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College football’s 2021 breakout players for each Top 25 team

The 2020 college football season has just ended, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Here’s a look at one potential breakout star for each player in the 2021 Way-Too-Early Top 25.

No. 1 Clemson: QB D.J. Uiagalelei

This feels like cheating. Saying Uiagalelei is going to be Clemson’s breakout player is like predicting the next Marvel movie will make a lot of money. These aren’t predictions so much as foregone conclusions. Uiagalelei was among the most hotly recruited quarterbacks in the nation, then gave Clemson fans a sneak peek of his skill set in a two-game fill-in spot for Trevor Lawrence, who tested positive for COVID-19. All Uiagalelei did was lead a huge comeback from down 18 points against Boston College, then throw for more yards than any QB in history against Notre Dame. Now that he’s Clemson’s full-time starter, his ceiling seems limitless. — David M. Hale

No. 2 Alabama: DB Malachi Moore

It made sense that so much of the focus went to Alabama’s offense this past season, when it had award winners at quarterback, running back, receiver and offensive line. But on defense, a star was coming into his own. It’s rare that a true freshman starts on Nick Saban’s defense, but he trusted Moore to do just that. Playing multiple positions in the secondary, Moore racked up 44 tackles and three interceptions, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and reminded some people in Tuscaloosa of a young Minkah Fitzpatrick. — Alex Scarborough

No. 3 Oklahoma: LB David Ugwoegbu

Ugwoegbu seems primed for a big 2021 season. As a sophomore, he flashed his talent when given the chance, whether it was tipping an interception to himself in the Bedlam game, blocking a punt or blowing up blockers. Look for Ugwoegbu, at 6-foot-4, 251 pounds with strength and speed, to take on an even bigger role than the one he had this season, when he played 11 games and started three. — Sam Khan Jr.

No. 4 Georgia: QB JT Daniels

It took some time for him to finally see the field, and only then did we catch glimpses of Daniels’ talent. There were solid performances against Mississippi State and Missouri, but those had to be balanced against so-so outings against South Carolina and Cincinnati. Still, there was enough to see his potential and how he could unlock a perennially disappointing Georgia offense. With George Pickens, Jermaine Burton, Kearis Jackson and Darnell Washington to throw to, don’t be surprised if Daniels puts up big numbers next season. — Scarborough

No. 5 Ohio State: DL Zach Harrison

The Buckeyes have been producing top NFL talent on their defensive line for years, most recently with the Bosa brothers — Joey and Nick — and Chase Young. Harrison is next, and you might be thinking, “Sure, we’ve known this.” He has already shown that he’s an incredible talent in his freshman season and in a coronavirus-shortened sophomore campaign. In six games in 2020, he posted 12 tackles, 4.5 for loss and two sacks. But at no point did Harrison get the shine that most players aren’t capable of getting — those games where a player breaks Twitter before halftime of a noon game. When we see a few of those out of him, his true breakout season will be fully underway. — Harry Lyles Jr.

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No. 6 Texas A&M: RB Devon Achane

The one-two punch of Isaiah Spiller and Ainias Smith behind the Aggies’ stout offensive line was no doubt effective this season, but Smith has such versatility that he was also the Aggies’ leader in receiving yards. That’s why Achane’s emergence late in the season will pay such dividends next season. Achane, who scored 115 touchdowns and ran the fastest 200-meter time in the nation in high school, averaged 8.5 yards per carry on just 43 carries, making you wonder how much more dynamic the Aggies’ offense would’ve been if Jimbo Fisher had worked him in more often. After Achane’s 12-carry, 140-yard MVP performance in the Capital One Orange Bowl after Spiller was injured, it’s clear we’ll find out next year. — Dave Wilson

No. 7 North Carolina: CB Tony Grimes

It was a popular talking point during UNC games last season that Grimes should have still been in high school. It was true, of course. With his school’s season in doubt due to the pandemic, Grimes reclassified and enrolled at UNC for the fall. He quickly found himself on the field, and although he had a few hiccups, he was largely excellent. A five-star recruit, Grimes allowed just eight completions on 23 targets, and he recorded one of the best opponent QBRs (7.9) in the ACC. Mack Brown predicts that with a year of experience under his belt in a more normal 2021, Grimes could blossom into the best cornerback in the country. — Hale

No. 8 Iowa State: WR Tarique Milton

Given how loaded the Cyclones will be in 2021 — they are bringing back virtually their entire starting offense and most of their starting defense — it’s challenging to figure where some new faces might emerge. Instead, let’s focus on a familiar one for the Cyclones: Milton. His junior season figured to be his best after a solid 2019 campaign in which he averaged 20.6 yards per reception, but an injury sidelined him for six games. He wound up catching 15 passes in six games, but if healthy in 2021, the speedy Milton could be a significant piece of an Iowa State offense that is also returning QB Brock Purdy, RB Breece Hall, TE Charlie Kolar and 2020 leading WR Xavier Hutchinson. — Khan

