The Next Sam Darnold: Which CFB Players Will Go from Backups to Breakout Stars?
Entering the 2016 football season, USC was all set to play its season with Max Browne under center as the Trojans quarterback. Then, they were dominated 52-6 by Alabama and started the season 1-2.
After ineffective performances against the Crimson Tide and Stanford, Browne relinquished the job to Sam Darnold, and the rest is history.
Now, Darnold enters his redshirt sophomore season as a Heisman Trophy candidate leading a team that's a popular pick for the College Football Playoff. Browne, meanwhile, transferred to Pittsburgh.
Darnold essentially came from nowhere to being one of the highest-profile players in the nation, and it's something that happens in college football every year. Players enter the season on the bench, but they exit it on the billboards.
From talented Clemson freshman quarterback Hunter Johnson to do-it-all Ohio State athlete Demario McCall, there are a lot of players not expected to enter the year as starters who will play their way into the lineup.
So, which players are candidates to go from the end of the bench to the tip of your tongue in 2017? Let's take a look at 10 players who could do what Darnold did a season ago.
Cam Akers, Florida State Running Back
One of the biggest names of the spring practice session regardless of league was Florida State mid-term freshman enrollee Cam Akers, who not only looked like he belonged playing for one of the nation's top programs but showed signs of being an immediate-impact star.
It seems life without Dalvin Cook may not be so bad for the Seminoles, after all.
Former top recruit Jacques Patrick will get every opportunity to be the starter heading into the season for Jimbo Fisher's 'Noles, and the junior runner will have his share of carries in 2017.
But he simply doesn't have the burst and elite ability that Akers possesses. He also is shifty in the open field, can catch passes and has the ability to make all the plays.
The 5'11", 213-pound Clinton, Mississippi, product is a guy who impressed from day one on campus, and when the lights shone at least a little brighter in the spring game, he showed out then, too, rushing for 87 yards.
Because of Patrick, 247Sports' director of scouting Barton Simmons wrote that Akers "doesn't come to Tallahassee with the pressure to start from Day 1. He just might be too good to settle for anything less."
It's a safe bet that he'll be the man at FSU before long, and while Patrick will have plenty of importance in the offense, he'll go from mentor to backup quickly.
Kasim Hill, Maryland Quarterback
It may seem that putting a true freshman quarterback who wasn't a mid-term enrollee on this list is a bit of a wild card, because, after all, who'd play a first-year guy with no experience at the team's most important position right away?
Maryland coach DJ Durkin may have to when Kasim Hill gets to campus. He's just too talented to keep out of the lineup for a Terrapins team that is rebuilding with a stellar recruiting class in Durkin's first full cycle.
Hill is arguably the crown jewel of that class, a 6'2", 215-pound former 4-star recruit out of Washington D.C., who elected to stay home and be a part of turning around Maryland's program.
Right now, North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson may be the front-runner for the job, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him take the season's first snap. It would be smart money to project Hill to take the last one, though, and have a lot of dazzling moments along the way.
"We're certainly really excited about the guys we've already brought in and are bringing in at that position," Durkin told 105.7 The Fan (h/t 247Sports' Josh Stirn). "To me, we have a tremendous amount of talent there right now and [now] it’s all about those guys competing and figuring out who the guy is. But I really like where we're at."
Hill has the athleticism and upside to insert under center, watch him grow and take his lumps. Henderson is basically around to bridge the gap to Hill's tenure.
The future won't be long from now.
Jerry Jeudy, Alabama Wide Receiver
Newsflash: Jerry Jeudy's breakout A-Day game at Alabama's spring finale wasn't a fluke; it was a sign of things to come.
It's just a matter of time before he makes his way on to the field and becomes the next great Crimson Tide freshman receiver, following in the footsteps of Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley before him.
The latter of that bunch is still around and figures to get the bulk of the grabs in Tuscaloosa, but with ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard gone, there are catches to be had. As everybody knows, UA head coach Nick Saban is not without an able stable of talent, but Jeudy will have his opportunities.
The 6'1", 175-pound true freshman from Deerfield Beach, Florida, was recruited by many of the nation's top teams before deciding on Alabama. He went out and, after a great spring, had five catches for 134 yards in the spring game.
Though Ridley, Robert Foster and others equip Alabama with an offense that could put up PlayStation numbers, Jeudy may be too good to keep out of the lineup, especially if new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can turn around quarterback Jalen Hurts' fortunes as a consistent passer.
