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Spring Football 2022: Ten Players Ready for the "Sophomore Leap"

Michael Trigg, Ole Miss
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 been in the program for a year. With that in mind, there are ten players entering their second seasons on campus that I envision taking a big leap in 2022.

Ja'Corey Brooks, WR, Alabama

Few schools are producing elite wide receivers at the rate of Alabama, who has sent Jameson Williams, John Metchie, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, and Jaylen Waddle to the NFL in just the last couple years. As they approach 2022, the Tide are missing a true signature star on the perimeter, but that doesn't mean there aren't one or two who could have a breakout campaign. Previously, my money would have been on Agiye Hall, who had flashed in the spring game a season ago and had his moments in 2021 even if his National Championship Game performance earned some Alabama detractors, but he transferred to Texas. Instead, my money is on Ja'Corey Brooks, who saw action in all 15 games last year but didn't make his presence felt until later on in the season. Brooks' numbers weren't overly impressive; he totaled 15 receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns, but his growth over the course of the season was notable. After barely seeing any playing time early in 2021, Brooks led the team in targets in the National Championship, thanks in large part to the unfortunate injury suffered by Biletnikoff Award finalist Jameson Williams. Now, Brooks will be one of the veterans in the receiver room after the offseason saw Williams, Metchie, and Slade Bolden all turn pro. That's a good spot to be in, particularly when the quarterback getting you the ball is none other than the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young. I have a feeling Brooks will be targeted early and often in 2022, proving himself to be the most potent of the young, talented wide outs Alabama has on their roster.

Hunter Wohler, S, Wisconsin

One of the best defenses in college football last fall, Wisconsin took some hits this offseason. Not only do they lose several key pieces from their front seven, they also lost both starting safeties, Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder. There is still some experience remaining at both safety spots, but the vacancies represent a real opportunity for some of the younger talent on the roster, namely Hunter Wohler. Wohler was a fairly key in-state recruit, a four-star prospect from Muskego, Wisconsin. He saw some action late in the year, including the bowl game after the season-ending injury to Wilder, but could be ready for a real breakthrough in 2022. He's the type of defender that epitomizes Wisconsin football; he's not the best athlete on the field, but he has fabulous instincts and is a fearless, physical hitter. If he's able to impress in fall camp, I wouldn't put it past him to see key playing time right away for a defense that will need young talent to shine if they want to compete for a Big Ten West Title.

Thomas Fidone II, TE, Nebraska

There were plenty of reasons for Nebraska's 3-9 falter in 2021, from poor coaching, to bad luck, to a tough schedule. There were no easy solutions to any of those issues, but having star recruit Thomas Fidone II out on the field might have helped. Fidone, who comes from Council Bluffs, Iowa, was one of the nation's top tight end recruits in the Class of 2021 and the highest-rated prospect to sign with Nebraska since 2008. Big things were expected right out of the gate, but a serious knee injury last spring cost him basically his entire first year in Lincoln. However, the 'Huskers are hoping Fidone will be back and 100 percent this fall, gifting them a major weapon in a new-look offense. Not only does Mark Whipple come over from Pittsburgh as the team's offensive coordinator, Scott Frost also landed Texas transfer Casey Thompson at QB, which could breath new life into a passing game that has been shockingly bad throughout most of the Frost tenure. Fidone would almost surely be featured heavily in that new-look passing attack, as a terrific athlete for his position who has receiver hands. With all that being said, this selection is a bit of a shot in the dark, at least for the time being. There were rumors that Fidone was beat up in spring camp again this season, throwing his 2022 prospects into doubt. If he's healthy, I have no doubt the tight end will play a key role on the 'Huskers but his injury status complicates things significantly. Frost hasn't provided any clear update on Fidone's status, meaning we will probably have to wait until the summer to get a real answer.

Tyler Buchner, QB, Notre Dame

It's a new day in South Bend following Brian Kelly's departure to LSU and the graduation of one-year bridge QB Jack Coan. New head man Marcus Freeman establishes continuity in the coaching staff after being promoted from defensive coordinator, but the more significant staff holdover was OC Tommy Rees. Rees was heavily recruited by Kelly to join his LSU staff, but instead stuck on at his alma mater. His return establishes Notre Dame will run a similar offensive attack to what we've seen the last two years, which will be huge for young QB Tyler Buchner. Buchner showed flashes in 2021, as the former blue-chip recruit was featured in ten games and finished with six total touchdowns. However, the Irish are hoping this fall is the real breakthrough for Buchner, who has long been viewed as the program's future at the position. Another year working with Rees will be huge, as will the return of tight end Michael Mayer, the early favorite for the John Mackey Award, gifting Buchner a security blanket in the passing game. Add in the fact ND's line should be improved after a rebuilding 2021 and everything is working in Buchner's favor. As the starting quarterback on a Playoff contender, he'll command plenty of attention in 2022.

