5-Star College Football Players Stepping into Much Larger Roles in 2018
Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa was the breakout star of the college football national championship, and he should be one of the many former 5-star recruits who gets a bigger chance to showcase his skills in 2018.
Most of the players on this list were in the 2017 recruiting class. That isn't to say last year's crop of recruits was inherently that much better than previous seasons, but if 5-star guys from 2013-16 were going to blossom into top-notch college players, they should have already done so.
However, there are a couple who were stuck behind Heisman-caliber talent on the depth chart, and now they will finally get the opportunity to shine.
The start of the 2018 season is sadly still more than seven months away, but it's never too early to start figuring out who the breakout stars are going to be. After all, if you're the type to bet on early Heisman odds, your bank account may depend upon it.
Only players who were 5-star recruits in the 247Sports composite rankings were considered for this list. Their overall rank and positional rank are also based on that data. Players are listed in reverse alphabetical order by school.
Stephen Carr, USC
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 3 running back, No. 20 overall in 2017.
It was a tough season to be a talented, true-freshman, reserve running back at USC.
For starters, Ronald Jones II was a workhorse tailback, averaging slightly better than 20 carries per game and just under six yards per rush. He was also a capable receiver out of the backfield, so there wasn't even a need for a scatback to come off the bench to make some plays in the flat.
Moreover, there were already capable reserves on the roster. Aca'Cedric Ware rushed for almost 400 yards in 2016. And though Vavae Malepeai missed all of that season after suffering a broken shoulder blade in fall camp, he was rated by 247Sports' composite as the ninth-best RB in the 2016 class. Thus, it was a three-way split for what limited touches there were for guys other than Jones.
And while USC wasn't the most pass-happy offense in the country, the Trojans did throw the ball more than 35 times per game, limiting the overall serving size for running backs.
In spite of all that, Stephen Carr put up some impressive numbers and was a major part of the offense early in the year.
Through the first four games, Carr averaged 74.5 rushing yards on 11.8 carries (6.3 per carry) and made 13 receptions for 130 yards. Unfortunately, he suffered a foot injury in Week 5 against Washington State, missed a month of action and wasn't nearly the same explosive threat when he did return.
With Jones and Sam Darnold leaving early for the NFL draft and several months to further rehab that injury, though, Carr should become the focal point of USC's offense in 2018. Given what he displayed as both a rusher and a receiver, it would be surprising if he doesn't average at least 100 yards from scrimmage per game as a sophomore.
Jaelan Phillips, UCLA
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 1 defensive end, No. 1 overall in 2017.
Similar to Stephen Carr, Jaelan Phillips was limited by injury as a true freshman.
The No. 1 overall recruit in last year's class started his season with a bang. In the opener against Texas A&M, he had five total tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pair of passes defended. There was virtually no defense played in that 45-44 thriller, but Phillips was the exception to the rule, immediately looking like someone who was going to terrorize opponents for three years, a la Jadeveon Clowney.
He had at least four tackles in each of his first three games, but an ankle injury suffered in Week 3 against Memphis limited Phillips to just eight total tackles and two sacks the rest of the season.
It's a small sample size, but combined with the immense potential he displayed in high school, big things are expected in year No. 2.
Per MaxPreps, Phillips recorded 21 sacks and 142 total tackles in 11 games as a senior at Redlands East Valley High School. And there were high hopes back in August that he would be UCLA's best individual defender as a freshman.
The only concern is that being the lone threat opposing offensive lines need to worry about may limit him. Aside from Phillips (3.5), the only other player on the 2017 roster with more than two sacks was DE Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and he just ran out of years of eligibility. No Bruin managed even 10 tackles for loss.
But if there's one player who can be a one-man wrecking crew on defense, it's Phillips. Per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, there were times in high school practice when he went 1-on-11 and still made the tackles.
Foster Sarell, Stanford
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 2 offensive tackle, No. 5 overall in 2017.
When David Shaw and Stanford snagged two of the top three offensive tackles in last year's class—as well as No. 1 QB Davis Mills—it was a big deal. Normally, that type of haul of can't-miss prospects is a luxury reserved for Alabama or USC, but the Cardinal are set up for a few years of outstanding run blocking and pass protection with a quarterback who can do some damage with it.
One of those offensive tackles was Foster Sarell.
The other one (Walker Little) got a lot of run as a freshman, starting six games at left tackle before suffering an injury. Sarell, however, was limited to special teams duties and little else, thanks to veterans Casey Tucker, David Bright and Jesse Burkett obstructing his path to the field. Basically, there was room for one freshman to get an extended audition on the O-line, and Little was the guy.
But Sarell should be headed for a starting job in 2018.
For a preview of what he'll be bringing to the table for Bryce Love and the Cardinal, Tyler Donohue did a full breakdown of Sarell for B/R in December 2016.
