Breakout Player to Watch on Every Power 5 College Football Team in 2016
College football is a very cyclical sport. Every winter, star players move on to the NFL via early entry and graduation, leaving big openings for younger players and reserves to fill. That’s part of the joy of college football for fans; we get to see unheralded talents emerge right before our eyes in spring and early-season games, becoming the next great talent.
Every team has potential breakout players—guys who fill bigger, more prominent roles and make a difference for their respective programs. Here’s a look at a potential breakout player for every Power Five team, as well as Notre Dame. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.
Alabama Crimson Tide RB Bo Scarbrough
During Nick Saban’s ultra-successful tenure, Alabama’s offense has consistently leaned on a durable, productive tailback, from Mark Ingram to Trent Richardson to Eddie Lacy to T.J. Yeldon to Derrick Henry. All of the backs are a little different in their own way, but they all moved the chains. Ingram and Henry won Heisman Trophies, and as the Crimson Tide enters 2016, Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin are looking for the next great back.
Henry was a workhorse for Alabama last fall, rushing 395 times for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns. He was at his best down the stretch, carrying 46 times for 271 yards and a touchdown against Auburn and 46 times for 189 yards and a score against Florida.
How will Alabama replace him? Look no further than Bo Scarbrough. He didn’t get much time as a freshman, carrying 18 times for 104 yards and a touchdown. However, Scarbrough has the size (6’2”, 230 pounds) to stand up to every-down pounding. He was impressive in spring practice and should be the Tide’s next great back beginning this fall.
Arizona Wildcats QB Brandon Dawkins
Anu Solomon has built a solid track record as Arizona’s quarterback. He led the Wildcats to 10 wins, a Pac-12 South title and a Fiesta Bowl berth as a freshman, and even though his stats regressed due to injury in 2015, he still threw for 2,667 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. So why is it no sure thing he’ll start in 2016? Meet Brandon Dawkins.
Solomon has struggled staying healthy over the past year-plus, and Dawkins, a sophomore, has impressed in his opportunities. With Solomon sidelined against Arizona State, Dawkins threw for 305 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions (including a 95-yard score) and rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown.
He pushed Solomon through spring practice, and if the veteran falters or suffers another injury, Dawkins will be ready to step in and run Rich Rodriguez’s high-powered offense.
Arizona State Sun Devils WR Ellis Jefferson
If nothing else, there is certainly opportunity in Arizona State’s receiving corps in 2016. Off to the NFL is 1,074-yard receiver Devin Lucien, as are No. 3 receiver D.J. Foster and No. 4 receiver Gary Chambers. Tim White (57 receptions, 633 yards, eight scores) is the top returning receiver.
That means new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey must find new options along with a new quarterback. Junior Ellis Jefferson has size (6’5”, 212 pounds) and clear talent but has struggled to break out of a talented group of receivers. Last fall, he had 12 catches for 160 yards and no touchdowns. Lindsey runs a very similar offense to that of now-Memphis Tigers coach Mike Norvell, and expect Jefferson to thrive as one of the Sun Devils’ top receivers.
Arkansas Razorbacks RB Devwah Whaley
2016 will be a year of change in Arkansas’ backfield. Bret Bielema has nudged the Razorbacks back to prominence with a strong running game led by 1,000-yard rushers Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. But Collins left for the NFL after rushing for 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior, and Williams followed after missing the entire season with a foot injury.
The backfield has some uncertainty. Both of the leading returnees, Kody Walker and Rawleigh Williams, have battled injuries in their careers. Williams is returning from a scary neck injury that ended his 2015 season prematurely. That makes Devwah Whaley’s presence crucial. The Beaumont, Texas, back has a chance to star immediately in Fayetteville.
Whaley stands 6’0”, 210 pounds and runs with power and speed. He rushed for 1,530 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior. His skills mesh perfectly with Bielema’s offense, and Whaley should find a prominent role in 2016.
Auburn Tigers DE Byron Cowart
Suggesting things didn’t go as planned for Byron Cowart in 2015 is a huge understatement. Regarded as one of the nation’s top overall recruits, Cowart was expected to make a quick impact as an Auburn freshman defensive end.
Instead, he was almost invisible. The 6’4”, 250-pound end didn’t record a sack or tackle for loss and finished with six tackles and six quarterback hurries while playing in 13 games. 2016 brings a new start, however: defensive coordinator Will Muschamp left to become South Carolina’s head coach, replaced by Kevin Steele. And a healthy Carl Lawson across from him should ease pressure on Cowart.
However, Cowart must contend with signees Marlon Davidson and Paul James and handle a recent arrest on marijuana possession charges. If Cowart’s mind is in the right place, he’s a natural fit in Steele’s system and should see his numbers improve dramatically. He can make an impact against the run or the pass.
Baylor Bears QB Jarrett Stidham
It’s been a very difficult spring at Baylor. An independent investigation showed that BU officials and its football staff had failed to react in a proper, timely fashion to reports of sexual assault and dating violence, and head coach Art Briles was suspended with intent to fire, university president Kenneth Starr was removed from his job and athletic director Ian McCaw resigned.
Seven 2016 signees have reportedly requested releases from their national letters of intent, per ESPN's Jeremy Crabtree, but Baylor still has talent on the roster, especially at quarterback, where Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham return. Stidham was very good as a freshman after Russell’s season ended due to a neck injury. He threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns in his first career start at Kansas State, but his own season ended two weeks later due to an ankle injury.
Stidham will be healthy in time for the season opener, and while Baylor must recover from losing top receiver Corey Coleman to the NFL, he has the tools to thrive in a fast-paced offense.
Boston College Eagles QB Darius Wade
With new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler on board, Boston College needs something, anything good to happen at quarterback. That didn’t happen last year. Eagle quarterbacks combined for eight touchdowns and nine interceptions and completed just 44.6 percent of their passes, and BC had one of the nation’s worst offenses.
It didn’t help that Darius Wade missed the final nine games with a broken ankle. The dual-threat quarterback showed some signs of promise, throwing for 232 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Without him, BC was lost under center. Wade competed against a deep group, including graduate transfer Patrick Towles this spring, but if he can beat out Towles, he has the skills to thrive in Loeffler’s scheme.
