College News & Analysis

2022 College Football: 31 breakout candidates to watch

Donovan Edwards runs the ball during the Michigan spring game April 2, 2022 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Mich Spring

The time has come to ramp up the college football preview process with less than 50 days until the start of the 2022 season. And today, we are taking a look at some of the players that could emerge as college football stars this fall. 

Below are 30 names to watch as breakout candidates in 2022. Many of these players were once highly-regarded recruits that have dazzled in a small sample, but there are some under-the-radar names that few have even heard of. This list includes no quarterbacks (we’ll save that for another day), and it is in no particular order.

RB E.J. Smith, Stanford Cardinals

Smith is the son of one of the greatest running backs of all time, Emmitt Smith. After flashing on a small sample during his first two years with the Cardinal, E.J. looks poised to make a name for himself in 2022. The 2020 four-star recruit produced an 81.2 rushing grade from his 26 carries in 2021 while totaling 14 broken tackles, five explosive runs of 10-plus yards and 4.62 yards after contact per attempt, showing excellent vision, patience and elusiveness as a runner. Smith was also fairly productive in the passing game with 1.31 yards per route run. Don’t be surprised if the Stanford running back ends up being the West Coast's most productive ball carrier in 2022 — he has that kind of potential.

RB Donovan Edwards, Michigan Wolverines

Edwards was the Wolverines’ second-highest-ranked recruit in 2021 after quarterback J.J. McCarthy. The running back first emerged onto the scene in Week 12’s win at Maryland, when he caught 10 targets for 170 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield en route to a 92.0 receiving grade. Edwards finished with 3.79 yards per route run and a 74.3 receiving grade on 70 routes for the season.

WR Jermaine Burton, Alabama Crimson Tide

Burton comes to Tuscaloosa from Athens, Georgia, where he spent the last couple of seasons playing for the Bulldogs. The 2020 top-100 recruit was thrust into a starting spot right away but wasn’t spectacular with a 62.4 receiving grade and 1.58 yards per route run. The 6-foot, 200-pound pass-catcher showed growth in 2021, improving those marks to 72.1 and 2.38 on the year. Despite the lackluster production as an underclassman, he has the traits to be a reliable big-play threat for the Tide. Burton has elite burst and long speed, good hands and is a true route salesman. Since 2020, he owns a separation rate that sits in the 91st percentile nationally. Last year at Georgia, 245 of his 497 yards and four of his five touchdowns were from vertical routes. Playing with elite quarterback Bryce Young can help Burton unlock his full potential.

WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State Buckeyes

Stanford running back E.J. Smith isn’t the only breakout candidate with a father in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as Harrison could be the next great Ohio State receiver. The son of the Indianapolis Colts legend Marvin Harrison Sr. has had a “really good offseason,” according to head coach Ryan Day. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver showed promise to close out his true freshman campaign in 2021 with five combined first downs and touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. Harrison is poised to be an integral piece of Ohio State's offense in 2022.

WR Brashard Smith, Miami Hurricanes

Everyone knows that new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis likes to get tricky so expect a good amount of end-arounds, reverses, sweeps and other trickery to keep the defense on its toes, and Smith will likely be the playmaker Gattis uses in these scenarios. The 2021 four-star recruit has the speed to turn schemed touches into big gains, as the 5-foot-10, 194-pound receiver earned an 88.3 receiving grade from 25 routes last season. He was targeted 14 times at an 0.9-yard average depth and averaged 13.4 yards after the catch from his 14 receptions with four broken tackles.

WR A.J. Henning, Michigan Wolverines

There are several breakout candidates on this year's talented Wolverines team, but Henning is among the best, as the 2020 fringe top-100 recruit has the skill set to be an elite, dynamic weapon for the Blue. Henning showed flashes on end-arounds and sweeps last season, taking nine end-arounds/reverses for 162 yards and two touchdowns in addition to three sweeps for 39 yards. He also took a trick kick return to the house and averaged 9.4 yards per punt return across 29 such attempts. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound weapon is a slippery athlete and is a threat to convert a big gain anytime the ball is in his hands. Head coach Jim Harbaugh actually said during the spring that they envision a Deebo Samuel-esque role for Henning in 2022, including reps at running back. Henning is a pure gadget player until he can expand on his route tree, but either way, he’s destined to be a valuable weapon for Michigan’s offense in 2022.

WR Arian Smith, Georgia Bulldogs

Smith is a legitimate track star. In addition to his football duties, he’s also a member of the Bulldogs track and field squad who earned first-team All-American honors in the 4×100-meter relay and clocked a wind-aided 10.10-second 100-meter dash last year. That speed has made him a big-play threat in his short Georgia career. Despite running only 16 routes over the past couple of seasons, the 6-foot,  185-pound receiver has hauled in four deep receptions for 182 yards and three touchdowns. Injuries have hindered his development, but he can become one of the most dangerous pass-catchers in the country with a clean bill of health.

