Breakout Stars of College Football Through Week 6
The gap between the college football national championship and the first game of the following season is roughly seven-and-a-half months wide. That's more than 200 days for fans and analysts alike to comb through stats, recruiting rankings, transfer portal news, spring camp, fall camp, projected depth charts, sound clips from head coaches and so much more in hopes of figuring out what to expect from the year ahead.
And yet, without fail, there are always dozens of breakout stars who either drastically exceed expectations or for whom there were no expectations because they were that far below the radar.
This year's breakout stars come in all shapes and sizes.
We've got a true freshman at Ohio State who wasn't supposed to be a featured player this season, as well as a guy who left the Buckeyes this summer in search of more playing time with a different college football juggernaut. There's an FCS transfer leading the nation in passing, an FCS transfer almost leading the nation in sacks and a handful of guys who weren't even starters until Week 3.
This list is mostly quarterbacks, but so is the top 10 of the Heisman vote pretty much every year. Just instead of a stiff-armed trophy, picture these breakout stars battling for a bust of someone shrugging, as if to say "Who knew this guy would be so good?"
Kenny Pickett, Pitt QB
2020 Stats: 61.1 Comp%, 267.5 Y/G, 13 TDs, 9 INTs, 129.6 PER
2021 Stats: 72.0 Comp%, 346.2 Y/G, 19 TDs, 1 INTs, 194.7 PER
Most of our selections are guys who are unexpectedly thriving after transferring or who are otherwise capitalizing on finally getting a chance to shine.
But we wanted to start the list with someone who, out of absolutely nowhere, went from three years as a game manager to a fringe candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
Prior to this season, Kenny Pickett had played in 39 games and threw three or more touchdown passes in just three of them. You know what, never mind the "or more" part of that, because his single-game career high was three touchdowns. And in nine starts last season, he never had more than two passing touchdowns.
Yet, the fifth-year senior has turned into "Touchdown Kenny" as of late, averaging 391.3 yards and 5.0 passing touchdowns over his last three games.
The nay-sayers will inevitably point out that the opponents in those games were Western Michigan, New Hampshire and Georgia Tech. But come on. Pickett had one passing touchdown last year against Austin Peay. There's something different about him this year.
After four consecutive seasons with a completion percentage below 62 and a passer efficiency rating below 130, Pickett is sitting at 72.0 and 194.7, respectively. Those numbers are bound to drop considerably over the next three weeks against Virginia Tech, Clemson and Miami, but it does feel like he could lead the Panthers to wins in all three of those games.
Jameson Williams, Alabama WR
2020 Stats: 9 receptions, 154 yards, 2 TDs (with Ohio State)
2021 Stats: 27 receptions, 510 yards, 5 TDs; 2 kickoff-return TDs
On the one hand, it's easy to understand why it was hard for Jameson Williams to break into Ohio State's regular rotation for targets.
The Buckeyes already had Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson holding down the primary WR jobs. Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming were the highly touted recruits who needed occasional reps. And between Jeremy Ruckert at tight end and the several rushing options, they rarely, if ever, had four wide receivers on the field at the same time.
On the other hand, how in the bleeping world does someone leave one program because of lack of playing time, transfer to Alabama—where most of the backups were high 4-star or even 5-star recruits—and blossom into one of the most productive wide receivers in the country?
Like, they couldn't even find room for him as a kick returner in Columbus?
Did they ever watch him run?
The Crimson Tide ended up losing to Texas A&M, but Williams made more receptions in that Week 6 game (10) than he had in either of the previous two entire seasons at Ohio State. He has been a great home-run threat with four long touchdowns already this season, but Williams has also emerged as Bryce Young's security blanket when a play breaks down or when they desperately need something positive to happen.
Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky QB
2020 Stats: 65.6 Comp%, 458.3 Y/G, 15 TDs, 1 INTs, 159.3 PER (with Houston Baptist)
2021 Stats: 70.4 Comp%, 447.0 Y/G, 21 TDs, 3 INTs, 173.7 PER
Bailey Zappe put up some ridiculous numbers over the past three seasons at Houston Baptist.
In 2019, he had both a 498-yard, seven-touchdown performance and a 513-yard, five-touchdown day. Last fall is when a few FBS fan bases learned his name, as he went for 406 yards and five scores against Louisiana Tech, 480 yards against North Texas and, most incredible of all, 567 yards and four touchdowns in a near upset of Texas Tech.
But it had to be some sort of Houston Baptist, air raid type of gimmick, right?
He just threw a billion times per game for that FCS school and that wouldn't be the same at the FBS level unless he was playing for Mike Leach, right?
His first five games at Western Kentucky would suggest otherwise, as he is leading the nation in passing yards per game by just a laughable margin.