Daboll was part of those pass-happy offenses at New England, and if he opens things up, Jeudy stands to benefit. With opportunities, his talent will take over, and you'll know him the same way you did Ridley and Cooper: right away.
Hunter Johnson, Clemson Quarterback
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has stayed strong throughout the offseason and the spring in saying that Kelly Bryant was the guy who holds the upper hand in replacing the great Deshaun Watson at quarterback.
But just how long will Swinney let Bryant stay out there if he's struggling? After all, we're talking about the national champion that plays early marquee games against Auburn and Florida State.
Bryant isn't just some guy off the street. He's a talented athlete who has waited his turn and paid his dues, but just how dynamic can he be in this offense? Swinney has shown he loves to fling the ball all over the field, and he's got the playmakers at skill positions to do that.
But Bryant isn't known as the greatest passer.
Enter 6'4", 201-pound true freshman Hunter Johnson, who was the nation's fifth-rated passer coming out high school in Indiana, according to Scout.com.
With his strong arm, gunslinger mentality and lack of fear, it won't be long until he's the man under center for the Tigers, throwing to Deon Cain and crew. He's too talented to keep off the field, and though he'll have a battle on his hands when Trevor Lawrence gets to campus next year, 2017 could be his team.
Johnson fits right into the offense, and though he had his ups and downs this spring, the key is he went through those 15 practices and got an early start. It'll pay off when the season starts, and he may be the guy whose season most closely resembles Darnold's on this list.
Tyron Johnson, Oklahoma State Wide Receiver
Tyron Johnson is just one player in one of the deepest, talented positions on any team in the nation.
In 2017, being a wide receiver at Oklahoma State is going to be like being a running back at Alabama. There's just so many elite players around you, getting reps is going to be a chore, and the biggest question is: 'Are there enough catches to go around?'
With stud senior James Washington, underrated slot Jalen McCleskey, 6'3" senior Chris Lacy and multi-year starter Marcell Ateman returning, you may wonder how Johnson is going to get on the field, much less become a household name.
Just wait. It truly is "pick your poison," as Washington told Athlon Sports.
The former 4-star receiver transferred from LSU to play for Mike Gundy, and he promptly turned heads this spring, getting some first-team reps while other receivers were hurt or in class.
Quarterback Mason Rudolph has to be thrilled with all these targets. And as many stars as he has to throw to, he said of Johnson in April, per Tulsa World's Mark Cooper: "He's a guy that you want to get the ball in space and he's probably the best we have right now as far as making you miss with the defense in front of you."
Washington is going to be the bell cow, and running back Justice Hill will put up big numbers, too. But it wouldn't be a surprise if Johnson became one of the best big-play targets in the country in this offense.
Demario McCall, Ohio State Running Back
Nobody in college football utilizes all-purpose offensive playmakers as well as Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
So, when you see that Mike Weber is the Buckeyes' starting running back and you're a fan of 5'9", 195-pound speed-demon runner Demario McCall, don't fret. There are going to be more than enough touches to go around.
Couple Meyer's prowess molding guys like former Florida receiver Percy Harvin and last year's OSU stud do-it-all player Curtis Samuel and add in new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, and there are countless reasons to expect a breakout season from McCall.
He may not play the H-back role, however. As Landof10's Ben Axelrod noted, McCall stayed at running back this spring with the Buckeyes short-handed, and JK Dobbins surpassed him at times, too.
But a player with McCall's speed and athleticism doesn't stand on the sideline; not in Meyer's offense. So, whether he is mostly taking handoffs, catching passes out of the backfield or playing in a funky dual H-back set, he'll get plenty of touches.
When he does, he's got the home-run ability to score a bunch of touchdowns, become one of the most exciting players on potentially one of the most exciting offenses in all of college football and break into a lot of conversations as an all-conference type player.
He's still the best bet to fill up the stat sheets as Samuel did a season ago, and if that happens, he'll outshine the steady Weber.
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M Quarterback
There are a bunch of talented, young freshmen signal-callers on this list, but perhaps none of them could have the pressure put on them that Kellen Mond may experience in College Station.
Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward told ESPN's Paul Finebaum recently (via KAGS News' Colin Deaver) that head coach Kevin Sumlin "knows he has to win" this year and do better than the Aggies have done in the recent past.
That means A&M can't collapse down the stretch as it has done since the Johnny Manziel era. It also means that at the first sign of fissures in the foundation, projected starter Jake Hubenak could be out and Mond would probably reap the benefits.
