5-Star College Football Players Stepping Into Much Larger Roles in 2023

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 20, 2023

5-Star College Football Players Stepping Into Much Larger Roles in 2023

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    PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 02: Sean Clifford #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates with Beau Pribula #9 and Drew Allar #15 after Nicholas Singleton #10 scored an 87 yard touchdown against the Utah Utes during the third quarter in the 2023 Rose Bowl Game at Rose Bowl Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Get ready for some blasts from the past (if you're a recruiting follower) to surge up depth charts around the nation and into the hot seat in 2023.

    A handful of guys who were once highly touted prospects have a major opportunity and massive expectations surrounding them this upcoming season, and this spring could be a springboard for them all.

    From a trio of exciting, young quarterbacks to some big-time defenders to a star you may have forgotten who'll be coming back from an injury, there's a loaded list of former blue-chip prospects with golden opportunities.

    To make this list, you have to be a former 5-star prospect, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, and you need to have fallen a bit off the radar or been blocked by upperclassmen.

    Here are some breakout candidates for expanded roles next year who were once projected to be the best among their respective recruiting classes.

Drew Allar, Penn State Quarterback

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    Penn State quarterback Drew Allar (15) scrambles during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Maryland, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
    AP Photo/Barry Reeger

    The highly anticipated Penn State career of Drew Allar began in earnest after the Nittany Lions dominated Utah in the Rose Bowl and veteran quarterback Sean Clifford took his curtain call.

    It was a wonderful exit for Clifford, who orchestrated a phenomenal final season, but everybody is excited about seeing Allar, the former No. 4-ranked quarterback in 247Sports' 2022 composite rankings and the top-rated signal-caller on 247Sports.

    At 6'5", 238 pounds, the Medina, Ohio, native has everything you want in a quarterback. Not only is he big and physical, but he also possesses an elite arm and better-than-you-think athleticism.

    Even though the '22 Lions were Clifford's team, coach James Franklin understood the value in getting Allar some reps, and he looked great in limited action, completing 35-of-60 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns.

    Now, Allar steps to the forefront of a team that was loaded with young, elite talent in 2022, and all those guys—including running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen—will be able to help along Allar.

    The prediction here is he can elevate Penn State to a Big Ten title and a national champion contender, maybe as soon as next year.

Luther Burden, Missouri Wide Receiver

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    TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 23: Missouri Tigers wide receiver Luther Burden III (3) signals for a first down after a catch during the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl college football game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa FL on December 23, 2022. (Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    It's debatable whether Luther Burden III belongs on this list.

    After all, the Missouri Tigers did get the talented freshman involved this past year, to the tune of 45 catches for 375 yards and six touchdowns. He also ran 18 times for 88 yards and another couple of scores. So, he already had a role.

    But it's nearly criminal how little coach Eli Drinkwitz got a star athlete like Burden the ball on a mediocre Tigers football team. That's all going to change in 2023.

    Even though Burden registered nine starts a season ago, he was just the third option through the air. With Dominic Lovett transferring to Georgia, Burden becomes the focal point, which has to be the reason why he decided to give his home school another shot.

    "Coach Drink" won't disappoint this year, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Burden get 100 total touches—being allowed to stretch the field more, get the ball in space and make big things happen.

    If Mizzou is smart, Burden is going to become the centerpiece of an offense that has to perform to keep their coach from the hot seat. It's not going to be a burden getting the former 5-star prospect from St. Louis the ball.

    Look for him to break out and be one of the most productive receivers in the SEC and perhaps the nation.

Justin Flowe, Arizona Linebacker

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    EUGENE, OREGON - MAY 01: Justin Flowe #10 of the Oregon Ducks looks on in the fourth quarter during the Oregon spring game at Autzen Stadium on May 01, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Justin Flowe hasn't been able to tap into his immense talent just yet, but all that is going to change in 2023.

    All he's got to do is stay healthy.

    That may be a taller order than expected when you consider he lost essentially the entire 2020 and 2021 seasons because of injury. It's hard to believe, but he was actually a part of the same, talented '20 Oregon recruiting class that included Noah Sewell, who is off to the NFL.

    Flowe (who was the sixth-rated overall player in that '20 group) won't be suiting up for the Ducks next year, either. The 6'2", 235-pound second-level defender is leaving Eugene for Tucson, Arizona, where he is going to add a much-needed star to the Arizona Wildcats.