No. 9 USC: WR Bru McCoy

After redshirting in 2019, wide receiver McCoy showed flashes of brilliance during his highly anticipated debut 2020 season. He finished fourth on the team with 21 catches for 226 yards. With two of the players he finished behind — Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns — off to the NFL, McCoy is in line for a breakout season. In offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s system, 70-plus catches next season figures to be well within reason as quarterback Kedon Slovis begins his third season as the starter. — Kyle Bonagura

Bru McCoy could very well have 70-plus catches next season. AP Photo/Ashley Landis

No. 10 Indiana: WR Miles Marshall

The Hoosiers’ offense is going to look a little different in 2021, but it will have a healthy Michael Penix Jr. back, and leading receiver Ty Fryfogle announced he would be returning for a fifth season. But with Whop Philyor’s announcement he was declaring for the NFL draft, there’s suddenly more room in the Indiana passing game, and that’s where Marshall comes in. Marshall dropped an easy touchdown in the Outback Bowl against Wisconsin, but he had some other impressive grabs in that contest. He’ll be a junior in 2021, and you can expect a nice leap from him with more opportunities and an improved Penix, who Tom Allen believes can become one of the best quarterbacks, not just in the Big Ten but the nation. — Lyles

No. 11 Cincinnati: RB Jerome Ford

It’s going to be difficult to find a breakout player from this team because there are so many pieces coming back. Some seniors are taking advantage of the extra season of eligibility from the NCAA, and others, including quarterback Desmond Ridder, felt there was unfinished business. One spot that could see a breakout, however, is running back. Leading rusher Gerrid Doaks, who had 673 yards and seven touchdowns this season, has declared for the NFL draft. Ridder was the second-leading rusher on the team, but with Doaks moving on, Ford, the former Alabama running back transfer, should have an opportunity to get more carries. Ford was third on the team in rush yards with 483, and despite having nearly half the carries as Doak, Ford had one more touchdown than Doak, with eight. With Ridder returning and Ford having another season in the system, Ford could have a breakout year at the position. — Tom VanHaaren

No. 12 Iowa: WR Tyrone Tracy Jr.

The Hawkeyes are losing wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, who led the team in receiving touchdowns with two each and were No. 2 and 3, respectively, in receiving yards behind tight end Sam LaPorta. While LaPorta is returning along with quarterback Spencer Petras and running back Tyler Goodson, the staff is going to need someone to step up at receiver. There is an opportunity for Tracy to step in and make a big impact in 2021. He had 14 receptions for 154 yards and one touchdown in seven games this season. With Petras having a season under his belt, he’ll be more comfortable in the system, so Tracy should be a main target in 2021 outside of LaPorta and receiver Nico Ragaini. — VanHaaren

No. 13 Oregon: LB Noah Sewell

After Sewell saw his older brother, Penei, opt out of the season to prepare for the draft, he went out and made a name for himself as a freshman linebacker for the Ducks. After being named the Pac-12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year, Sewell should be among the best linebackers in the conference next season. The Ducks are currently without a defensive coordinator after Andy Avalos left to become the head coach at Boise State, leaving an intriguing hire for Mario Cristobal to make. — Bonagura

No. 14 Washington: LB Edefuan Ulofoshio

His breakout season should have been 2020, but Ulofoshio’s showing over the Huskies’ four games didn’t resonate broadly the way it would have over a 12-game season. A one-time walk-on, Ulofoshio was named second-team All-Pac-12 as a sophomore this season after finishing the season with 47 tackles. He was a key player on a team that won the Pac-12 North before its season was cut short by COVID-19. — Bonagura

No. 15 Notre Dame: TEs Kevin Bauman & George Takacs

Tight end was a crucial position in the Notre Dame offense this season with true freshman Michael Mayer breaking out as the second-leading receiver on the team and Tommy Tremble contributing in a multitude of ways for the Irish. Mayer is back next season, but Tremble and Brock Wright are gone, which means someone is going to have to step in to help along with Mayer next season. That means we could see a breakout season from Bauman or Takacs, or potentially both. Takacs had only three receptions for 30 yards this season and Bauman had one catch for 5 yards, but with Tremble gone, someone is going to need to help replace what he brought in terms of blocking and receiving. With Mayer solidified as the main option, both Takacs and Bauman have a chance to fill the two voids next season and keep some consistency at the position. — VanHaaren

No. 16 Florida: RB Dameon Pierce

With Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney all moving on, expect the Gators’ offense to look much different next season. A pass-happy attack could swing the complete opposite direction, in fact, with the dual-threat Emory Jones stepping into the starting role at quarterback. Expect the zone-read to play a bigger role, which means more opportunities for the running backs. It’s a potentially loaded backfield, especially with the addition of transfer Demarkcus Bowman, but the player with the most experience and breakout potential is Pierce, who rushed for 511 yards and four touchdowns last season. — Scarborough

There will be plenty more opportunities for Florida running backs next season. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

