Projecting College Football's 2018 All-Breakout Team
Replacing a player like Saquon Barkley would be impossible for most teams, but with breakout candidate Miles Sanders filling that role, Penn State still has legitimate aspirations of winning a title.
It's a similar story for just about every title contender, as the national hierarchy will be determined largely by how well these breakout candidates can replace the likes of Baker Mayfield, Rashaan Evans, Deon Cain and Denzel Ward.
What follows are five players on offense and five on defense who just might be All-Americans at the end of the upcoming season, even though none of them were full-time starters in 2017.
For the most part, we'll be looking at former 5-star recruits (according to 247Sports) who are stepping into bigger roles for College Football Playoff contenders. After all, picking breakout candidates isn't rocket science. But get familiar with these names before the season begins, because you'll be seeing a lot of them in highlight reels for the next few months.
Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
2017 Stats: 18-of-21, 359 yards, three TDs, zero INTs; 14 carries, 142 yards
There are several great candidates for the QB spot in this exercise. Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins is either going to make or break the Buckeyes' quest for a title. If Tua Tagovailoa wins the Alabama job in fall camp, he's another obvious pick to become one of the biggest breakout sensations of the year. And whether it's K.J. Costello or Davis Mills at Stanford, he'll be the leader for one of the dark-horse candidates to reach the College Football Playoff.
But we're going with Kyler Murray because the former 5-star recruit just spent the past two seasons learning from 2017 Heisman winner and three-time Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield.
He is also surrounded by most of the pieces from last year's offense. Left tackle Orlando Brown and tight end Mark Andrews are big losses, but Oklahoma has running backs Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon as well as wide receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. That might be the best quartet of returning skill position players in the country.
In limited time last season, Murray averaged 17.1 yards per pass attempt and 10.1 yards per carry and had a 276.5 QB rating, which is just plain ridiculous. But he did that damage mostly in garbage time against some of the worst defenses (UTEP, Kansas, West Virginia and Tulane). It's hard to take anything meaningful away from those performances, but at least it's more promising than if he had struggled in them.
D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
2017 Stats: 81 carries, 618 yards, three TDs; 17 receptions, 153 yards, 1 TD
For all the time that we spent marveling at Nick Chubb and Sony Michel last season, D'Andre Swift had one heck of a true freshman campaign as the third wheel in Georgia's rushing attack.
Swift was a non-factor in the College Football Playoff, gaining just 28 yards on 10 touches between the two games. But he was one of the top big-play threats in the SEC throughout the season. Of his 81 carries, 18 went for at least 10 yards, and three of those were gains of 40 or more yards, including the 64-yard touchdown that iced the win over Auburn in the SEC championship game.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the upcoming Swift era at Georgia is his impact in the passing game. Chubb and Michel combined for just 13 receptions last season, while Swift ranked fourth on the team in receptions with 17 catches as the third-string back.
Now that he is (presumably) the No. 1 back on the depth chart, he could have the type of sophomore-year impact that Todd Gurley had for the Dawgs in 2013. In just 10 games, Gurley made 37 catches out of the backfield for 441 yards and six scores and ran for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State
2017 Stats: 31 carries, 191 yards, two TDs
Miles Sanders was rated as the No. 1 running back in the 2016 class of high school seniors, but his five recruiting stars did nothing to help him get on the field with Saquon Barkley standing in his way. Over the last two seasons, Barkley got 571 carries and receptions compared to just 64 for Sanders.
But now that Barkley will be doing his thing on Sundays for the New York Giants, Sanders' time to shine has finally arrived.
Sanders has the potential to be just as dominant as Barkley was, albeit in a different way.
Barkley was an acrobatic bruiser, capable of either breaking a tackle or hurdling a defender before finding the end zone. Sanders, on the other hand, is faster than greased lightning, and he may well challenge Bryce Love's mark from last season of 24 carries for at least 30 yards. Though he wasn't able to break any for a touchdown, it's why he was Penn State's primary kick returner as a true freshman.
