Way-Too-Early Predictions for Breakout College Football Freshmen

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2021

Way-Too-Early Predictions for Breakout College Football Freshmen

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    C.J. Stroud
    C.J. StroudGetty Images: Jamie Sabau

    Predicting superstardom in college football—especially when you're talking about kids who've never played at the collegiate level or have only flashed for the length of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee—is beyond tricky.

    Some players simply don't adapt to the next level. Others don't put in the work required. In other cases, the talent may be there, but the lights might just be too bright on the college field. For most, it takes time in a strength and conditioning program and learning a system to make an impact.

    Then, there are guys who are special. They get a glimmer of an opening to crack the starting lineup, and they never look back. There are also those who you know from the first day on the practice field have got the "it" factor.

    With the pandemic plucking most spring practices away this past year, there weren't as many star freshmen. Still, we had guys like Spencer Rattler, Will Anderson, Noah Sewell, Michael Mayer, Arik Gilbert, Bryan Bresee and Jaylan Knighton, among others, break out.

    So, who are 2021's candidates? There are a handful of redshirts who've waited for their turn to shine or recovered from injuries and some true freshmen who are ready to show everybody what they can do. There are a bunch of running backs and even a couple of signal-callers.

    Let's take an early look at the freshman breakout candidates you need to know.

Billy Bowman, Oklahoma Athlete

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Billy Bowman can play on either side of the ball and be a superstar.

    But you don't go to Norman to play for the Sooners and wind up on defense if you have an elite offensive skill set. That's why it's hard to envision the dynamic athlete from Denton, Texas, playing anywhere other than receiver for coach Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma.

    The nation's No. 38-ranked player could go a long way in the revitalization of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's unit, which took a huge step forward in 2020. He could be one of the Big 12's best defensive backs right away.

    Take into consideration, though, these are Riley's comments on Bowman: "I don't know that I've seen a more dynamic athlete in the country this year than Billy," he said, according to SI.com's John E. Hoover.

    That's the head coach, who happens to be one of the top offensive minds in college football. So, yeah, Bowman likely isn't going to play on defense, which means he's going to be a major weapon for Spencer Rattler in '21.

    With Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Marvin Mims back, there are a lot of options, but with Charleston Rambo entering the transfer portal (via 247Sports' Gaby Urrutia), there are reps to be won between Bowman and fellow incoming freshman Mario Williams.

    Look for him to take advantage and have a huge first year for an explosive Sooners team.

Demarkcus Bowman, Florida Running Back (Redshirt)

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The Florida Gators and head coach Dan Mullen haven't struck recruiting gold when it comes to difference-makers in the offensive backfield yet, but they sure know how to get quality prospects the second time around.

    A year after Lorenzo Lingard left Miami for Gainesville to be closer to home, the Gators were the beneficiary of another big-name transfer who will join a crowded backfield.

    That would be former Clemson prospect Demarkcus Bowman, who left the Tigers to be closer to his family after the deaths of both of his grandfathers, per David Hood of TigerNet. It's an unfortunate circumstance, but the former Lakeland (Florida) High School standout could be a game-changer for Mullen.

    Florida's offense is going to change significantly in 2021 with Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts off to the NFL, along with Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney. With either Emory Jones or Anthony Richardson likely leading the offense, the Gators could be more run-centric.

    A player like Bowman could make an immediate impact. He's a former 5-star prospect who is more quick than fast, possesses elite vision and is an ideal cutback runner. There's nobody on Florida's roster who is as talented as him.

    Before he left Clemson, he was already getting reps for coach Dabo Swinney backing up Travis Etienne, and it's hard to envision a scenario where he isn't heavily involved in Mullen's offense at the Swamp next year. He's a prime candidate to be one of the SEC's biggest young stars.

    If that's the case, he'll be a player everybody in the nation knows.

Donovan Edwards, Michigan Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There were a lot of major disappointments for coach Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines in the pandemic-stunted Big Ten season, but perhaps the biggest was the inability to run the football.

    A team with Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet shouldn't sputter so badly when it comes to churning out yards on the ground, but the Wolverines did nothing to help their young quarterbacks in 2020.

    That leaves the door wide open for Donovan Edwards.

    The 5'11", 190-pound West Bloomfield, Michigan, native decided to stay home and try to help pry Michigan from the clutches of mediocrity, and he is going to have every opportunity to do that as a true freshman.

    Edwards is the nation's 44th-ranked player for a reason, and he was a major recruiting victory for Harbaugh in a year when a lot of top-tier teams tried to come into Big Blue's backyard and poach top talent. He's been rewarded with the opportunity to be an offensive savior.

