College News & Analysis

College Football: Ranking the top 25 breakout candidates for 2021

Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) warms up before the game against Boston College at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Josh Morgan-USA TODAY Sports

Year after year, a handful of college football players start the season as relative unknowns before ending the campaign as bona fide superstars.

While it's a difficult thing to predict, we can narrow down the prime candidates to go from small-sample darling to full-time hotshot using PFF's extensive database.

There are multiple levels to defining a “breakout,” but this top-25 ranking focuses on those with the best chance of reaching star status.

To qualify, players must have played fewer than 500 snaps in their college careers or have started under half a regular season's worth of games in their careers.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 10th, PRO: 1st)
Career Snaps: 233

When Trevor Lawrence was sidelined due to COVID-19, Uiagalelei impressed in spot starts as a true freshman. He earned an 83.6 passing grade, making five big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays in those two games against Boston College and Notre Dame. And Uiagalelei also showed that he has a rocket launcher for an arm. Both of those outings were among the team's three most efficient passing performances of the 2020 season.

A few of Uiagalelei's inaccurate throws stemmed from mechanical issues, but that is nothing major to worry about. He displayed all the requisite tools to be an elite college quarterback and wasn't being protected by easy throws as a true freshman. 


Class: Redshirt Senior
247Sports Recruiting: 2017 3-star (Overall: 1,493rd, WDE: 78th)
Career Snaps: 606

Mafe has yet to stay healthy over the course of a season, but we have seen enough from him to know he’s a monster pass-rusher. He landed on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List last year for his absurd 40.5-inch vertical jump and sub-4.6-second 40-yard dash time at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. His first step gives offensive linemen nightmares.

He has rushed the passer 324 times in his college career — which is about a normal season's worth for a starter — and recorded an 89.6 pass-rushing grade on those reps. Taking screens, RPOs and play-action passes out of the equation to feature only Mafe's true pass rushes, his career pass-rushing grade jumps to 91.1 and his win rate sits at 21.7%. Among Power Five edge defenders with 200 such pass rushes since 2018, that pass-rush grade ranks sixth.

Mafe played almost exclusively as a stand-up outside linebacker in 2020, but he has proven in the past that he is more than capable of being a force inside at 3-technique.

With a full year as a starter, Mafe could very well become a household name and a top-five player at the position in 2021.


Class: Senior
247Sports Recruiting: 2018 5-star (Overall: 18th, OLB: 1st)
Career Snaps: 337

Anderson has yet to start a single game in his three years on the field for the Bulldogs, but he has produced incredibly well on just under 200 pass-rush snaps. Anderson has recorded a 90.9 pass-rushing grade, 24.5% win rate and 23.7% pressure rate on those reps. His win rate is the second-best among SEC edge defenders in the seven years of PFF College’s existence, over three percentage points ahead of the next bunch — Leonard Floyd, Myles Garrett and Carl Lawson.

He’s a gifted athlete and is bound to sustain those elite numbers as a full-time starter this fall. If Anderson adds more mass to his 6-foot-5 frame, the sky’s the limit.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 29th, WR: 5th)
Career Snaps: 162

Smith-Njigba is all set to take on a major role alongside Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson — PFF’s No. 1- and No. 2-ranked returning wide receivers in college football for 2021. He hardly saw the field as a true freshman, with just 69 routes run, but he flashed what is to come with one of the best touchdown grabs of 2020:

With the help of his short-area quicks and ball skills, Smith-Njigba might be the next big breakout wide receiver.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 23rd, ATH: 2nd)
Career Snaps: 326

Simply put, Washington is a physical freak. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end has a monstrous 85-inch wingspan and impressive wheels for his stature. He showed off his physical advantage as a run blocker in his true freshman season in 2020, generating the 11th-best positively graded block rate among Power Five tight ends.

On the receiving front, Washington was limited for most of the 2020 season and didn’t see much opportunity until the end of the campaign. In his last two games, he earned an 88.5 receiving grade while generating 4.28 yards per route run and forcing five broken tackles on his five receptions and three explosive pass plays of 15-plus yards.