California Bears WR Demetris Robertson
Demetris Robertson certainly took his time picking a college. Sonny Dykes surely doesn’t mind, however. Nearly three months after the rest of the Class of 2016 signed their national letters of intent, Robertson, the nation’s top wide receiver prospect per 247Sports, picked Cal on May 1.
The Savannah, Georgia, prospect was able to be picky because he’s very talented. The 5’11”, 175-pound wideout has game-breaking speed and had his choice of top destinations, including Alabama, Georgia, Stanford and Notre Dame.
He’ll fit in immediately at Cal, which lost its top five receivers from 2015. Top overall NFL draft pick Jared Goff is gone, but Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb is also well versed in the Air Raid system that Dykes prefers. Robertson will get all the playing time he can handle as a freshman, and he should handle it well.
Clemson Tigers DT Dexter Lawrence
Last fall, Clemson went from a good to an elite program. The Tigers finished 14-1 as the national runners-up after falling 45-40 to Alabama in the national title game. An offense led by Heisman Trophy third-place finisher Deshaun Watson garnered most of the headlines, but a nasty defense that finished in the top 15 nationally did more than its share.
That defense suffered serious NFL draft losses, with six players leaving early, led by first-round defensive end Shaq Lawson and All-America corner Mackensie Alexander. However, Clemson continues to recruit well, with defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence the best example.
Lawrence was rated as the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect per 247Sports, and he checks in at 6’4”, 327 pounds. He went through spring with Clemson and turned heads with a freakish combination of speed and power. While the presence of Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins means Lawrence might not start immediately, he’ll make waves, especially where ACC offensive lines are considered.
Colorado Buffaloes WR Devin Ross
Colorado begins 2016 with some question marks on its offense. Returning starting quarterback Sefo Liufau is questionable to begin the season after suffering a Lisfranc injury in his foot, and Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb initially committed to the Buffaloes before spurning them for Pac-12 rival Cal.
Whoever lines up under center for Colorado will see some new faces at receiver. Nelson Spruce graduated after catching 89 passes for 1,053 yards and four touchdowns, leaving an opening as the top wideout. Shay Fields (42 receptions, 598 yards, four scores) figures to fill that role, but Devin Ross will also play a larger role.
Ross had 25 receptions for 324 yards and two scores as a freshman, and while he is small at 5’9”, 180 pounds, he has the speed and athleticism to thrive in Colorado’s pass-first offense in 2016.
Duke Blue Devils WR T.J. Rahming
David Cutcliffe has transformed Duke from one of college football’s dregs to a downright respectable program. The Blue Devils have made four consecutive bowl games and have won 25 combined games over the last three seasons. They’ve done so with a pro-style offense that leans heavily on the pass. While Duke’s quarterback situation has questions after starter Thomas Sirk suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in February, Sirk or backup Parker Boehme have options in the receiver corps.
Leading receiver Max McCaffrey, older brother to Stanford Cardinal star Christian McCaffrey, graduated, leaving an opening as the No. 1 receiver. T.J. Rahming is poised to take advantage. He caught 43 passes for 571 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman, and his numbers figure to improve significantly, no matter who is under center in Durham.
Florida Gators QB Luke Del Rio
It’s been a long, strange road for Luke Del Rio, but he might have finally found a home in Florida. The son of NFL coach Jack Del Rio began his career as a walk-on at Alabama then transferred to Oregon State. After backing up starter Sean Mannion for a season, he transferred again, this time to Florida.
As Jim McElwain enters his second season, he needs stability under center. Will Grier transferred to the West Virginia Mountaineers following a yearlong NCAA suspension connected to a positive test for a performance-enhancing substance, and Treon Harris didn’t participate in spring practice after being suspended for a violation of university conduct policy.
Del Rio stepped forward with an excellent spring. He competed with Purdue Boilermakers transfer Austin Appleby and freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, excelling in the spring game. He completed 10 of 11 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, separating himself from the pack. With a competent quarterback, Florida was the class of the SEC East. If Del Rio carries over his success from spring, the Gators can challenge again in 2016.
Florida State Seminoles DE Josh Sweat
Last fall, Josh Sweat’s contributions to Florida State’s defense were considered a bonus. The highly touted defensive end was still recovering from a serious knee injury suffered as a high school senior but still managed to pile up 41 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks.
As a sophomore, more will be expected of Sweat, who will likely hold down a starting role on the Seminole defense. He stands 6’5”, 236 pounds and has easy athleticism and speed. The key will be harnessing that into consistent production in an every-down role. If Sweat can put in the equity to make a smooth transition, he’ll become one of Florida State’s best defenders and a pass-rushing force.
Georgia Bulldogs WR Terry Godwin
As he enters his first year in Athens, new Georgia coach Kirby Smart has questions about his quarterback. Will senior Greyson Lambert hang onto the job? Will highly touted freshman Jacob Eason, the Bulldogs’ quarterback of the future, become the quarterback of the present? Or will Brice Ramsey take the role?
No matter who emerges, Smart and Co. have confidence in the lead Dawg at wide receiver. Terry Godwin is the leading returning pass-catcher following a freshman season that saw him make 35 receptions for 379 yards and two scores. With Malcolm Mitchell graduated, the role is Godwin’s to claim.
He measures up at 5’11”, 174 pounds and has excellent speed, making him a deep threat for whoever emerges at quarterback. Expect Godwin to make plenty of highlight-reel plays between the hedges and build on a strong finish to 2015 (12 receptions, 112 yards, a touchdown in the last two games).
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets WR Ricky Jeune
Georgia Tech had one of the nation’s most disappointing seasons in 2015. One year removed from an 11-win season, ACC Coastal Division championship and Orange Bowl win, the Yellow Jackets slipped to 3-9. Quarterback Justin Thomas’ production fell off significantly; he threw for 1,345 yards and 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions and completed just 41.7 percent of his passes.
While Tech’s flexbone offense revolves around the run, Thomas needs defenses to take him seriously through the air as well. He slipped from 1,086 rushing yards as a sophomore to 488 as a junior. How does he improve? Find a true No. 1 receiver.
Thomas had good chemistry with receiver Ricky Jeune, who made 24 receptions for 520 yards and four scores (all team bests) as a freshman. With another year in the offense, Jeune should feel more comfortable with Thomas, and vice versa. His numbers should improve as a result.