    Coach Jedd Fisch's team saw a resurgence in 2022, but the Wildcats were hammered by transfer portal departures and need some quality playmakers like Flowe. He has the potential to be an all-conference Pac-12 defender and certainly will have the opportunity.

    Last season, he appeared in 10 games for coach Dan Lanning's Ducks, making a pair of starts and finishing with 35 total tackles (14 solo) and 2.5 tackles for loss

    Think of what he could be: In his only game of the '21 season before getting hurt, he was the conference freshman of the week with 14 tackles, including five solo tackles, one tackle-for-loss and a forced fumble in his first career start against Fresno State.

    That kind of production potential is exciting, and Arizona is going to be the beneficiary.

Travis Hunter, Colorado Cornerback/Wide Receiver

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    ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 17:  Travis Hunter #12 of the Jackson State Tigers reacts after pulling in a touchdown reception against the North Carolina Central Eagles during the second half of the Cricket Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The most surprising, game-changing news of the 2022 recruiting cycle came when the top-ranked overall player decided to play for an FCS program and a Historically Black College.

    Travis Hunter's decision to spurn Florida State and flip his long-time commitment to play for Deion Sanders at Jackson State showed the world Coach Prime could recruit at the highest level, no matter where he is.

    Hunter didn't make the expected impact for the Tigers this past year, missing a portion of the season with an injury. Once he did get on the field, he flashed.

    The 6'1", 165-pound cornerback/athlete lined up all over the field in his eight games for the 12-1 Tigers, finishing with 20 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups and a fumble recovery. He also had 18 catches for 188 yards and four scores playing receiver.

    Now, Hunter is following Sanders to Colorado, where he'll catch passes from Shedeur Sanders and no doubt be a playmaker on the back end of the defense as well.

    Everybody will get to see Hunter play against competition up to his caliber, and it's just a matter of time before he elevates his game and becomes one of the biggest playmakers in the Pac-12. Will he play on offense and defense for the Buffaloes? With Colorado needing a talent infusion, it's likely.

    Hunter is going to be a big-ticket player, and it's why last year's top-rated prospect was this year's No. 1 transfer.

Domani Jackson, USC Cornerback

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 01: USC Trojans defensive back Domani Jackson (1) runs down the field during a college football game between the Arizona State Sun Devils against the USC Trojans on October 01, 2022, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Even on an atrocious defense that ended the year with a colossal thud, USC true freshman defensive back Domani Jackson couldn't gain any depth-chart traction.

    Don't look for that to repeat itself in 2023.

    The former 5-star prospect and fifth-rated overall prospect in the '22 class dealt with nagging injuries throughout season and, despite being a mid-term enrollee, the 6'1", 190-pound cornerback hardly played.

    In seven games, he had just a pair of tackles, but he's still expected to be a huge part of the Trojans' future, likely in '23. It's just a matter of whether you want to believe the rumors that he may be looking around in the transfer portal and Michigan could be a destination.

    Thus far, Jackson hasn't entered the portal, therefore USC should be considered the Santa Ana, California, prospect's 2023 home, and an offseason of development is going to be huge for him.

    The Trojans have recruited well at cornerback, where Ceyair Wright, Jacobe Covington and Prophet Brown, among others, will be battling it out for playing time. But Jackson should be firmly in the rotation, if not a starter.

    If it's not in L.A., he'll be playing a lot next year for some top-shelf team.

Tristan Leigh, Clemson Offensive Tackle

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    SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 05, 2022: Tristan Leigh #70 of the Clemson Tigers warms up prior to a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 5, 2022 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
    Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

    Sticking with former 2021 recruits, Tristan Leigh has waited his turn at Clemson. He's about to be rewarded with some major time.

    Perhaps he could even start at left tackle protecting Cade Klubnik's blind side in 2023.

    The former No. 14-rated prospect in that class missed his entire senior season in Fairfax, Virginia, because of COVID-19, so he needed a little extra time to develop. The 6'6", 315-pound redshirt freshman offensive tackle played in just two games in '21, then he played five in reserve of Jordan McFadden this past year.

    With McFadden off to the NFL, Leigh is in line to play one of the most important positions on the field in 2023.

    Protecting Klubnik is going to be vital to the program's success, and with new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley coming in, there's no question he's going to dial up ways for Klubnik to sling the ball around. Leigh has to be consistently dominant to stay in the lineup.

