Kenneth Walker III went from back-to-back 579-yard seasons at Wake Forest to finishing second in FBS in rushing with Michigan State.
Kenny Pickett threw more touchdowns in 2021 (42) than he had in four previous years combined (39).
Aidan Hutchinson tallied 4.5 sacks in his first three years, then exploded for 14 sacks as a senior for Michigan.
Those three players are among college football’s breakout stars in the 2021 season. All of them now find themselves among Todd McShay’s top 60 NFL draft prospects.
Who will be this year’s Kenny Pickett? What other transfers and newcomers will burst onto the scene? And will there be another player like Will Anderson Jr.? Our writers break down which players can break out.
Which quarterback will break out in 2022?
David Hale: Apologies to those who think Phil Jurkovec has already broken out after a strong 2020 campaign, but when injuries upended his 2021 season, he fell off the national radar a bit. Given the talent Boston College returns at the skill positions — receiver Zay Flowers and running back Pat Garwo III, among others — there’s every reason to think a healthy Jurkovec blossoms into one of the top passers in the country, and he could easily garner some buzz as a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
As a recruit, Jurkovec was expected to be the next big thing when he signed with Notre Dame. It’s taken longer than he might’ve expected to break through, but 2022 has all the makings of a big year.
Alex Scarborough: My pick of Myles Brennan got a lot more complicated on Sunday when we learned that Jayden Daniels would be transferring to LSU from Arizona State. But I’m undeterred. If Brennan can return from back-to-back season-ending injuries, he can beat Daniels out for the starting job. Remember, he already was the starter back in 2021. In the three games before he was injured, he threw 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
And wouldn’t you know it, some LSU fans were disappointed with that. LSU scored more than 40 points in each game, but because the Tigers went 1-2, it was somehow Brennan’s fault. Such was the long shadow cast by Joe Burrow. But ask those same fans now how much they’d like a quarterback who averaged nearly four TD passes a game. That’s all-conference type stuff. With Kayshon Boutte back at receiver and a new energy on campus thanks to first-year coach Brian Kelly, I expect Brennan to make his last season in Baton Rouge count.
Mark Schlabach: Oklahoma fans were reeling after Caleb Williams left to join former Sooners coach Lincoln Riley at USC. Former starter Spencer Rattler transferred to South Carolina earlier. But new OU coach Brent Venables hit a home run when he persuaded former UCF starter Dillon Gabriel to flip from UCLA to Oklahoma out of the transfer portal.
The move makes a ton of sense for both sides. Gabriel threw for more than 7,000 yards with 61 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in two seasons at UCF in 2019 and 2020 (he missed much of 2021 with a broken clavicle). New Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby was the architect of UCF’s offense in 2019, so it should be a very fruitful reunion.
Chris Low: Pressed into action last season as a redshirt freshman when D’Eriq King went down with an injury, Tyler Van Dyke was terrific in his first stint as a starter. He has a chance to develop into one of the best quarterbacks in the country in 2022. In fact, new Miami coach Mario Cristobal said earlier this month that there wasn’t a better quarterback in the country than the 6-foot-4, 224-pound Van Dyke, who earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors a year ago.
He just missed throwing for 3,000 yards last season while starting in the last nine games. The Hurricanes will build their offense around him this coming season, and with Van Dyke’s ability to throw the deep ball as well as he does the finesse throws, his numbers will only skyrocket.
Dave Wilson: Texas A&M’s Haynes King was the No. 46 player in the 2020 ESPN 300, ranked just behind Bryce Young and Texas’ Hudson Card as the No. 3 QB recruit in the country.
After sitting behind Kellen Mond in his first year, he won the starting job last year, only to suffer a season-ending injury in his second start. In College Station, he earned raves for his speed, running a 4.4 at 6-3, 200 pounds, and being just one of three Aggies clocked at over 22 mph in workouts, according to 247, alongside highly recruited freshmen prospects Denver Harris (a corner) and Evan Stewart (a receiver).