A coach at Washington's high school in Nevada once called him “the future Zion Williamson of college football,” and Washington undoubtedly has the ability to make that kind of impact in 2021 and beyond. Him and star receiver Arik Gilbert, who just transferred to Georgia from LSU, are going to form a potent duo in 2021.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 4-star (Overall: 71st, WR: 14th)
Career Snaps: 444

Johnston is a lanky wide receiver at 6-foot-4 and 193 pounds, but he plays stronger than expected. He is also a rare all-around athlete for his size. He ran 214 routes in his 2020 freshman campaign and closed out the year with two astounding performances. Against Oklahoma State and Louisiana Tech, Johnston produced a 91.1 receiving grade and five receptions that resulted in a 15-plus yard gain.

With his size and athleticism combo, the long strider is a monster to defend on go balls, and he is also tough to bring down after the catch. He hauled in five go routes for 267 yards in 2020 and broke 16 tackles on 22 receptions while averaging 8.9 yards after the catch per reception.

As long as TCU's quarterback play remains stable, Johnston is destined for a big year.


Class: Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2018 2-star (Overall: 2,629th, OLB: 178th)
Career Snaps: 452

He may have only seven career starts to his name, but the former walk-on has done enough to cement his place as one of the top off-ball linebackers in all of college football. Ulofoshio has yet to have a bad outing in his two years of game action at Washington, proving to be a consistent playmaker in every facet of play. 

Across 452 snaps since 2019, Ulofoshio has posted a grade above 82.0 against the run, as a pass-rusher and in coverage. No one else in the Power Five accomplished the feat in that span. He's a strong tackler, too, missing just five times across 93 career attempts to form a 5.4% missed tackle rate that ranks third among Power Five linebackers.

Don’t sleep on Ulofoshio; he’s legit.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 28th, CB: 3rd)
Career Snaps: 317

Head coach Mack Brown returned to Chapel Hill and immediately made plays on the recruiting front. Grimes was among the biggest wins in that regard. He chose North Carolina over all the major bluebloods, and he showcased the skills that made him such a highly coveted player as a true freshman last year.

Grimes allowed eight catches on 20 targets for 89 yards across 189 coverage snaps in 2020, and only one of those receptions resulted in a gain of 15-plus yards. He played the most over the final five games of the season, making as many plays on the ball as catches allowed (three) in that stretch. Not to mention, he accomplished that in a year in which he was supposed to be a senior in high school. He reclassified and graduated a season early, and North Carolina reaped the rewards.

With him and Storm Duck — one of PFF’s top 10 returning cornerbacks — the Tar Heels have a chance to have a special outside corner tandem in 2021.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 24th, WR: 2nd)
Career Snaps: 491

Boutte displayed elite acceleration, top-end speed and toughness down the stretch for LSU in his 2020 true freshman campaign. He secured a starting spot for the final four games of the year, hauling in 14 receptions for 308 yards and three touchdowns against Ole Miss to cap off the stretch. That helped him earn a 73.1 PFF grade and generate 2.38 yards per route run for the year.

He is unafraid to make plays over the middle of the field and ended up averaging 7.6 yards after the catch while breaking 12 tackles on his 45 receptions. Boutte showed tremendous growth in his routes and release package, which is reflected in his astounding production against press coverage. He was tasked with facing press coverage on over 53% of his routes as a true freshman, the second-highest rate in the Power Five. And yet, he generated 3.02 yards per route run against it, ranking fourth among all Power Five receivers. 

Boutte might have a Ja’Marr Chase-like impact on this LSU team in 2021.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 4-star (Overall: 137th, APB: 4th)
Career Snaps: 102

Not only is Achane one of the biggest candidates to take his play to elite status this fall, but he is also a world-class sprinter for the Texas A&M track and field team. He posted a 20.31-second 200-meter time this past spring — the 11th-best mark in school history and the 33rd-fastest in the world this year. We saw that electricity on the gridiron last fall scattered throughout his 43 carries.

Achane rattled off 12 runs of 10-plus yards, forcing 17 broken tackles while racking up 5.23 yards after contact per attempt en route to a 92.3 rushing grade. He has the capability to establish himself as the most dangerous back in the country with more opportunities.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 1st, DT: 1st)
Career Snaps: 430

Bresee was as good as advertised when it came to rushing the quarterback as a true freshman last year. He posted an 81.2 pass-rushing grade and a 14.1% pass-rush win rate, both of which ranked sixth or better among Power Five interior defensive linemen. Once he gets to the side of an offensive lineman, they are toast.