    "I give a shoutout to Jordan McFadden. I feel like, since I've gotten here, he's taken me under his wing," Leigh told SI.com's JP Priester. "Especially this year. He'd always be down the middle with me to watch film or just coach me up whenever. I feel like I've put myself in a position to be ready, and a lot of that is thanks to him. I'm excited for the spring."

    Leigh is going to have to battle it out for the starting job, but he has a big-time opportunity in front of him.

Chris Marshall, Ole Miss Wide Receiver

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    STARKVILLE, MS - OCTOBER 01: Texas A&M Aggies wide receiver Chris Marshall (10) tries to make a catch during the game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Texas A&M Aggies on October 1, 2022 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, MS. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Like several other guys in that loaded 2022 recruiting class, Chris Marshall decided pretty quickly that College Station wasn't for him.

    Following a disastrous season that saw Texas A&M fail to make a bowl game, a handful of former star players from the top-ranked Aggies recruiting class from a season ago are among the 27 players (so far) to seek greener pastures away from coach Jimbo Fisher.

    Marshall's path has taken him to Oxford, Mississippi, where he has a big-time opportunity to step into the role of the Rebels' top receiver, vacated by Jonathan Mingo and Malik Heath, who are both off to the NFL.

    Last season, Marshall wasn't the first freshman receiver to get grabs for Fisher; that was elite playmaker Evan Stewart.

    Perhaps seeing the opportunity for a do-over where he could play in a potentially prolific offense under Lane Kiffin, Marshall bolted for the Aggies' SEC West rival.

    Now, he is going to be firmly in the mix to start and catch passes from Jaxson Dart (or perhaps even Walker Howard, if he elects to transfer to the Rebels). Regardless, it's difficult to envision a player as talented as Marshall sitting on the bench in Oxford.

    He'll play a lot.

Kyle McCord, Ohio State Quarterback

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    COLUMBUS, OHIO - NOVEMBER 12: Kyle McCord #6 of the Ohio State Buckeyes throws the ball during the fourth quarter of a game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium on November 12, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images)
    Ben Jackson/Getty Images

    With this week's news that Ohio State elite quarterback CJ Stroud is off to the NFL draft, where he's certain to be an early selection, the Buckeyes are left in a precarious position.

    While there's no shortage of talent in that quarterback room, experience is essentially nonexistent.

    Of course, that was the case when Stroud took over as a redshirt freshman, too. So, unless coach Ryan Day goes transfer-portal mining, it looks like the job is going to be Kyle McCord's to lose.

    Yes, he'll have to beat out Devin Brown and incoming freshman Lincoln Kienholz, who were both highly regarded prospects in their own rights, but McCord was Stroud's primary backup this year, and he should get a golden opportunity like Carson Beck at Georgia.

    Will McCord produce? That remains to be seen. Day is a sterling developer of signal-callers, and the 6'3", 204-pound former 5-star from Philadelphia who was the nation's No. 28-ranked recruit in the '21 class has a terrific skill set.

    Plus, McCord will have an abundance of talent around him, such as the running back trio of TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden, as well as talented pass-catchers like Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming and a trio of stud freshmen entering.

    All the pieces are there for McCord. He just has to be the maestro to put it all together. His opportunity is now.

Ty Simpson, Alabama Quarterback

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    FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS - OCTOBER 1: Ty Simpson #15 of the Alabama Crimson Tide warms up before a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on October 1, 2022 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Crimson Tide defeated the Razorbacks 49-26. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Sticking with the quarterback position at the nation's top programs, the Alabama Crimson Tide must find a way to replace a generational talent in Bryce Young.

    That's not going to be easy, but while Jalen Milroe was the first guy off the bench and performed admirably this past year when Young's shoulder was hurt, the prediction here is he won't be the man in Tuscaloosa next year.

    Instead, the 6'2", 198-pound rising redshirt freshman Ty Simpson from Martin, Tennessee— whose father, Jason, is the head coach at FCS program UT-Martin—could seize the job. He's similar to Kyle McCord in ranking, just a couple of spots ahead of him (No. 26) and the third-rated quarterback from last year's class.

    Not only does Simpson have a big arm, but he's also extremely athletic and can make all the throws when the pocket breaks down. Those skills sound a lot like Young, although nobody is better than him at that. Simpson is a great talent, though.

    With an entire offseason to develop, perhaps coach Nick Saban will see he is a better all-around option than Milroe. If he is, the latter certainly could use his athleticism at another position and be an explosive weapon for the Tide.