Illinois Fighting Illini WR Malik Turner
Over the past year, Illinois’ football program has gone through some serious change. Former NFL coach Lovie Smith is the Fighting Illini’s third head coach in less than a year, succeeding Tim Beckman and interim-turned-head-coach-turned-fired coach Bill Cubit.
Amid the tumult, Illinois does have a stable quarterback in senior Wes Lunt, who threw for 2,761 yards with 14 touchdowns against six interceptions. But following Geronimo Allison’s graduation, Lunt needs a No. 1 target. That should be sophomore Malik Turner. Star Mike Dudek will miss 2016 with a second torn ACL in as many years, leaving the door wide open for Turner to increase his contributions.
Last fall, he made 39 receptions for 510 yards and three touchdowns, including a 11-catch, 126-yard, one-touchdown effort against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Turner should be the clear No. 1 receiver in Champaign this fall and his numbers will improve as a result.
Indiana Hoosiers RB Devine Redding
Over the past two years, Indiana has become an under-the-radar running-back factory for the NFL. Tevin Coleman rode a 2,000-yard season into the NFL, and UAB Blazers transfer Jordan Howard followed him there after a 1,213-yard, nine-touchdown effort.
It might seem odd to suggest Devine Redding is a “breakout” player; after all, Redding rushed for 1,012 yards and nine touchdowns last fall. But he spent much of the season as Howard’s understudy, stepping forward as Howard missed the end of the season with injury. He finished the year with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games, including a 227-yard effort against Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl.
With Howard gone, there’s no clear second option behind Redding in the Hoosiers backfield. Kevin Wilson will ride him heavily this fall, allowing him to emerge as the next great IU back.
Iowa Hawkeyes DE Matt Nelson
Iowa had one of the nation’s most surprising seasons last fall, going from 7-6 to 12-2 with a Big Ten West title after finishing the regular season 12-0. The Hawkeyes thrived with a bruising run game and a nasty defense. The NCAA did Iowa few favors in its hopes of a repeat this spring, however.
Iowa was already dealing with Nate Meier’s graduation but hoped to have fellow defensive end Drew Ott back this fall. However, the NCAA waited until May to deny Ott’s bid for a sixth year of eligibility, leaving the Hawks down both starting ends from 2015.
That puts extra pressure on sophomore Matt Nelson. Nelson has an impressive frame at 6’8”, 270 pounds, and he got his feet wet as a freshman, making 14 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He’ll be a clear starter this fall and has excellent intensity and drive. Look for him to turn that energy into a productive sophomore season in the trenches.
Iowa State Cyclones QB Joel Lanning
Iowa State fans are among the most loyal in college football, given how difficult it is to win in Ames. But following a 3-9 season in 2015, they’d seen enough of Paul Rhoads. Rhoads took ISU to bowl games in three of his first four seasons but fell off badly after that, going 8-28 with four Big 12 wins in his next three years.
New coach Matt Campbell has infused ISU’s program with energy, and holdovers like quarterback Joel Lanning help his chances at a successful inaugural season. Lanning, a dual-threat passer, seized the starting role in the season’s second half and showed some promise. He threw for 1,247 yards and 10 touchdowns against four interceptions.
Lanning also flashed skills with his legs, carrying 14 times for 130 yards and two scores against the Oklahoma State Cowboys. With talented tailback Mike Warren behind him in the backfield and Allen Lazard as a prime receiving target, he should take a step forward as a sophomore.
Kansas Jayhawks WR Steven Sims
Let’s not mince words. Charlie Weis left David Beaty a major rebuilding job at Kansas. The Jayhawks were undertalented, outmanned and outclassed in 2015, losing the opener to FCS foe South Dakota State and finishing the season as one of two 0-12 FBS teams (Central Florida was the other).
At the very least, Kansas can’t get any worse in 2016. A young roster should show improvement after taking a year of beatings at the hands of the Big 12. Ryan Willis (nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions) will be the starting quarterback, but after Tre’ Parmalee’s graduation, he needs a top receiving target.
That man appears to be sophomore Steven Sims. As a freshman, Sims was Kansas’ clear No. 2 receiver, making 30 receptions for 349 yards and two scores. With Parmalee gone, he could easily double those totals. On a roster this bad, that’s a breakout year.
Kansas State Wildcats QB Jesse Ertz
Jesse Ertz has enjoyed a star-crossed career at Kansas State. Last fall, he emerged as the starting quarterback, but two plays into the season opener against South Dakota, his right knee buckled. It was a torn ACL, ending his season. That was the second time in three seasons he had suffered a torn ACL in that knee, making the injury doubly frustrating.
Ertz rehabbed and pushed past 2015 starter Joe Hubener and Alex Delton to set his sights on the starting role after spring practice. It didn’t hurt his chances that Wildcat quarterbacks combined to throw 14 touchdowns against 13 interceptions last fall.
Veteran coach Bill Snyder prizes mobility in his quarterbacks, and Ertz can run and throw on the run as well. He should be K-State’s starting quarterback in 2016 and thrive in the role.
Kentucky Wildcats QB Drew Barker
Under Mark Stoops, Kentucky’s rebuilding process has been a story of “close but not quite.” The Wildcats have been 5-7 in each of the last two seasons, both times blowing leads in the season finale against the Louisville Cardinals to end the season. They need more consistent offensive play, and quarterback Drew Barker could be the key to that.
Barker supplanted Patrick Towles as the starter late in 2015, going 1-1 with a win over Charlotte and a loss to Louisville. He threw for 364 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions on the season. At 6’3”, 225 pounds, he is a talented pocket passer who needs more consistency.
With Eddie Gran as the new offensive coordinator and Towles gone to Boston College as a graduate transfer, Barker could begin tapping into his considerable potential this fall.
Louisville Cardinals LB Stacy Thomas
Bobby Petrino has reason for hope as he enters the third season of his second stint in Louisville. Coming off an 8-5 season, the Cardinals return 17 starters, including eight on defense. One of the only real holes is at inside linebacker, where James Burgess graduated. However, Louisville has a capable replacement ready in Stacy Thomas.
Thomas had 31 tackles last season and got a big taste of playing time in the Music City Bowl, making 11 tackles after Burgess was ejected on the game’s first play for a targeting foul. He’s ready to step forward into a bigger role for an already talented, rugged defense.