The TL;DR version is that Sarell is a massive human being with great instincts who is also a tireless student of the game. His disciplined combination of size, strength and quickness should make him the perfect fit in a system renowned for its blocking schemes.
Miles Sanders, Penn State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 1 running back, No. 21 overall in 2016.
Miles Sanders is a remarkable talent. According to his bio on GoPSUSports.com, Sanders rushed for 4,573 yards and 59 touchdowns in high school, including three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to finish that portion of his football career.
As a true freshman with the Nittany Lions, he averaged 7.4 yards per carry and was the primary kick returner. He did have some fumble issues in the process, but he displayed the speed to be one of the top running backs in the country.
It's just too bad Penn State already had one of those.
Because Saquon Barkley took over the primary kick return duties, Sanders actually got fewer all-purpose touches as a sophomore (42) than he did as a freshman (60).
But can you blame the Nittany Lions for trying to get the ball into Barkley's hands as often as reasonably possible? He scored 23 touchdowns on 286 touches, and it felt like he was a threat to break free for six on about 50 of the other ones.
Now that he's off to the NFL, it's finally time for Sanders to step into the spotlight. He better make a good first impression in 2018, though, because the Nittany Lions signed another 5-star running back (Ricky Slade) in this year's class. Hopefully for Sanders' sake, that competition lights a fire to bring out the best he can be.
Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 3 quarterback, No. 34 overall in 2015.
Like Miles Sanders, Kyler Murray spent this past season stuck on a depth chart behind a Heisman finalist.
Perhaps unlike Sanders, Murray knew what he was getting into when he transferred from Texas A&M to Oklahoma two years ago.
While Murray was splitting time with Kyle Allen and Jake Hubenak as a freshman at Texas A&M, Baker Mayfield threw for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore at Oklahoma. Maybe Murray thought Mayfield would leave early for the NFL draft and that there would be a job waiting for him in 2017, but he had no such luck. Mayfield hung around for two more years and became the most efficient college quarterback ever.
But when Murray did get some garbage-time action, he wasn't messing around. Murray completed 85.7 percent of his pass attempts, averaging 17.1 yards per attempt with three touchdowns. Sure, it was only 21 passes and—for the most part—it came against defenses that Mayfield had already beaten to a pulp.
However, let's not forget the game against West Virginia. Mayfield was suspended for the first series of that one because of his infamous "gesture," and Murray ran for 66 yards on the first play.
Whereas Mayfield did a decent amount of scrambling when things broke down, Murray is a true dual-threat QB who should have a lot of fun in Lincoln Riley's offense. The Sooners do lose TE Mark Andrews and LT Orlando Brown as early entrants to the NFL draft, but they still have Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb and Rodney Anderson. So if Murray ends up struggling as the starter, it won't be because of a lack of surrounding weapons.
Jeffrey Okudah, Ohio State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 1 cornerback, No. 8 overall in 2017.
It's a story that seemingly gets told every offseason in Columbus, but Ohio State is in great shape at cornerback despite losing a first-round talent as an early entrant to the NFL draft.
This time around, the departing star is shutdown corner Denzel Ward, who had two interceptions and 15 passes broken up as a junior. He was also the main guy responsible for keeping true freshman Jeffrey Okudah off the field.
Sophomores Damon Arnette (two interceptions, eight passes broken up) and Kendall Sheffield (nine passes broken up) also played a key role in Okudah's position on that defensive depth chart, but Ward's departure should open up a starting job—or at least a much bigger role as a reserve—for Okudah.
It's also possible that he slides over to safety to replace the graduating Damon Webb. He played both CB and S in high school, as well as some WR, so he certainly has the versatility to play wherever he is needed in the defensive backfield.
What stands out most about Okudah is his size. While most cornerbacks are 5'10" on a good day, Okudah is a solid 6'1 ½" with some meat on those bones. But he doesn't sacrifice any speed by having those extra inches, and he uses that bigger-than-average frame to deliver some bone-crushing hits.
With Ward sitting out of the Cotton Bowl, we got a taste of what Okudah will bring to Ohio State for the next two or three years. Though he didn't have any pass breakups or interceptions, he registered four tackles and was a key part of the Buckeyes limiting USC to just seven points.
Unless you're an opposing quarterback or wide receiver on Ohio State's schedule, it should be fun to watch this guy blossom into the next defensive star of the Buckeyes.
D'Andre Swift, Georgia
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 4 running back, No. 33 overall in 2017.
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel comprised the nation's best one-two punch at running back last season. Chubb rushed for 1,345 yards and 15 touchdowns, but Michel was even better, finishing with 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns on 67 fewer carries.
For most teams, trying to replace that type of talent would be downright impossible.
For Georgia, it just means giving more touches to a guy who averaged 7.6 yards per carry and racked up nearly 800 yards from scrimmage as a true freshman.