WR Jalil Farooq, Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma lacks proven, high-quality wide receivers outside of Marvin Mims, but that’s not to say other players won’t step up. Former five-star recruit Theo Wease, Arizona State transfer LV Bunkley-Shelton and Farooq are all breakout candidates, although the latter is arguably the most likely of the bunch to do so. The 2021 four-star recruit flashed as a freshman and shined in the spring, showing that he is nimble for his size and has that extra gear that shows up after the catch. He caught just four passes for 69 yards in 2021 — 54 of which came after the catch. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby will call plenty of screens, and Farooq can handle those underneath targets as well as the vertical shots the offense will be predicated on.

WR Juice Wells, South Carolina Gamecocks

Wells comes to South Carolina from James Madison, where he was dominant. Over the last two years, the transfer wide receiver was one of the five most valuable players in the entire FCS, according to PFF wins above average (WAA). Expect Wells and Spencer Rattler to be one of the SEC's top receiver-passing tandems.

TE Bryson Nesbit, North Carolina Tar Heels

Despite being longtime NFL offensive lineman Jamar Nesbit's son, Bryson was a late bloomer in the football recruiting process due to his proclivity for basketball. In fact, he didn’t pick up padded football until his junior year of high school. Nonetheless, Nesbit quickly turned himself into a four-star recruit and is now a prime candidate to break out in 2022 after his true freshman campaign. He posted a 75.0 PFF grade in 2021 while generating 4.28 yards per route run, 8.3 yards after the catch per reception and hauling in both contested opportunities. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound tight end has a big, long frame and is an after-the-catch threat. Expect North Carolina to give him plenty of opportunities out at receiver to create even more mismatches.

TE Michael Trigg, Ole Miss Rebels

Trigg was one of head coach Lane Kiffin’s star signings out of the transfer portal. The 2021 four-star recruit began his career at USC, where he hoped to play for the football and basketball teams (he actually had multiple hoops offers from big Division I programs). Nonetheless, after a disappointing true freshman season that ended in injury and a regime change, Trigg lands in Oxford. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end earned a 54.2 receiving grade across 75 routes last season, and while there were some missteps on his part, he still flashed high-end ability. He averaged 7.4 yards after the catch from seven receptions and caught three of his five contested opportunities. Oh, and don’t forget about his willingness to block — an underrated aspect of his game.

T Blake Fisher, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Fisher was the No. 1-ranked recruit out of Indiana in the 2021 class and earned a starting job right away as a true freshman. Unfortunately for him and the Irish, he suffered a meniscus injury in his first game wearing the Golden Dome, causing him to miss the regular season. However, he was able to make a return for the Fiesta Bowl, where he earned a respectable 70.5 PFF grade across 91 snaps. The 6-foot-6, 335-pounder moves exceptionally well for a man his size and possesses a strong punch. Unlike most at his age, he displayed advanced technique and processing in his short time on the field as a true freshman. Notre Dame has been known for being “OLU,” and Fisher has the chance to establish himself as the next great blocker up front for the Irish as he starts at right tackle this fall.

T Wyatt Milum, West Virginia Mountaineers

Milum has the potential to be one of the best offensive linemen in college football. Just one year ago, Milum arrived in the collegiate ranks as a 2021 four-star recruit, but it didn’t take long for him to see the field. The 6-foot-6, 291-pound tackle took over the starting right tackle spot midway through his true freshman year and closed out the season with a 74.2 pass-blocking grade. From Week 8 on, Milum was actually the seventh-highest-graded tackle in the Big 12. That's a rare level of production from a true freshman. This year, the Mountaineer will be moving over to the left tackle spot. He has never played left tackle in his football career, but there shouldn’t be a major concern with the pivot since he is a natural lefty, as noted by WVU’s staff in a PFF-exclusive interview.

T Kingsley Suamataia, BYU Cougars

Suamataia has all the tools to be one of the top linemen in college football. However, the 6-foot-6, 317-pound tackle was unable to crack the starting lineup in the weeks he spent on the Oregon roster in 2021 and eventually left mid-year. He transferred to BYU — a short drive away from where he grew up in Utah — where he is expected to see playing time sooner than he would have with the Ducks. The 2021 No. 36 recruit is expected to be the Cougars' starting right tackle in 2022.

