Over the past two months, Sports on Earth has broken down the best returning players in college football at every position, culminating in a list of the top 130 players overall entering the 2017 season. Those rankings were weighted heavily toward proven production, meaning that they're sure to change as this season progresses and new stars emerge.
Breakout stars can be unpredictable in some cases, but we can make educated guesses for many based on a combination of opportunity, recruiting evaluations, glimpses we saw last season and spring performance. So, let's try to identify 2017's breakout players at every position. The rules are simple: The players picked for inclusion could not have made official all-conference teams yet, and they could not have been included in our preseason position rankings (all of which are linked inside here). These are the players we suspect will make a strong argument for inclusion in those position rankings with their play after the season begins.
QB: Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame. A year ago, the conversation at Notre Dame was about the wealth of quarterback talent available and the decision that Brian Kelly had to make between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, with the younger Wimbush waiting in the wings. Now, Kizer is off to the NFL and Zaire transferred, making the decision clear: It's Wimbush's turn. One of the top quarterback recruits in the class of 2015, Wimbush attempted five passes in 2015, then redshirted last year. Despite Notre Dame's disastrous 4-8 season a year ago, Wimbush steps into a solid situation, beyond the substantial pressure currently hanging over the program. The left side of his offensive line is phenomenal with Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, the receiving corps is deep led by Equanimeous St. Brown and Josh Adams is a seasoned tailback. The offense will be different under new coordinator Chip Long, but Wimbush was a touted recruit for a reason, with a big arm and running ability that could quickly turn him into a standout.
RB: Cam Akers, Florida State. Typically, replacing a running back as talented and productive Dalvin Cook presents significant questions. Make no mistake, replacing him won't be easy. But it's awfully nice to have the nation's No. 1 running back recruit ready to play after enrolling early and impressing in the spring. Akers isn't alone, as Jacques Patrick, a junior, was a blue-chip recruit who has shown flashes of big-time ability when given a chance. He could break out, too. But it's impossible not to be excited about Akers, a 5-foot-11, 213-pound five-star recruit who passed for 3,128 yards and rushed for 2,105 yards in his senior year of high school last fall.
RB: Chris Evans, Michigan. With 614 rushing yards as a true freshman reserve, Evans returns as Michigan's most proven skill position player. Gone is top tailback De'Veon Smith. Gone are top receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt. There are some questions on the offensive line, but there is plenty of potential there for that unit to be a strength in opening holes for Evans, a four-star recruit ready for a starring role. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound sophomore averaged seven yards per carry and gained at least 10 yards on 20 of his 88 caries.
WR: Devin Duvernay, Texas. One of the top receiver recruits last year, Duvernay was initially slated to go to Baylor, but he defected to Texas last June after Art Briles was fired. He showed big upside last year, catching 20 passes for 412 yards and three TDs. Duvernay is already a dangerous big-play threat, and his role can expand in an offense that can be expected to improve under new coach Tom Herman, even without star RB D'Onta Foreman.
WR: A.J. Brown, Ole Miss. The Rebels have recruited well at receiver, and even with Damore'ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and tight end Evan Engram gone, they're loaded with enticing targets for sophomore QB Shea Patterson. We could list DK Metcalf, who missed most of his true freshman season with an injury. Or it could be Van Jefferson, who ended up starting 12 games and catching 49 passes as a redshirt freshman. We'll highlight the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Brown, who started only once but caught 29 passes for 412 yards and two TDs in a crowded unit.
WR: Jaylen Smith, Louisville. Maybe Smith has already broken out, with 599 yards and six TDs last year, but consider that he finished fourth on the Cardinals in receiving yards and caught only 29 passes in 13 games. With James Quick and Jamari Staples gone, Smith becomes the top target for Lamar Jackson, after he already showcased explosive big-play ability with an average of 22.2 yards per catch. Smith is Jackson's best weapon, making him a good bet for big numbers.
OL: Jawaan Taylor, Florida. One of the big reasons for optimism that Florida can maintain its hold on the SEC East? Its offense finally can improve significantly. A big factor is the offensive line, which has a touted standout in junior Martez Ivey and another rising star in Taylor. The 340-pound Taylor started 11 games as a true freshman and is poised to shine at right tackle.
OL: Connor McGovern, Penn State. A couple years ago, Penn State barely had enough bodies to fill the two-deep. Now, it has lots of starting options with rising young players and a handful of veterans finally ready to stabilize what has been the team's biggest weakness. Sophomore Ryan Bates made our offensive lineman rankings, and McGovern could easily join him. A four-star recruit who enrolled early, he started nine games at right guard as a true freshman and is expected to take over the center job. He actually became the first offensive lineman to ever win a Big Ten freshman of the week award last year against Iowa.
OL: Chuma Edoga, USC. A five-star recruit in the class of 2015, Edoga has been a key reserve for the Trojans his first two years, making four career starts and playing both tackle spots. Likely to be the starting left tackle, the junior is poised for a hefty role with three starters gone from the line protecting prized QB Sam Darnold, including tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler.