The 6'3", 202-pound Mond is an uber-talented playmaker who replaced Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson at Florida's prestigious powerhouse IMG Academy, so he's used to winning and also competing with some of the best players in the country.
At A&M, he'll have studs such as Christian Kirk to throw to, and it can't hurt his progression. Mond isn't the fastest quarterback in the country, but he's also a potential dual-threat weapon who has excellent passing skills. He may be the Aggies' best bet for a difference-maker at the position.
If that is the case, he could wind up having the weight of a coaching tenure on his young shoulders. If he excels, he'll become one of the darlings of a football-crazed state.
N'Kosi Perry, Miami Quarterback
One of the recruits who was one of the most talented prospects in the country you never really heard that much about was Miami signal-caller N'Kosi Perry.
After pledging to the Hurricanes and giving coach Mark Richt the centerpiece of a stellar class, Perry was quiet in what wound up a drama-free recruitment. Now, he's in Coral Gables, and he's already turning heads despite not going through spring drills.
With either Evan Shirreffs or Malik Rosier expected to win the starting gig in Richt's second season, replacing NFL sixth-round draft pick Brad Kaaya, Perry may be the longest shot to make a quick difference on this list.
After all, Perry also could start the year third on the depth chart.
But his potential shouldn't be doubted. The 6'4", 185-pound signal-caller can absolutely fly, and he has shown early in his career that he can make a lot of passes, too.
"The dude can make a lot of plays when plays break down," Miami quarterbacks coach Jon Richt said, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "He's an X-factor when he's out there. Shows remarkable touch, unbelievable arm strength."
So, that pretty much covers all the bases. Also, as Jackson noted, Miami expects he'll battle for the job, and Perry shouldn't be hamstrung by youth. If sheer talent wins the day, he may just be the guy.
If he is, he's got the potential to be one of those electrifying true freshmen everybody is talking about.
Brandon Peters, Michigan Quarterback
After a season where Wilton Speight took the Michigan starting quarterback gig and ran with it, there's a possibility he won't hang on to it much longer.
Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters outperformed Speight during the spring, and he cemented that with a terrific spring game performance where he completed nine of 17 passes for 160 yards with a 55-yard touchdown pass to Zach Gentry and an interception.
The 6'5" youngster is a Jim Harbaugh recruit who is the type of dropback passer the head coach normally likes. Also, as well as Speight played at times a season ago, with a whole new roster turnover in 2017, Harbaugh has been noncommittal on a starting quarterback between those two and John O'Korn.
It appears it's going to be a good, old-fashioned battle.
"He made quite a few throws today that were elite throws," Speight told ESPN.com's Dan Murphy after the spring game. "That's really the Brandon we've been seeing since he got here last year. He has an arm that's capable of making any throw, and [he's] poised to stand in the pocket and do what he needs to do."
No matter what Harbaugh says, Speight likely will start the opener. But there will be some bumps in the road for the Wolverines in 2017, and when they come, Peters could be the beneficiary. When he gets his shot, he's too good to give it up.
He's another guy who could have a similar season as Darnold did a year ago, and his team could do the same.
Kyle Porter, Texas Running Back
New Texas head coach Tom Herman has the unenviable task of replacing Doak Walker Award-winning running back D'Onta Foreman, who had one of the greatest seasons of any Longhorns runner in history.
That's an impressive list of runners, too.
Now, with Foreman down the road at the Houston Texans, the onus looks to fall on 252-pound running back Chris Warren to return to the starting role and fill Foreman's shoes.
He isn't going to do it alone, though, and he shouldn't even be the team's leading rusher by the end of the season. Not only did Herman get a recruiting gem in Toneil Carter, he's also got a dynamic returning backup in Kyle Porter, who looked this spring like he may be the team's best.
Porter is a 5'11", 208-pound all-purpose runner from Katy, Texas, who closer fits what Herman likes to do offensively. He ran for 205 yards on 46 attempts as a freshman, and he stands to be the beneficiary if Warren continues his injury-riddled ways.
"Right now, I don't know what to worry about," Herman said with regard to seeing so little of Warren, per Jeff Howe of 247Sports.
With his history-making plays for Texas, it's hard to envision Warren not starting the year if he's healthy. But how long will that last? When he goes down, it's going to be Porter's show, and the sophomore looks like he's more than ready to take advantage.