One concern to monitor is ball security. Sanders only fumbled once last season, but he coughed up the ball four times as a freshman. If that becomes a problem again, 4-star freshman Ricky Slade could take over as the starter. If Sanders can hang onto the job, though, pencil him in for at least 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Jeff Thomas, WR, Miami
2017 Stats: 17 receptions, 374 yards, two TDs; 32 kick returns, 691 yards
Similar to Miles Sanders at Penn State, the twofold reason to buy stock in a Jeff Thomas breakout is elite speed and increased opportunity.
Thomas was Miami's highest-rated recruit in 2017, and he immediately made an impact as a true freshman. In addition to serving as the primary kick returner for the Hurricanes, he was one of the top chunk-gain receivers in the ACC.
Four of his 17 receptions went for at least 40 yards. Only Wake Forest's Greg Dortch had more receptions of that distance. Thomas was also one of just 19 players in the entire country to make multiple receptions for 70 or more yards. If he gets half a step on an opposing cornerback, it's game over. Malik Rosier just has to heave it far enough for Thomas to go get it.
With wide receiver Braxton Berrios and tight end Christopher Herndon IV last year, Miami didn't need to call on its young receiver often. With both of those guys graduated, though, Thomas is a clear-cut No. 2 option opposite Ahmmon Richards.
Miami hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Allen Hurns in 2013, but it wouldn't be that shocking if both Richards and Thomas reach that mark in 2018.
Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
2017 Stats: 17 receptions, 345 yards, two TDs
It wasn't until mid-November that we finally got a glimpse of Tee Higgins' otherworldly potential. That's when he exploded for 262 yards on nine catches in a two-week span against The Citadel and South Carolina.
Normally, we would be inclined to disregard a big individual performance in a 61-3 win over an FCS school, but both touchdowns that Higgins scored against The Citadel belong on any list of the 100 greatest plays from the 2017 college football season. Regardless of the level of competition, the concentration and skill that he displayed on those catches was proof that big things are coming his way.
Clemson still has Hunter Renfrow in the slot, but Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud leaving a year early for the NFL draft should mean that Higgins is now the WR1 in this offense. And in most years, that player puts up outstanding numbers. (See: Mike Williams, Sammy Watkins, Deandre Hopkins, etc.)
The kicker here is the QB battle.
If Kelly Bryant retains the job, we may need to wait one more year to see Higgins really shine. That isn't meant to be a knock on Bryant. He just doesn't throw the deep ball often. Only 14 of his 398 attempts (3.5 percent) last season went for a gain of 30 or more yards. In the ACC, there were nine quarterbacks with more such completions.
But if Trevor Lawrence is The Man as a true freshman, it's possible that his 50-yard bomb to Higgins in the spring game was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Josh Kaindoh, DE, Florida State
2017 Stats: 17 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks
Despite losing Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi to the NFL, Florida State should have one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
Demarcus Christmas returns for a fifth season and will be the veteran leader at defensive tackle. Lined up next to him will be Marvin Wilson—the No. 6 overall recruit and No. 1 DT in the 2017 recruiting class. Nnadi blocked Wilson's path to playing time last season, but he's another great candidate for a breakout year. Top-100 recruits in 2016, Brian Burns and Janarius Robinson will be key contributors at defensive end.
The star of the show, though, ought to be Josh Kaindoh.
The No. 10 overall recruit in last year's class recorded four sacks against Delaware State. Granted, it was a 77-6 blowout of one of the lowest-scoring FCS teams in the country, but it made him one of just 10 players in the past two years to register at least four sacks in a single game. Plenty of quality pass-rushers have gotten the chance to take advantage of inferior offensive linemen without accomplishing what Kaindoh did.
Obviously, that doesn't mean he's a lock to rack up a double-digit sack total as a sophomore, but it did reinforce the notion coming out of high school that he has the potential to do it. If opponents are more worried about slowing down Burns and Wilson, Kaindoh will be paying a lot of visits to the quarterback.
Aubrey Solomon, DT, Michigan
2017 Stats: 16 total tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss
The defensive lines at Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State have gotten national attention in preseason previews, but Michigan is going to have a pass-rushing wrecking ball if Aubrey Solomon is ready to make a sophomore-year leap.