    The true freshman can do it all, and while he isn't going to be asked to carry the full load in the backfield, he is far too talented to stand around and cheer on the sideline. Michigan's running woes extend far beyond incapable running backs, but everybody has to be better.

    This is an ideal opportunity for Edwards to come in and help turn Michigan around. When that happens at a proud program like the one in Ann Arbor, it's on a national stage, so look for Edwards to get a lot of headlines right away.

Korey Foreman, USC Defensive End

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    Credit: 247Sports

    When Korey Foreman announced on January 2 he'd signed with the USC Trojans, it didn't just give coach Clay Helton arguably the nation's most talented player.

    The No. 1-rated prospect in the nation, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, joining the Trojans is also a major perception victory for a coach who has been living on the hot seat, a program that is trying to creep up to the top and a conference that simply has lost too much talent from the West Coast.

    Most importantly, Foreman has the chops and the ability to back it all up right away.

    The 6'4", 265-pound defensive end from Corona, California, could be the next Chase Young for the Trojans, and though those are lofty expectations, he's that talented. The best thing for Foreman is he's going to a team that needs him tremendously.

    He's going to reunite with his former high school teammate, Drake Jackson, to try to terrorize quarterbacks in 2021, and he's going to have every opportunity.

    There's no way Helton can score a recruiting win like Foreman and not give him ample chances to shine. It's not going to be out of pity or for perception, either. Foreman is going to be one of the best freshmen in the nation, and he's a can't-miss prospect.

    If you remember the way Kayvon Thibodeaux burst on to the scene in the Pac-12 for the Oregon Ducks in 2019, you should have taken notes. Foreman will have a similar showing.

Justin Flowe, Oregon Linebacker (Redshirt)

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    Credit: 247Sports

    This year was supposed to be one where Oregon coach Mario Cristobal busted out a young, talented linebacking corps that rivaled the top units in the nation.

    He did that with freshman Noah Sewell, junior Isaac Slade-Matautia and sophomore Mase Funa anchoring a unit that was impressive at times. They were green, but they grew. Next year, they'll add another elite talent to that group in former 5-star redshirt freshman Justin Flowe.

    The 6'2", 225-pound striker from Upland, California, is a big-hitting, second-level defender who could have made an impact alongside Sewell in '20, but he tore his meniscus in November and missed all but the season opener.

    Flowe will now get to play his freshman season with his brother, Jonathan, who signed with Oregon in the 2021 cycle. Between the three aforementioned 'backers and the Flowe brothers, there is an abundance of talent for Cristobal to throw at Pac-12 offenses next year.

    With Justin's speed, size and athleticism, it's hard to doubt him being a key piece of the puzzle for the Ducks defense in 2021.

    Much like Sewell did this year, Flowe is going to be an immediate star. A torn meniscus isn't a huge deal, so don't expect him to have any lingering effects from the injury.

    Once Flowe gets on the field, he's going to show everybody why he was one of the nation's top defenders in the 2020 class, and he could contend for all-conference honors once he gets reps in Eugene. He's that good.

Sam Huard, Washington Quarterback

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Growing up around father Damon and uncle Brock, the Washington Huskies blood flows through the veins of Sam Huard. Fortunately for coach Jimmy Lake, those bloodlines appear to carry the same type of talent that made the elder Huards NFL quarterbacks.

    Now, it's nearly Sam Huard's turn to shine, and it just so happens the Huskies can use him.

    Though Dylan Morris didn't perform too badly in a shortened season, he didn't wow anybody. 

    At 6'2", 190 pounds, the Bellevue, Washington, signal-caller has a ton of talent and the pedigree, but more than that, he can do a lot of different things. He isn't the most mobile quarterback, but he's not statuesque, either.

    Huard is accurate, and Brandon Huffman of 247Sports makes note of his "quick, effortless release." Though there are quarterbacks in the class with a stronger arm, he has plenty of strength and can get the job done. The intelligence and intangibles are what set him apart.

    The Huskies are in danger of falling far behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North if they don't have somebody step in and be the program's savior. There may not be any superhero costume in Huard's gym bag, but he has a lot of people excited in Seattle.

    Oregon isn't going anywhere, but the Huskies could put together a run if Huard is as good as advertised. Look for him to step on to campus and immediately beat Morris for the starting gig.

MarShawn Lloyd, South Carolina Running Back (Redshirt)

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    Getty Images: Josh Holmberg

    When former South Carolina head football coach Will Muschamp plucked MarShawn Lloyd from Hyattsville, Maryland, in the 2020 recruiting class, many expected the running back to immediately step in and battle for a starting gig with the Gamecocks.

