The term “breakout player” is an arbitrary one. Does it mean a freshman that no one has seen play? The former backup of a guy heading off to the NFL? A rotational player who becomes a force? Or a guy who goes from local star to national prominence? It’s kind of, sort of, all of the them.
This week’s Film Room looks at my picks for college football’s breakout players for 2018. It’s a hodgepodge list filled with guys who fit my own description: I liked watching them play last season, and think you will, too.
A quick note: I’ve left a pair of the most obvious guys off the list who, to me, have already broken out and whom I’ve noted before: Tu’a Tagovailoa and D’Andre Swift.
Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Another year, another standout linebacker at Alabama. Replacing Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion-Hamilton won’t be easy, but midseason injuries gave us a glimpse of what Dylan Moses might be.
Moses is as physically gifted as any linebacker I’ve ever studied. He moves unnaturally well for someone with his size and frame. He doesn’t just plant and explode. He’s nimble on his feet and fluid in his hips, moving more like a running back than a downhill thumper. He zigzags in sudden directional jolts; his sheer athleticism discourages blockers.
When he’s asked to cut it loose, he can drive from the hashmark to the sideline effortlessly:
Eye discipline is an issue. Moses tends to bite on the first thing he sees. Misread stuff in the run game, and you get caught up in a swath of gigantic bodies:
It can be a problem against the pass, too. Dangle some eye candy, and Moses is want to bite:
Moses doesn’t bring a whole lot of mass, either. That’s not a huge issue; teams prefer guys who can turn and run in space these days. But he has a tendency to shuffle downhill and get stuck on guys or misread their leverage:
His take-on skills need to improve. Those should come with more reps.
Still, there was more good than bad. He improved massively from the Mississippi State game to the final game of the regular season vs. Auburn (he outplayed four-year player Keith Holcombe). He started to do atypical things frequently. A bowl practice injury cut short his chance to make a postseason impact.
How he fits with new running mate Mack Wilson will be interesting. Both are see ball, get ball marauding linebackers at heart. But they’re smart enough, and versatile enough, to make the tandem work. New Bama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi can get wonky with different blitz looks.
Wilson displaced Moses in 2017 in sub-rushing packages when the Tide wanted an extra blitzer or on-ball defender. Getting Moses more reps on the outside is a must.
The former 5-star linebacker is still figuring this thing out. God help everyone when he does.
Stephen Carr, RB, USC
USC is losing some headline talent to the draft. Sam Darnold is gone. Running back Ronald Jones is gone. Reliable receiver Deontay Burnett is gone. The passing game is going to suffer.
The running game should still be good! Stephen Carr was forced to play second fiddle to Jones for most of the season. But he flashed as much as any young back in the country, averaging 5.6 yards per rush, and 11 yards per reception as a freshman.
He has special traits. Carr is a classic one-cut-and-go, outside-zone runner, with true next-level quickness:
I mean, how is that cut even possible?
Carr isn’t purely a home-run hitter, though. He’s happy to take the single when it presents itself. Everyone needs a back with just enough wiggle to make a linebacker miss in the hole. It’s the best way to churn out first downs:
USC needs Carr to have a big 2018. His blend of smarts, quicks and top-end speed is a dastardly combination for any defense.
Cam Akers, RB, Florida State
It’s not often that a big-name recruit can put up gaudy numbers as a freshman and remain, somewhat, under the radar.
That was Cam Akers’ 2017 season. His excellent freshman season got lost in the shuffle among the continuous spiraling of Jimbo Fisher, the DeAndre Francois injury, and an FSU squad that was shockingly uncompetitive.
The 2018 season will be different. Akers is ready to ascend to superstar status.
He’s the total package. It’s as if the Seminoles went into a lab to manufacture the perfect back: size, speed, power, a malicious jump cut, unnatural short area body control, and an aggressive streak that makes me just a tinsy bit scared while watching film. He’s not here to make friends. He’s here to run over and around you.
Akers can do it all. I’d say he’s a prototypical plant-and-go guy, but there’s no need. He can do anything he damn well pleases.
He’s a fun outside-zone runner. He glides. A low center of gravity allows him to churn away up field, even while cutting:
It’s the rarest of traits. Accelerating while cutting isn’t easy. It’s even harder to shimmy shake past a free defender before outrunning everyone in the secondary:
Man, that’s rare.
