25 Names You Need to Watch for 2019 College Football Season
Heading into the 2019 season, there is a general consensus on the top players in college football. However, the order changes a bit when thinking about the most noteworthy.
We've highlighted 25 names you should prepare to hear constantly this campaign. Many of them are quarterbacks, but that's the nature of the sport.
While past performance is a big factor, hype is the greatest contributor to popularity. That includes everything from Heisman Trophy attention and NFL draft buzz to expectations of a breakout year and key players for coaches on hot seats.
Although some coaches would be worthy inclusions, we kept the focus on players as much as possible. Only coaches in their first years with new teams were considered.
No. 25 Mack Brown—No. 21 Feleipe Franks
25. Mack Brown, North Carolina HC
After a five-year absence from the sideline, Mack Brown is back. He's working to revitalize the North Carolina program (which he coached from 1988-97). The team mustered a 5-18 record in the last two seasons of Larry Fedora's tenure. Brown is recruiting well, but the Tar Heels' immediate future looks bleak. They'll start an inexperienced quarterback (the competition to be the starting is ongoing), and the defense must figure out a way to replace much of its pressure production. How will Brown embrace the challenge?
24. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Expectations are only rising for Najee Harris. Long considered the replacement for Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, Harris must be prepared to handle a hefty volume in 2019. Star freshman Trey Sanders will likely miss the entire season because of a foot injury. Harris ran for 783 yards and four touchdowns last year, but he could attract some Heisman talk early in 2019.
23. Jarren Williams, QB, Miami
Miami has a new coach and a new quarterback. Manny Diaz tabbed Jarren Williams as the starter for Week 1's game against the Florida Gators on Aug. 24. During his redshirt season, Williams only appeared in a blowout win over FCS squad Savannah State. This season, he'll be expected to vault the 'Canes past Virginia and Virginia Tech in the ACC's middling Coastal Division.
22. Les Miles, Kansas HC
Kansas' decision to hire Les Miles may continue a disastrous situation, but at least the Jayhawks have received some positive attention lately. Over the last 10 seasons, they've won a total of 23 games with no more than five in a campaign. Kansas' results in 2019 don't matter as much as whether Miles shows a willingness to adapt. He failed in that regard at LSU; will it be different in the Big 12?
21. Feleipe Franks, QB, Florida
Head coach Dan Mullen helped Feleipe Franks move past a horrible redshirt freshman year. Still, his sophomore campaign was full of inconsistency—poor showings against ranked teams, specifically—until a hot finish. For the Gators to match their potential as a top-10 team, Franks must be a reliable performer every week.
No. 20 Jonathan Taylor—No. 16 Rondale Moore
20. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
One of the premier non-quarterbacks involved in the Heisman discussion, Jonathan Taylor returns after running for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. However, he's also the undisputed star of an unsettled Wisconsin offense. The Badgers need to revamp the line and might not be able to rely on Jack Coan's arm. They'll be counting on another explosive year from Taylor to compete in the Big Ten.
19. Auburn's Quarterback
It could be Joey Gatewood, or might be Bo Nix. Either way, Gus Malzahn had better get this decision right. Entering the head coach's seventh year at Auburn, the Tigers have surpassed eight wins only twice. Gatewood and/or Nix will be tasked with facing the country's most difficult schedule, so the margin for error is slim.
18. JT Daniels, QB, USC
JT Daniels is facing a similar situation to Auburn's quarterback as USC head coach Clay Helton is aiming to improve his job security. He brought in Graham Harrell to run the offense, and that Air Raid attack should fit his personnel. The Trojans have three high-quality targets in Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. But the pressure is on Daniels to lift USC—and protect Helton's job after a 5-7 showing in 2018.
17. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
This should be Jerry Jeudy's final season at Alabama. As a sophomore, he amassed 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to winning the Biletnikoff Award. That production is even more impressive given the surrounding talent—Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith. With another outstanding year, Jeudy could be a top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
16. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
Trevor Lawrence garnered the strongest headlines among freshmen in 2018, but Rondale Moore demanded plenty of the spotlight. The versatile star paced the FBS with 114 receptions and ranked third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,215), also totaling 14 touchdowns. If Moore stays healthy alongside quarterback Elijah Sindelar, Purdue can be a factor in the Big Ten West.
No. 15 A.J. Epenesa—No. 11 Ian Book
15. A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
Through two seasons, A.J. Epenesa has totaled 52 tackles with 22 for loss and 15 sacks. In 2018, per Pro Football Focus, he collected 46 pressures. He also has zero career starts. Iowa is set to feature Epenesa in his largest role to date, and a healthy season will probably end with All-American honors.
14. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State
All the attention on Nick Bosa distracted the casual viewer from learning about Chase Young in 2018. But after Ohio State's superstar had a season-ending injury, Young kept producing. He ended the season with a team-high 14.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, posting a Big Ten-best 76 pressures, per PFF. Young, like Epenesa, has All-American upside and should be an early 2020 draft pick.
13. Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
What we mentioned about Epenesa and Young? Combine that, and you get Xavier Thomas' freshman year. He rotated behind NFL-bound Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant on a defensive line that included Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. Nevertheless, the rising star had 35 takedowns and 10.5 tackles for loss with 3.5 sacks. If you discount injury, Thomas is the safest breakout pick of the season.
12. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
Special. That, in a word, is Grant Delpit. As a sophomore, he gathered 74 tackles with 9.5 for loss and five sacks. He intercepted five passes and allowed a paltry 57.3 passer rating when in coverage, per PFF. Delpit's versatility makes him a coveted draft prospect, and he's an absolute nightmare for college quarterbacks to handle.
11. Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame
Switching from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book propelled Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season. Book threw for 2,628 yards and 19 scores, competing 68.2 percent of his passes while tossing just seven picks. This year, though, he'll be without efficient runner Dexter Williams and top target Miles Boykin. Throw in a tougher schedule and a defense set to regress after losing six starters, and the pressure on Book is much greater.
No. 10 Jacob Eason—No. 6 Adrian Martinez
10. Jacob Eason, QB, Washington
Despite a mediocre season from Jake Browning and Washington State's breakout year, Washington still won the Pac-12 in 2018. Though a retooled defense is worth monitoring, the Huskies have an exciting new-look offense with superb skill-position talent around Georgia transfer Jacob Eason. He basically hasn't played a meaningful snap since 2016, but Eason has a chance to make UW a title contender.
9. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan
The same old question is being asked again: Is this finally the year Michigan reclaims the Big Ten? Shea Patterson's 2019 performance will shape that answer. He'll oversee a revamped offense under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who has endeared himself to Michigan fans by touting "speed in space." However, the Wolverines aren't loaded with elite talent around Patterson. He must be a playmaker, not just a distributor, for them to excel and actually dethrone Ohio State.
8. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Although the Ducks won nine games last season, they need an improved Justin Herbert in order to be a real threat. His efficiency wavered dramatically in 2018, and losing star wideout Dillon Mitchell only makes the challenge of consistency more difficult. Herbert's total stats should be great after throwing for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, but will he have timely performances too? It hasn't happened yet for the rising senior.
7. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Wide receiver Jeremiah Holloman's dismissal from the Bulldogs means UGA's top returning receiver is D'Andre Swift—the starting running back. Long story short, 2019 will show whether Jake Fromm is truly a game-changing quarterback. So far, he's been tremendously efficient against weak competition but is often a problem opposite top teams. Great quarterbacks elevate their team. Is Fromm merely a good one?
6. Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska
Head coach Scott Frost is a large factor in the Nebraska hype train, but the real conductor is Adrian Martinez. Once the proverbial lightbulb came on for the true freshman, the Huskers' turnaround began. They beat Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State amid narrow losses to ranked Ohio State and Iowa over the last six games of 2018. While defensive issues are a serious weakness for Nebraska, Martinez's presence demands the Huskers be taken seriously.
5. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas
After taking down Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger announced Texas is "back."
Now, he has to go prove it.
Ehlinger's first opportunity to back up the bragging is Week 2 against LSU. If the Longhorns truly are "back," they won't waste home-field advantage and will topple the SEC visitors.
An early loss at home, though, puts the pressure squarely on Ehlinger to atone for the shortcoming. The remainder of the schedule is tolerable, but Texas still travels to West Virginia, TCU and Iowa State along with the neutral-site affair against rival Oklahoma.
Ehlinger rarely makes mistakes as a passer and is a short-yardage bulldozer. But the simple truth is—fair or not—the narrative is dependent on the Longhorns' record, not Ehlinger's performance.
4. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
As a true freshman at Georgia, he played sparsely. Beyond some scattered runs, he rarely took a significant snap. Fields' defining moment of 2018 was a mind-numbing fake punt in the SEC Championship Game, a decision that wasn't his fault.
Still, the garbage-time reps showed his upside.
Fields completed 27 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns while also running for 266 yards on 6.3 per carry with four scores. He's since transferred to Ohio State, which has a couple of bright offensive minds in head coach Ryan Day and passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich.
Continuing that effectiveness in a starting role is never guaranteed, and Fields will confront that task in an enormous spotlight.
3. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
Jalen Hurts' fascinating college career has one final chapter, and the story really could go several ways.
While at Alabama, he was a dynamic runner who did enough aerially to brace a dynasty. Hurts' development as a passer showed in the 2018 SEC Championship Game, yet it was still a small sample. Now at Oklahoma, his progression will be tested.
Hurts has to learn a new system, and old habits sometimes flare up at the worst times. The Sooners have a superstar wideout in CeeDee Lamb. Will Hurts pepper Lamb with targets like he did Calvin Ridley in 2017, or can that be coached out of him?
Oklahoma's defense is nowhere close to the effectiveness of Alabama's, so Hurts doesn't have a large margin for error. How often he successfully toes that delicate line will define OU's season.
2. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Barring a surprising turn of events, 2019 will be Tua Tagovailoa's last season in college, too. Common sense says he'll declare for the 2020 NFL draft.
So does his stat line.
As a first-time starter, he racked up 3,966 yards with a sensational 11.2 per passing attempt. Tagovailoa completed 69.0 percent of his passes and tossed 43 touchdowns to only six interceptions; he also chipped in 190 yards and five scores on the ground.
Tagovailoa isn't a perfect QB. He finally looked mortal in a narrow SEC title win over Georgia, responded with a lethal performance against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and struggled mightily in a blowout loss to Clemson in the national championship game. Four of his six interceptions came against UGA and Clemson.
In all likelihood, though, Tagovailoa will be a Heisman finalist again. The talent surrounding him is undeniably elite. The bigger goal, however, is returning Alabama to the championship stage and then thriving there as he did two years ago.
1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Trevor Lawrence packed a whole lot into his freshman year. He opened the season as a backup, earned the starting role over incumbent Kelly Bryant, turned Clemson into one of the nation's best offenses, won the ACC and national championship games and threw 30 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
Just imagine what Lawrence could accomplish now that he actually has some experience at the collegiate level.
Well, that's the general outlook at least. Expectations could hardly be higher for Lawrence, who is even with Tagovailoa for the best Heisman odds and is leading the co-favorites for the national title, per Caesars.
Anything short of a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist and an appearance in the championship game would be viewed as a disappointment for Lawrence and Clemson in 2019.