    That's exactly what he was doing until he tore his ACL in August in a non-contact drill.

    "It's obviously devastating," then-offensive coordinator Mike Bobo told the Charleston Post and Courier's David Cloninger. "There's not a lot of guys that you think can be difference-makers, but we got to find a way to put the difference-makers we have in a position to be successful."

    Those words would prove prophetic. The Gamecocks struggled all year, Muschamp was fired, and South Carolina is going to be rebuilding with new head coach Shane Beamer at the helm.

    But Lloyd remains an expected linchpin offensively.

    At 5'9", 211 pounds, the former 43rd-ranked player in the country is going to return with a vengeance in 2021, and you can look for him to be one of the biggest impact players in the SEC.

    He could be the best redshirt freshman running back in the country, and it's intriguing that there are going to be two players (along with Demarkcus Bowman) in the same division. Lloyd's emergence and surge are vitally important for Beamer's first season.

    He has the potential to be the centerpiece of the offense.

Kelee Ringo, Georgia Safety (Redshirt)

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The only reason Kelee Ringo stayed off the field during his true freshman year is because a shoulder injury forced a redshirt. He came all the way across the country from Arizona to Athens to play his college ball, and he just had to patiently wait his turn.

    That's coming in 2021.

    There's nobody other than Tyson Campbell in UGA's defensive backfield more physically gifted than Ringo, who was a consensus 5-star prospect and one of the biggest victories in the nation's top-ranked recruiting class. He is physical, has elite speed and is versatile.

    You could put Ringo at nickelback or safety, and he'd do great there, too. But he is likely going to be the Bulldogs' No. 2 or 3 cornerback alongside Campbell, especially now that Tyrique Stevenson has entered the transfer portal.

    Though he didn't play this year, Ringo impressed UGA coaches plenty, and he has All-American ability.

    "He's actually been out there in a black shirt, doing I guess you could say about 70 percent of the work," Georgia coach Kirby Smart told Dawgs247's Jake Rowe during the season. "He doesn't hit anybody, and he doesn't get to do a lot of drills, but he does individual things. I've been really pleased with him trying and fighting to get back out there. Guys get injured, and they kind of lose focus, and it's like they get lost in the shuffle, but he's been in every meeting. He's very attentive. He takes notes. It's very promising to see that out of him."

    With Ringo being a student of the game and a highly skilled player who can run, hit and catch the ball, the sky is the limit for him. He's going to be the next superstar in red and black for a team that is loaded on the back end of the defense.

Ja'Tavion Sanders, Texas Athlete

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    Credit: 247Sports

    If you think it's odd that both of the Big 12 representatives on this list are men without a position, you shouldn't. In this day and age, college coaches love taking big, versatile athletes and finding out where they fit best.

    The odd part is they each hail from the same high school. Billy Bowman (heading to Oklahoma) and Texas' Ja'Tavion Sanders were star players for Ryan High School in Denton, Texas. How does a team like that ever lose?

    While Bowman is almost a lock to play receiver (though he can play in the secondary), there's no prospect tougher to pin down than Sanders. At 6'3 ½", 220 pounds, he sometimes lined up at receiver in high school, and he loves to have the ball in his hands.

    But when Tom Herman was in Austin, Sanders' future likely was going to be replacing Joseph Ossai coming off the edge for the Longhorns. Now with Steve Sarkisian taking over, who knows where Sanders will wind up lining up? Heck, he could play on both sides of the ball.

    Sanders has the potential to be an instant-impact star coming off the edge as a defensive end or outside linebacker, and the Horns need him on that side of the ball because they don't have as many difference-makers over there.

    If you give him the ball some, too, though, nobody is going to be disappointed in the results. Sanders is a star, and he and Bowman are going to have a lot of fun being collegiate rivals and showing out for their respective programs.

    The future is bright for both.

Will Shipley, Clemson Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There's going to be no way for Clemson to replace Travis Etienne, a two-time ACC Player of the Year who won a national championship with the Tigers. He will go down as not only the school's best runner ever but also the top back in the conference.

    Somehow, coach Dabo Swinney has to piece together a group of players to make sure the production drop-off in 2021 isn't too significant.

    Lyn-J Dixon is capable of carrying some of that load, but no running back besides Etienne eclipsed 200 yards this year. With Demarkcus Bowman on his way to Florida, that opens the door for incoming freshman Will Shipley.

    The 5-star prospect and No. 30 overall player in the country hails from Matthews, North Carolina, and he has a lot of wiggle in his game. Though there are faster runners, Shipley can do a lot of things with the ball in his hands.