The Aggies’ passing game was anemic last year but with the addition of Stewart, a loaded tight end room despite the loss of Jalen Wydermyer and an experienced offensive line, King has a chance to solve the Aggies’ passing woes.
Paolo Uggetti: It’s about time the college football world starts to get more than just acquainted with Cameron Ward. After throwing for 4,648 yards, 47 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions at Incarnate Word last season, Ward made the leap to Division I, taking his talents to Washington State.
How did the Texas native end up in the Pacific Northwest? Connections, connections, connections. In early December, the Cougars hired Eric Morris (a former assistant under Mike Leach) to be their new offensive coordinator. Morris, of course, was the head coach at Incarnate Word, which paved the way for Ward to transfer there and continue the Air Raid attack the two have cooked up together. After a messy 2021 that still ended on a high note for the Cougars and new head coach Jake Dickert, Ward’s arrival could be the start of something special in Pullman.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Can Spencer Rattler count as a breakout quarterback? He had a solid 2020 season and was a leading Heisman candidate coming into the 2021 season. Obviously, that didn’t work out well at all, which led to his departure from Oklahoma. I also believe people felt worse about Rattler’s “failure” given Lincoln Riley’s résumé with quarterbacks, which I understand to an extent.
That said, he’s still a talented quarterback that is going to benefit a ton from a change of scenery, and I feel more confident about that change of scenery given how much Shane Beamer was able to get out of that South Carolina team in his first year as head coach. Despite going into a much more talented conference, I think he can find success in 2022.
Adam Rittenberg: I’m tempted to go with Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, who has a higher ceiling than Cade McNamara but still must win the starting job, and is limited this spring with a throwing shoulder injury. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see McCarthy deliver a big season, I’m instead picking Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner, the quarterback Irish fans have been waiting for.
Like McCarthy, Buchner first must win the starting job, but I expect him to be Notre Dame’s QB1 against Ohio State. Buchner should thrive under coordinator Tommy Rees, who will have more schematic autonomy under Marcus Freeman than Brian Kelly. He has natural playmaking ability and will be able to target one of the nation’s best tight ends in Michael Mayer and an improving group of wide receivers. Notre Dame might not challenge for the CFP this season, but Buchner will boost expectations for 2023 and beyond.
Quarterback Jaxson Dart will replace Matt Corral at Ole Miss after transferring from USC. Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire
Which quarterback transfer benefits most from a change of coach/scenery?
Hale: It would be easy enough to point to either of the two guys who left Oklahoma after last season, but how about the guy who just arrived in Norman? Dillon Gabriel was hugely productive in three seasons at UCF, but injuries cut short his 2021, and he never quite garnered the national acclaim his numbers might’ve suggested.
Now he’ll have an opportunity to reunite with his former OC, Jeff Lebby, and take over a talented offense with big expectations at Oklahoma. If Gabriel can thrive with the Sooners, he’ll be viewed in a far different light than he was just a year ago.
Scarborough: Jaxson Dart was the No. 2-ranked pocket passer in the Class of 2021 for a reason. He started three games as a true freshman at USC for a reason. And that reason is he’s talented. So when there was a coaching change and it became clear that Lincoln Riley was going to bring Caleb Williams with him to Los Angeles, who could blame him for leaving?
He may have found an even better spot in Ole Miss, where he’ll get to work with wunderkind offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. and head coach Lane Kiffin, who if nothing else knows how to build an existing offense and get the most out of his quarterbacks. While I’m interested to see who steps up at receiver for the Rebs, the fact that Dart brought USC tight end Michael Trigg with him leads me to believe the transition to the SEC could go quite well for all involved.
Schlabach: How about Kedon Slovis, another former USC starter? He threw for 7,576 yards with 58 touchdowns in three seasons with the Trojans. He transferred to Pittsburgh, where Kenny Picket threw for 4,319 yards with 42 touchdowns last season, while leading the Panthers to an ACC championship.
