10 Players Set to Shock the College Football World in 2018

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2018

10 Players Set to Shock the College Football World in 2018

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    Out with the old college football superstars and in with the new. It's time for another wave of players to make names for themselves.

    We already know about Stanford running back Bryce Love, West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell, Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver and Penn State signal-caller Trace McSorley.

    A player like Tua Tagovailoa isn't going to be on this list because of his national championship game heroics from a season ago, either.

    But who comprises the next set of playmakers who aren't really household names yet? Who is set to burst out and post jaw-dropping numbers in 2018 that will put their names on the tips of tongues across the country?

    From a duo of SEC players ready to step into the shoes of departed studs to a Big Ten running back returning from injury to young defenders whose time is now, there are several players ready to explode.

Charlie Brewer, Baylor Quarterback

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    The only reason to pay attention to the Baylor Bears a season ago was to witness whether or not they'd sink all the way to a winless season after the tumultuous end to the Art Briles era.

    They didn't, still finishing an atrocious 1-11.

    But along the way, they found some playmakers on whom they can rely. The best of those and the one who should provide the most excitement to Bears fans is sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer.

    In eight games a year ago, Brewer was sterling as a true freshman, completing 68.1 percent of his passes for 1,562 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. He improved as he got more comfortable under center and looked like a veteran by the end of the year.

    He's going to be limited this spring with a shoulder injury, but Brewer should be fine for the season, and there are plenty of blossoming playmakers around him. Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd is going to play wide receiver after nearly breaking the Vols' all-time rushing record.

    Running backs John Lovett and JaMycal Hasty are back, as is 1,000-yard receiver Denzel Mims, as coach Matt Rhule continues a youth movement. Incoming freshmen Tyquan Thornton, BJ Hanspard and Joshua Fleeks are reasons to be excited, too.

    All those guys are going to be surrounding a very capable quarterback in Brewer. With the Big 12 retooling at signal-caller other than WVU's Grier, there's plenty of opportunity for Brewer to surge to the top of the conference list.

    He's got all the tools to do it.

Tre Bryant, Nebraska Running Back

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    There were many reasons why former Nebraska coach Mike Riley's final season with the Cornhuskers derailed so miserably. 

    It didn't help matters that star running back Tre Bryant lost the final 10 games of his season to injury after storming out to a strong start. In those first two games, he had 299 yards and two touchdowns on a 5.9-yard average against Arkansas State and Oregon.

    If the 5'11", 200-pound junior from St. Louis can return after surgery to correct chronic knee problems, he should be a workhorse for new Huskers coach Scott Frost, who has a knack for getting the ball into his top playmakers' hands.

    If he's healthy, Bryant can be a centerpiece.

    But Frost knows that and doesn't want to rush him back. That's why he may be limited this spring.

    "We want to be smart with Tre," Frost told the Fremont Tribune's Steven M. Sipple. "I think his health will hopefully improve, but I think we can help that by limiting him a little bit. We are going to be as smart with him as we possibly can so he can be part of what we're doing."

    If that sounds like Frost is treating Bryant with kid gloves, it's true. But it's specifically to have Bryant available when it matters. The guess here is that a 1,000-plus-yard season will follow.

    Frost's offense is too dynamic for Bryant not to be a major part of it. 

K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU Linebacker

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    LSU no longer has outside linebacker/defensive end Arden Key, who left a season early to go to the NFL. That means defensive coordinator Dave Aranda needs an elite athlete he can move around on defense to come after quarterbacks from a variety of angles.

    Enter K'Lavon Chaisson.

    The 6'4", 240-pound Houston native looks just like you'd expect a Bayou Bengals defender to look. He's big, strong and can fly all over the field and make plays. A season ago, he didn't always appear to know what he was doing, but he still looked good doing it.

    Playing in Aranda's scheme under Ed Orgeron, Chaisson registered 27 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss and a pair of sacks. That's a good wet-feet year, but this season he's going to be relied upon heavily to anchor what the Tigers hope is a young but championship-caliber defense.

    Chaisson isn't starting just yet, as he's trying to get things together this spring and learn the defense. But he'll be too talented to keep off the field. In 2017's LSU scrimmage, Chaisson had three tackles for loss, a sack and four quarterback hurries playing with the second string.

    "He was dominant. Just dominant," Orgeron told SECCountry.com's Alex Hickey. "He runs around. Great kid. Very humble—yes sir, no sir. He's just learning. Extremely quick. He's exactly the player we thought he was when we recruited him. He's a little more physical. Weighs 240 right now. Very strong. He's smart. He's going to be a good player for us."

    Will that be in 2018? The belief here is he not only will start but star.

Najee Harris, Alabama Running Back

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    Even though Tua Tagovailoa made himself a household name with one important and dynamic half, there are still double-digit Alabama players who could make this list.

