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Spring Football 2020: Ten Players Ready for the Big Sophomore Leap

Eric Gray, Tennessee
Breakout players seemingly coming out of nowhere are part of what makes college football so fresh  and entertaining year-in, year-out. I mean, who could've guessed that Joe Burrow, a solid but underwhelming QB in 2018, would put together possibly the greatest college football season in history a year later? While these "breakouts" can come from any player at any age, it seems like a major chunk of them come in the form of players moving from their freshman to sophomore seasons. It's understandable really, as players learn to adjust to the increased speed and physicality of the college game. With that in mind, I decided to compile a list of ten players that I think will make the "sophomore leap" in 2020. This will be my second year making this list; last year I had some notable hits (Ja'Marr Chase, Rashod Bateman), notable misses (Ricky Slade) and some in-between (Spencer Sanders). I hope that this list will turn out even better, with all these guys able to break on to the grand stage of FBS football. (Note: I disqualify players I already deem as established stars after their freshman season. For example, I think Sam Howell is going to get even better as a true sophomore, but he is already one of college football's best).

Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State (2019 Stats: 30 receptions, 432 yards, 5 touchdowns)
I debated whether to put Garrett Wilson on this list, considering he already has established himself as a star in some respects. However, I think he'll do even greater things in 2020 and beyond. A former five-star recruit, Wilson quickly rose up the depth chart with Ohio State and managed to catch 30 passes for 432 yards. He really showed just how good he can be during the Buckeyes' dismantling of Michigan, when he caught 8 balls for 118 yards and a score. Now, Wilson could feasibly be the No. 1 option on this Ohio State team, as they lose K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor. In a Ryan Day offense, that's usually a good place to be, and his stock only goes up when you consider Justin Fields is back to get him the football. With those opportunities and his pure talent, I would not be shocked in the slightest if he is a Biletnikoff Award finalist come next December.

D.J. Williams, RB, Auburn (2019 Stats: 84 carries, 400 yards, 2 touchdowns)
D.J. Williams is another guy who saw a healthy dose of action as a freshman last fall, but should be in store for even bigger things. Williams spent most of 2019 behind JaTarvious "Boobie" Whitlow on the Auburn depth chart, but also showed workhorse potential. He racked up 48 carries in a three-game span in late October, including 24 in a victory over Ole Miss. His chances for a big 2020 only further increased when Whitlow announced he would be transferring earlier this off-season. That likely leaves Williams as the go-to guy in this Gus Malzahn offense, a unit that loves to run the football. He will have to hold off highly touted freshman Tank Bigsby, but this is the type of physical, bull-dozing back that we've seen have plenty of success in the SEC.

Zacch Pickens, DL, South Carolina (2019 Stats: 16 total tackles)
Say what you will about Will Muschamp and his offenses, but this is a coach who has proven he can recruit and develop the defensive line. He will have a pair of former five-star prospects in Columbia this fall, in the form of newcomer Jordan Burch and "veteran" Zacch Pickens. Pickens showed that he could handle SEC football in 2019, playing in all 12 of South Carolina's games and earning All-SEC Freshman recognition. He didn't record any sacks, but proved he could plug holes in the middle and move across the line. He'll have another spring to continue to hone his skills but more importantly, he'll also get the snaps. The Gamecocks lose a number of pieces to the D-Line, a group that was good but far from great in 2019. Expect Pickens to really start to shine with all those new snaps afforded to him, particularly under the coaching of D-Line coach Tracy Rocker. Rocker comes over after three seasons at Tennessee, and has coached 15 NFL Draft picks in his career.

Jake Smith, WR, Texas (2019 Stats: 25 receptions, 274 yards, 6 touchdowns)
So much of this list is talented youngsters who will be able to rise up their depth charts due to departures in front of them, a mold that certainly fits Jake Smith. Smith was the No. 8 ranked receiver in the 2019 class, but went to a school that already had an established 1-2 combo at wide out in Collin Johnson & Devin Duvarney. That isn't to say he was completely invisible, as his six touchdown catches were tied for second on the team. Smith really demonstrated reliable hands last season, while also showcasing potential deep threat ability. With Johnson and Duvarney both graduated, returning QB Sam Ehlinger needs a fresh go-to guy. I'm willing to bet that guy will be Smith, who will get quite an early test in 2020 when the Longhorns travel to Baton Rouge to meet up with LSU.

Jaden Davis, CB, Oklahoma (2019 Stats: 31 total tackles, 1 interception, 1 pass deflection)
It's not much of a secret that Oklahoma's defense has been a major problem for them in year's past, but the 2019 unit made significant strides. With the exception of the dismal Playoff showing, they did a much better job at limiting big plays and controlling the run. With coordinator Alex Grinch back in the fold, I expect the group to continue to improve, especially the young guys. That includes cornerback Jaden Davis, who already impressed in his freshman campaign. A four-star coming from Fort Lauderdale, Davis immediately showed he could acclimate to the college game, with six tackles against UCLA in Week 3. He also had an interception a week earlier in the Sooners' throttling of South Dakota. He could battle for starting snaps throughout fall camp, and has all the tools to be a very effective corner, even in the wide-open Big 12 Conference.