The best news: Receiver Jordan Addison is back after catching 100 balls for 1,593 yards with 17 touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple left for Nebraska, but coach Pat Narduzzi brought in Frank Cignetti Jr., who did great work at Boston College the past two seasons. Slovis should flourish while moving from an Air Raid attack to a pro-style system.
Low: Bo Nix gets a fresh start at Oregon and he does so with Dan Lanning coming in as the Ducks’ first-year coach. Nix had his memorable moments at Auburn, but also had some moments that he would like to forget. He went through different coaches and different coordinators, and it just never completely clicked for him over a sustained period of time. He’s still plenty talented and starting over in Eugene with a new staff just may be exactly what he needs.
Rittenberg: I like both the Dart and Slovis choices, but my pick here is Rattler. I didn’t have South Carolina on my short list for potential Rattler destinations, but the connection with Beamer from their time at Oklahoma makes a lot of sense. South Carolina gives Rattler the chance to play in college football’s toughest conference, but not at a program that has championship-or-bust expectations.
He must win over the locker room and perform better than he did in 2021, but both goals are reasonable. Sometimes, humbling situations like the one Rattler endured at Oklahoma provide a reset for high-profile players. Rattler gives South Carolina a career 70% passer with 17 starts and 4,586 yards and 40 touchdowns. Beamer has created a welcoming environment in Columbia, and Rattler will be able to start fresh.
Tom VanHaaren: I agree with Alex. I’m really curious to watch Dart work with Kiffin and what that offense will look like. Kiffin has told me in the past that he likes to look at personality with his quarterbacks — if they’re the kind of person that naturally attracts people and if they’re someone Kiffin would like to hang out with himself.
Dart has the personality; he also has the talent to put up big numbers. Dart broke records in Utah as a high school prospect, throwing for 4,691 yards and 67 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,195 yards and 12 touchdowns. That was just one season. He has an opportunity to shine now at Ole Miss.
Jahmyr Gibbs, who posted nearly 2,800 all-purpose yards over the past two years, goes from a meddling Georgia Tech team to a featured player in Alabama’s backfield. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Which transfer will make the biggest impact in 2022?
Hale: How can you pick anyone other than Caleb Williams? He’ll be a superstar in L.A., and if he can pull USC from the Pac-12 doldrums, he’ll be in position to reach icon status. But what’s the fun of picking someone obvious here? Instead, let’s look at tailback Jahmyr Gibbs, who goes from under-the-radar stud at Georgia Tech to featured player in Alabama’s backfield.
Gibbs has superstar talent as a lightning quick runner who can also catch the ball out of the backfield. He has posted nearly 2,800 all-purpose yards over the past two years despite playing on bad teams. As good as Brian Robinson Jr. was at times for the Tide last year, Gibbs will be a return to the era of big-time Bama backs, and he has a shot to etch his name alongside Mark Ingram II and Derrick Henry as a true Heisman threat if all goes well.
Scarborough: South Carolina went 7-6 in Shane Beamer’s first season as head coach, and two of the three starting quarterbacks it employed were an FCS transfer and a player who started the offseason on the coaching staff as a graduate assistant. So, yeah, I think bringing in Spencer Rattler represents a major upgrade at the position. Say what you will about Rattler losing the starting job at Oklahoma last season. No one is questioning how talented the former top prospect is.
Schlabach: Former TCU running back Zach Evans averaged 7.7 yards per carry as a freshman and 7.0 yards as a sophomore. It makes you wonder why the Horned Frogs didn’t hand him the ball a lot more (he had just 146 carries in two seasons). Evans played in just six games last season.
Getting touches probably won’t be an issue at Ole Miss, which must replace quarterback Matt Corral and leading rushers Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner. Evans, a former five-star recruit, will become the centerpiece of Lane Kiffin’s high-flying offense.