    He is a terrific receiver out of the backfield, and he not only can run between the tackles but also possesses the type of second-level speed needed to break away from defenders.

    With the D.J. Uiagalelei era ready to begin in earnest at Clemson, the offensive game plan doesn't figure to change that much, but he's going to need help from a lot of young guys. Shipley is the perfect type of competitor with the ability to make a lot of things happen with the ball in his hands.

    Get ready for the next superstar in the Tigers backfield.

Keeshawn Silver, North Carolina Defensive End

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Perhaps the most exciting player besides quarterback Drake Maye in Mack Brown's second full class at North Carolina is long, lanky edge-rusher Keeshawn Silver, who was an elite basketball player in high school and possesses the type of athleticism that would make any college coach drool.

    The 6'6", 275-pound defender from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, has perhaps an even bigger upside than star defensive end/outside linebacker prospects Desmond Evans and Myles Murphy from the '20 class, and that's saying something.

    Silver could pack on another 20 pounds and stay outside, and he is going to be the type of player to come at quarterbacks from a lot of different angles for the next four years.

    He told Inside Carolina's Gregory Hall he expects to be a "different breed" for the Tar Heels, and he has the size, speed, length and ability to back it up.

    "Get your popcorn ready," he said. "It's about to be the best three or four years ever."

    Thanks to Sam Howell and Co., the offense has helped the Heels turn the corner quickly and make a splash in Brown's second year, going all the way to the Orange Bowl this season before losing to Texas A&M. But the defense still has a long way to go.

    The way Brown is recruiting, though, it may not take too long to make another huge leap. Silver is the kind of player who can help turn things around in a hurry.

Preston Stone, SMU Quarterback

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    Credit: 247Sports

    If there's one Group of Five freshman to watch closely, it's SMU 4-star quarterback signee Preston Stone, who has the ability to be special.

    It's not every year a program like the Mustangs gets a signal-caller coveted by programs from the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and virtually everywhere across the country, but that's what Sonny Dykes pulled off in the '21 class.

    Dykes sold Stone on being the next Jared Goff, and with Shane Buechele heading to the NFL, the Parish Episcopal prospect could step right in and be a star. He may just be one of the top two or three quarterbacks in a loaded American Athletic Conference along with Dillon Gabriel and Desmond Ridder.

    Stone is an ideal quarterback to run Dykes' system. He doesn't have a huge arm to push the ball downfield, but he can make all the throws regardless, including the deep ball. His precision and accuracy should allow him to be a force in the short passing game.

    Most importantly, he already has been studying the system, ran a similar program in high school and is a cerebral quarterback who quickly reads through his progressions.

    Buechele fell into Dykes' lap and made the Mustangs a force the past couple of years when everybody was healthy, but he started his career at Texas. Stone is going to be a lifelong Mustang and may even have a higher ceiling than the incumbent.

    Don't be surprised if Stone puts up big passing numbers as a true freshman in '21.

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State Quarterback (Redshirt)

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    Getty Images: Jamie Sabau

    This may be the easiest projection for superstardom on the list, if only C.J. Stroud can win the starting job next year in Columbus.

    All the offensive talent the Buckeyes have assembled around him make it a near-certainty Stroud is going to post big numbers if he has already grasped the offense. His considerable dual-threat skill set certainly lines him up to take over for Justin Fields.

    Of course, Fields could return to OSU, but with a first-round draft grade, that would be silly. It's likely going to be Stroud, fellow freshman Jack Miller III or incoming 5-star freshman Kyle McCord who is under center running Ryan Day's offense, and Stroud is a strong bet to win.

    Though Stroud didn't see a lot of reps this year as Fields' backup (he had a 48-yard touchdown run in a win over Michigan State and zero passing attempts), he has tons of ability.

    The 6'2 ½,", 194-pound quarterback from Rancho Cucamonga, California, was a late add to 247Sports' 5-stars in the 2020 class, and he was a Composite 4-star prospect before waiting for the late signing period and deciding on the Buckeyes.

    They're glad he did.

    "I thought [Stroud] did a good job when he went in there," Day told Cleveland.com's Stephen Means after the win over Michigan State. "Jack did a good job the last time he went in there. The more reps we can get those guys, the better they're going to get."

    A lot of things can happen between now and next year. Miller and McCord have the talent to make a huge jump, and the Buckeyes could get another transfer quarterback like Fields, who came from Georgia. But if Stroud stays in line for Fields' snaps next year, he'll have a big redshirt freshman year.

                   

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.

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