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Spring Football 2021: Ten Players Ready for the Big "Sophomore Leap"

Will Rogers, Mississippi State

Breakout players are a reliable part of every sport, but even more so in college athletics, where players and teams rotate and evolve faster than most professional teams. Players coming from seemingly nowhere and proving themselves on the big stage is a major part of what keeps college football so fresh and exciting every single season. It's incredibly difficult to predict which players are going to eventually breakout, but usually there's a good list of candidates based on what teams are losing, which players are moving up the depth chart, and which schools typically produce talent at each position group. Many players have their respective breakouts their second year on campus, after they become acclimated to the environment of college football and ready to show what they can do. In the past, I've foreseen names like Rashod Bateman and Ja'Marr Chase go from young players with potential, to legitimate superstars. In that spirit I will be unveiling my list of ten players ready to make the "sophomore leap" that oftentimes happens in the world of college football. Not every player on this list will boom, but we can still make educated guesses on a few that will have a major impact on their teams in the 2021 season.

(*Note: This list will include all players who are entering their second seasons on college campus in 2021. Due to redshirt rules and COVID-19 eligibility rules, some might be listed as true freshman or redshirt freshman on official rosters.)

Josh Downs, WR, North Carolina

In just under three years on the job, Mack Brown has elevated the talent level at North Carolina in a big way. He has a quarterback, Sam Howell, who is likely to be a first-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft and a host of former blue-chip recruits on his roster, including Tony Grimes, Myles Murphy, and Desmond Evans. The Tar Heels appear to be the greatest threat to Clemson inside the ACC, but in order to fulfill their potential, they need more production from a receiver position that was hit hard by attrition over the off-season. Top targets Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown both moved on to the NFL and while vet Beau Corrales is an important returnee, all eyes turn to a pair of sophomores, Josh Downs and Khafre Brown. They'll likely take over as two of the top pass-catchers for Howell on the roster, and look to open up an offense that will consistently have big-play potential. While Brown helped lead the way with 337 yards receiving in 2020, my bet is that Downs has the best chance to have a huge '21 season. After a fairly quiet regular season, he showed what he could do with a big performance in the bowl loss to Texas A&M, with four receptions for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Brown is more of your prototypical, consistent wide out, Downs is the type of weapon that has the speed to take the top of defenses and feature Howell's massive arm. He'll have to develop some form of consistency in 2021, but all the tools are there for a huge campaign.

Alfred Collins, DL, Texas

Steve Sarkisian and the new Texas coaching staff have plenty of pressure on them entering 2021, but there's no question that the program is laced with future NFL talent. Most of the attention will undoubtedly fall on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense deserves plenty of attention as well for new DC Pete Kwiatkowski, who comes down from Washington. One of the players sure to feature in Kwiatkowski's defense is sophomore Alfred Collins, a former five-star recruit who played in all ten Longhorn games a season ago. Collins came to school a shade under 300 pounds and built as a strong-side defensive end but quickly bulked up since coming to Austin, eventually shifting inside to defensive tackle. Despite the new poundage, Collins is a freak athlete who made one of the most impressive plays you will ever see from a defensive tackle in this last year's Alamo Bowl, with a one-handed INT off a screen. With his elite athleticism and instincts, he should play major snaps in a Texas defense looking for star-power. If he does indeed stick firm at tackle, his quickness and explosiveness off the line should be a real problem for Big 12 interior offensive linemen.

Zach Evans, RB, TCU

If you follow college football recruiting, you'll almost definitely know the name Zach Evans. He was the No. 16 ranked prospect in the Class of 2020 with perhaps the craziest recruitment in the history of CFB recruiting. Evans signed a letter of intent to go to Georgia in late December of 2019 but never officially announced his commitment. Under a month later, UGA had released from the letter of intent and Evans once again re-opened his recruitment, taking official visits to several schools throughout the Southeast. After a long, drawn-out process that included him in serious discussions with Ole Miss, Florida, and more, Evans eventually quietly enrolled at TCU last May. There's been questions about maturity and his level of focus on the game, but nobody has questioned his talent. In a short stint with the Horned Frogs, Evans made do on that talent, tallying 415 yards in a shortened season, despite being lower on the depth chart. He averaged 7.7 yards per carry in his true freshman campaign and displayed his promise with a 130-yard, two-touchdown showing against Louisiana Tech in their regular season finale. Evans is likely to start 2021 atop the TCU depth chart on a team that ended last season on fire. In the wide-open Big 12, he's likely to see plenty of opportunities to show what he can do and as long as he keeps his focus, he should do serious damage.

Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia

Much like Evans and Collins, Darnell Washington is a former high-profile recruit from the Class of 2020 who showed enough promise in the pandemic-shortened season to feel good about what he can do in '21. Washington ended up starting seven of UGA's 10 games, tallying seven receptions for 166 yards. He certainly wasn't a major part of the Bulldog offense, but this was a group that struggled to through the ball for most of the season's first-half, until J.T. Daniels was inserted as staring quarterback. Like others, he finished his first season on campus strong, with three catches against a stingy Cincinnati defense in their Peach Bowl win. As Georgia prepares for 2021, it looks to open up their passing attack, especially now that Daniels is healthy and ready to go, and offensive coordinator Todd Monken has had a full off-season to install his offense. However, the Bulldogs will be without their most talented pass-catcher, George Pickens, at least to begin 2021 after he tore his ACL in the spring. Without his services, the Bulldogs will lean on some familiar names, including Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton, but also some new faces, such as Washington. Despite being built like a tight end at 6'7", 265 pounds, Washington's athleticism and hands are more reminiscent of a physical wide receiver. He has the chance to grow into a security blanket for Daniels, or at the least a dynamic red zone presence.

Jalen Berger, RB, Wisconsin

Heading into the shortened 2020 Big Ten season, there was some question as to who would replace record-setting tailback Jonathan Taylor in Madison. Holdovers Garrett Groshek and Nakia Watson were going to factor into the offense, but Badger fans were intrigued at the potential of true freshman Jalen Berger. Wisconsin managed to hold off late recruiting runs from Rutgers and UCLA to land the four-star prospect who, like Taylor, was from the state of New Jersey. After not seeing action in the first few weeks of the 2020 season, Berger came on strong down the stretch, finishing with 301 yards and two touchdowns in four games. Now that Groshek is graduated and Watson transferred away, there is no question that Berger will enter next fall as the go-to guy for the Badger offense. There's absolutely no doubt that this is a school that produces running backs at historical rates and the sophomore is next in line. Matching Taylor's production will be difficult, but Berger already is slightly more polished than several past UW greats at his age. He'll hope to lead a Badger offense that struggled in the season's second half last fall.

Clarence Lewis, CB, Notre Dame

Most of the attention given to the Notre Dame secondary so far this off-season and likely going forward will be on safety Kyle Hamilton, and for good reason. Hamilton enters his junior campaign as one of the best defenders anywhere in college football and a likely Top 10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. However, while Hamilton is incredibly rangy, he can't cover every single opposing receiver. The Irish will need other pieces to step up in the secondary, including names like Clarence Lewis. Lewis entered college as a fairly unheralded recruit from New Jersey, a three-star prospect likely to be a depth guy in 2020. He responded by playing right away in ND's opener against Duke and then received his first start a week later against South Florida. Lewis ended up playing in nine games for the Irish and played a key role, totaling 33 total tackles and leading the team with seven pass deflections. The coaching staff has raved about Lewis during the early off-season period and it's likely he starts at corner in his sophomore season. Hamilton is still likely to earn more attention, but Lewis and his play may end up being more important for the Irish and their Playoff aspirations.

