College football's breakout players for each top 25 team in 2020

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Sunday, January 19, 2020

Which players could turn into stars next season with breakout performances?

Here's a very early look at 25 players to watch for the teams in Mark Schlabach's 2020 Way-Too-Early Top 25.

1. Clemson Tigers: WR Joe Ngata

With Tee Higgins off to the NFL, Clemson needs another go-to, big-play receiver to pair with Justyn Ross. Enter the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Ngata, who played as a true freshman this season and has sky-high potential to join the list of star-studded receivers to play for the Tigers. We saw some of that this past season, when Ngata finished with 17 catches for 240 yards and three scores. One more player to watch is rising sophomore Frank Ladson Jr.Ngata and Ladson signed together and played right away, so the Tigers hope an offseason of work will pay dividends. --Andrea Adelson

2. Ohio State Buckeyes: DE Zach Harrison

Harrison was a five-star recruit in the 2019 recruiting class, and Ohio State fought off Michigan to land the 6-foot-6, 255-pound defensive end. Harrison had the opportunity to learn from Chase Young this season but got a chance to start when Young was suspended late in the season. Harrison took the opportunity and finished with 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss, with 24 total tackles on the season. With Young off to the NFL, Harrison will be counted on even more in 2020 and could be the next great defensive end in a long line of excellent linemen to come through Ohio State. -- Tom VanHaaren

3. Alabama Crimson Tide: WR Slade Bolden

If you're predicting that the Crimson Tide's stacked wide receiver corps will take a step back in 2020, hold on a second. Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III are gone, but DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are back. Who might join them? Look no further than Bolden. The redshirt freshman is Alabama's version of Julian Edelman, a slightly undersized, shifty, utility knife of a receiver. The coaching staff liked his skills so much last season that it started using him as a Wildcat quarterback, aka the Sladecat formation. -- Alex Scarborough

4. LSU Tigers: S Marcel Brooks

Brooks could be in line to become a big-time pass-rusher for the Tigers next season, should outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson declare for the draft. Chaisson led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks while Brooks, a true freshman, saw spot duty off the edge in LSU's "cheetah" rush package. If Brooks steps into the role full time, he could put up some notable numbers. --Sam Khan Jr.

5. Oregon Ducks: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux

It's fair to say that Thibodeaux already broke out for the Ducks as a freshman, leading the team with nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss. However, there is still a sense that he has only scratched the surface in terms of his potential. Next year, Thibodeaux should be among the best defensive players in the country, and he won't be eligible to jump to the NFL until the 2022 draft. It isn't out of the realm of possibility that he could hunt down the Pac-12 career sack record (35.5; Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha) in three years. -- Kyle Bonagura

6. Georgia Bulldogs: RB Zamir White

D'Andre Swift is gone. So is Brian Herrien. Now it's White's turn. If you watched Georgia closely, you might have already noticed White, a talented redshirt freshman running back from North Carolina. Against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl, with Swift injured and Herrien not in attendance, White made his first career start and rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries. After he missed all of 2018 because of an injury, that was exactly what Bulldogs fans were hoping for from the former blue-chip recruit. He carried the ball 78 times for 408 yards last season. --Scarborough

7. Florida Gators: WR Trevon Grimes

After a standout performance in the spring game last season, Grimes seemed poised for a big year. He contributed in a meaningful way in 2019, with 33 catches for 491 yards and three scores, but a far bigger opportunity awaits headed into 2020. Florida loses four of its top six receivers, including leading receiver Van Jefferson. Grimes' combination of speed, athleticism and size makes him a perfect fit in Dan Mullen's offense. With Kyle Trask returning as the starting quarterback, that provides an entire offseason of work for Grimes to get even better. -- Adelson

8. Oklahoma Sooners: WR Jadon Haselwood

Three of the top four pass-catchers on the Sooners are moving on, including leading receiver CeeDee Lamb,and that opens up a big opportunity for Haselwood. The freshman caught 19 passes this season but is likely to step into a significantly larger role in OU's multifaceted offense. --Khan

