The first full slate of college football this weekend will unveil some of the new stars of the sport. We’ve already seen some in limited action. Some have been overshadowed by their predecessors. Others are fresh out of high school.
All of them will be household names, and your indoctrination to their talent begins this fall.
Last week, I released the Preseason 247Sports True Freshmen All-American Team. Now, I bring you 15 more breakout stars for this season. Five are true freshmen that didn’t quite make the cut in the All-American team, five more are redshirt freshmen ready to emerge and five are sophomores stepping into the spotlight.
Christian Harris, ILB, Alabama: How talented do you have to be to start at inside linebacker, the fulcrum of the Alabama defense, as a true freshman summer enrollee on Day 1? Well, it hasn’t happened since Dont’a Hightower in 2008. Now consider that not only was Harris a summer enrollee, but he didn’t even play linebacker in high school, instead lining up at cornerback and kick returner. Yet he’s already running with the 1s alongside Dylan Moses. How good is this guy going to be?
Nolan Smith, OLB, Georgia: If you want to poke holes in Georgia’s national title contention, you could start with its lack of a pass rush last year. Georgia was 100th in the country in sacks per game and 13th in the SEC. The reason no one seems too concerned with that distressing stat could be due in part to the arrival of Smith. He was the 247Sports Composite No. 1 player in the nation, a freak athlete and been getting strong reviews for his motor and effort level in preseason practice.
Dontae Lucas, G, Florida State: You don’t typically see offensive linemen on a breakout list, particularly as a true freshman. What makes Lucas intriguing is that he is penciled in as a starter and he’s good, but his presence is what has drawn the praise of veterans. For a unit that needs some confidence and toughness, Lucas could be an integral part of reviving Florida State’s crippled unit from the last two seasons.
Bo Nix, QB, Auburn: The son of former Auburn great Patrick Nix, Bo didn’t win the starting job of some mid-tier program with an FCS opener. He’s the starting quarterback for an Auburn team that has six of the top 12 teams in the country on its schedule and opens the season in the highest-profile game of the Week 1. Nix can throw it, but his ability to run may give Auburn the boost its offense needs to survive a brutal schedule.
Trey Knox, WR, Arkansas: As Chad Morris tries to get his offense rolling, he turns to recruiting to provide the stimulus. In Knox, he appears to have found an instant impact receiver that can elevate the offense. Knox is 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, dominated the spring game and has a great attitude within the program. If Arkansas takes a big step in Year 2, Knox will have had a huge rookie campaign.
Will McDonald, LB, Iowa State: Part of the reason for optimism surrounding the Iowa State program is the development of some of the players that may not be national names yet. McDonald is exhibit A. A freak athlete who played four sports in high school, McDonald was raw as a freshman and the staff resisted the temptation to burn a redshirt despite his immense talent. Now he looks ready to provide a major boost and upgrade the athleticism on a defense that returns eight starters.
Jalen Redmond, DL, Oklahoma: Ranked by 247Sports as a five star coming out of high school, Redmond had blood clot issues that limited his impact as a freshman. Now he looks healthy and his ability to play rush end or outside linebacker at 265 pounds could mean a big boost for the defense. If Redmond gets to full-go, he could be one of the best players on a playoff-aspiring defense by mid-season.
Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa: He arrived last year as a defensive lineman, but Linderbaum made the switch to the offensive line and is seen as a three or four-year starter in Iowa City over the football. Iowa already has NFL talent at tackle in Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. If Linerbaum can provide a boost to the interior, Iowa could become one of the best offensive line units in the nation.
Kyler Gordon, CB, Washington: So often, one cornerback looks like the next in Jimmy Lake’s Washington secondary. They’re long and rangy with ball skills and grace. Gordon is cut a little bit differently. He’s a shade under 6-foot, but he’s scrappy, athletic, with a 42-inch vertical and an offensive skill-set honed by playing all over the field in high school. Led by Gordon, don’t expect much of a drop off in that Huskies secondary.
Justin Shorter, WR, Penn State: This is a little bit of a projection. We haven’t heard a lot of buzz out of fall camp from Shorter. He’s had limited appearances in media viewing periods. But he’s the former No. 1 wide receiver in the country who was limited by injuries as a freshman and this fall feels like the year that a slew of new stars emerge in Happy Valley. If Penn State’s offense surpasses expectations, Shorter will be a big reason why.
K’Lavon Chaisson, OLB, LSU: After flashing some during his true freshman season (2 sacks, 4.5 TFL), Chaisson was poised for a breakout year last fall, but was knocked out for the season in the opener against Miami. Now Chaisson is back to full speed, earned the coveted No. 18 jersey at LSU and has the potential to blossom into a first-round talent this season because of his pass rush athleticism and ability to disrupt on one of the nation’s best defenses.
Bobby Brown, DT, Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher is building his roster with mass. That starts with recruiting and extends into development. No one represents that evolution more than Brown. Go to his profile on the Texas A&M official site and he’s listed at 282 pounds. My eyes tell me that weight is outdated. Brown is an enormous, athletic interior defender and if A&M’s defense shows major improvements under Mike Elko in Year 2, he has the talent to make it happen.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish lost a lot of leadership and a lot of tackles from their 2018 squad at the linebacker position. However, Owusu-Koramoah backfills it with a new-age linebacker who has the athleticism and versatility that is highly coveted in today’s game. He arrived at Notre Dame in 2017 as an upside prospect and two years later, following a redshirt season in 2018, that upside is starting to show up and Owusu-Koramoah could become one of the stars of the 2019 unit.
Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan: Bumping up against Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich on last year’s loaded defense, Hutchinson quietly put together a nice freshman campaign. He had 15 tackles and was Michigan’s defensive rookie of the year, but in 2019, he’s going to emerge as one of the best defensive ends in the country.
Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State: As a redshirt freshman in 2018, Hubbard was playing behind Justice Hill most of the season. He still finished with 740 yards rushing, but had more than 130 yards rushing in his three starts at the end of the season. Now that the job is his, expect Hubbard to blow that production out of the water thanks in part to his 10.6 100-meter speed. Hubbard will be one of the nation’s most productive running backs.