    There's going to be a youth movement in Tuscaloosa in 2018, but the Crimson Tide will be full of elite playmakers capable of winning another national championship. Players like Mack Wilson, Jedrick Wills, Alex Leatherwood, Dylan Moses, Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith could have been picked here.

    Instead, it's going to a former 247Sports top-ranked running back, Najee Harris.

    Outgoing Alabama players told AL.com's Matt Zenitz following the national championship game that the California kid, who'll be a sophomore, is ready to burst onto the scene.

    Yes, leading rusher Damien Harris is back, as is Joshua Jacobs. But coach Nick Saban has proved in the past that it doesn't matter who starts games. There are plenty of carries to go around, especially on an offense that has the ball a lot because the defense keeps opponents' drives short.

    Najee Harris had six carries for 64 yards against UGA in the championship game, cementing himself as one of the first-year stars who carried the Tide to the title. For the season, the 6'2", 227-pound runner had 61 carries for 370 yards and three touchdowns. That's a 6.1-yard average.

    That's just a glimpse of his immense potential. There's a reason why he and Florida State running back Cam Akers battled for the top running back spot in the 2017 recruiting class rankings. Both are primed to be stars. 

    It'll be a Harris-heavy backfield in Tuscaloosa this season with Bo Scarbrough gone to the NFL.

Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State Quarterback

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    There were times during his strong Ohio State career where former quarterback J.T. Barrett held the Buckeyes back on offense.

    Though first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson squeezed the best season out of Barrett in 2017, he wasn't always a consistent signal-caller. There were limitations throwing the ball downfield and even with his accuracy at times.

    The heir has the chance to be better than Barrett, who despite his limitations will go down in Buckeyes history as an all-time great.

    That player, of course, is redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The New Jersey product was one of the most highly recruited players in the 2016 class before deciding to play for Urban Meyer. He showed flashes of what he can do in last year's spring game and in relief of Barrett throughout the season.

    Haskins has a laser arm and can throw the deep ball, while he shows maturity beyond his years. In addition, his size and ability to run make him the kind of prospect Wilson can mold into an elite thrower and NFL prospect.

    "…[H]e possesses natural talent that is easy to see," Cleveland.com's Tim Bielik wrote. "Plus his confidence and arm strength means that he is willing to let it fly more often and take some chances. It's a higher level of risk and reward that comes with a more aggressive downfield approach."

    It's no guarantee Haskins starts over Joe Burrow or Tate Martell, but it would be a surprise if he didn't. He has the ability to be the Big Ten's first-team all-conference quarterback, especially with Wilson calling the shots.

Tee Higgins, Clemson Wide Receiver

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    Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has won some huge recruiting battles in recent years, and that's why he has the Tigers competing at a national championship level every year.

    One of the biggest recent coups came when he went in Tennessee's backyard and snagged former Vols wide receiver commitment Tee Higgins from nearby Oak Ridge.

    The lanky pass-catcher has dynamic ability and could become one of the nation's top targets as soon as 2018, especially once Clemson moves on from run-first quarterback Kelly Bryant in favor of elite freshman Trevor Lawrence or sophomore Hunter Johnson. Those signal-callers can move the ball downfield, and that's when Higgins will become a star.

    With Deon Cain off to the NFL, Higgins will step right in as Clemson's deep threat to go along with the steady possession skills of senior Hunter Renfrow.

    As a true freshman in '17, Higgins had 17 catches for 345 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 20.3 yards per catch. At 6'4", 200 pounds, he was just too skilled to keep off the field, even on a team loaded with offensive playmakers a season ago.

    Higgins leads a young group of pass-catchers behind Renfrow, and his coach expects big things from that group, even if he hasn't seen them yet.

    "I mean, [one moment you go] 'Wow,'" Swinney told the Anderson Independent Mail's Grace Raynor. "And then you go 'crap.' We've got to get a few less 'craps' and a few more 'wows.' Just too inconsistent."

    If he starts wowing folks, Higgins has A.J. Green potential. He'll have a 1,000-yard season this year if the Tigers get their quarterback choice right.

Gary Johnson, Texas Linebacker

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    With Malik Jefferson off to the NFL, Texas—much like LSU with Arden Key—is going to be in need of a defensive playmaker. 

    The Longhorns hope the next wave of talent is more consistent than Jefferson, an all-world athlete who had mental lapses that kept him from reaching his immense potential in Austin.

    The player who looks like the perfect replacement as the defensive leader is Gary Johnson, a 6'1", 227-pound senior from Birmingham, Alabama. Johnson came to the Horns after a JUCO career in 2017 and emerged as a late-season star.

    He started the last part of the season, even earning Big 12 co-defensive player of the week honors, and led the team in tackles against Missouri in the Texas Bowl with 10. He'll be a full-time starter in 2018 and has the ability to blossom into an All-American.

    Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando utilized him a season ago in the "Lightning" package, allowing Johnson to go sideline-to-sideline and hunt ball-carriers. With a lot more help around him after coach Tom Herman's elite 2018 recruiting class, Johnson is going to be tougher to pay attention to.

    He's not hard for his teammates to pay attention to.

    "Gary? The kids love Gary, man," Herman told SBNation's Wescott Eberts. "Its no surprise. Why do they love Gary Johnson? Because he tells funny jokes? No. Because he buys them dinner? No. Because he goes really, really stinking hard, everyday. He always has a blast doing it and has a smile on his face."

    Johnson will easily eclipse last year's 60 tackles, and he'll improve on six tackles for a loss and two sacks, too. With the influx of talent, Orlando will be able to implement a lot of packages and put Johnson in a position to make plays.

    He'll answer the call.

Kyler Murray, Oklahoma Quarterback

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    Nobody is walking around Norman, Oklahoma, wringing their hands and wiping away tears after Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield is off to the NFL.

    Sure, he'll be difficult and maybe even impossible to replace. But head coach Lincoln Riley knows a little bit about replacing legends after following in Bob Stoops' footsteps, and he took the Sooners to the College Football Playoffs in his first year.

    He's also got a potential star ready to replace Mayfield under center, a dual-threat, elite athlete who is capable of doing some spectacular things with weapons like Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon, CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown around him.

    That's former top overall prospect in the state of Texas, former Texas A&M quarterback and OU transfer Kyler Murray, who looked like a more-than-capable star in mop-up duty for Mayfield a season ago.

    Though he has to fend off Austin Kendall for the starting gig, it would be a stunner if anybody besides Murray took the season's first snap and every meaningful one as long as he's healthy.

    Murray isn't the biggest player at 5'10", but Mayfield was far from prototypical, either. Murray is more dynamic running the ball than the shifty Mayfield, and though the former Heisman Trophy winner was a better passer, Murray can do it, too.

    The Sooners expect to be right back where they were a season ago, winning the Big 12 and competing for the College Football Playoffs yet again. If they do, it'll be because Murray lived up to his expectations of being the star college quarterback many predicted he'd be coming out of high school.

Jaelan Phillips, UCLA Defensive End

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    UCLA won a monster recruiting battle two cycles ago when the nation's top-ranked recruit, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, decided to come to Westwood and play for former coach Jim Mora Jr.

    Now entering his sophomore season, defensive end Jaelan Phillips expects to go from being a situational star who showed glimpses of dynamic ability to an All-Pac-12 performer capable of carrying the Bruins defense into the Chip Kelly era.

    He would have been a lot more than just a situational star had injuries not limited him to just seven games in his freshman season. He still made the most of that time, recording 21 tackles, including seven for a loss and 3.5 sacks.

    Though it was a small sample, Phillips proved what kind of difference-maker he can be coming off the edge. At 6'5", 255 pounds, Phillips can wreak havoc from a number of different spots, and Kelly may even move him back a level to come off the edge from outside linebacker.

    As the Bruins transition to a 3-4, it could mean Phillips and Keisean Lucier-South become outside linebackers, and that wouldn't be a bad thing, either. He's athletic enough to play at the position and can still terrorize passers.

    New defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro wants to employ a "violent" defense, according to Los Angeles Daily News reporter Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and that favors Phillips and Lucier-South coming from a level back as Jack linebackers.

    A year ago, UCLA had the nation's worst run defense, and there's too much talent for that. Phillips and Co. could benefit from a change of scheme, and the sophomore is tailor-made for this new role. Look for him to thrive.

D'Andre Swift, Georgia Running Back

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    The Georgia Bulldogs made it all the way to the national championship game before losing in overtime, and though they have the young talent to go far again, they've got to find a way to overcome the loss of 31 seniors.

    Two of those who will be missed most are running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who combined for 7,958 rushing yards, 942 receiving yards and 81 scores in their career.

    How do you replace that kind of production?

    The short answer is you recruit the way Kirby Smart is doing in Athens. He brought in two elite runners in the 2018 class in Zamir White and James Cook, and both of those guys should have an offensive role for the Dawgs this year.

    But they've got to find a way to unseat a rising sophomore you may be overlooking. D'Andre Swift has elite potential, and he is next in line to star for UGA. As a freshman a season ago, he had big games against Missouri (six rushes, 94 yards) and Auburn in the SEC Championship Game (seven carries, 88 yards).

    The first-year back from Philadelphia wound up with 81 carries for 618 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged more than seven yards per carry and added another 153 receiving yards and another score.

    Even with White, Cook and Elijah Holyfield around, Swift has the potential to be RB1 in Athens. With no shortage of talent around him, he won't have to be overworked and can use his big-play ability to pile up the yards.

    He'll be a terror for SEC opponents to deal with in '18, and if he stays healthy, he'll eclipse 1,000 yards.

                       

    Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com, and recruiting data is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.   

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.