D'Andre Swift—easily one of the most appropriate names in football—was a non-factor in the College Football Playoff, but he was one big reason the Bulldogs got there in the first place. He had 88 yards and a touchdown on seven carries against Auburn in the SEC championship Game. It was one of five times this season that he ran for at least 50 yards, which is rather unheard of for a guy mired at No. 3 on the backfield depth chart.
Though he only had 81 carries, Swift had no less than one rush of at least 10 yards in 11 of 13 games prior to the playoff. He had eight rushes of at least 20 yards, tied with Northwestern's Justin Jackson, who had more than three times as many carries.
File this away under "I'm not saying, I'm just saying": In 2016, Bryce Love had nine rushes of at least 20 yards on 111 carries before earning the starting job and exploding into a big-chunk superstar. Could Swift become the East Coast version of the Heisman finalist?
Tee Higgins, Clemson
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 2 wide receiver, No. 19 overall in 2017.
The biggest winner of NFL draft declaration "season" was Clemson. With defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant all returning—as well as LB Kendall Joseph—the Tigers should have one of the best defenses ever assembled.
But they did take a couple of lumps on offense, losing wide receivers Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud, who combined for 107 receptions and 1,237 yards this past season. Clemson does still have Hunter Renfrow, but no other returning player has more than 32 career receptions.
So, ladies and gentlemen, get ready for Tee Higgins to blow up.
Clemson's 6'4" wideout made six catches for 178 yards and two touchdowns in a mid-November win over The Citadel. And the following week against South Carolina, he led the Tigers in receiving yards for a second straight game, making three catches for 84 yards.
Prior to those two games, the true freshman hadn't shown much at the collegiate level. However, with his combination of height (6'4") and speed, it was always likely Higgins would become a big-play threat.
Per his Clemson bio, Higgins had 1,044 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior in high school. He added three punt-return touchdowns and was responsible for an 89-yard pick six. He was also a darn fine basketball player, averaging 15 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a junior. Long story short, this dude is a three-syllable athlete.
The rebounding prowess should pay dividends on the gridiron when he becomes Martavis Bryant 2.0. When all else fails, just put the ball in the air in his general vicinity and trust that he'll be able to make a play on it. Whether that happens with Trevor Lawrence's cannon arm at QB this year or next, it should eventually mean a good number of receptions that go for at least 40 yards.
Calvin Ashley, Auburn
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 6 offensive tackle, No. 26 overall in 2017.
Calvin Ashley is a big dude. When he arrived on Auburn's campus last May, he measured in at 6'6" and 350 pounds. Transforming some of those pounds from baby fat to man muscle was the main goal of the strength and conditioning program for the past several months, but the young man was already both taller and beefier than just about everyone on the Tigers roster.
On most teams, he would have been an instant starter as a true freshman.
However, Auburn isn't most teams. According to their depth chart on Ourlads, the Tigers had six seniors among the 10 offensive linemen on their two-deep. Ashley was one of the other four players, but this will end up counting as a redshirt season for him because he never saw the field.
Six seniors one year means a lot of open spots in the starting lineup the following season, and barring injury, you can just about take it to the bank that Ashley will be getting one of those jobs.
After losing both Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway as early entrants to the NFL draft, Auburn has some question marks at running back. But a good way to get Kam Martin going—or whomever the starter may be—would seem to be just handing him the ball and telling him to run behind big No. 70.
Tua Tagovailoa, Najee Harris and Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
Tua Tagovailoa: No. 3 quarterback, No. 32 overall in 2017.
Jerry Jeudy: No. 3 wide receiver, No. 21 overall in 2017.
It was one heck of a year for true freshmen at skill positions for Alabama.
Tua Tagovailoa was the star of the national championship game for what he did in the second half against Georgia, but he was far from alone. Najee Harris led the Crimson Tide with 64 rushing yards. Devonta Smith was on the receiving end of the game-winning 41-yard TD pass in overtime. Henry Ruggs III made three catches for 29 yards and a touchdown. Jerry Jeudy made an impressive 20-yard reception late in the fourth quarter.
All five of those guys were in Alabama's 2017 recruiting class.
The ridiculous thing is there's still no guarantee that any of them will start in 2018.
As far as we know, Jalen Hurts will be staying at Alabama, attempting to reclaim the job he appeared to lose to Tagovailoa on the game's biggest stage. Harris should get more touches at RB with Bo Scarbrough out of the picture, but the Crimson Tide still have Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and a pair of dual-threat QBs. And WR is a gigantic question mark with Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster and Cam Sims all leaving. The three guys who were true freshmen this season could all become starters, even though they combined for just 34 receptions.
Chances are at least one of these three 5-star guys needs at least one more year before really breaking out, but at least one of them—probably Harris, if forced to make a guess—will make a huge leap as a sophomore to get into the conversation for the Heisman.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.