Zappe has thrown for at least 365 yards and three touchdowns in each game, leading the Hilltoppers—who averaged a dreadful 19.0 points per game last fall—to 40.4 points per night. In his most recent outing, he went off for 523 yards and five touchdowns against undefeated UTSA. He had a chance at a sixth, would-be-game-winning touchdown in the closing moments, but an interception on 3rd & Goal from the 15 sealed a 52-46 victory for the Roadrunners.
That has been business as usual, sadly. Zappe has posted a PER north of 150 in all five games, but Western Kentucky's awful defense has rendered this team unable to defeat an FBS opponent. But, hey, that's more fun for us because it means more times that Zappe needs to throw the ball to try to will his team to victory.
Cody Roscoe, Syracuse DE
2020 Stats: 17 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks
2021 Stats: 31 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks
We move straight from Bailey Zappe to someone who once broke up six of his pass attempts in a single game.
That would be defensive end Cody Roscoe, who spent 2017-19 at McNeese State before transferring to Syracuse for the 2020 campaign. He played in all 11 games last fall, though he wasn't particularly impactful as a pass-rusher. Roscoe had six tackles for loss and two sacks for a defense that...well, let's just say it wasn't a backlog of elite edge rushers that kept him from seeing more playing time.
Because of the blanket free year of eligibility, Roscoe was able to return for a fifth season, and he has emerged as one of the top sack artists in the country.
Through six games, he already has more sacks (6.5) than he had tackles for loss last year.
Two of those sacks came against Liberty's Malik Willis, including the pivotal strip-sack late in the fourth quarter of a tie game, enabling the Orange to get the W. Roscoe also had a pair of half-sacks in the Week 6 game against Wake Forest, each of which turned 3rd & long into 4th & very long. (They lost that game in overtime, though.)
Roscoe's next game will be on Friday night against Clemson, which means way more eyes than usual. If he can get to D.J. Uiagalelei a time or two, perhaps he'll start getting more national recognition.
Tanner Mordecai, SMU QB
2020 Stats: 32-40, 395 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INTs (with Oklahoma)
2021 Stats: 157-221, 1,893 yards, 26 TDs, 7 INTs; 31 carries, 151 yards, 1 TDs
Kyler Murray in 2018. Jalen Hurts in 2019. Spencer Rattler in 2020. Those were the quarterbacks who kept Tanner Mordecai from ever getting the opportunity to flourish during his three years at Oklahoma.
Austin Kendall was in the same boat from 2016-18 before transferring elsewhere, but that former OU QB wasn't anything special in his new threads. He won the starting gig at West Virginia, however, he has barely completed 60 percent of his pass attempts and has a 24-15 TD-INT ratio over the past three seasons.
I bring that up not to slander Kendall, but rather to point out that "Former Oklahoma QB" doesn't necessary translate to "touchdown machine."
But in Mordecai's case at SMU, it has.
Mordecai opened the season with a seven-touchdown performance against Abilene Christian, and he went on to toss at least four touchdowns in each of his first five games. He accounted for five scores in the somewhat surprising road win over TCU three weeks ago. Mordecai wasn't quite that prolific in his most recent outing against Navy (324 yards, two touchdowns), but he did lead the Mustangs back from an early 21-7 deficit so they could improve to 6-0.
In addition to the impressive passing statistics, Mordecai has also blossomed into quite the scrambler. It wasn't until this past Saturday against Navy that he was sacked for the first time this season, this despite dropping back to pass roughly 40 times per game.
TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State RB
2020 Stats: Not in College
2021 Stats: 70 carries, 612 yards, 9 TDs; 7 receptions, 154 yards, 2 TDs
One could also argue that Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud deserves to be on this list, but does it really count as a breakout season when you began the year as one of the top five or so candidates to win the Heisman? No doubt he has been great for the Buckeyes, but given all the other talent on that roster, big things were anticipated from "Ohio State QB," regardless of who won that offseason battle.
TreVeyon Henderson's emergence as the team's top go-to player as a true freshman has been much more of a breakout story.
Master Teague III was expected to be the starter for much of the offseason, but back in Week 1, it looked like redshirt freshman Miyan Williams was going to be OSU's surprise sensation. On a night where Henderson only got three touches, Williams had nine carries for 125 yards. The two young guns had a roughly 50/50 split of carries in the subsequent loss to Oregon.
But when Williams missed the Week 3 game against Tulsa, Henderson had a "carpe diem" performance. In a game that was inexplicably still in doubt well into the fourth quarter, Henderson exploded for 277 rushing yards and three touchdowns, including four carries that went for at least 30 yards each.