9. Penn State Nittany Lions: RB Journey Brown

The senior-to-be had a bit of a breakout this season, rushing for 890 yards and 12 touchdowns. He rushed for 100-plus yards in three of the last four games, including a 202-yard explosion in the Cotton Bowl win over Memphis. In new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca's run-and-go-route-heavy system, Brown and fellow backs Noah Cain and Devyn Ford will get lots of opportunities to shine, especially if a wideout emerges to stretch the field on some of those go routes. -- Bill Connelly

10. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: RB Chris Tyree

Notre Dame's leading rusher, Tony Jones, is off to the NFL, and the Irish don't have any running backs on the roster who ran for more than 200 yards last season. The running back room needed a boost anyway, and it's going to get it from Tyree, an ESPN 300 recruit in this 2020 class. Tyree is shifty, elusive and versatile, and he has speed that this offense could use early on. He has a very good shot to come in, earn playing time and make a big impact in this offense. -- VanHaaren

11. Texas A&M Aggies: WR Ainias Smith

He already showed signs of what he could do, but Smith will undoubtedly play a bigger role in the Aggies' offense in 2020. As a true freshman, he caught 22 passes -- including three touchdowns -- and with Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers declaring for the NFL draft, there will be more chances for Smith to make plays. He'll also likely reprise his return specialist role. --Khan

12. Auburn Tigers: RB D.J. Williams

Don't get hung up on the fact that JaTarvious Whitlow will likely be the team's starting running back next season, not Williams. You can think of Williams as a starter, too. If all goes well, he should be getting the ball as much as one. You saw that some last season, when as a true freshman he carried the ball 84 times for 400 yards. He even caught a handful of passes. Given Gus Malzahn's desire to use multiple backs, as well as the departure of Kam Martin, don't be surprised if Williams becomes an even more pronounced part of the game plan next season. -- Scarborough

13. Oklahoma State Cowboys: Safety Kolby Harvell-Peel

The sophomore was OSU's most disruptive defensive force, ranking fourth in the country in passes defended (five interceptions, 13 pass breakups) and throwing in three tackles for loss for good measure. With both running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace announcing that they are coming back to Stillwater, the defense won't be asked to be a world-beater -- it just needs a few guys who can punish teams for getting a bit risky in trying to keep up with the explosive Pokes offense. Harvell-Peel's a heckuva player to start building around. -- Connelly

14. Wisconsin Badgers: RB Nakia Watson

The freshman spent this 10-win season as Jonathan Taylor's understudy, and he showed road-grader potential in rushing 31 times for 177 yards in easy wins over USF, Kent State and Michigan State. One can assume Watson will get the first shot at the top RB gig in Taylor's absence. Granted, Taylor was a true freshman when he took over in the lineup, so maybe this is more of an "Insert Wisconsin running back here" statement. But it fits. -- Connelly

15. Michigan Wolverines: S Daxton Hill

The Wolverines have a few candidates for this list, likely because the team needs some of its younger players to step up. Running back Zach Charbonnet and wide receivers Mike Sainristil and Giles Jackson all fall in this category, but Hill seems primed for the biggest jump of them all. Hill earned more playing time as the season went on in 2019, but with Josh Metellus graduating and a little more experience for Hill, the former five-star recruit should be in line for a big season in 2020. -- VanHaaren

16. Iowa State Cyclones: LB Mike Rose

Iowa State was driven primarily by its defense in 2019, and Rose, a sophomore from Brecksville, Ohio, was No. 3 on the team in tackles and No. 1 in tackles for loss. With senior leader (and fellow linebacker) Marcel Spears Jr. departing, Rose will be asked to take on a larger role on a very linebacker-dependent defense. Early indications are that he'll pass this test just fine. He has good size at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, and he has at times proved adept in coverage. He's a stud waiting to emerge. -- Connelly

