The term "breakout player" gets thrown around a lot during the college football preseason as young players rise to replace stars who are now in the NFL, but it's an ambiguous term. Quarterbacks tend to get the description plenty, and in the case of 2015, there are many players at the position ready to become stars.
In this case, we'll attempt to go a bit deeper, covering every position to create an "All-Breakout Team," as well as going beyond players who were full-time starters last year. In other words, we're looking for the players likely to enter starting lineups full-time and become stars this fall.
The loose criteria, before anyone asks why [insert budding star here] didn't make the list:
- No players who have made official all-conference teams, although one exception has been made.
- No players who have been full-time, full-season starters. There are players on the list who have started a handful of games, but none who were in the lineup every week.
QB: Josh Rosen, UCLA. There are always a wealth of candidates at quarterback. Depending on your definition of "breakout." Clemson's Deshaun Watson, Ohio State's Cardale Jones, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, Texas A&M's Kyle Allen, Arizona State's Mike Bercovici, Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs and others could qualify for this list after starting only a handful of games last year. But let's take a bit more of a risk at quarterback and go with the freshman who has yet to actually win the starting job. Rosen feels like as sure of a thing as a true freshman quarterback can be.
If you're going to start a true freshman at quarterback, then it would be hard to devise a better situation than the one Rosen walked into at UCLA. The Bruins lose quarterback Brett Hundley -- the starter for all three years of the Jim Mora era -- and return all 10 other starters on offense. The line, anchored by center Jake Brendel, has finally made tangible progress. Paul Perkins is a top-10 tailback nationally. And the top five receivers return. UCLA's offense is loaded with proven talent at every position but quarterback. While junior Jerry Neuheisel (who filled in for Hundley in the 20-17 win over Texas last year) can still win the job, Rosen is the future and probably the present (sophomore Asiantii Woulard, a former four-star recruit, announced that he'll transfer). A five-star recruit, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Rosen enrolled in January and participated in spring practice. He's a mature, poised and smart pro-style passer, and with a veteran roster around Rosen, UCLA can contend for the Pac-12 title.
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin. Ordinarily, a tailback who averaged 6.5 yards per carry and ran for 949 yards as a sophomore would have already broken out and wouldn't be a candidate for this article. But Clement did that as a backup to Melvin Gordon, who ran 343 times for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns, finishing second for the Heisman. Clement has had his moments -- seven 100-yard games in two years -- but he's never had the spotlight to himself. Now, as a junior, he gets his chance. Wisconsin always rotates running backs, and that will continue under new coach Paul Chryst (the Badgers' former offensive coordinator). But Clement is the only returning back with significant experience, and he will quickly become the focal point of the offense.
RB: Jovon Robinson, Auburn. By no means is this a lock, as Robinson must beat out touted sophomores Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber for the job. But both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are gone, and Gus Malzahn is sure to use a rotation. It's just a matter of who emerges in that lead role. While we haven't seen Robinson in the SEC, it's possible he has a chance to be a Tre Mason-type power back in this offense. A 6-foot, 235-pounder, Robinson is a five-star juco transfer who ran for 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013 at Georgia Military College. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson may be the best bet for a breakout among Auburn offensive players this year, but Robinson's potential can't be ignored.
WR: DeDe Westbrook, Oklahoma. While the Oklahoma offense will still surely give running back Samaje Perine plenty of opportunities, the addition of new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley -- as well as potential new starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, a Texas Tech transfer -- will open up an inconsistent passing game. Riley's air-raid attack produced two 1,000-yard receivers at East Carolina last year. That's unlikely to happen in Norman right away, and the Sooners do already have a star wideout in Sterling Shepard, but there is room for another star to step up. It could be senior Durron Neal or sophomore Michiah Quick, but Westbrook, a top juco transfer, shined throughout spring practice and may prove to be a perfect fit for the new-look OU offense out of the slot.
WR: Robert Foster, Alabama. There would be a big chance for Alabama receivers to step up if the Tide lost only Amari Cooper, a Heisman finalist who caught 124 passes. But they also lost DeAndrew White (40 catches) and Christion Jones (19) catches, meaning they'll be without their top three receivers, in addition to having to play another new quarterback. One possible breakout candidate is true freshman Calvin Ridley, a five-star recruit. But the best bet this season is Foster, who played sparingly (six catches for 44 yards) in his redshirt freshman last season. No, Foster hasn't done much yet in two years as a five-star recruit. But he starred in the spring game, and he has a full year under Lane Kiffin under his belt with the perfect opportunity to step into the lineup and live up to the high school hype.