He then made quick, light work of both Akron and Rutgers before yet another big game against Maryland, this time accumulating 169 yards from scrimmage and three more scores.
All told, Henderson is averaging just under 10 yards per touch and is scoring a touchdown in one out of every seven times he gets the ball. Not too bad for a guy who opened the season at either No. 3 or No. 4 on the running back depth chart.
Hendon Hooker, Tennessee QB
2020 Stats: 98-150, 1,339 yards, 9 TDs, 5 INTs, 153.5 PER; 120 carries, 620 yards, 9 TDs
2021 Stats: 78-112, 1,063 yards, 13 TDs, 1 INTs, 185.9 PER; 66 carries, 282 yards, 3 TDs
I always liked Hendon Hooker at Virginia Tech, but Justin Fuente didn't seem to agree.
Kansas transfer Ryan Willis initially won the job in 2019 before Hooker took over in early October and performed admirably the rest of the way. The following year, Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister started the first three games for the Hokies before it became apparent once again that the offense was much more potent in Hooker's hands.
Fed up with losing his job to transfers, Hooker decided to flip the script and swooped into Tennessee to take over the Volunteers gig.
He, once again, initially lost the job to another transfer, this time Joe Milton from Michigan. But by the second quarter of the second game of the season, it was Hooker's time to shine.
The Volunteers have been predominantly a running team thus far under Josh Heupel, rushing nearly twice as often as they pass. So Hooker's numbers are nowhere near those of Bailey Zappe or Tanner Mordecai elsewhere on this list. But when his number has been called, Hooker has been efficient, throwing for at least 188 yards and two touchdowns in five consecutive games. Even in the 38-14 loss to Florida, he was respectable.
Here's where the rubber meets the road, though. Tennessee's next four games are against Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia. Can Hooker guide the Vols to a major upset or two, or will his hot start be extinguished in repeated blowout fashion?
Josh Downs, North Carolina WR
2020 Stats: 7 receptions, 119 yards, 3 TDs
2021 Stats: 49 receptions, 741 yards, 7 TDs
Technically, the Josh Downs breakout campaign started during last year's Orange Bowl.
With star running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and star wide receiver Dyami Brown all opting out of that game, Downs stepped up to fill the "Well, Sam Howell has to throw the ball to SOMEBODY" void. He made four catches for 91 yards and two scores, including the 75-yard bomb that AP voters must have been watching on a loop all summer when they decided to put the Tar Heels at No. 10 in the preseason Top 25.
With those aforementioned three stars and wide receiver Dazz Newsome all now permanently out of the picture, Downs has remained Howell's main man, and currently has per-game averages better than his 2020 totals.
The second-year wideout has made at least eight receptions and scored a touchdown in each of UNC's first six games. He currently ranks third in the nation in both receptions and receiving yards.
In the Week 3 win over Virginia, Downs had both a 59-yard touchdown and a 37-yard touchdown within the first eight minutes, finishing that day with more than 200 receiving yards.
Now, if only the Tar Heels could find someone else for Howell to throw the ball to on occasion. Or an offensive line that can block. Or a defense that can stop anyone.
Casey Thompson, Texas QB
2020 Stats: 12-17, 225 yards, 6 TDs
2021 Stats: 74-110, 1,095 yards, 14 TDs, 3 INTs; 29 carries, 91 yards, 3 TDs
As with Josh Downs at UNC, Casey Thompson's breakout started during last year's bowl game. In relief of Sam Ehlinger for one final time, Thompson came in and completed 8-of-10 pass attempts for 170 yards and four touchdowns, guiding the Longhorns to a dominant win over Colorado.
After two years of backing up Ehlinger, all signs pointed toward Thompson winning the job this summer in advance of having quite a bit of fun with Steve Sarkisian's play calling and Bijan Robinson in the backfield.
But then something unexpected happened: Sark handed the reins to Hudson Card, announcing his quarterback decision just days before the season opener against Louisiana.
And then something even more unexpected happened: Thompson didn't transfer.
In the current era of the transfer portal, doesn't it feel like at least nine out of 10 guys would've thrown in the towel at that point? To have that type of performance in the final game before the starting quarterback leaves town and then to lose your job to a dude with three career pass attempts had to have felt like a slap in the face.
Nevertheless, Thompson stayed at Texas and won back his job by the end of the Week 2 game against Arkansas. He accounted for six touchdowns in the Week 4 blowout of Texas Tech and he was masterful in the Red River Rivalry, throwing for 388 yards and five touchdowns—though that incredibly was not enough to knock off Oklahoma.
Through his four starts, Thompson has averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt and one touchdown for every 7.5 throws. Texas isn't back, so to speak, but the offense is in good hands.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.