College Football Players Poised for Bounce-Back Years in 2019
The offseason is perhaps most accurately called expectation-setting season. Throughout the spring and summer months, college football fans and analysts try to identify breakout stars, underrated freshmen and other encouraging contributors.
But sometimes, that causes us to overlook those who have faltered.
Last year, many seemingly proven players struggled to match their previous production. Maybe it was a bad year, a breakout player taking a spot―hello, Trevor Lawrence―an injury or a disciplinary issue. Whatever the reason, they simply did not perform well.
The 2019 campaign brings an opportunity for once-heralded players to be key contributors for their teams again.
Cam Akers, RB, Florida State
Florida State had a miserable offensive line in 2018, and the unit doesn't look much better on paper. If Cam Akers doesn't bounce back, the team's blocking will likely be a root of the problem.
But an updated offense provides some hope.
Controversial though he is, Kendal Briles has overseen elite offenses at Baylor, Florida Atlantic and Houston. FSU's new coordinator should benefit Akers, who scampered for 1,025 yards on 5.3 per carry as a freshman but managed only 706 and 4.4, respectively, last season.
For good measure, Akers should hold a larger role in 2019 because Jacques Patrick used up his eligibility.
Hunter Bryant, TE, Washington
Recovery from knee surgery kept Hunter Bryant off the field until November, but the tight end provided a big impact when available.
During the last five contests, he caught 11 passes for 238 yards and one touchdown. Bryant showed the ability that landed him on national radars as a freshman, when he made 22 receptions for 331 yards and ESPN named him a Freshman All-American.
Health is the biggest factor for Bryant, but Washington's upgrade at quarterback certainly doesn't hurt. Georgia transfer Jacob Eason is taking over the offense in 2019.
Bryant seems destined for a breakout season.
Kelly Bryant, QB, Missouri
Kelly Bryant was a critical piece of Clemson's championship-winning season in 2018, accounting for 259 yards and two touchdowns while guiding the Tigers to a 28-26 victory at Texas A&M.
Within three weeks, however, the starter became the backup to Trevor Lawrence. Understandably, Bryant decided to protect his future.
The dual-threat quarterback left the team and took a redshirt. That choice allowed one final year for Bryant, who collected more than 4,000 yards of total offense at Clemson. He's now the replacement for Drew Lock at Missouri.
Yes, the program is facing a postseason ban in 2019. But an experienced offensive line and promising receiving corps led by Johnathon Johnson suggest Bryant will have a positive end to his college career.
K'Lavon Chaisson, OLB, LSU
Let's call this a delayed breakout.
K'Lavon Chaisson earned Freshman All-SEC recognition in 2017, posting 27 tackles with 4.5 for loss. He performed so well in the backup role that Devin White, a future first-round pick, said he expected Chaisson to break LSU's single-season sack record last season.
That pursuit didn't last four quarters. Chaisson tore the ACL in his left knee during the season-opening win over Miami.
Chaisson participated in spring practice and should be healthy for 2019. The expectations are unchanged; it's simply a year later.
Trevon Hill, DE, Miami
During his first two campaigns at Virginia Tech, Trevon Hill collected 15.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. And in 2018, he excelled with 4.5 takedowns in the backfield over three appearances.
But that's when his season ended.
Virginia Tech dismissed Hill "for not upholding the high standards" of the program. He eventually transferred to ACC rival Miami. Not only do the Canes have three straight top-12 finishes in yards per play allowed, but they also needed a replacement for NFL-bound Joe Jackson.
Miami has confidence in redshirt freshman Gregory Rousseau, but Hill gives the Hurricanes a dynamic, experienced starter.
Khaleke Hudson, Viper, Michigan
In 2017, Khaleke Hudson took full advantage of Jabrill Peppers' departure. The hybrid defender racked up 82 tackles with 18 for loss and eight sacks, also intercepting two passes and forcing two fumbles.
But he didn't provide a similar impact last year.
Hudson managed 44 tackles with 3.5 for loss and―other than blocking two kicks―didn't create a turnover. Sure, takeaways are mostly random. Still, the steep drop in playmaking stats was stunning, and regression toward the mean is likely.
"He's playing really well," defensive coordinator Don Brown said in April, per Isaiah Hole of Wolverines Wire. "His coverage skills are up. His pressure, mechanics, his techniques and fundamentals are excellent."
Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
Were it not for Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts would be Alabama's all-time leader in total offense. He'd likely still have multiple SEC titles and at least two appearances as a key figure in national championships.
Instead, he's now at Oklahoma.
Tagovailoa's ascent pushed Hurts to the Big 12 powerhouse, which boasts back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners. The program has enormous expectations, but few college quarterbacks are better prepared to confront that challenge than Hurts. He piled up 7,617 yards of total offense and was responsible for 71 touchdowns before transferring.
Between his experience and a loaded supporting cast, Hurts should be a low-tier Heisman contender. His main target will be CeeDee Lamb, one of the nation's top receivers. Grant Calcaterra is an outstanding tight end, and the incoming group of wideouts is terrific.
Throw in Lincoln Riley's ability to adapt―though this talking point may be overblown, given the evolving similarities between Air Raid and West Coast attacks―and Hurts is in an ideal position to excel.
Brian Lewerke, QB, Michigan State
Two years ago, Brian Lewerke helped the program forget an embarrassing 2016 season. The dual-threat quarterback threw for 2,793 yards, ran for 559 more and accounted for 25 touchdowns. Michigan State flipped its record from 3-9 to 10-3.
Given the Spartans' returning production, they were expected to contend for a Big Ten title last year. On-field struggles and injuries prevented that from happening.
Lewerke dealt with major accuracy issues that a shoulder injury only compounded. When available over the last seven games, he trudged to a combined 49-of-114 line for 453 yards―a horrendous 3.97 yards per attempt―with zero touchdowns and four interceptions.
If MSU has better injury luck in 2019―both for Lewerke and on the offensive line―the Spartans will be a Big Ten threat again.
Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona
After a brilliant six-game stretch in 2017, Khalil Tate secured a place in the headlines. And when Arizona hired a respected offensive coach in Kevin Sumlin, the Heisman Trophy talk only intensified.
It all crashed down quickly.
The transition to Sumlin's offense was not smooth, and an ankle injury hampered his mobility for much of the campaign. Tate scampered for 1,411 yards (with 44 gains of 10-plus yards) in 2017 but rushed for just 224 (and 10 runs of 10-plus) as a junior.
"With the circumstances I was dealing with last year, I couldn't really perform to the best of my ability and show the next level what I can do," Tate said, per Michael Lev of the Arizona Daily Star. "Thankfully, I had another year to learn and refine myself in this offense."
Tate was once the most dangerous freelancer in college football. On a healthy ankle in 2019, he'll be closer to that label.