LSU Tigers CB Donte Jackson
Following a roller-coaster 2015 season, Les Miles made a major upgrade on his defensive staff almost by accident this offseason. When defensive coordinator Kevin Steele bolted for Auburn, Miles lured Dave Aranda, one of the nation’s rising defensive minds, to Baton Rouge as his replacement. Aranda left a good situation behind at Wisconsin, but he’ll inherit a great LSU defense.
One of the rising stars? Sophomore cornerback Donte Jackson. Jackson made big contributions as a freshman, making 22 tackles with an interception. He also returned punts and kicks and displayed blazing speed (he was timed this spring at 6.66 seconds in the 60-yard dash).
Jackson should see increased playing time, even in a deep LSU secondary. He’s the kind of player who makes good things happen all over the field.
Maryland Terrapins RB Ty Johnson
D.J. Durkin has work to do in his first year as Maryland’s head coach. Coming off a 3-9 season, there’s not a lot of room for upward mobility in the Big Ten East, with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State also in the division. Durkin needs to identify talented players and build around them.
Sophomore running back Ty Johnson is one of those guys. Maryland has an opening in the backfield after leading rusher Brandon Ross graduated, and Johnson has shown clear signs he can handle the load.
Johnson had just 35 carries for 250 yards as a freshman but averaged an eye-popping 7.1 yards per carry. He had two carries in the season finale against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights but took them both for touchdowns of 43 and 44 yards. If Durkin is smart enough to give him increased time this fall, the Terrapins won’t regret it.
Miami Hurricanes TE David Njoku
Miami has a strong legacy of prolific tight ends. Kellen Winslow. Jeremy Shockey. Jimmy Graham. This fall, Brad Kaaya and Mark Richt would love to add another pass-catching force to that lineage. David Njoku has the skills to be that guy.
He stands 6’4”, 240 pounds and combines size with great hands and athleticism. Njoku had an excellent freshman season, catching 21 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown. With Richt’s pro-style offense and a healthy, happy Kaaya, Njoku can be a true difference-maker and a matchup nightmare for the Hurricanes in 2016.
Michigan Wolverines QB Wilton Speight
One of the biggest under-the-radar factors in Michigan’s rise from 5-7 to 10-3 in Jim Harbaugh’s first season? Quarterback Jake Rudock. Rudock was an excellent leader for the offense, throwing for 3,017 yards and 20 touchdowns against nine interceptions. But as a graduate transfer from Iowa, he was always just a one-year solution.
This spring, Harbaugh and staff threw the quarterback position open, and a surprising leader emerged in Wilton Speight. Shane Morris had more experience on campus and Houston Cougars transfer John O’Korn was the 2014 American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year, but Speight was very steady, ending thoughts about him as an afterthought, per ESPN.com's Dan Murphy.
"All the media all loved to buy in to one guy or two guys and that’s how it is at any program," he said, "and I knew that. I came into camp with an open mind knowing what I was capable of and I started showing that about a week into camp.”
Last fall, he threw for 73 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but he did lead a comeback win at Minnesota with Rudock on the sideline with an injury. If he can carry over his unflappable nature into fall, Speight will emerge at the forefront of a talented offense.
Michigan State Spartans RB L.J. Scott
Last fall, Michigan State broke through as an elite program, going 12-2, winning the Big 10 title and making its first College Football Playoff berth. While quarterback Connor Cook led the offense, the Spartans got their final playoff push from freshman tailback L.J. Scott.
Scott’s won’t-be-stopped one-yard plunge with 27 seconds left capped an epic 22-play, 73-yard drive and lifted Michigan State to a 16-13 Big Ten title game win over Iowa. As a sophomore, much more will be expected of the powerful back.
He put up 699 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Scott will be Michigan State’s clear No. 1 back, and his numbers should reflect that by season’s end.
Minnesota Golden Gophers WR Drew Wolitarsky
New Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys has a very competent quarterback returning in Mitch Leidner, but the Gophers have a clear opening for their No. 1 receiver. K.J. Maye graduated after catching 73 passes for 773 yards and five touchdowns, all team highs.
Who’s poised to step into Maye’s shoes as Leidner’s top target? Drew Wolitarsky. Wolitarsky has been a competent receiver for Minnesota, catching 39 passes for 524 yards and a touchdown as a junior, including a nine-catch, 114-yard, touchdown day at Colorado State. With Leidner on the other end, those stats should take a major jump in 2016.
Mississippi State Bulldogs QB Nick Fitzgerald
With Dak Prescott under center, Mississippi State became a team worth watching in the SEC West. The Bulldogs spent four weeks as the nation’s No. 1 team in 2014 and won nine games last fall. Now, the big challenge: How does Dan Mullen keep the train rolling without Prescott, who was a fourth-round pick of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys?
The Bulldogs need a new leader and spent spring sorting out their quarterback position without any resolution. However, Prescott’s backup, sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, is the guy best positioned to take his place running the offense.
As a freshman, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns, including six of seven passes for 141 yards and a touchdown against the Troy Trojans. Fitzgerald also showed some mobility, rushing for 127 yards and three touchdowns. The dual-threat Prescott leaves big shoes to fill, but Fitzgerald has flashed some skills that show he can be the man.
Missouri Tigers DT Terry Beckner Jr.
When Terry Beckner Jr. stayed close to home, it was a big coup for Missouri’s program. The East St. Louis, Illinois, defensive tackle was one of the most coveted recruits in the class of 2015. He showed major promise as a freshman, making 27 total tackles, eight tackles for loss and three sacks.
Most impressively? Beckner did so in essentially nine games. He suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, as well as meniscus damage, on the first defensive snap against BYU on Nov. 14, missing the final two games. He stands 6’4”, 300 pounds and has excellent athleticism and power. Assuming he’s fully recovered, Beckner should emerge as one of the top defensive linemen in the SEC as a sophomore.
NC State Wolfpack WR Nyheim Hines
N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren is working to build on two consecutive bowl appearances, although that won’t be easy against a significantly tougher schedule that includes Notre Dame, Clemson, Florida State and Miami. Doeren also needs to settle on a quarterback between Jalan McClendon, Jakobi Meyers and Boise State transfer Ryan Finley.