Uggetti: I’ll echo what Hale said here and posit that based on sheer talent and potential alone, Williams has a real chance at single-handedly vaulting USC back into the national spotlight. Sure, hiring Riley did some of that work already, but the real excitement will come once Williams steps onto the field.
When Sam Darnold improbably took USC to the Rose Bowl in 2016-17, the frenzy surrounding that run was enough to remind how much the college football world can gravitate around USC when it’s doing well. Williams has an opportunity to do that tenfold. He might already be the best talent at the position that the Trojans have had in the last 15 years.
Lyles: I agree with David and Paolo, it has to be Williams, but I want to talk about Brandon Joseph. The marriage between Joseph and Notre Dame has incredible potential. Joseph came over from Northwestern, just in time to fill in what would have otherwise been an immense void to fill with Kyle Hamilton’s departure to the NFL.
Joseph is already a talented player, and I’m interested to see how he’s able to grow with Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame. At the very worst, it’s one less thing that Freeman had to worry about this offseason before starting his first full season as head coach.
Wilson: Steve Sarkisian’s offense didn’t exactly light up scoreboards in his first season at Texas, but a big reason why was injuries and inconsistency in the passing game, especially once Jordan Whittington suffered another cruel injury after being on the shelf in both his freshman and redshirt freshman seasons.
However, true freshman Xavier Worthy, a Sark priority after getting the job, was a true breakout star with 62 catches, 981 yards and 12 TDs. So the addition of Isaiah Neyor from Wyoming should be a big boost for the Longhorns’ passing game. Neyor, a 6-3, 210-pound junior, caught 44 passes for 878 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2021. It’ll be a big step up in competition, but the Arlington, Texas, native was overlooked out of high school and now gets a chance to show off. Alongside Worthy and Whittington, and with Bijan Robinson in the backfield, whoever wins the QB derby will have another solid target.
Rittenberg: I like all of these picks, especially Evans to Ole Miss, but I’m going with another running back transfer in Gibbs. He heads to Alabama, which loses leading rusher Brian Robinson Jr. and other playmakers surrounding Bryce Young.
Gibbs earned freshman All-America honors at Georgia Tech and showed consistent production as a runner, receiver and returner. He earned All-ACC honors at three different positions in 2021 and will have a chance to impact Alabama’s offense in multiple ways, as the Tide pursue a national championship.
VanHaaren: I like all of the picks above, and the obvious answer is Williams, so I’m going to throw out a different name that hasn’t been mentioned above. (That way I can say I was right by agreeing with everyone above, or I can say I was right if this player ends up being awesome, so it’s a win-win for me.) I’m going to say defensive end Jared Verse will make a big impact at Florida State.
Verse transferred in from Albany, where he had 52 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks this past season. The Seminoles are losing Jermaine Johnson II and his 18 tackles and 12 sacks to the NFL. The staff brought in a number of other transfers to help fix the roster, but Verse will come in to fill the pass rush void and help keep the coaches on track moving the program forward.
Jackson State flipping No. 2 prospect Travis Hunter from Florida State during the early signing period made for one of the biggest storylines this recruiting cycle. Under Armour
Which recruit are you most looking forward to seeing on Saturdays?
Hale: I’m going to cheat a bit and go with a recruit from last year who’s getting a fresh start in 2022: Texas QB Quinn Ewers. Already a famous name due to some huge name, image and likeness deals, Ewers signed with Ohio State last season but couldn’t beat out C.J. Stroud for the starting job, and ended up not throwing a pass as a true freshman.
He transferred to Texas, where the Longhorns have a big need for a QB to resurrect their program. It looks like a match made in — what’s the Texas equivalent of heaven? Buc-ee’s? Regardless, Ewers has tons of upside, but we’re used to bluster and expectations surrounding the Longhorns and their quarterbacks. The big question is whether this marriage can actually thrive. Either way, it’ll be tons of fun to watch play out.