Willie Taggart will use Akers in interesting ways. He is going to get a million touches, and should put up a monster season.
Chapelle Russell, LB, Temple
One of my favorite things about this time of year is combing the tape of NFL draft prospects and seeing younger players outshine their soon-to-be-pro teammate.
Perhaps it’s a rotational freshman, a sub-package sophomore, or anyone — buried on the depth chart or an up and comer — who grabs your attention away from the player you’re supposed to be focusing on.
Enter: Temple’s Chapelle Russell.
Russell patrolled the middle of the Owls’ sneakily frisky defense before another knee injury cut short his sophomore season.
When he’s healthy, he’s excellent. There’s a controlled aggression to his game. He brushes up against the reckless line, then pulls himself back.
Russell is a magnet to the ball. He diagnoses things quickly, plays hard, is athletic enough to turn and run in space, and is unafraid to go firing downhill when even the slightest bit of daylight shows itself at the line of scrimmage.
Being a high school running back helps. He sees the game the way a back does: the right cut-back lane, the pitfalls of a play design, and what’s about to unfold a millisecond before everyone else.
He may not evolve into a household name, but he’ll quickly draw the attention of NFL scouts.
Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
Higgins is a former 5-star guy who averaged 20 yards per catch as a freshman.
Despite being a stringy receiver who’s yet to fill out, Higgins still plays in the post, using his body to shepherd away defenders before high-pointing the ball.
He makes some highlight grabs:
But Higgins doesn’t create a lot of separation. At least not yet. He’s not overly explosive off the line, so he will have to learn to win the hand fight, or modulate his routes to throw defensive backs off course. At least he’s blessed with some serious hops.
The Tigers are replacing two of their top three receivers in 2018 (Hunter Renfrow will be here forever!). They need Higgins to develop a rapport with Kelly Bryant quickly.
One extra tidbit: Higgins works hard as a perimeter blocker. The old adage “if you don’t block, don’t call for the rock” remains true. Higgins is out there putting in work to earn his chances. It may not show up in Higgins’ stat column, but explosive runs typically come from quality perimeter blocking. It’s a great sign of a team player.
Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State
James Franklin compared his running back situation last season to that of the infamous Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers one in Green Bay. Because, well, that’s what James Franklin does.
Miles Sanders isn’t Saquon. No one is Saquon.
And that’s fine! Sanders is a different back with a different style. His game is built on elusiveness, whereas Saquon’s was about explosiveness and vicious jump cuts.
Sanders figures to be part of a deeper rotation next season. Saquon hoarded most of the reps during his time (as he should). The comparisons — this writer included — will be non-stop, but Sanders figures to be an excellent back in his own right.
Jordon Scott, DL, Oregon
Jordon Scott is my new crush. There, I said it.
As wide as he is tall, the defensive lineman provides some much-needed size and lane-clogging to an Oregon defense built atop speed.
Scott’s freshman season was stunning. He was unusually refined as a two-gap run defender. He barricaded the front and rebuffed everything. Lining him up, head up, over the center was awfully disruptive. Try to double-team him, and he just chucked fools out of the way:
When he drops anchor, his quirky proportions make him tough to move off his spot. That makes life easier for all the supreme athletes surrounding him. Their assignments get simpler: see ball, get ball.
Scott was mostly subbed out on obvious passing downs, making way for a hyper-speed pass-rushing package. But he offers just enough as a pass rusher to get coaches excited long-term:
Quarterbacks hate interior pressure. There’s nowhere for them to climb, and they’re forced to throw from uncomfortable platforms. When he’s feeling it (conditioning is a concern), Scott can take over. Quickness, leverage and power is a wicked combination for any center to deal with 1 on 1.
Nick Coe, DL, Auburn
Nick Coe has a particular set of skills and uses them to devastating effect.
Auburn is losing some talent to the NFL, but it couldn’t ask for a better pair of bookend speed-to-power rushers. A pairing of Coe and Marlon Davidson (plus a slew of rotational pieces), is as good as it gets.