Bresee's run defense was shaky, but he should have no problem improving there. Either way, you can count on the 6-foot-5, 300-pound interior defender to get after the quarterback, which he should do plenty of in 2021.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 7th, SDE: 1st)
Career Snaps: 423

Murphy took on a fairly large role right away, registering six starts and 423 snaps as a true freshman. His run defense was truly advanced for his age. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound edge defender posted a 92.5 run-defense grade (first in FBS). He also had the most tackling attempts overall without a miss (31). Clemson rushes three players on just shy of a quarter of passing downs (11th-highest rate in the Power Five last season), but when Murphy was a part of a four-man rush, his win rate was a respectable 17%. 


Class: Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2019 4-star (Overall: 308th, TE: 11th)
Career Snaps: 406

It wasn’t until the second half of 2020 when Billingsley began to show he can be something special in the Crimson Tide's offense. From Week 12 on, he caught all 17 targets thrown his way, generated an 81.6 receiving grade, racked up 2.28 yards per route run and hauled in nine 15-plus-yard receptions. All three of those figures ranked sixth or better among Power Five tight ends.

He is that dynamic breed of tight end that can play anywhere on the field thanks to an ideal combination of speed and ball skills. Considering the lack of depth within Alabama's wide receiver room, Billingsley should be a featured piece in 2021.


Class: Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2019 5-star (Overall: 23rd, CB: 2nd)
Career Snaps: 401

Booth got an opportunity to showcase his skills in 2020, and he made multiple highlight-reel plays that scream “special.” Just take a look at what he did in Clemson’s spring game:

After a so-so opener against Wake Forest in which he gave up two catches for 67 yards, Booth was lights out the rest of the way, with only 93 yards allowed on 174 coverage snaps in his last 10 games. He was tested deep downfield often, facing 13 targets of over 20-plus yards, and he almost always came out on top. Only two of those were caught compared to Booth's five plays on the ball.


Class: Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2019 5-star (Overall: 12th, SDE: 2nd)
Career Snaps: 499

Two fellow Buckeye defensive linemen who are a bit more established cracked our top 10 returning interior defensive linemen (Haskell Garrett) and edge defender (Tyreke Smith) rankings, and Harrison might join those two in receiving that honor this fall. He was rather quiet as a true freshman in a limited role in 2019, but he performed admirably in Ohio State’s shortened 2020 season. Over the course of his last four games, Harrison notched a 90.0 PFF grade and 19 pressures on 102 rushes.


Class: Redshirt Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2018 4-star (Overall: 85th, DUAL: 5th)
Career Snaps: 286

Jones has yet to start a game in his three years on Florida's campus, but we have gotten a taste of what he has to offer in mop-up duty. The returns were impressive in both facets.

An elite athlete for a quarterback, Jones has also flashed some real-deal arm talent, producing an 80.6 passing grade across 87 career attempts. He had some fumbling issues as a runner, but he posted an 81.7 rushing grade on 76 carries over the past two years. For perspective, former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was the only FBS signal-caller who posted a grade north of 80.0 in 2020.

Jones may have a more notable recruiting profile and background, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him become the Joe Burrow or Zach Wilson of the 2021 college football season. What’s most alluring about his situation at Florida is that this will also be head coach Dan Mullen's first true dual-threat quarterback since Dak Prescott.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 15th, RB: 1st)
Career Snaps: 285

Robinson dazzled down the stretch of his true freshman campaign. Over his last four games, he produced an explosive 10-plus-yard run on 14 of his 47 carries while breaking 21 tackles and averaging nearly nine yards after contact per attempt. He owned one of the 10 highest rushing grades in the Power Five from Week 10 on (82.9). Robinson was also productive on the receiving front, averaging 1.63 yards per route run and accumulating 10 receptions that resulted in a 10-plus-yard gain.

New head coach Steve Sarkisian ought to have a lot of fun incorporating Robinson’s skills into his offense. The running back has breakout written all over him for the 2021 season.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 27th, WR: 4th)
Career Snaps: 112

Jarrett was set to become an LSU Tiger before a phone call with former Maryland Terp and current Buffalo Bill Stefon Diggs helped sway him to stay home. He played in just four games as a true freshman due to the coronavirus-shortened season. And among those four outings was one of the best games by a first-year player of the entire 2020 season.