17. Cincinnati Bearcats: WR Alec Pierce

The sophomore had an up-and-down first campaign, but the potential was obvious: Pierce caught four balls for 93 yards against Ohio State, six for 108 against Marshall and nine for 164 in two games against Memphis. He averaged an explosive 17.6 yards per catch for the season. With two of Cincy's top three targets graduating (tight end Josiah Deguaraand wideout Rashad Medaris), Pierce will be asked to shoulder a steadier load. -- Connelly

18. Boise State Broncos: WR Khalil Shakir

After catching 63 passes for 872 yards as a sophomore in 2019, Shakir was named an honorable mention All-Mountain West selection. Next season, he has a chance to develop into one of the top wide receivers on the West Coast, and he will be relied on even more heavily as senior John Hightower moves on. A native of Murrieta, California, Shakir turned down several Pac-12 offers to play for Bryan Harsin at Boise State. -- Bonagura

19. Minnesota Golden Gophers: RB Mohamed Ibrahim

Ibrahim has already been a significant part of the Gophers' offense the past two seasons -- he led the team in rushing in 2018 (1,160 yards) and was second this season with 604 yards -- but with seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks moving on, the stage is set for Ibrahim to have an even bigger role in 2020. In the Golden Gophers' 31-24 win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Ibrahim ran for a season-high 140 yards and a touchdown. He will be an important weapon for new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. -- Bonagura

20. Baylor Bears: CB Kalon Barnes

They don't come much more quickly than Barnes, and next season he could have a chance to show off his blinding speed (he ran a wind-aided 10.04-second 100-meter dash as a high school senior). With one of Baylor's two starting cornerbacks graduating (Jameson Houston), Barnes, who had an interception, five pass breakups and a forced fumble this season, has a chance to step in and contribute. --Khan

21. Memphis Tigers: WR Kundarrius Taylor

The Tigers are loaded with talented playmakers across their offense, with quarterback Brady White, running back Kenneth Gainwell and receiver Damonte Coxie all returning. But they lose two receivers in Antonio Gibson and Kedarian Jones, leaving a big opportunity for someone to step in and make big plays in a big-play offense. Taylor fits the bill. After signing with Oklahoma out of high school, he ended up at junior college the past two seasons before he decided to return to his hometown college team. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Taylor had 607 yards and nine touchdowns at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. -- Adelson

22. North Carolina Tar Heels: LB Tomon Fox

The rising senior showed flashes throughout the past season, starting strong with 3.5 sacks in the first two games and providing a steady presence the rest of the way. He had 1.5 sacks and an interception in the bowl win over Temple and finished the season with 41 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss and 5 pressures. With 2019 defensive breakout star Chazz Surratt, the Tar Heels' linebacker group could be among the strongest in the ACC, and Fox seems poised for a big senior season. -- Adelson

23. Iowa Hawkeyes: TE Sam LaPorta

Iowa has produced many top tight ends, and though the offense didn't see a ton of production from the position in 2019, that could change in 2020. LaPorta had 15 receptions for 188 yards and should make a bigger impact next season. He had six receptions for 44 yards in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl. The team is replacing quarterback Nate Stanley, so the new quarterback could use a big, reliable tight end such as LaPorta. -- VanHaaren

24. Texas Longhorns: RB Jordan Whittington

He was originally supposed to shine in 2019, but a sports hernia injury robbed him of most of his freshman season ... but if Whittington is healthy, look out. Ranked as the No. 2 athlete and 40th overall player in the 2019 ESPN 300, Whittington has loads of ability and will likely be used as a running back and a receiver, a needed weapon after the graduation of two key playmakers, Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay. --Khan

25. Tennessee Volunteers: RB Eric Gray

Jeremy Pruitt might have found something at running back late last season. Gray, a 5-foot-10 freshman from Memphis, Tennessee, went from being an afterthought most of the season to being a can't-miss player in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt, in which he carried the ball 25 times for a school-record 246 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that with an MVP performance against Indiana in the Gator Bowl, in which he recovered an onside kick, scored the winning touchdown and racked up 120 all-purpose yards. -- Scarborough