OL: Nate Herbig, Stanford. The Cardinal offensive line wasn't up to its usual standards last year, but Herbig stepped into the starting lineup at guard for the last six games, helping Stanford during its season-ending winning streak. He was only the second Stanford true freshman to start on the line since the turn of the century, putting him on track to become a standout of this unit.
OL: Jake Hanson, Oregon. The Ducks were perilously young on the offensive line last year, but that should set the stage for much-improved lines moving forward. Hanson started 12 games at center as a sophomore, blocking for a team that, despite all its problems, still finished 15th in yards per rush and 18th in yards per play,
DE: Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish finished 117th in sacks per game, with just 14 in 12 games last season, a disastrous campaign for the unit. Hopes are higher now with Mike Elko coming in from Wake Forest to run the defense, which has some intriguing players like Hayes. A four-star recruit in 2016, Hayes was quiet as a freshman after a history of shoulder injuries in high school, but he turned heads in the spring and can become a new leader of a new-look defense, providing a jolt to the pass rush.
DE: Jaelan Phillips, UCLA. A late-bloomer as a recruit, Phillips eventually became the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2017, according to the 247Sports composite. Star pass rusher Takkarist McKinley is gone to the NFL, and with new pass rushers needed, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Phillips is stepping into an excellent opportunity to make an impact right away as a true freshman.
DT: Tim Settle, Virginia Tech. The Hokies have a huge hole to fill in the middle of the defensive line with tackles Woody Baron and Nigel Williams gone. This potential here remains high, though, with a tackle combination of junior Ricky Walker, also a breakout candidate, and Settle. A four-star recruit in 2015, the 6-foot-3, 328-pound Settle redshirted his first year. As a sophomore, he had only 17 tackles, but seven of them were made for a loss. He's powerful and quick and should give the Hokies confidence that they can reload on the line.
DT: Derrick Brown, Auburn. The Tigers don't merely need improved quarterback play to lead them to a breakthrough of sorts. They also need to replace Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams on the defensive line. They do already have an established rising star at end sophomore Marlon Davidson, and the hope is that Jeff Holland can develop into an impact pass rusher, too. On the inside, the best bet is Brown. After all, he was a five-star, top-10 overall recruit last year, and now the 6-foot-5, 316-pound sophomore has a golden opportunity in trying to fill the shoes of Adams.
LB: Christian Miller, Alabama. The Crimson Tide finished third in sacks per game, but they lose 38 of their 54 sacks, including those from Jonathan Allen and outside linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. As always, Alabama is prepared with blue-chip talent ready for bigger roles. The player with the most potential is Miller, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior who was a top linebacker recruit in 2014 and has patiently waited for this turn.
LB: Devin White, LSU. The Tigers lost their top five tacklers, including linebackers Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwith, so they need new players to step up at inside linebacker. Dave Aranda has proven to be an excellent defensive coordinator, and he has excellent potential talent to work with. That includes White, a 255-pound sophomore who was also a star running back in high school. He had 30 tackles as a freshman reserve and could quickly become a star.
LB: Tre Lamar, Clemson. Replacing all that Ben Boulware brought to the table won't be easy, but Clemson's linebacking corps is still in good hands. Kendall Joseph and Dorian O'Daniel are back, and there's a potential new star in the middle in Lamar. One of the top linebacker recruits in 2016, Lamar had 22 tackles as a reserve last year.
DB: Lavert Hill, Michigan. Michigan loses 10 starters on defense, and while there is still plenty of proven talent in the front seven, the secondary is more of a mystery without corners Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark and safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill. Hill didn't get much action as a true freshman, but the Wolverines will be counting on touted young players like him to step up now.
DB: Byron Murphy, Washington. The Huskies have produced phenomenal defensive backs recently, including two early draft picks at cornerback in Kevin King and Sidney Jones, making the position the biggest question on the depth chart. The Huskies still may be in good shape, though: They'll have a strong pass rush, they don't face the best QBs on the schedule until the second half of the season and they have promising young players like Murphy. Murphy, a four-star recruit, redshirted last year but quickly drew rave reviews in the spring.
DB: Chauncey Gardner, Florida. Maybe Florida's absurd run of productive defensive backs will slow down and the Gators will have an off year in the secondary. Or maybe they have new stars ready for their turn now. We already know about Duke Dawson, who shined as a nickel back and should star at one corner spot. The other player to learn about is Gardner, 2016 four-star recruit who started the last three games of 2016 at safety (he can play any position in the secondary), intercepted three passes and was voted Outback Bowl MVP, setting the stage for a big 2017. Gardner becomes even more valuable after Florida announced on Thursday that senior safety Marcell Harris will miss the season with a torn Achilles.
DB: Kendall Sheffield, Ohio State. We can say many of the same things about Ohio State's secondary as we just did about Florida. Gone are three first-round picks, but the unit can eventually develop into a strength again. Cornerback Denzel Ward and Damon Webb are the proven veterans; the hope is that Sheffield will quickly live up to previous recruiting hype and lock down a corner spot. A five-star recruit who signed with Alabama in 2015, Sheffield redshirted, then spent a year playing juco ball before transferring to Ohio State.