    This is a bit of a wild-card pick, but if Alabama doesn't go the transfer portal route (and there have been no indications it will), Simpson should get a shot.

Trey Sanders, TCU Running Back

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    INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 10: Trey Sanders #6 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs with the ball as Nolan Smith #4 of the Georgia Bulldogs defends in the first quarter of the game in the 2022 CFP National Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 10, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Not everybody can crack the rotation at Alabama, and Trey Sanders was one of those who tried for years but had things simply not go his way.

    Injuries decimated what was a once-promising career in Tuscaloosa, limiting him to just 116 carries for 528 yards and three touchdowns over three years.

    That's a far cry from what was expected from the former top-ranked running back in the 2019 class and the sixth-rated overall player. He was a force at powerhouse IMG Academy, and coach Nick Saban expected he hit the jackpot when he signed.

    Unfortunately for both parties, it never materialized, and now Sanders will have the opportunity to get his career back on track in Fort Worth for the national runner-up TCU Horned Frogs. It's a place where ability and expectation meets opportunity.

    With Kendre Miller leaving early for the NFL and Emari Demercado out of eligibility, coach Sonny Dykes needs a bell cow at running back. If Sanders is healthy, he could provide a major boost. At the least, he will provide talent and depth.

    Sanders joins former UA players Tommy Brockermeyer and JoJo Earle with the Horned Frogs, and all three could find themselves in the mix of helping TCU stay at the top.

    Is Sanders the same kind of explosive player he was as a prospect? No, but maybe all he needs is the opportunity to prove he can still play.

Maason Smith, LSU Defensive Lineman

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    HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 04: LSU Tigers defensive lineman Maason Smith (0) warms up before the Texas Bowl game between the Kansas State Wildcats and LSU Tigers at NRG Stadium on January 4, 2022 in Houston, TX. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Maason Smith was set to take the college football world by storm in 2022, but everything changed when he landed awkwardly after celebrating a stop in LSU's season opener against Florida State.

    Of all the crummy ways to suffer a season-ending injury. The diagnosis was a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

    A season that had started with the sophomore former No. 20 overall player in the 2021 class (and second-rated overall player, according to Rivals) looking like the most disruptive player on that field ended abruptly.

    Look for him to return with a vengeance.

    The Houma, Louisiana, native could help LSU's defense take a step forward in 2023, and he offers a huge reason why the Bayou Bengals could repeat as SEC West champions next year.

    Smith started four games as a true freshman in 2022, and he was prepared to be a force a season ago before the injury. With a 6'5", 300-pound frame, he is a big, run-stuffing force who also can get after quarterbacks from the interior.

    He is a Tiger through and through, having committed to former coach Ed Orgeron and stayed firm with his program despite people leaving all around him during the transition to the Brian Kelly tenure.

    It's just a matter of time before he returns better and stronger than before, and he has the ability to be an All-American right away. At the least, he'll be a starter for the Tigers and one of the best defensive linemen in the SEC.

Mykel Williams, Georgia Defensive Lineman

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    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 09: Mykel Williams #13 of the Georgia Bulldogs tackles Max Duggan #15 of the TCU Horned Frogs in the first quarter in the College Football Playoff National Championship game at SoFi Stadium on January 09, 2023 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Georgia's top returning pass-rusher for the 2023 season will be a guy who didn't even start most of the campaign.

    The waves of defensive talent coach Kirby Smart has stockpiled for the back-to-back national champions is impressive, but former 5-star Mykel Williams may be the most explosive playmaker on that side of the ball.

    The 6'5", 265-pound Columbus, Georgia, native was the fourth-rated overall player in the 2021 class, and despite a crowded group of stars in the Dawgs' front seven, it was impossible to keep Williams off the field. UGA knew that right away.

    As the season progressed, Williams started two of the 15 games and finished with 28 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He led the team with 30 quarterback hurries, despite only being a part-time player. Those numbers made him a freshman All-American.

    "He's very mature for his age," Smart said, according to Dawgs247's Jordan D. Hill. "He's very diligent with his work ethic. He does not let success go to his head, which sometimes happens to freshmen. He's very coachable, which I think is important at a young age."

    With that kind of praise and his ability, he's going to be a star, probably as soon as this season.


    All stats courtesy of cfbstats and Sports Reference. Player rankings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.

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