On the ends, the Wolverines have Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, who combined for 30.5 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks last season. And Gary—the No. 1 overall recruit in 2016—still has plenty of room for improvement. Those edge-rushers alone will make Michigan a force on defense.
And then there's Solomon. The No. 2 DT in last year's class appeared in every game as a true freshman and even broke into the starting lineup before the end of October, but Maurice Hurst Jr. was clearly the best DT on the roster. Now that he's gone, Solomon should be in line for all the reps he can handle.
How much of an impact Solomon makes might actually depend on Michigan's other breakout candidate at defensive tackle: Michael Dwumfour. He has only recorded five total tackles over the last two seasons, but the projected starting nose tackle was all anyone around the Michigan program could talk about during spring camp. If his emergence carries over into the fall, it's hard to imagine any offensive line having an answer for this unit.
Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
2017 Stats: 30 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception
Of the six 5-star recruits in Alabama's 2017 class, Dylan Moses saw the most action as a true freshman. He appeared in 11 games with two starts and ended up tied for sixth on the team in tackles for loss.
Part of that is because Alabama's linebacking corps was a walking hospital ward. Mack Wilson, Anfernee Jennings, Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton all missed time due to injury. Moses even suffered a foot injury, causing him to miss both games in the College Football Playoff.
Prior to that injury, he was quickly emerging as a soon-to-be all-SEC caliber performer. Twenty-one of his 30 tackles came in the final two games of the season, and all of his tackles for loss occurred in November.
Keith Holcombe recently announced that he's giving up football to focus on baseball, so there's even less depth at linebacker than the Crimson Tide were hoping for. Moses was almost certainly going to start ahead of Holcombe anyway, but his departure only makes Moses that much more important to this defense.
Linemen Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs may initially receive the most individual attention among Bama's defenders, but look for Moses lead the team in tackles and quickly become a household name.
Jeffrey Okudah, CB, Ohio State
2017 Stats: 17 total tackles, one pass defended
Two years ago, Ohio State had to replace defensive backs Eli Apple, Vonn Benn and Tyvis Powell. Last year, there were concerns that the secondary might take a step backward after losing Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker.
In neither season was it a problem, as Urban Meyer always seems to have an unfairly deep stable of cornerbacks and safeties. And this time around, it'll be Jeffrey Okudah who steps into a starring role to help replace Denzel Ward and Damon Webb.
Okudah didn't do much last season, but who cares? Lattimore and Hooker combined for 14 tackles, two passes defended and zero interceptions as redshirt freshmen in 2015 before exploding for 115, 13 and 11, respectively, the following year.
And they weren't even as highly rated coming out of high school as Okudah was. Lattimore was the 247Sports composite rankings' No. 55 overall player in 2014. Hooker was ranked No. 360. But Okudah was No. 8 overall and No. 1 among cornerbacks in last year's class.
Okudah still might not be a starter at cornerback with Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette back, but he's going to have an increased role in year No. 2. Expect him to make the most of it.
Patrick Johnson, S, Wisconsin
2017 Stats: Appeared in four games with no stats before a season-ending arm injury
Every other pick on this list was a former highly touted recruit who is now in a position to be a No. 1 option on a depth chart. In other words, they weren't exactly shots in the dark.
This one is, though.
Patrick Johnson was rated 929th overall in the 2016 recruiting class, and he has made just three tackles in his career. There's not a whole lot to suggest that he has the potential to become an All-Big Ten safety as a redshirt sophomore.
But he's playing in a system that has made quite the habit of turning no-name, 3-star recruits into college studs, so why not Johnson?
The Badgers always have one of the stingiest secondaries in the nation. They have had at least 20 interceptions in each of the last two seasons, and you need to go all the way back to 2009 to find the last time they allowed more than 203 passing yards per game. And with Nick Nelson, Natrell Jamerson, Joe Ferguson and Derrick Tindal all out of the picture, Johnson should be a key piece of the puzzle, even if he doesn't win a starting job in fall camp.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.