However, the Wolfpack offense has a versatile weapon ready in sophomore receiver Nyheim Hines. Hines contributed across the board as a freshman, catching 20 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown, rushing for 243 yards and a touchdown and leading the ACC in kick return yardage. He was one of only three players who finished the season with 150 yards and a touchdown as a returner, receiver and rusher.
That’s an impressive wealth of skills. Hines stands just 5’9” and 190 pounds, but he has great speed and versatility. Expect his role to expand significantly as a sophomore.
Nebraska Cornhuskers RB Mikale Wilbon
Nebraska had a disappointing first season under head coach Mike Riley, finishing 6-7 after losing five games by five points or fewer. The Cornhuskers, particularly quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., should be better in their second year in Riley’s system, but Nebraska needs more offensive options after Imani Cross’ graduation in the backfield.
Terrell Newby, who had 765 yards and six touchdowns last fall, returns as the No. 1 back, but opportunity exists behind him. Mikale Wilbon could take advantage of that opportunity. Wilbon had nine carries for 35 yards as a freshman but only three carries after the opener against BYU while struggling with consistency.
He stands 5’9”, 195 pounds and has excellent speed and versatility, and he had a solid spring game with eight carries for 34 yards and a touchdown. Expect Wilbon’s role to grow in a big way in 2016.
North Carolina Tar Heels QB Mitch Trubisky
North Carolina had an excellent season in 2015. The Tar Heels went 11-3, won the ACC Coastal Division and showed fans that head coach Larry Fedora’s program was moving in the right direction. To build on it, however, they’ll have to do so without Marquise Williams. Williams graduated after throwing for 3,072 yards with 24 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and serving as UNC’s No. 2 rusher with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Who’ll carry the torch? Look no further than junior Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky pushed Williams hard for the starting role in 2014 and showed promise as his backup last fall, completing 40 of 47 passes for 555 yards and six touchdowns against no interceptions.
His 85.1 percent completion rate is unsustainable, but Trubisky is a mobile quarterback who has a strong arm and good knowledge of the Tar Heels offense. He should create a seamless transition from Williams’ leadership.
Northwestern Wildcats WR Austin Carr
Northwestern made an impressive rebound in 2015, shaking off a pair of 5-7 seasons for a 10-win campaign that included an Outback Bowl berth. The Wildcats did so with little production at quarterback. NU quarterbacks threw eight touchdowns against 13 interceptions, and starter Clayton Thorson threw for seven scores against nine picks. Northwestern needs a better passing game in 2016, and it won’t be easy.
Three of 2015’s top four receivers are gone, with Austin Carr the only holdover. Last year, Carr caught 16 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns. As a senior, Carr should be Thorson’s top target, and his numbers should increase accordingly.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish WR Corey Holmes
Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly enter preseason practice with a quarterback quandary (DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire?) but perhaps even more questions at wide receiver. Will Fuller is off to the NFL after catching 76 passes for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, No. 2 receiver Chris Brown graduated and would-be new No. 1 Corey Robinson (40 receptions, 539 yards, five touchdowns) is pondering his future after suffering multiple concussions, per ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna.
That creates a major hole, one Corey Holmes could be poised to fill. Holmes, a junior, has no receptions in his career and redshirted last fall. But he impressed coaches this spring, per Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune, and was clocked at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
He was the Fighting Irish’s best receiver and a clear breakout candidate as we head toward an important 2016 season in South Bend, Indiana.
Ohio State Buckeyes RB Mike Weber
Ohio State has some major holes to fill following an exceptional beginning to head coach Urban Meyer’s run in Columbus. The Buckeyes had an NFL-record 12 players selected in the recent NFL draft, and nine of them were underclassmen. One of the biggest gaps was left by Ezekiel Elliott, who departed after rushing for 1,823 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Curtis Samuel will be a versatile threat, and senior Bri’onte Dunn adds depth. But one of the most impressive runners this spring was redshirt freshman Mike Weber. Weber is a powerful runner who had eight carries for 38 yards and two touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ spring game. He’ll be a major factor in the ground game in 2016, regardless of whether he starts.
Oklahoma Sooners WR Geno Lewis
Oklahoma’s rise from an 8-5 season in 2014 to 12-2 with a Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff berth in 2015 had plenty to do with the arrival of Baker Mayfield at quarterback. Mayfield threw for 3,700 yards with 36 touchdowns against seven interceptions, but to repeat the feat this fall, he’ll need to identify some new options in the receiving corps.
Sterling Shepard, who caught 86 passes for 1,288 yards with 11 scores last fall, has graduated, as did No. 3 receiver Durron Neal. No. 2 receiver Dede Westbrook returns, but he’ll need help. That help should take the form of graduate transfer Geno Lewis. Lewis had a disappointing junior season at Penn State, making 17 catches for 196 yards and three touchdowns, but showed promise as a sophomore.
He had 55 receptions for 751 yards and two scores as a junior. With Mayfield throwing him the ball, expect Lewis’ numbers in Norman, Oklahoma, to be more in line with his sophomore season than his junior year.
Oklahoma State Cowboys RB Barry Sanders Jr.
Oklahoma State has an impressive, potent offense led by quarterback Mason Rudolph. The Cowboys will return 10 offensive starters, but the running game is a concern. Last fall’s leading rusher was Chris Carson, who had just 517 yards and four touchdowns while averaging only 3.9 yards per carry.
Competition would be welcome in Stillwater, and Oklahoma State found it with Barry Sanders Jr.’s transfer. Sanders has clear talent, averaging 6.2 yards per carry on 51 carries with Stanford. But Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey was blocking his way, and moving to a new locale was a smart move.
He’ll be immediately eligible to follow in his father’s footsteps; Barry Sanders won the 1989 Heisman Trophy as one of the great college backs of all time. If Sanders Jr. has some of the family magic in his legs, Oklahoma State’s offense will take the next step.
Ole Miss Rebels WR Damore'ea Stringfellow
Ole Miss had an impressive 2015, going 10-3 and capping the season with a Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State. However, the Rebels have some reloading to do after returning just eight starters. Chad Kelly should be one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, but he’ll need to identify new receiving targets. Top receiver Laquon Treadwell was a first-round pick of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in the 2016 draft, and No. 2 wideout Cody Core graduated.