Scarborough: I’m going to cheat and pick two: Travis Hunter and Kevin Coleman. The fact that Deion Sanders got not one but two of the top 75 recruits in the country to go to Jackson State was the biggest story of this past recruiting cycle, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out in terms of the impact they have on the football field and whether they open up the doors to more four- and five-star prospects taking the HBCU route.
Schlabach: Whatever Texas A&M spent in NIL money was worth it along the defensive line. The Aggies secured four defensive linemen ranked in the top 40 of the ESPN 300, including No. 1 Walter Nolen, No. 3 Gabe Brownlow-Dindy, No. 6 Shemar Stewart and No. 39 Enai White. That’s a ton of talent along the defensive front, and that’s how you win national championships, as Georgia proved this past season.
Low: It’s not just the name or the fact that it’s always neat to see how the son of a great player fares when he gets his shot, but Marvin Jones Jr. is an absolute terror as an edge rusher. And, yes, the rest of college football is probably collectively groaning: Just what Georgia needs, another dynamic player in its front-seven on defense.
Jones’ father, Marvin Jones Sr., was an All-American at Florida State and played 11 seasons in the NFL. So the younger Jones already has the pedigree and size (6-5, 250 pounds), not to mention the talent, to be the Dawgs’ next great defender.
Uggetti: The quarterback position at Clemson last season was tenuous, at best, and though it appears D.J. Uiagalelei is poised for a rebound season, there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding incoming freshman Cade Klubnik. The quarterback out of Austin was tops at his position in this year’s class, and there are already reports about him performing well and leading at Clemson spring practices. Klubnik is a freshman, but as we saw at Oklahoma last season, quarterback battles could be closer than they appear.
Lyles: Mykel Williams at Georgia. Given the talent that Georgia had on its defensive line that anchored a historically great and national championship winning defense, I have high expectations for him because Georgia clearly knows how to pick ’em. The attrition on the defensive line will open up opportunities for Williams to contribute immediately, and given all the talent that will still be around him, it’s exciting to see how that affects his play.
Wilson: It’s a safe bet to assume that there will be an Alabama receiver who becomes a star in a matter of months. For my money, this year’s version is Aaron Anderson. The 5-9, 185-pound New Orleans native was committed to LSU for more than a year and flipped to Bama after Ed Orgeron was fired — and those Louisiana star wideouts always seem to make a splash. With Jameson Williams, John Metchie III and Slade Bolden all gone to the NFL, Anderson could make an early impact on special teams and as a slot target for Bryce Young.
Rittenberg: The progress of A&M’s linemen will be a fascinating subplot of coach Jimbo Fisher’s fourth season, but I’m going with USC cornerback Domani Jackson. There’s little doubt Riley and Williams will generate immediate success on offense, but USC’s defense needs a major upgrade in talent and depth.
Jackson, ESPN’s top-rated California recruit and No. 8 prospect in the class, is the type of Day 1 impact play for new coordinator Alex Grinch. Could he become the next Adoree’ Jackson-like defender for USC? If he provides playmaking and consistent coverage, USC’s secondary should take an important step after a really tough 2021 season.
VanHaaren: I like Paolo’s pick. Clemson adding Klubnik in this class was crucial could end up paying off this season if he continues on the trajectory he’s on. To name a few others that haven’t been mentioned, I’ll go with Ohio State linebacker C.J. Hicks, who was the No. 16 recruit overall. The Buckeyes need defensive help with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles coming in. The linebacker room has some depth, but given the performance at the position, Hicks should see the field in some capacity.
Rival Michigan also added defensive help with defensive end Derrick Moore and corner William Johnson. The Wolverines are losing quite a bit on defense and both should be able to provide help. Johnson was ranked No. 22 overall and is good enough to play right away in the secondary.
Washington’s Zion Tupuola-Fetui returned from a torn Achilles tendon to generate nine pressures on 58 pass-rush snaps. Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire
Which defensive player not named Will Anderson Jr. will have the biggest presence in 2022?