Terrence Williams, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette

Much like Notre Dame, Louisiana-Lafayette is starting fresh in 2022 after Billy Napier made the expected jump to the SEC at Florida. While unsurprising, Napier's decision to leave was an obvious blow to the Ragin' Cajuns and their hopes this fall, with several key staff members and players following him. Among them was tailback Montrell Johnson, who was the reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year after notching 838 yards and 12 scores in 2021. However, Johnson's departure was not the only one to hit ULL's backfield, as backup Emani Bailey also decided to head elsewhere, transferring to TCU. With those two gone, what was once an incredibly deep RB room is fairly thin as the Cajuns look ahead to the fall. Veteran Chris Smith gives the team a proven commodity to lean on, but the largest beneficiary of Johnson and Bailey's transfers is likely to be Terrence Williams. Williams saw just eight carries in 2021 and played primarily on special teams, but he's a former big-name recruit who becomes the No. 2 option. We don't know exactly what the Lafayette offense will look like now that Napier is gone, but I'm willing to bet the new staff will lean heavily on the ground game, especially now that long-time QB Levi Lewis is graduated. That's the perfect scenario for Williams, who could be the perfect change-of-pace to Smith and provide some electricity to an offense that hopes to compete for a Sun Belt Title.

Smael Mondon, LB, Georgia

After their defense put together one of the most dominant seasons of all-time, Georgia sent 15 players to the NFL a few weeks ago. While there are still some key holdovers, such as Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith, all the losses will open opportunities for some of the young pieces on this roster. Enter Smael Mondon, a former five-star prospect from inside the state who played in all 15 games a season ago, but is still waiting on his true breakout. This could certainly be the year, as Mondon is the early favorite to start at the "Mac" inside linebacker spot, which has produced countless NFL players in just the past decade. Mondon was limited in the spring due to injury, which may hurt his chances to start right away, but he's too talented to keep off the field and the Bulldogs are notorious for using an abundance of linebackers. If he can stay healthy, he's a name to watch not only for this year, but to monitor for the 2024 NFL Draft.

Michael Trigg, TE, Ole Miss

Few coaches in college football have bought into the transfer portal quite like Lane Kiffin, who went so far as to appoint himself "Portal King" earlier in the offseason. It's an understandable strategy for an Ole Miss team that has to compete with several giants inside the division, and Kiffin's work landed them a host of instant contributors. One of those instant contributors is likely to be USC transfer Michael Trigg, who joined his QB, Jaxson Dart, in heading to Oxford. Although Trigg caught just seven balls for 109 yards and a touchdown in 2021, coaches have raved about his world-class athleticism and physical tools. He wasn't quite able to show out on a USC squad that suffered through a brutal 2021, but in a wide-open Ole Miss offense? Future NFL wide out Jonathan Mingo will garner most of the targets on the outside, but Trigg should still be featured heavily and his previous relationship with Dart provides him plenty of chances to make an impact.

Chris Lewis, WR, Kentucky

Georgia is the reigning National Champion and Florida and Tennessee both are receiving plenty of early preseason hype, but people seem quick to forget about the Kentucky Wildcats. Mark Stoops and the Wildcats have been one of the SEC's most consistent brands the past half-decade and are fresh off a 10-3 campaign. Quarterback Will Levis is back to run the show, but will be without two of his top targets, as Wan'Dale Robinson left for the NFL and "super senior" Josh Ali graduated. Add in Isaiah Epps, who transferred to Tulsa, and the 'Cats are replacing 156 catches from last year's group. The staff brought in some reinforcements in Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson and Alabama transfer Javon Baker, but don't be surprised if somebody already on the roster makes their presence felt in a big way: Chris Lewis. Lewis earned rave reviews from Levis over the spring, and at 6'4", his monstrous frame should allow him to be a matchup nightmare. Lewis saw action in four games in 2021 but maintained his redshirt, meaning his first full season of live ball could be a special one.

Jack Sawyer, DE, Ohio State

Over most of the last decade, Ohio State has been an absolute machine at producing elite pass rushers. From the Bosa brothers to Chase Young, Sam Hubbard, and more, the Buckeyes have coached them up then sent them quickly to the pros. But, the last two seasons, Ohio State has lacked a true elite defensive linemen ever since Young left town. They've obviously been able to get by without one, but Buckeye fans are eagerly waiting for their next star defensive end. Perhaps Zach Harrison finally puts it together, but the better money may be on Jack Sawyer. Sawyer was the gem of the 2021 recruiting class and had a huge spring last year, leading some to believe he would make an immediate impact as a true freshman. Sawyer did see playing time and flashed serious potential, with three sacks in limited action. Now, even greater things are expected of the Ohio native, whose size and high motor already resembles a fearsome defensive linemen. Pair him with J.T. Tuimoloau, another former five-star prospect who had some moments as a freshman in 2021, and Ohio State is likely to return to regularly terrorizing opposing quarterbacks this fall.

Power Echols, LB, North Carolina

Mack Brown has elevated the talent level in a big way since returning to Chapel Hill, with big-time recruits dotting both sides of the ball. Despite that talent, the defense hasn't shown up, allowing over 32 points per game in 2021, 105th in the nation. The defensive struggles led Brown to move on from coordinator Jay Bateman and bring back Gene Chizik, the former Auburn head man who had previously served as UNC DC from 2015-16. Chizik will have plenty of talent to work with, but one name to watch in particular is sophomore Power Echols. Echols wasn't projected to play a major role in 2021 and didn't see regular playing time until late in the year, playing in seven games total. However, by the end of the year he was one of UNC's most consistent defenders, including a ten-tackle performance in the Mayo Bowl loss to South Carolina. He'll be expected to step up even more, as the Heels lose several key contributors to their front seven, including Jeremiah Gemmel and both Fox brothers (Tomari returned to the team this offseason, but will be suspended). With Echols set to play a larger role and the ultra-experienced Chizik in town, UNC's defense is running out of excuses; this year they should produce.

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