Who is the strongest candidate to pick up the slack in the Ole Miss offense? Damore’ea Stringfellow. Stringfellow began his career at Washington and transferred to Ole Miss, enjoying a solid season last fall. He had 36 receptions for 503 yards and five touchdowns.
At 6’2”, 220 pounds, Stringfellow is a physical presence in the mold of Treadwell, and as the No. 1 receiver, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him double his stats in 2016.
Oregon Ducks WR Darren Carrington
Oregon has one of the nation’s most potent, fast-paced offenses, and no matter if Dakota Prukop or Travis Jonsen starts at quarterback, that shouldn’t change in 2016. Head coach Mark Helfrich’s system is that good and full of talented players, such as tailback Royce Freeman. With No. 1 receiver Bralon Addison off to the NFL, it’s time for Darren Carrington to cement his role as the Ducks’ top wideout.
Carrington had 704 yards and four touchdowns on 37 receptions as a freshman, but his season was truncated by a drug suspension that sidelined him for the national title game and the first six games of 2015.
He returned with a fury, making 32 receptions for 609 yards and six scores in only seven games. He had four 100-yard receiving games, including seven receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown in the Alamo Bowl. Carrington has good size at 6’2”, 195 pounds, and it’ll be fascinating to see what he can do with a full season to show his skills.
Oregon State Beavers RB Ryan Nall
Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen clearly has some work to do. The Beavers finished an ugly 2-10 in Andersen’s first season in Corvallis, ending the year on a nine-game losing streak. However, Andersen was able to find some pieces to work with, including big back Ryan Nall.
Nall arrived at Oregon State as an H-back/tight end but established himself in the backfield. He rushed for 455 yards and three touchdowns on just 73 carries, averaging 6.1 yards per tote. Nall had his best game in the season finale against Oregon, carrying 19 times for 174 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown.
He measures up at 6’2”, 255 pounds and is a physical, tough runner. That should serve him well in the rugged Pac-12 this fall. He has shown the skills to be a lead back for the Beavers, who have one fewer thing to worry about on their offense because of it.
Penn State Nittany Lions WR Saeed Blacknall
Sometimes, a player just needs a new perspective, a new chance. Fresh eyes, if you will. This fall, no one on Penn State’s roster could benefit more from that than Saeed Blacknall. Blacknall has great size at 6’3”, 212 pounds, and he has excellent speed (4.45-second 40-yard dash, according to his 247Sports recruiting profile).
He is a serious deep threat, as his 77-yard catch for a touchdown against Michigan State showed. However, those flashes came few and far between. He had eight catches for 248 yards and the lone score in 2015, going catchless in eight games.
Joe Moorhead’s arrival as Penn State’s new offensive coordinator could be just what Blackwell needs for a breakout. Moorhead runs a prolific spread offense, and Blacknall’s combination of speed and size could create serious matchup issues for opposing cornerbacks.
If Penn State can figure out how to use Blacknall correctly, he could be a true terror for the rest of the Big Ten to handle.
Pitt Panthers WR Dontez Ford
Pitt enjoyed a solid first season under head coach Pat Narduzzi, going 8-5 even after losing 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner to knee surgery. (Conner is expected to return this fall after his recovery from surgery and with his Hodgkin lymphoma in remission.) Nathan Peterman emerged as a competent starting quarterback. But one of the biggest questions about the Panthers entering 2016 is how they’ll replace Tyler Boyd.
Boyd left Pitt for the 2016 NFL draft after three seasons as the program’s all-time leader in career receptions and receiving yards. Replicating that production won’t be easy, but the Panthers hope that Dontez Ford can approximate it.
Ford had 26 receptions for 505 yards and two scores but will be counted upon for much more as the top receiver this fall. With Boyd gone, the opportunity will be there, without question.
Purdue Boilermakers CB Da'Wan Hunte
Following an ugly 2-10 season in 2015, Purdue and head coach Darrell Hazell need help. In a lot of places. One of those spots is the secondary. Starters Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams are gone, which creates opportunity for more playing time.
Junior cornerback Da’Wan Hunte is poised to take advantage. Hunte, who measures in at 5’9”, 188 pounds, had 18 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble while playing as a reserve last fall. He is the most experienced cornerback on Purdue’s roster and should make that work to his advantage in 2016.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights WR Janarion Grant
As Chris Ash begins his first season at Rutgers as head coach, he has work ahead.
The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 3-9 season in 2015 and are in one of the nation’s tougher divisions—the Big Ten East—with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. But Ash does have some raw materials to work with.
One of the most intriguing is wide receiver Janarion Grant. Grant led Rutgers in all-purpose yards last fall, with 1,584, including 984 kick return yards and three touchdowns (with a 98-yard return touchdown at Michigan).
However, he has yet to fulfill his potential as an offensive player. Last fall, he had 35 receptions for 352 yards and a touchdown as a receiver. He was second on the team in receptions behind Leonte Carroo. Carroo is gone, leaving an opening for a No. 1 receiver. Ash brings a power spread offense to Rutgers, and Grant will be a perfect fit. He should enjoy a great senior season as the top receiving option.
Southern California Trojans DT Malik Dorton
2016 will be a season of change at Southern California, and that will definitely be the case on the Trojans’ defensive line. New head coach Clay Helton, whom the Trojans hired for the position after his interim run, didn’t retain defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, replacing him with Clancy Pendergast. What’s more, USC lost three starters from its defensive line, creating plenty of potential playing time in the trenches.
That’s a big opportunity for a guy like Malik Dorton, who came to Southern California as an outside linebacker. He made just two tackles last fall but has shifted inside as a defensive tackle and is now 6’2”, 280 pounds. Expect him to make big plays inside and shore up a line short on experience this fall.
South Carolina Gamecocks WR Deebo Samuel
New South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp inherits a rebuilding job from Steve Spurrier. South Carolina won 11 games per season from 2011-13. But the Gamecocks’ talent level has slipped, and they’re coming off a 3-9 season punctuated with a home loss to in-state FCS foe The Citadel.
Brandon McIlwain, Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez have battled through spring for the starting quarterback role, but they had an obvious No. 1 receiver in Deebo Samuel. Last fall, Samuel made 12 receptions for 161 yards and a touchdown but finished strong, making five catches for 104 yards and a score in the season finale against Clemson.