Will Rogers, QB, Mississippi State

The Mike Leach era in Starkville began with a bang when Mississippi State went into Death Valley and upset defending National Champion LSU. At the time, former Stanford QB K.J. Costello was handed the reigns to Leach's "Air Raid" offense and he went wild, passing for 623 yards and five touchdowns, which was enough to earn very early Heisman consideration. That early success trailed off incredibly quick, as Mississippi State lost their next four games and Costello was subsequently benched. Instead, Leach turned to a true freshman to lead his aggressive attack, Will Rogers. Despite being thrown into the SEC at such a young age, Rogers responded over his six starts. He was the first MSU freshman to post multiple 300-yard games and the first MSU freshman to register three consecutive games of at least 30 completions. He demonstrated excellent poise and feel for the game despite his youth and the raw tools to be a very successful college QB. Now, he gets a more normal off-season under his belt and another opportunity to run an offense that usually puts up silly passing numbers. He seems like a good bet to have a very strong 2021 season, even in an SEC West that should, once again, be very difficult.

Akheem Mesidor, DL, West Virginia

West Virginia was quietly one of the more surprising teams in the Big 12 in 2020, going 6-4 overall and posting a .500 conference record in Neal Brown's second season at the helm. Much of that can be credited to a defense that ranked 21st out of 128 FBS teams in points allowed per game, a far cry from the Dana Holgorsen era, when the Mountaineers were consistently among the worst defensive teams in the league. The aggressive, chaotic defense consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, thanks in large part not only to the Still brothers, Dante and Darius, but also true freshman Akheem Mesidor. The Canadian came to Morgantown and immediately made an impact, playing all 10 games and finishing with 6.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks. Now, even greater things are expected and hoped for, as West Virginia must replace Darius Stills, who is now with the Las Vegas Raiders. Mesidor, who entered college under 260 pounds, has already bulked up to nearly 280 in one year of college ball and should get even bigger with a full off-season under his belt. Rumors out of spring practice and workouts are that he is ready for a monster season and while offensive linemen may focus on him more now that Darius is gone, Dante remains in the fold to also command some attention. Don't be surprised if Mesidor earns All-Big 12 honors and becomes a crucial cog of a really strong Mountaineer defense in 2021.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State

I contemplated leaving Jaxon Smith-Njigba off this list because of how stacked Ohio State's receiver room is entering 2021, but the transfer of veteran Jameson Williams to Alabama could open up targets for the sophomore. Unsurprisingly, Smith-Njigba was a highly touted recruit who arrived alongside the nation's No. 1 wide out, Julian Fleming, but yet saw the field earlier than him during the 2020 season. His stat-line of 10 receptions for 49 yards doesn't exactly jump out at you, but Smith-Njigba displayed polished route running abilities, soft hands, and excellent body control. He's not as big as Fleming or some of the other wide outs on the Buckeye roster, but could grow into a formidable presence in the slot, or wherever head coach Ryan Day decides to use him at. The toughest part for him might just be seeing the field this upcoming season. Not only does he have to compete for targets with Fleming, but also established veterans such as Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Even so, this is the type of playmaker that has the chance to be special, and the type of talent that has helped Ohio State continue their dominance atop the Big Ten for so long now.

Theo Johnson, TE, Penn State

Penn State had a frustrating 2020 season, to say the least. They opened the year with a heartbreaking, controversial loss to Indiana and then began 0-5 before winning their final four games. I feel confident that PSU will be able to get back on track in 2021 for several reasons; for one they have a cemented roster in place without the possibility of opt-outs, they have a favorable schedule, and they upgraded at offensive coordinator by replacing Kirk Ciarrocca with former Texas OC Mike Yurcich. Yurcich has gained a reputation as an aggressive playmaker sort of in the mold of former Penn State OC Joe Moorhead, who parlayed his success into the Mississippi State head coaching job. The Nittany Lions do already have a stud receiver on the outside in Jahan Dotson, but they'll need more to run this offense the way Yurcich intends. Enter redshirt freshman Theo Johnson, who takes over at tight end for Pat Freiermuth, who is now in the NFL. Johnson saw limited action in his first season in Happy Valley, but has all the tools to be a matchup nightmare. He's 6'6" with long arms, but runs extremely fast for his size and has quality hands. I like him to continue the recent tradition of impressive Nittany Lion tight ends, which now includes Freiermuth and Mike Gesicki before him. The big question for Johnson is whether he has a quarterback to get him the ball. Sean Clifford had a frustrating end to 2019 and really struggled in 2020, putting pressure on him and inviting a possible QB competition heading into fall camp.

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