line coach Rick Trickett to start the rebuilding effort. The Missouri native started the final five games in 2014 and was a major reason why Florida State’s line played better down the stretch. Expect the 6-foot-7 sophomore to push for first-team All-ACC honors.
20. Montae Nicholson, S, Michigan State
Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” has a few holes to fill this offseason. The Spartans lost standouts in safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes, and Pat Narduzzi is now the head coach at Pittsburgh. Nicholson should be one of the new stars for Michigan State’s secondary after recording 31 tackles in 13 appearances as a redshirt freshman. The sophomore should push for All-Big Ten honors.
19. Otaro Alaka, LB, Texas A&M
New coordinator John Chavis inherits a defense that allowed 28.1 points per game last season but has promising young talent to build around. Alaka is one of the players for Texas A&M’s core on defense, as the Houston native had an underrated debut with the Aggies in 2014. As a true freshman, Alaka recorded 33 tackles in 12 games and also forced two fumbles. After earning Defensive MVP honors in the Liberty Bowl, Alaka is poised to push for All-SEC accolades this year.
18. Peter Kalambayi, LB, Stanford
Kalambayi should be the next star linebacker for coach David Shaw. After a redshirt year in 2013, the North Carolina native played in all 13 games last season and finished with 32 tackles and 6.5 sacks. With A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters departing, there should be more snaps available for Kalambayi in 2015.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
17. Charles Nelson, DB/WR, Oregon
Nelson looked like a potential two-way threat in the spring, but after a brief stint on defense, all signs point to the sophomore having a breakout year on offense. Nelson caught 23 passes for 327 yards and five touchdowns last season and scored twice on punt return touchdowns. Look for Nelson to make his share of big plays for the Ducks offense this fall.
16. Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU
LSU isn’t hurting for talent at receiver, but the success of the passing attack heavily depends on the development of quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. Dupre was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and played in 12 contests last year. The New Orleans native caught 14 passes for 318 yards and five scores in his first season on campus and could easily double those totals in 2015.
15. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
If Dobbs picks up where he left off in 2014, Tennessee should be in the race to win the SEC East. Over the final six games of last season, Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards and nine scores and rushed for 469 yards and eight touchdowns. After posting big numbers against South Carolina and Kentucky in 2014, Dobbs is tasked with increasing his production against some of the SEC’s top defenses this year.
14. Malik Zaire, QB, Notre Dame
With Everett Golson transferring to Florida State, Zaire has a clear path to the starting job. The dual-threat quarterback is a great fit for coach Brian Kelly’s offense, and the expectations are high after showing promise in a limited stint last season. In seven appearances (and one start), Zaire threw for 266 yards and one touchdown and added 187 yards and two scores on the ground. The arrow is clearly pointing up on Zaire and the Fighting Irish offense.
13. Jalin Marshall, WR, Ohio State
Marshall is suspended for the opener against Virginia Tech, but a one-game hiatus shouldn’t stop the sophomore from becoming an even bigger part of Ohio State’s offense this season. In 15 games last year, Marshall caught 38 passes for 499 yards and six scores. Additionally, he rushed for 145 yards and one touchdown and averaged 11.8 yards per punt return. Marshall could finish 2015 as one of the Big Ten’s top receivers.
12. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
The Spartans’ defensive line is one of the best in the nation, and this unit will only get better with McDowell’s emergence in 2015. As a true freshman last season, McDowell chipped in 15 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks. The Detroit native was a big-time catch for coach Mark Dantonio on the recruiting trail and is poised to claim a starting spot at tackle this fall.
11. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes already have two of the nation’s top linebackers in Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. Add in McMillan’s potential as a sophomore and it’s easy to see why this trio is among the nation’s best linebacker units. McMillan recorded 54 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a reserve last season and could push for All-Big Ten honors in his first year as a starter.
10. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson is only a true freshman, but high expectations surround the Mesquite, Texas native in 2015. Jefferson ranked as the No. 10 overall player in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete in spring ball. Jefferson recorded five stops (one for a loss) in the Orange-White scrimmage and is expected to start at linebacker this season.
9. Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
Talented true freshman Kyler Murray is going to see some snaps this season, but Allen was named the starter for the opener against Arizona State and should handle the bulk of the snaps for coach Kevin Sumlin. Allen was one of the top quarterbacks in last year’s signing class and eventually replaced Kenny Hill as the Aggies’ starter. The Arizona native played in nine games and finished the year with 1,322 yards and 16 scores. Allen’s best performance came against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl, tossing four scores in a 45-37 win by the Aggies.
8. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence and Bryce Petty each produced big seasons in coach Art Briles’ offense at Baylor. And Russell has been handed the keys to the high-powered attack after completing 48 of 85 passes for 804 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014. In each of the last four years, Baylor’s starting quarterback has surpassed 3,850 passing yards and 29 scores. Expect Russell to easily eclipse those marks in 2015.
7. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Rudolph’s emergence in the final three games of 2014 is one of the biggest reasons for optimism in Stillwater this season. Rudolph closed out last season by passing for 853 yards and six passing scores on 49 completions and guided Oklahoma State to a 2-1 mark in the final three games of the year. In the bowl win over Washington, Rudolph passed for 299 yards and two touchdowns. With an improving offensive line and a deep corps of receivers at his disposal, Rudolph should be able to build off a solid finish to 2014 and emerge as one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks.
6. Mike Bercovici, QB, Arizona State
Bercovici is no secret in the Pac-12 after a solid stint as Arizona State’s starting quarterback last season. After Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado, Bercovici threw for 488 yards against UCLA in a 62-27 loss and passed for 510 yards and five scores in a thrilling 38-34 win over USC. Bercovici has a strong arm and isn’t afraid to take chances downfield. He won’t have top receiver Jaelen Strong, but Bercovici could push for a spot among the Pac-12’s best at quarterback.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
5. JuJu Smith, WR, USC
It’s a bit of a stretch to consider Smith a breakout player since he grabbed 54 receptions for 724 yards and five touchdowns last year. However, expect Smith to go from all-conference contender to a potential All-American receiver in 2015. The sophomore should be quarterback Cody Kessler’s No. 1 target this fall.
4. Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
Coordinator Brent Venables guided Clemson's defense to a No. 1 rank in fewest yards per game last season, but there's no shortage of question marks going into 2015. The Tigers return only two starters on defense, and the hits for this group continued in the fall. Linebacker Korrin Wiggins was lost for the year with a torn ACL, and tackle D.J. Reader’s status for 2015 is uncertain. While there are concerns, the Tigers aren't hurting for talent. Lawson is the next star defender in Death Valley after thriving as a reserve for Venables over the last two seasons and recording 11 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in 2014. He’s expected to join the starting lineup, and the junior should provide plenty of headaches to opposing offensive linemen this fall.
3. Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers was poised for a significant role in Michigan’s defense last year, but a season-ending leg injury ended his 2014 campaign after the third game. In limited snaps in 2014, Peppers recorded eight tackles and returned one punt for six yards. Peppers was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and should be an impact defender for new coordinator D.J. Durkin.
Related: Bowl Projections for 2015
2. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Adams was an impact freshman for coach Les Miles in 2014, and the expectations are even higher for the Texas native in 2015. In 13 games last season, Adams recorded 66 tackles, one sack and five pass breakups. The sophomore's emergence is critical with Jalen Mills out indefinitely with an ankle injury. Adams will help anchor a secondary that is among the best in college football.
1. Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
Johnson’s mention in this column should come as no surprise. The junior has received plenty of offseason hype, and all signs point to Johnson emerging as an All-SEC quarterback in 2015. In limited action over the last two seasons, Johnson has passed for 858 yards and nine scores.