With Pharoh Cooper off to the NFL, Samuel is the clear main man in South Carolina’s passing attack. His numbers should rise accordingly this fall, no matter who’s throwing him the ball.
Stanford Cardinal RB Bryce Love
Look, there’s no question that Stanford junior tailback Christian McCaffrey is one of the nation’s best players. He showed as much last fall, rushing for 2,019 yards, leading the nation in all-purpose yardage and leading the Cardinal in both receptions and receiving yards en route to becoming the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
But he can’t do it all alone. Remound Wright graduated, and fellow backup Barry Sanders Jr. transferred to Oklahoma State. That creates a huge opportunity for Bryce Love. Love rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns last fall, averaging an eye-popping 7.8 yards per carry. He also made 15 receptions for 250 yards, including a 93-yard touchdown.
Love has speed (4.30 40-yard dash, per 247Sports) and playmaking ability, and he should thrive in a No. 2 role behind McCaffrey and make Stanford’s offense even more dangerous.
Syracuse Orange WR Steve Ishmael
Head coach Dino Babers has infused Syracuse with excitement thanks to a fast-paced offense that will enliven the Carrier Dome this fall. Babers’ system, which led Eastern Illinois to the FCS playoffs and Bowling Green to a MAC title, will spread the field and stretch ACC defenses.
That’s great news for a guy like Steve Ishmael. Babers wants the Orange’s offense to go, go, go, and Ishmael is coming off a promising sophomore season that saw him make 39 receptions for 570 yards and seven scores. Call him Ishmael, but call him Syracuse’s No. 1 receiver. And you can bet he’s happy Babers is in town.
TCU Horned Frogs QB Kenny Hill
Two years ago, Kenny Hill was one of the hottest players in college football. He made a smashing debut as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback, throwing for 511 yards in a 52-28 season-opening win at a South Carolina team that had won 11 games in each of the previous three seasons. Hill gained Heisman buzz and threw for 2,649 yards with 23 touchdowns against eight interceptions. But he lost his job by midseason and transferred to TCU.
With prolific quarterback Trevone Boykin graduated, co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham need a new leader for the Horned Frogs offense. Hill would be a perfect fit. He’s taking over a system that will be without leading receiver Josh Doctson and leading rusher Aaron Green, but KaVontae Turpin and multiple junior college transfers will provide a solid base.
Assuming Hill can beat out Foster Sawyer for the starting role, the thrill will be back in Fort Worth, Texas.
Tennessee Volunteers WR Preston Williams
Tennessee should be one of the SEC’s best teams and a strong SEC East contender coming off a 9-4 season and returning 17 starters. Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a strong leader and dual-threat quarterback, but he needs more options at receiver.
Josh Malone (31 receptions, 405 yards, two touchdowns) is the top returning receiver, but he can’t do it alone. Preston Williams is an intriguing option. Williams has great size at 6’4”, 209 pounds, but he had a quiet freshman season, making seven receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns. He was held catchless in the season’s final seven games.
However, his deep-ball ability and his overall blend of skills mean he could be a strong breakout candidate in 2016. If he can secure a starting role and find consistency, Williams will be an excellent option on Rocky Top.
Texas Longhorns QB Shane Buechele
Charlie Strong is on somewhat shaky ground as he enters his third season in Austin as head coach. Texas is just 11-14 in two seasons under his watch, and Strong knows change is needed. He lured offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert away from the University of Tulsa to install the Air Raid system, which has been successful in a number of college locales.
The Air Raid needs a competent quarterback, and while returnees Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes have college experience and both flashed some skills last fall, the real surprise in spring was early-enrollee freshman Shane Buechele, the son of former MLB third baseman Steve Buechele.
He was the clear standout in the spring game. Heard missed the game with a shoulder injury, and Swoopes was unimpressive, completing just four of 16 passes for 71 yards and two interceptions. Buechele stole the show, completing 22 of 41 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
He seems like the clear leader for the starting role entering summer, per ESPN.com's Max Olson, citing an interview Strong did with Ricky Williams of Longhorn Network, and he should cement that status before a crucial season begins in Austin. It’ll be fun to see what he can do in a wide-open offense, although there will be some growing pains.
Texas A&M Aggies WR Ricky Seals-Jones
Ricky Seals-Jones’ college career has been a bit frustrating. In his first game at Texas A&M, Jones took a pass 71 yards for a touchdown but suffered a knee injury on the play, leading to a redshirt. In two seasons with the Aggies, he has been good but not great, making 45 receptions for 560 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore.
A&M has a new offensive coordinator in Noel Mazzone and a new, steadier quarterback in Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight. Jones has tremendous potential at 6’5”, 240 pounds, and while Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds are ahead of him in the pecking order, he has game-changing size (6'5", 235 lbs) and speed and could realize it with Knight throwing him the ball.
Texas Tech Red Raiders WR Derrick Willies
Texas Tech loves to throw the ball. And throw the ball. And throw it some more. Just look at quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has thrived in the Air Raid offense pioneered by former Tech head coach Mike Leach. Last fall, Mahomes threw an amazing 573 times for 4,653 yards, 36 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Of course, to throw that much, you need to have someone waiting on the other end. Jakeem Grant, a sixth-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2016, departed after making 90 receptions for 1,268 yards and 10 touchdowns. Devin Lauderdale is likely to step forward as the No. 1 receiver, but there are plenty of options behind him.
Derrick Willies started his career at Iowa but transferred to a junior college and wound up as a Red Raider signee. He’s ready to contribute immediately and will likely show the Hawkeyes just what they’re missing as he catches passes from Mahomes in a high-powered, fast-paced scheme.
UCLA Bruins RB Soso Jamabo
UCLA returns one of the nation’s top up-and-coming quarterbacks in Josh Rosen but will be doing some reloading around him. The Bruins lost their top tailback and top receiver to the NFL draft in Paul Perkins and Jordan Payton, respectively.
Perkins leaves a big hole in the Bruins offense. Last fall, he rushed for 1,343 yards and 14 touchdowns and added 30 receptions for 242 yards and a score. That said, the Bruins have a ready replacement in sophomore Soso Jamabo. Last fall, the 6’3”, 210-pounder showed promise as Perkins’ understudy, making 66 carries for 403 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
This fall, the lead back role is Jamabo’s to lose. He has great speed and power and should seize it with ease.