G Landon Tengwall, Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State’s top recruit of the 2021 cycle was none other than offensive lineman Tengwall, who ranked 54th nationally. The 6-foot-6, 326-pounder played late in his true freshman campaign at left tackle and both guard spots, and he looked more like a seasoned veteran than a young, inexperienced offensive lineman. Tengwall earned an 81.9 PFF grade from 117 snaps, including a 79.4 mark in the run game and an 85.2 grade in pass protection. He has all the traits to be a special player for Penn State over the next couple of seasons and is one of the biggest breakout candidates in the country for 2022 as he takes over the starting left guard spot.

C Bryce Foster, Texas A&M Aggies

Foster was a top-100 recruit in the 2021 class and was thrown into the fire right away, taking over as the starting center as a true freshman. He struggled with consistency in pass protection, but he was solid in the run game, finishing his first year with a 73.0 run-blocking grade, and his 83.9 run-blocking grade from Week 7 on ranked ninth among Power Five centers. Foster also won a Texas state title in shotput and recently posted the sixth-best distance in Texas A&M history. The 6-foot-5, 325-pounder isn’t just a phone-booth power player either — he has exceptional movement skills for a man his size. His footwork and leverage improved as last year went on, but his biggest area that needs improvement is his blitz and stunt recognition, which should come with more snaps.

DI Tyleik Williams, Ohio State Buckeyes

The sheer number of high-end reps from Williams on just 184 snaps in his true freshman campaign is almost hard to believe. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound interior defender’s upper-body strength paired with good hand placement led him to a 75.4 PFF grade in his first season. The four-star recruit posted an 84.0 pass-rush grade, racked up 21 pressures from 114 rushes, batted a couple of passes, recorded 10 defensive stops and forced a fumble. Williams should be able to ease the loss of experienced veteran Haskell Garrett along the Buckeyes’ interior defensive line.

DI Leonard Taylor, Miami Hurricanes

Taylor was a 2021 five-star recruit who performed well as a freshman but is just scratching the surface. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound interior defender’s positively graded run-play rate in 2021 would’ve led the ACC had he played enough snaps to qualify (29.3%). In all, he earned a 71.7 PFF grade across 200 snaps. If Taylor reaches his ceiling sooner rather than later, Miami might boast one of the best defensive lines in the country.

DI Maason Smith, LSU Tigers

The 6-foot-6, 298-pound interior defensive lineman was a five-star recruit of the 2021 class and immediately made an impression on the LSU coaching staff — so much so that he became a key part of the rotation and eventually took over a starting spot before an injury kept him out at the end of the season. Smith's size-athleticism combination was different last year, but it was also easy to see how raw he was. Outside of his three-sack performance against McNeese State in Week 2 — which ended in a 90.9 pass-rush grade — Smith didn’t make much of an impact as a true freshman, posting a 57.2 PFF grade across 354 snaps. Playing with leverage at his size was a constant issue, as was his pass-rush repertoire: If he didn't use a club/arm over, Smith was just trying to outdo the opposition with his physical gifts.

DI Justin Rogers, Kentucky Wildcats

Rogers was the premier recruit of Kentucky’s 2020 class and will now be taking over Marquan “Bully Ball” McCall’s spot at nose tackle for 2022. The former top-60 recruit saw some action last year when McCall was out, and Rogers showed the potential he has against the run, as the 6-foot-3, 336-pound breakout candidate earned a 20.4% positively graded run play rate in 2021, which would have been a top-10 mark among SEC interior defensive linemen if he had enough reps to qualify. Rogers’ lacks any juice as a pass-rusher, but his impact against the run will prove to be valuable while serving as the heads-up nose in Kentucky’s “tite” front.

EDGE Korey Foreman, USC Trojans

Foreman was the No. 2-rated overall recruit in the 2021 class, behind only Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers. The USC edge defender saw limited action as a true freshman but showed why he was such a promising recruit in the first place, as he generated 11 pressures and produced a 73.0 PFF grade across 113 total snaps. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound true sophomore has the frame and an excellent blend of speed and power. Like with any young player, he needs to develop all parts of his game in order to take that next step. Perhaps the most exciting aspect is that the five-star is now being coached by Shaun Nua, who comes from Michigan, where he helped develop Aidan Hutchinson into one of the best edge rushers in the country.

EDGE Dallas Turner, Alabama Crimson Tide

Star Alabama edge defender Will Anderson Jr. was a five-star recruit in 2020, and the starter opposite him, Turner, was a five-star recruit in 2021. While Turner isn’t on Anderson's level yet, he does have the traits to be one of the premier edge rushers in college football. As a freshman in 2021, Turner earned a 66.7 PFF grade with 25 pressures and 24 defensive stops. The latter two led all SEC true freshmen by a good margin. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound edge defender is explosive off the line and a weapon as a penetrator on stunts. If his game is more refined in 2022, Alabama will have an elite edge tandem.