Coe started his freshman campaign as a sub-rusher, lining up across the formation with the sole purpose of getting to, and hitting, opposing quarterbacks:
He’s a power player, with little dip, bend and flexibility to his game.
It doesn’t matter. Coe does a nice job of keeping his outside arm free and winning the hand-to-hand battle against tackles:
The Tigers should experiment with sliding him inside in obvious passing situations. He has the length and power to be an interior force.
Don’t expect him to replace Jeff Holland’s production like for like. Holland racked up 34 (!) pressures in 2017, Coe just 7. But the young pup rusher has all the talent to become one of the top edge defenders in the SEC.
Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State
It’s the moment many Buckeyes fans have been waiting for! Well, anonymous message board folk. But still: It’s Dwayne Haskins’ team now.
Haskins is an exciting talent. He’s mobile, accurate and intelligent.
His second half performance against Don Brown’s Michigan defense was eye opening. Haskins didn’t get flustered. He diagnosed all the exotic Tiger and Cheetah (speed) packages Brown threw his way, playing within the carefully constructed system, and freelancing only when he had to.
Mechanics are an issue. He doesn’t throw the cleanest ball, stemming mostly from footwork that is, politely, not great. Dropbacks are inefficient and often rushed, and he fails to marry his eyes to his feet — often failing to set his feet properly at all.
The ball can come out all sorts of funky:
But guess what: He gets the ball where it needs to be. Give me the intelligent quarterback who completes throws rather than the guy who flings the prettiest spiral.
His wheels will be important. Designed runs are a foundation of Urban Meyer’s system. But, more importantly, Haskins has a good feel for when to move around and create for himself:
A Haskins-Dobbins backfield combination has the chance to be the most dynamic in the country. If the Buckeyes are to make another title run, they will need it to be.
Byron Murphy, CB, Washington
Byron Murphy is going to be really, really good. If not for a broken foot that forced him to miss six weeks last season, he would have already had his breakout.
He’s a long-limbed, fluid corner with first-round NFL draft potential. He excelled as a predominantly off-corner in Washington’s Cover-2/Quarters-Match system, where brain power is placed at a premium.
Few young corners read the game better:
Watch him (bottom of the screen, boundary corner) read the route concept — the receiver in front of him running a drag, while the slot receiver on the opposite side of the field runs a dig, cutting toward the middle of the field.
Murphy tracked it all. He peeled off his own deep coverage — with a neat glance to check that no one was strolling into his area — then broke on the ball and undercut the throw.
He had some teething problems in press coverage, and struggled on some slower-developing out routes (top of the screen):
Growth will come with more reps. He’s at his best in a trail technique, bumping then playing in a half turn, rather than sitting in an opponent’s hip pocket and tracking them all over the field. The game feels natural for him there (top of the screen):
It shows. The ball skills are innate. He’s able to turn and locate the ball over his shoulder, using those go-go-Gadget arms to reach up and swat away the ball.
He may give up a couple of throws with inadequate technique, but he’ll more than make up for it with a big play. The competitiveness is off the chart.
Wow! Corners aren’t supposed to hit like that. Murphy is something extra special.
N’kosi Perry, QB, Miami
If you’re looking for a Heisman wildcard, take a punt on N’kosi Perry.
Mark Richt was begging for the freshman to beat out Malik Rosier prior to last season. Richt had an inkling the stick-thin, dual-threat quarterback wasn’t quite ready. The finality still hurt.
Miami rolled with Rosier, and spent much of 2017 coaching around his flaws. Rosier was an admirable leader who did a decent job of keeping the offense on schedule. But he lacked the skills to topple the ACC and crash the playoff party.
Miami needs Perry. The quarterback has rare playmaking skills:
(To the high school highlight tape!)
It may look unorthodox at times, but he will find a way to pick up first downs and keep the offense ticking. That may go against the control-freak over-coaching we saw from Richt with Georgia, but he’s more relaxed these days. It’s all about the spread option and off-script plays now.
Going against a Manny Diaz defense every day in practice will help.
Miami is set up to get back to Charlotte and take another crack at Dabo’s big, bad Clemson squad. To do so, a lot will fall on a young quarterback to create magic in big moments. Some flounder, some blossom. With Perry, I’m betting on the latter.