No. 17 Wisconsin: LB Nick Herbig

The Badgers’ defense is never short on star linebackers, and Herbig could fit that bill soon. Wisconsin’s third-leading tackler as a true freshman, the Hawaii native and former four-star prospect quickly became one of the Badgers’ best run defenders. If or when his pass rushing gets up to speed, he could become a standout performer even in a UW linebacking corps that already includes proven veterans in Jack Sanborn, Noah Burks and Leo Chenal. — Bill Connelly

No. 18 Ole Miss: WRs Dontario Drummond & Braylon Sanders

With Elijah Moore moving on, there will be plenty of passes to catch from Matt Corral. Look for a pair of receivers to step up and catch ’em: Drummond and Sanders. Drummond caught 25 passes, including seven touchdowns — second to only Moore — in 2020, while Sanders averaged a whopping 25.1 yards per reception on his 15 hauls. We know Lane Kiffin’s team is gonna throw it around; Drummond and Sanders look to be big beneficiaries of that next season. — Khan

No. 19 Louisiana: RB Chris Smith

With both Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas declaring for the NFL draft after combining for 1,636 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, the Ragin’ Cajuns need a new lead back. Smith is more than ready. In two years as a backup, Smith has gained 864 yards in just 111 combined rushes and receptions, and he was one of the scariest return men in the country in 2020, scoring on kick returns against both Iowa State and UAB. He isn’t as big as Mitchell or Ragas, but he could be just as productive in 2020. — Connelly

No. 20 LSU: WR Kayshon Boutte

Whether it’s Myles Brennan, Max Johnson or even TJ Finley starting at quarterback, we know who will be the first receiver they look to. With Terrace Marshall Jr. off to the NFL, it’s Boutte’s turn in the spotlight. Boutte took some time to develop during his freshman season, and by that point not many people were paying attention to the Tigers. But if you were, you saw a young star emerge with speed and playmaking ability. You saw someone who never had more than 50 yards in a game suddenly rack up 100 or more yards in each of his final three games, including a record-setting finale against Ole Miss in which he finished with 308 yards and three touchdowns. — Scarborough

No. 21 Texas: RB Bijan Robinson

We’ll go ahead and give it to Robinson, a concept that seemed to elude the Longhorns last season. Yes, Robinson had 703 rushing yards as a true freshman, including 183 in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Colorado. But Robinson, who was ESPN’s No. 3 running back recruit in the 2020 class, did that on just 86 carries over nine games, setting school records for yards per carry in a game (19.1 at Kansas State) and YPC in a season (8.2). In new coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense, the 6-0, 222-pound Robinson will become a household name. — Wilson

No. 22 Penn State: WR Parker Washington

New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich wants to use every inch of the field horizontally and vertically. That could be good news for receiver and vertical threat Washington, who emerged as a solid complement to Jahan Dotson in 2020 and might have been the Nittany Lions’ steadiest downfield threat. He had a combined 13 catches for 188 yards in wins over Michigan and Michigan State, and if he and Dotson are producing downfield, that opens up the entire Yurcich playbook. — Connelly

Parker Washington could continue to be a steady downfield threat for Penn State. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

No. 23 Coastal Carolina: RB Reese White

The Chanticleers are going to enter the 2021 season with higher expectations than they could have ever imagined after a stellar 2020. Because the NCAA has granted all fall athletes an extra year of eligibility, this allows for any player to return. But one who won’t be going back to Conway, South Carolina, is running back CJ Marable, who declared for the NFL draft. That will open up more opportunities for White, who was an All-Sun Belt honorable mention after having 478 yards on 88 carries along with six touchdowns. He’ll be looking to replace Marable’s 887 yards and 12 touchdowns, and he will have plenty of ground to make up in the receiving game, too, where Marable had 31 receptions for 228 yards and seven scores. — Lyles

No. 24 Liberty: RB TJ Green

With star quarterback Malik Willis returning after a 10-1 season, the Flames have a promising 2021 season on tap. With Willis leading a dynamic rushing attack, Liberty was seventh in the country in yards per carry (5.7) and ninth in rushing yards per game (252.4). Peytton Pickett, who ran for 520 yards and six scores as a rotation back, announced he is transferring. But the Flames added Green, a 5-11, 200-pound transfer running back from Utah, who Liberty feels will be a solid all-around back who can help in short yardage and the passing game. — Wilson

No. 25 Miami: DL Jahfari Harvey

Perhaps the biggest vacancy on Miami’s roster entering 2021 is at defensive end, where coach Manny Diaz must replace both starters, Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips. Diaz nabbed both of those guys through the transfer portal, and it’s entirely possible the Canes will go that direction again this offseason, but they might also have their next big star already in house in Jahfari Harvey. In backup duty in 2020, Harvey had 13 pressures and five tackles for loss. His pressure rate of 9.6% was just a tick behind Roche’s, and with another offseason of strength training, the athletic Harvey could easily blossom into an exceptional edge rusher in 2021. — Hale

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