WR: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M. This is a tough call, simply because of the amount of talent the Aggies have amassed in the receiving corps. Junior Josh Reynolds caught 52 passes last year. Sophomores Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones weren't far behind, and junior Edward Pope is in the mix as well. But Kirk, a five-star recruit from Arizona, enrolled in the spring and starred in spring practice, with Reynolds sidelined by an injury and Noil absent in April. In this offense, there are plenty of opportunities to spread the wealth at receiver, especially if quarterback Kyle Allen takes the expected step forward.
OL: Roderick Johnson, Florida State. The Seminoles' veteran offensive line strangely underperformed last season, but it solidified late in the year when two things happened: left tackle Cameron Erving moved to center, and Johnson moved into the lineup at left tackle as a true freshman for the final five games. The move worked wonders. Not only did Erving prove to be a better fit at center, but Johnson looked like a star despite the difficulty often associated with true freshmen playing on the line -- let alone protecting the blind side of a Heisman winner. Now, Johnson is the only returning starter for a rebuilding FSU O-line, and he's likely to have an All-ACC season.
OL: Wyatt Teller, Virginia Tech. Teller arrived at Virginia Tech as a defensive lineman, but he quickly switched to the O-line and redshirted his first season. Last year, he started the final six games, showing promise for an offensive line -- and offense as a whole -- that has desperately needed an infusion of reliable talent up front. Teller gives the Hokies a powerful blocker at left guard who could play a pivotal role in ending the running game's recent slump.
OL: Freddie Tagaloa, Arizona. Tagaloa started seven games for California in 2013, but he lost his job midway through the season and decided to transfer to Arizona, reuniting with offensive line coach Jim Michalczik, who had been let go by Cal's new staff. The 6-foot-8 Tagaloa was a four-star recruit, and after having to sit out last year upon transferring, he has taken hold of the starting left tackle job in an otherwise experienced Arizona offense that should be poised for big things with the skill-position core returning in Rich Rodriguez's prolific scheme.
OL: Avery Gennesy, Texas A&M. The Aggies continue to churn out NFL-caliber offensive linemen, and now they'll get to work under respected line coach Dave Christensen, who was the head coach at Wyoming from 2009-13. An overlooked recruit, Gennesy emerged as a juco star, then redshirted last year with Cedric Ogbuehi and Germain Ifedi in place as the tackles. Gennesy appears to have a starting job locked down, and it's just a matter of which side. He's the favorite to replace Ogbuehi at left tackle, with Ifedi likely staying on the right side.
OL: Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame. After redshirting as a freshman, McGlinchey played mostly in a reserve role last season, but the 6-foot-8, 310-pounder started the Music City Bowl win over LSU and now appears set to be a key piece of the puzzle as the right tackle opposite star left tackle Ronnie Stanley. He'll actually be protecting the quarterback's blind side, as Malik Zaire is a lefty. With a long reach and impressive athleticism, McGlinchey, a four-star recruit in 2013, should be more than up to the challenge.
DE: Carl Lawson, Auburn. Lawson was expected to make this list last year, but a torn ACL last spring knocked him out for the season. One of the top recruits in the class of 2013, Lawson had 20 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles as a true freshman, as a role player on the Auburn team that lost the BCS title game to Florida State. Lawson was expected to play a pivotal role as the top pass rusher to replace Dee Ford, but he got hurt, and the Auburn defense struggled. Now, he's the clear starter under new coordinator Will Muschamp, who has plenty of talent at his disposal -- the Tigers also add top recruit Byron Cowart -- after the Auburn defense had only 21 total sacks all last season.
DE: Shaq Lawson, Clemson. Lawson is in similar territory to Wisconsin's Clement: a productive backup who got plenty of chances to see the field but was buried behind an All-American. It's Lawson's turn to replace Vic Beasley and become an impact player. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound junior is bigger than Beasley, and last year he finished second on the team with 11 1/2 tackles for loss, also recording 34 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks. Stars Beasley, Corey Crawford and Grady Jarrett are all gone from the Clemson defensive line, meaning coordinator Brent Venables will be leaning heavily on Lawson to step into a full-time role and lead the new-look defensive front.