Eric Gray, RB, Tennessee (2019 Stats: 101 carries, 539 yards, 4 touchdowns)
If you watched Eric Gray or Tennessee's end to 2019, it's easy to get excited about what this team and player will do in 2020. Gray spent most of the season lower on the depth chart, averaging around six carries per game over Tennessee's first 11. However, with starting tailback Ty Chandler beat up going into the Vanderbilt game, Gray got the most of his opportunities and put together a dazzling performance. He rushed for 246 yards and three touchdowns, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. It was the first 200-yard day for any Volunteer back since Arian Foster over a decade ago. He followed it up by rushing for 86 yards in their bowl game, a thrilling come-from-behind win over Indiana. Now, there still remains a chance Gray could begin the 2020 season as a backup, with Chandler set to return for his senior season. But, Chandler hasn't exactly wowed as the feature back, and averaged under five yards per carry in '19. It wouldn't be shocking if Gray is able to overtake him and really be a go-to guy in this offense. Either way, he'll have the luxury of running behind what could be the SEC's best offensive line.

Luke McCaffrey, QB, Nebraska (2019 Stats: 142 yards passing, 166 yards rushing, 3 total touchdowns)
This is a little bit of a leap of faith considering Luke McCaffrey could begin next season as a backup on the Nebraska depth chart, and he only appeared in four games last fall (maintaining his redshirt). With that being said, Adrian Martinez was a massive disappointment for the Cornhuskers in 2019. He entered the year with legitimate Heisman expectations before dealing with a string of injuries that resulted in a December surgery. Martinez will still be back, but a lot of people around the program think that McCaffrey could soon overtake him. The younger brother of Christian, Luke was a pretty nice get for Scott Frost and the program because of his bloodline and offensive versatility. We saw that a little bit in 2019, with McCaffrey even lining up at receiver over the final few games. Even if he isn't able to wrestle the starting QB gig away from Martinez, I firmly expect Nebraska to use McCaffrey more in creative packages, in the Wildcat or another look. He is going to find a way to get on the field, and I think this offense is desperate for somebody with his playmaking potential.

Keevan Bailey, CB, Colorado State (2019 Stats: 19 total tackles, 1 interception, 5 pass deflections)
Keevan Bailey is another guy with some pretty impressive bloodlines who should prove just how talented he is in 2020. His father, Champ, was a 12-time Pro Bowler while in the NFL and one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history. However, he is not the sole reason that Keevan makes this list, as the soon-to-be sophomore really impressed down the stretch in 2019. After being a rotation guy early in the year, he emerged as a starter down the stretch for the Rams, making his first collegiate start against New Mexico in mid-October. He'll likely enter 2020 with a hold on a starting spot and he has one important advantage: coaching continuity. Head coach Mike Bobo was replaced with former Boston College head man Steve Addazio over the off-season, but the lone holdover on the staff was cornerbacks coach Anthony Perkins. Having that type of continuity with a position coach is really crucial for young players, and I think Bailey should thrive.

Leo Chenal, LB, Wisconsin (2019 Stats: 20 total tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL)
Few defenses in the country consistently produce the talent at linebacker that Wisconsin does, and they have a rising star in the form of Leo Chenal. A former Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year, Chenal played in 11 games for the Badgers last fall, showcasing incredible instincts and a real nose for the football. He has a good chance to slide into a starting role in 2020 due to the graduation of Chris Orr, who was the heart and soul of the UW defense in '19. Chenal won't be expected to completely replicate Orr's production, but he is a skilled defender that should be especially stout against the run. Last year, I had a Wisconsin 'backer on this list in Jack Sanborn and he responded with 80 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Chenal will continue the tradition with an excellent year for a Badger defense that will once again be among the best in the nation.

Baylor Cupp, TE, Texas A&M (2019 Stats: None)
It's hard to classify Baylor Cupp as a second-year player when you consider he missed the entirety of 2019 due to a broken leg. However, it's hard not to imagine Cupp having a huge 2020, as he is one of the highest-rated tight end prospects in history and joining a Jimbo Fisher offense. Fisher has always had an affinity for using tight ends, and the production of Jalen Wydermeyer last fall only confirmed it (32 receptions, 447 yards, 6 TD). Wydermeyer will still play a huge role on A&M next fall, but Cupp's impressive pass-catching ability could quickly overshadow him. He also has the luxury of having a skilled quarterback getting him the ball, as Kellen Mond returns for his fourth year as staring QB in College Station.

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