EDGE Jack Sawyer, Ohio State Buckeyes

Sawyer was one of the several five-star recruits to join the Buckeyes during the 2021 cycle. He hadn’t played a down of football since 2019 after getting hurt and then opting out of the 2020 season to end his high school career, but Sawyer played 101 pass-rush snaps as a reserve during his true freshman campaign at Ohio State and recorded 11 pressures en route to a 78.6 pass-rush grade. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound edge defender is explosive, powerful and more advanced than most players his age. After the Buckeyes’ spring game, head coach Ryan Day highlighted Sawyer — along with fellow 2021 five-star recruit J.T. Tuimoloau — as a player who had a strong offseason and a candidate to be a “force” next fall. Sawyer could be the next Ohio State household name on the edge.

LB Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia had one of the best linebacking corps college football has seen in 2021 but saw its top three at the position all come off the board within the first 100 picks of the 2022 NFL Draft. The good news is that there is still plenty of promise at the position for the Dawgs, including true sophomore Dumas-Johnson (also known as “Pop” in Athens). Dumas-Johnson only played 103 snaps as a freshman in 2021 — most of which came in garbage time — but he shined in that small sample, earning an 81.0 PFF grade with 12 defensive stops, one pick-six and one pass breakup. Additionally, Dumas-Johnson did this despite not playing football the year before as a high school senior due to the pandemic.

LB Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson Tigers

Trotter has high expectations due to being former NFL All-Pro linebacker Jeremiah Trotter's son and a top-40 ranked recruit in the 2021 class. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Tiger could reach those high expectations sooner rather than later while comprising one of the most talented linebacker rooms in the country. Trotter earned a 71.4 PFF grade across his 58 snaps as a true freshman in 2021, as he’s a heady player who plays in control and has the agility to avoid blocks. Trotter has the traits to be a playmaker in the run game, which he displayed on a limited sample in 2021 (earned a positive grade on over a third of his run defense snaps).

CB Nate Wiggins, Clemson Tigers

Clemson’s cornerback room is a bit murky heading into the fall. It’s unknown who the top guys will be, and there’s a lack of veteran depth. On the bright side, Wiggins looks like a promising candidate to rise to the occasion. The 6-foot-2, 175-pound corner only played 128 snaps as a freshman in 2021 but impressed in that action with a pass breakup and just one catch allowed from seven targets.

CB Ryan Watts, Texas Longhorns

Among the spring standouts for Texas was Watts — a 2020 four-star recruit who transferred to the Longhorns after two seasons with the Ohio State Buckeyes. Watts logged only 85 coverage snaps with Ohio State, intercepting a couple of passes — mostly thanks to bad quarterback play — and allowing just 32 yards overall. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound cornerback possesses long arms and nice feet. Texas wants to play more press-man coverage, and that’s tailormade to Watts’ skill set. He’ll need to improve his open-field tackling, but there’s still reason to believe Watts breaks out as a starting outside cornerback for the Longhorns in 2022.

S James Williams, Miami Hurricanes

Williams has superstar potential thanks to his off-the-charts physical traits. It’s not a matter of if — it's a matter of when — the 6-foot-5, 224-pound safety makes the major jump. The 2021 five-star recruit produced the fourth-highest coverage grade in the ACC (78.1) as a true freshman last year.

S Cole Bishop, Utah Utes

Placing expectations on true freshmen is always risky, especially for an incoming three-star recruit like Bishop was a season ago. Needless to say, it was quite the surprise to see him take over a starting spot down the stretch of 2021 and look like a senior. His run fits, overall play recognition and ability to take on blocks were impressive in that short time on the field as a freshman. Bishop finished with a 90.7 run-defense grade and 14.5% positively graded run play rate — both of which were the highest among Power Five safeties. He also tallied up three sacks as a blitzer from Week 10 on — the most at the position nationwide. The next step is to round out his coverage play. Maybe he has already broken out, but I’d argue that he can take his play to another level and become a household name outside of the state of Utah.

S Beau Freyler, Iowa State Cyclones

Safeties are key in Iowa State’s defense, and the team lost all of its key players at the position from last season. Freyler is a promising candidate to step up, though. Despite his three-star status as a true freshman, Freyler looked the part in 2021 as a reserve. He played 229 snaps and turned in a 75.1 PFF grade. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder produced 12 defensive stops and 70.0-plus grades against the run and in coverage. He has great closing ability, attacks downhill with a vengeance and is disciplined in run fits. Head coach Matt Campbell referred to Freyler as an elite young talent during the middle of the 2021 season, and the safety could live up to that billing in 2022.

S Calen Bullock, USC Trojans

Bullock displayed high-level playmaking traits as a true freshman in 2021 and is a candidate to become elite in 2022. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound safety intercepted a couple of passes and broke up four others en route to a 72.3 coverage grade this past year.

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