DT: Malik McDowell, Michigan State. If Michigan State defensive line coach Ron Burton is to be believed, McDowell absolutely deserves a spot on this list. "We expect him to dominate," Burton said after spring ball. That shouldn't come as a surprise. A five-star recruit last year, McDowell played in a rotational role for a loaded defense as a true freshman, finishing with a modest 15 tackles, 4 1/2 tackles for loss and 1 1/2 sacks. Now, however, the 6-foot-6, 285-pound sophomore will become a prominent part of a loaded defensive line alongside Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath -- a group that will be among the best in the country, despite the departure of coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
LB: Peter Kalambayi, Stanford. Kalambayi didn't start last season, but he made his presence felt as a redshirt freshman. A four-star recruit out of high school, the 245-pound Kalambayi has a golden opportunity this year to step in at outside linebacker in Stanford's 3-4 defense. As a pass-rush specialist, Kalambayi recorded 32 tackles, 9 1/2 tackles for loss and 6 1/2 sacks, and with Henry Anderson and James Vaughters gone, the Cardinal defense -- one of the best in the country last year -- will rely heavily on Kalambayi to fill the pass-rush void as the next man up for a program that keeps putting together dominant defenses.
LB: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State. McMillan may have backed up senior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker last season, but he was too talented to keep off the field as a true freshman. A 6-foot-2, 240-pound five-star recruit, McMillan was on the field for 471 snaps on defense, playing more snaps than Grant in nine of 15 games. He had 54 tackles, 6 1/2 tackles for loss, 2 1/2 sacks and an interception, numbers that are sure to rise as he moves into the full-time starting role. He'll man the middle in what might be the nation's top linebacking corps, with Darron Lee and Joshua Perry returning on the outside.
LB: Lorenzo Carter, Georgia. The Bulldogs already had one of the nation's top linebacking corps last year with Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson on the inside and Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins on the outside for new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Then they added Carter, a blue-chip recruit, to the mix. While still overshadowed by Floyd and Jenkins -- both older NFL prospects -- Carter gives Pruitt a wealth of options to work with, even with Herrera and Wilson gone. As a true freshman in a rotational role, Carter started five games and finished with 41 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 4 1/2 sacks. He's a versatile 6-foot-6, 242-pound pass rusher who can be moved around the formation and could turn out to be a bigger star than either Floyd or Jenkins.
LB: Malik Jefferson, Texas. Jefferson steps into a perfect opportunity as a true freshman. A five-star recruit, he joins a Texas defense that loses seven starters but was excellent last year, despite the Longhorns' problems overall. Charlie Strong is one of the best defensive coaches in the country, and Jefferson will join a new-look linebacking corps that lost Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond. He enrolled early, and he lived up to the hype in spring ball, making plays all over the field. He's a phenomenal athlete for the position, and it shouldn't take long for him to thrive.
CB: Tony Brown, Alabama. Cornerback -- the specific position most associated with Nick Saban -- has strangely been a weakness for Alabama the last few years, as the Crimson Tide have hade trouble handling some up-tempo spread attacks. They could have an answer in Brown. A five-star recruit in 2014, Brown started two games last season after enrolling early, and now he's likely to lock down a starting job with Eddie Jackson moving to safety. Brown has solid size at 6-foot, 195 pounds, and he also brings track-star speed to the position.
CB: Charles Nelson, Oregon. OK, so technically Nelson breaks the "no all-conference picks" rule established at the top of this page. But Nelson was a second-team All-Pac-12 performer as a return man, and otherwise he played wide receiver. Fellow sophomore Adoree Jackson is the more established two-way star at USC, but Nelson has a chance to make a similar impact, even if it's still undecided where he'll end up most of the time. On the current roster, he's listed as a defensive back. He spent a lot of time there in the spring because the Ducks have a wealth of receiving talent but lost standouts Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill at cornerback. Nelson is only 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, but he has the all-world athleticism to quickly develop into a top playmaker on defense, if that's where he ends up. He'll be a breakout player somewhere -- maybe at both positions.
S: Jamal Adams, LSU. Beyond his terrible acting skills, Adams already looked like a star as a true freshman. The five-star recruit started only two games in a deep secondary, but he's now the unquestioned starter at strong safety, a position that will allow him to do a bit everything. He's an aggressive, athletic defensive back who had 66 tackles last season, and he's already embracing a leadership role on a rising LSU defense, even as just a sophomore. Expect Adams to become a star, the type of player capable of making game-changing plays that we've come to expect from the best LSU defenses.
S: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan. Perhaps the most obvious candidate on this, Peppers, a five-star recruit in the class of 2014, was expected to make an immediate impact last season at cornerback, but a leg injury sidelined him for the season after three games. A medical redshirt means he'll be a redshirt freshman this season. He's going to play a hybrid strong safety/nickel back/linebacker role, where he dominated in the spring under new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. It's becoming a common position for players like Peppers, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound multitalented athlete who dazzled as a running back in high school. Michigan is going to put him in space, and he'll fly to the ball and make plays. There will likely be similarities to the way Florida State used Jalen Ramsey last season. It's very strange to see a Michigan team without any proven star players, but that's likely to change in a hurry thanks to Peppers.