Hale: The best player no one talked about last year was Clemson’s Trenton Simpson. Sure, the Tigers’ offense underperformed in 2021, but their defense was insanely good, and Simpson was a huge part of that, finishing with 64 tackles, 12 TFLs, six sacks and five QB hurries.
His role figures to expand even more in 2022, as he moves to the will linebacker spot, but he’ll still be playing behind one of the most talented defensive fronts in the country. Add it all up, and Simpson is set to explode this season. If he’s not a household name outside of ACC circles today, he will be by the end of 2022.
Scarborough: It feels kind of like cheating if I take Anderson’s running mate at Alabama, Dallas Turner. The Crimson Tide’s other outside linebacker was a revelation as a true freshman last season, racking up 8.5 sacks, 5.5 of which came in the final four games.
Upon second thought, I don’t care if it’s cheating. Turner is that good and he’ll benefit massively from the extra blockers thrown at Anderson game in and game out.
Schlabach: Georgia might have three defensive linemen, Devonte Wyatt, Travon Walker and Jordan Davis, selected in the first round of the NFL draft. But some SEC coaches believed junior Jalen Carter was the most disruptive player on the Bulldogs’ menacing front last season.
He had 37 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks while rotating with the stars. A 6-foot-3, 310-pounder from Apopka, Florida, Carter will emerge as a top-10 pick this season.
“Carter is definitely going to be amazing, like man’s got talent, he’s strong, he’s fast, and I can’t wait to see him play next year,” Wyatt told reporters at the NFL combine. “I can’t wait to see him go through the whole process I am going through right now. As long as he keeps his head straight and stays positive, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Wilson: Second only to Anderson in sacks by a sophomore, Felix Anudike-Uzomah had an incredible season for Kansas State last year. He had 11 sacks and six forced fumbles, including a monster showing against TCU where he would’ve tied the NCAA single-game record with six sacks if he hadn’t caused fumbles on two of them and caused the ball to travel past the line of scrimmage, causing them to be reclassified. Still, he had to settle for a school-record four sacks, and also registered a three-sack game against Southern Illinois.
He was one of just three players in the country to force two fumbles in two different games last year and he also recorded K-State’s first safety on a tackle in the end zone since 2005, sparking a comeback win over Texas Tech. The 6-3, 253-pound Kansas native, whose only Power 5 offer out of high school was from the Wildcats, could be the Big 12’s defensive player of the year with a similar performance.
Rittenberg: I was so bummed when ZTF, Washington’s Zion Tupuola-Fetui, tore his Achilles tendon last spring. Few Pac-12 players on either side of the ball had made a bigger impact during the shortened 2020 season than Tupuola-Fetui, an edge player who recorded seven sacks and three forced fumbles in only four games.
Amazingly, he returned from the Achilles’ injury to play four games last fall and generate nine pressures on 58 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. There are some major questions with ZTF, primarily his health but also adjusting to a new coaching staff and defensive scheme under coordinator William Inge. Still, Tupuola-Fetui can be an absolute game-wrecker when healthy, and could deliver a big season for coach Kalen DeBoer and the Huskies.
Low: Where do you start when sizing up the talent on Clemson’s defense? New coordinator Wes Goodwin inherits a collection of guys who have NFL written all over them. The Tigers’ defensive line should be ridiculously dominant in 2022, especially with the return of Bryan Bresee at tackle.
The 6-5, 300-pound Bresee was a freshman All-American in 2020 before tearing his ACL last season in the fourth game. Look for a healthy Bresee to be the centerpiece of a Clemson defense that should be as good as any in the country next season.
VanHaaren: Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell played in only five games of the 2020 season, but he had 29 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and one interception in those games. He was healthy in 2021, and all he did was lead all FBS defenders with 143 tackles. He also had two interceptions and three tackles for loss last season.
He could have made the jump to the NFL, but decided to return for his senior season and is one of the unquestioned leaders on the Hawkeye defense. If we’re talking about presence, Campbell’s return to Iowa was a huge deal, and he has a chance to improve on an excellent season in 2022.