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.
The SEC lost some big names at quarterback, which opens the door for new stars to emerge like Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen, Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs. On the defensive side of the ball, there’s no shortage of talent for college football's No. 1 league in 2015. Texas A&M’s Otaro Alaka is a rising star in the sophomore ranks, while true freshman defensive tackle Trent Thompson is poised to be a key part of the line rotation for Georgia.
Predicting the SEC's Breakout Players for 2015
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 is expected to start this year and help anchor a secondary that is among the best in college football.
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.
Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
Talented true freshman Kyler Murray is going to see some snaps this season, but Allen is expected to hold onto the starting spot this fall. 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.
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.
Tony Bridges, CB, Ole Miss
The Rebels’ pass defense was among the stingiest in college football last season. While there’s a few personnel tweaks coming to the secondary in 2015, this unit should once again rank among the best in the nation. Bridges was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for coach Hugh Freeze, ranking as the No. 7 junior college prospect in the 247Sports Composite. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College transfer was a first-team NJCAA All-American last year and is penciled in as one starter at cornerback this season.
Nate Brown, WR, Missouri
There’s no shortage of available playing time in Missouri’s receiving corps in 2015. The Tigers must replace their top four statistical options in the passing game from 2014, with tight end Sean Culkin (20 catches) as the team’s most proven option. Brown played in nine games as a true freshman last season and caught five passes for 45 yards. He could emerge as the go-to target for quarterback Maty Mauk this fall.
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.
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.
Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Foster is known for his punishing hits, but the junior could be much more than a highlight-reel player in 2015. The Alabama native played in 11 contests last year and recorded 22 stops and one sack. Foster is expected to push for a starting job on the interior of the Crimson Tide’s linebacking corps and is primed for his best season in Tuscaloosa.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2015
Robert Foster, 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 could be the new go-to receiver for coordinator Lane Kiffin after catching six passes for 44 yards in nine games last season. The former five-star recruit is just scratching the surface of his potential.
Gerri Green, LB, Mississippi State
The Bulldogs have to replace some key pieces from last year’s defense, starting with star linebacker Benardrick McKinney. However, the linebacking corps has plenty of talent in place, and coordinator Manny Diaz has to be excited about the potential of Green and fellow freshman Leo Lewis. Green redshirted in 2014 and should push for a starting job in the fall.
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.
Jason Hatcher, LB/DE, Kentucky
With Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith off to the NFL, Kentucky is replacing two key members from a pass rush ranked No. 9 in the SEC in sacks last year. Needless to say, Dupree and Smith leave big shoes to fill, but there’s promise in the form of Hatcher. As a sophomore last year, Hatcher recorded 28 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks. The hybrid end/linebacker is due for his best statistical year for coach Mark Stoops.
Bijhon Jackson, DT, Arkansas
With the departure of standouts Trey Flowers and Darius Philon, the Razorbacks are looking for new players to emerge up front. This group may not have a star performer in 2015, but Arkansas has solid depth and plenty of talent for coordinator Robb Smith. Jackson is a name to watch after playing in all 13 games as a true freshman last season. The Arkansas native finished 2014 with nine tackles and one pass breakup and will be a bigger part of the rotation in the trenches this year.
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.
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.
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
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.
Alex McCalister, DE/LB, Florida
The strength of Florida’s team in coach Jim McElwain’s first year clearly rests on a defense that allowed only 21.1 points per game in 2014. Seven starters are back for coordinator Geoff Collins, but standout end Dante Fowler must be replaced. However, the drop in pass rush may be minimal with McCalister’s emergence last year. The North Carolina native recorded 23 tackles and six sacks in 12 contests and is due for a bigger role in the trenches this fall.
Markell Pack, WR, Ole Miss
With Laquon Treadwell returning to full strength from a leg injury by the fall, along with the return of proven targets Cody Core and tight end Evan Engram, the Rebels should boast one of the top receiving corps in college football. This group could get even deeper if Pack continues to develop. As a true freshman in 2014, Pack caught 14 passes for 173 yards, with four of those coming in the bowl against TCU. After a strong finish to 2014, bigger things are expected of Pack in 2015.
Jamal Peters, S, Mississippi State
Mississippi State’s cornerback duo of Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond should be among the best in the SEC in 2015. But there’s some uncertainty at safety entering fall camp. Peters is a touted true freshman, ranking as the No. 58 recruit in the 2015 247Sports Composite. The Mississippi native will compete for a starting job in the fall.
Ross Pierschbacher, OG, Alabama
Alabama must replace three starters on its line, but this unit already has two of the better building blocks in the SEC with the return of left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. Pierschbacher is penciled in as a starter at one of the guard spots, and the Iowa native is ready to be a key contributor for Alabama’s offensive line after a redshirt year in 2014. Pierschbacher ranked as the No. 74 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite.
Brandon Powell, WR, Florida
The Gators are looking for a spark on offense after averaging 24.9 points in SEC games last season. Redshirt freshman Will Grier is the favorite to start at quarterback and could be another breakout candidate to monitor. However, Powell is an intriguing player for new coach Jim McElwain. A foot injury sidelined Powell for part of spring practice, but the sophomore made a successful transition from running back to receiver. He should be a solid No. 2 option in the receiving corps behind Demarcus Robinson.
Jovon Robinson, RB, Auburn
The Tigers have good depth at running back, but Robinson is likely to handle the bulk of the carries this season. The Memphis native ranked as the No. 1 junior college prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite and rushed for 2,387 yards at Georgia Military College in 2013. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are expected to spell Robinson, but the junior college recruit will be tough to unseat at the top.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
Fred Ross, WR, Mississippi State
Mississippi State already has one of the SEC’s top receiving corps, and this unit is going to benefit from the continued emergence of Ross this fall. In 13 games last season, Ross grabbed 30 passes for 489 yards and five scores. The 16.3 yards per catch average also ranked ninth among receivers in the SEC. Ross caught only nine passes as a freshman but showed steady progress as a sophomore and finished with 11 receptions over the final two games. Expect the junior to be more involved in the offense in 2015.
Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina
Pharoh Cooper is one of the SEC’s top playmakers, but South Carolina lacks proven options outside of its star receiver. Samuel is pushing for a starting spot after a redshirt year in 2014, and the South Carolina native finished spring by catching three passes for 94 yards in the final scrimmage.
Jeremy Sprinkle, TE, Arkansas
The Razorbacks hope to upgrade their passing attack after managing only 188 yards per game last season. New coordinator Dan Enos needs more targets to emerge in the passing game to help quarterback Brandon Allen, and Sprinkle is a name to watch after a strong spring. Sprinkle caught seven passes for 84 yards and one score last year and should be more involved with the offense in 2015.
Trent Thompson, DT, Georgia
Thompson ranked as the No. 1 recruit in the 2015 247Sports Composite and is expected to play a key role in Georgia’s defensive line rotation this fall. At 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds, the Georgia native is a good fit as the anchor for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s 3-4 scheme.
Stephen Weatherly, LB, Vanderbilt
Second-year coach Derek Mason is taking over the defensive play-calling after Vanderbilt allowed 33.3 points per game in 2014. Weatherly is one player for Mason to build around after the Georgia native recorded 55 tackles (12.5 for a loss) and 4.5 sacks last season. Mason needs edge rushers to emerge for the 3-4 approach to succeed this year, and Weatherly has the potential to double his sack total this fall.
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.