Against Penn State, Jarrett tallied five receptions for 144 yards and a couple of touchdowns en route to an 88.6 PFF grade. He generated 2.99 yards per route run and flashed a high-level all-around skill set for the season, which leads us to believe he can hold his own on the outside despite running nearly 87% of his routes from the slot. 

It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see Jarrett finish as a top-10 player at the position in 2021.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 4-star (Overall: 58th, WR: 9th)
Career Snaps: 7

Like Texas A&M running back Devon Achane, Smith is also a two-sport, world-class track star for his school. In his second college track event a couple of weeks ago, Smith qualified for the NCAA Championships with a 10.10-second 100-meter time. Smith ran only five routes in his 2020 freshman campaign but managed to haul in a 31-yard touchdown and a 55-yard reception on post routes. He’s going to be a special and dangerous deep threat one day.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 4-star (Overall: 231st, RB: 19th)
Career Snaps: 158

Toafili was limited as a true freshman in 2020, but what he did on that small sample has to get Florida State fans excited for what’s to come. He produced 10 runs of 10-plus yards on just 37 carries and flashed as a receiver both from the backfield and in the slot, averaging 10.8 yards after the catch per reception and 1.94 yards per route run. He’s an explosive and versatile weapon who is just scratching the surface of what he can become.


Class: Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2019 4-star (Overall: 148th, WDE: 8th)
Career Snaps: 556

Hall was a key part of the Tigers’ rotation in 2020 and made the most of his opportunities. He rushed the passer 174 times across 11 games, coming away with an 81.9 pass-rush grade, a 20.7% win rate and an 18.4% pressure rate. All three marks ranked fifth or better among SEC edge defenders. Hall is finally taking on a starting job in 2021, which means he is set to break out.


Class: Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2019 4-star (Overall: 180th, Pro: 5th)
Career Snaps: 302

The best way to describe Tagovailoa’s four games for the Terps in 2020 after his transfer from Alabama is optimistically inconsistent. He had some high-end moments, but also some very low-end ones. 

He produced PFF grades of 40.8, 90.2, 74.3 and 41.1 in those four outings. Tagovailoa was an accurate passer in rhythm, extended some plays with his athleticism and did a good job of leading receivers across the field on horizontal concepts, earning a 78.3 passing grade on such plays. At the same time, though, his decision-making was far from where it needs to be — as his 5.9% turnover-worthy play rate can attest.


Class: Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2019 3-star (Overall: 795th, OT: 63rd)
Career Snaps: 383

After showing up on campus at a beefy 393 pounds, White — who stands at 6-foot-5 — has reshaped his body and is now a rocked up 346 pounds. He was expected to be a starter on the Gators' line last season, but an injury kept him out until the second half of the year. And when he returned, he merely rotated in on occasion.

He saw valuable time on the field, with 186 snaps across six games, and performed admirably. He earned an 82.4 pass-blocking grade across 108 such snaps as a sophomore, and he produced a clean record on true pass sets, allowing no pressures and recording a grade on those plays that was on pace to be the best among FBS guards.

In the run game, White managed to lay down three big-time blocks despite playing just 78 run snaps. He has a strong punch and is a nimble big man. Now fully healthy, White looks ready to anchor this Florida offensive line.


Class: Sophomore
247Sports Recruiting: 2020 5-star (Overall: 13th, ILB: 2nd)
Career Snaps: 369

Sewell — the little brother of former Oregon tackle and current Detroit Lion Penei Sewell — earned a starting job in the second week of 2020 and lived up to the hype. He particularly excelled in coverage, where his 73.7 grade led all true freshmen and ranked 12th among all off-ball linebackers in the Power Five. He takes on blocks with a vengeance and subsequently looks poised for a big Year 2 leap.


Class: Junior
247Sports Recruiting: 2019 4-star (Overall: 52nd, WR: 9th)
Career Snaps: 428

Ngata was a major breakout candidate for the 2020 season, but injuries got in the way. He ran 68 routes across seven games and battled to stay healthy the entire way. But as a true freshman, Ngata looked like he was on track to become the next great big-bodied Clemson receiver.

He fits that mold at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, and pairs his massive catch radius with excellent body control. Nearly 53% of his routes in 2019 came against press coverage — the sixth-highest rate in the Power Five — and yet, he still was near the 80th percentile among that group in per-route production on those reps, averaging 1.91 yards per route. He can climb the ladder on anyone and somewhat resembles former teammate and current Cincinnati Bengal Tee Higgins.

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