Utah Utes RB Joe Williams
It appears that all Joe Williams needed was an opportunity. Utah’s tailback spent much of 2015 biding his time behind Devontae Booker, a versatile, talented back who rushed for 1,261 yards and 11 touchdowns.
But when an injury sidelined Booker for the final three games, Williams fully seized his opportunity. He rushed for 121 yards against UCLA, carried 34 times for 187 yards and a touchdown against Colorado and 25 times for 91 yards and two scores in the Las Vegas Bowl against BYU.
That production is the hallmark of a No. 1 back. Expect Williams to carry over that success and fulfill that potential in 2016 for the Utes offense.
Vanderbilt Commodores QB Kyle Shurmur
Vanderbilt made progress last fall in head coach Derek Mason’s second season, improving to 4-8. While tailback Ralph Webb was a highlight, rushing for 1,152 yards and five touchdowns, the passing game was a big issue. Three Commodore quarterbacks combined to throw 11 touchdowns against 16 interceptions.
However, late in the season, Kyle Shurmur emerged, starting the final three games. He threw for 209 yards with three touchdowns against an interception against Tennessee and finished with five touchdowns and three interceptions on the season.
If Shurmur can build on that late season success and give Vandy’s offense some balance, it would be a huge boost toward returning to a bowl game in Year 3 for Mason.
Virginia Cavaliers RB Taquan Mizzell
Virginia raised some eyebrows when it lured Bronco Mendenhall away from BYU after 11 consecutive bowl seasons to replace Mike London as head coach. It was an impressive hire, and Mendenhall has some building blocks to work with in his first season in Charlottesville.
One of the best is senior tailback Taquan Mizzell. Mizzell took a step forward as a junior, rushing for 671 yards and four touchdowns and leading Virginia in receptions with 75 catches for 721 yards and four touchdowns. It might seem odd to declare him a breakout candidate, but his versatility shows that there’s much more to be mined in his skill set. Expect Mendenhall to get the most out of him in 2016.
Virginia Tech Hokies LB Tremaine Edmunds
While there’s plenty of new involved with Virginia Tech football this fall, thanks to Justin Fuente taking over for Frank Beamer as head coach, one thing won’t change. Coordinator Bud Foster is still in charge of Virginia Tech’s defense, so expect the Hokies’ D to be just as nasty as ever.
There are a few key spots for Foster to fill, and one includes the linebacker role held by graduated Deon Clarke. Clarke was a key part of Tech’s defense last fall, making 77 tackles (second-best on the roster) and 10.5 tackles for loss. His replacement? Tremaine Edmunds.
The 6’5”, 236-pound ‘backer played in all 13 games last fall, starting two, and had 11 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. He has an athletic frame that should fit in well on Foster’s defense.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons QB Kendall Hinton
Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson has struggled in his first two seasons with the Demon Deacons, putting together a pair of 3-9 campaigns. The Deacs hope to improve in 2016, but to do so they’ll need better play at quarterback. Two-year starter John Wolford threw for 1,791 yards but had nine touchdowns against 11 interceptions. This spring, Kendall Hinton pushed him hard.
Last fall, Hinton threw for 929 yards with four touchdowns against five interceptions while completing 52 percent of his passes. But he was also Wake’s second-leading rusher with 390 yards and seven touchdowns. If he can wrest the starting role from Wolford, it would give the offense an added dimension under center that the veteran just can’t provide.
And really, can the Demon Deacons do much worse? A year ago, they averaged 17.4 points per game, No. 119 nationally. There’s nowhere to go but up with Hinton under center.
Washington Huskies RB Jomon Dotson
Washington is positioned to enter 2016 as one of the nation’s trendiest breakout teams. The Huskies return quarterback Jake Browning, who threw for 2,955 yards as a freshman, and tailback Myles Gaskin, who rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman. But the talent doesn’t stop there.
One of the most intriguing players is sophomore Jomon Dotson. Dotson is 5’10”, 175 pounds but has excellent speed and agility. He had just 18 carries for 42 yards as a freshman but should see his time increase as a sophomore. Dotson is an excellent change of pace for Gaskin and adds excellent depth in Washington’s offense.
Washington State Cougars CB Darrien Molton
Washington State cooled head coach Mike Leach’s seat considerably in 2015, going 9-4 and winning the Sun Bowl with a high-powered offense led by quarterback Luke Falk, who threw for 4,561 yards with 38 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
The Cougars succeeded in spite of their defense, which allowed at least 27 points in 10 of 13 games. One of the bright spots? Cornerback Darrien Molton. As a freshman, Molton started 11 games and made three interceptions with 44 tackles and six pass breakups. That’s impressive in the pass-first Pac-12, and if Molton can take another step forward as a sophomore, it’ll be big for the Cougars’ hopes of a Pac-12 North title.
West Virginia Mountaineers RB Rushel Shell
Under head coach Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia has a reputation as a pass-first team. However, last fall the Mountaineers excelled on the ground. They averaged 228.2 yards per game, No. 16 nationally, with a big assist from Wendell Smallwood, who rushed for 1,519 yards and nine touchdowns. Smallwood left early for the NFL, which leaves a gap in WVU’s backfield.
Rushel Shell is primed to fill the role as the Mountaineers' top back. He began his career at Pitt, rushing for 641 yards before transferring to West Virginia. He led WVU in rushing in 2014 and rushed for 708 yards and eight scores last fall. Now, it’s finally his time to serve in a lead role. Expect him to take advantage.
Wisconsin Badgers RB Corey Clement
Wisconsin has a strong tradition of talented running backs, and Melvin Gordon was just the latest in a long line of them. Gordon had the second-best rushing season in NCAA history in 2014, finishing as the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Corey Clement was expected to step into his role after rushing for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore.
But it never happened. Clement suffered a groin injury in the season opener and missed nine games with injury, only rushing for 221 yards and five touchdowns in 2015. When he was healthy, though, he flashed talent, rushing for 115 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries against Rutgers.
Clement enters his senior season along Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal in Wisconsin’s backfield, but he's clearly the most talented of the three. If he can stay healthy, he has a good chance to top 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final go-round in Madison.