As a part of our partnership with ESPN, this is a part of a story that was originally published on ESPN+ and can be viewed in its entirety here with your ESPN+ subscription – College football's top 10 breakout stars of September
Year after year, a handful of college football players start the season as relative unknowns before ending the campaign as bona fide superstars.
It's a bit too early in the year to definitively declare breakout-to-star status, but with the help of PFF's unique play-by-play grading system, we can identify the candidates who are on the path.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 breakout stars from the first month of the 2021 college football season to keep an eye on for the rest of the year.
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No one in college football — regardless of position — has played better this season than Maryland quarterback Tagovailoa. He has earned a PFF grade above 86.0 in each of his four starts this year, leading to an FBS-high 93.3 overall mark for the season.
Tagovailoa entered 2021 with only four starts to his name, all of which came in 2020's shortened season after he transferred to Maryland from Alabama. Tagovailoa showed high-end flashes, but the decision-making was that of a typical first-year starter, with nine turnover-worthy plays in those four games. This year, Tagovailoa's decision-making has been sharp — he has yet to produce a turnover-worthy play, which is something only two other Power 5 quarterbacks with 100 dropbacks can say. Some of this is thanks to a simplified Terps offense, but it's clear Tagovailoa has grown immensely as a quarterback.
Haener has thrown his hat in the ring as not just the best quarterback in the Group of 5 but one of the best nationally. His hot start to the 2021 season has helped Fresno State move up to No. 18 in the AP top 25 entering Week 5. He has led the Bulldogs to multiple comeback wins and earned a 90.1 PFF overall grade in five games. Haener has been dealing downfield in particular with 18 big-time throws — tied for the most in college football.
Haener has taken a similar path to stardom as Tagovailoa. He began his career at Washington but couldn't claim the starting job. Haener then transferred to Fresno State where he finally got his starting spot in 2020. Like Taulia, he showed high-end flashes but was inconsistent overall. He earned a PFF grade above 80.0 in three of his six starts last season, but the other three fell short of a 60.0 mark. This year, Haener is far more composed and ready to take that next step to star status.
Henderson was the top-ranked running back in the 2021 class — a five-star recruit who ranked ninth overall in the ESPN 300. The Buckeyes have a loaded running back room, but Henderson has seen plenty of opportunities early in his true freshman campaign and has hit the ground running. Henderson has an 87.7 PFF grade through his first four games, featuring a 26.7% explosive run rate, 6.24 yards after contact per attempt and 0.42 broken tackles per attempt. All four of those metrics rank inside the top 10 nationally. He's a smart runner who knows how to set up defenders in an open field and already looks like one of the more complete backs in college football at a really young age.
TE Brock Bowers, Georgia
Georgia had to ask Bowers to step into a major role to start his true freshman campaign with Darnell Washington out with an injury. It's safe to say the Dawgs probably weren't too worried about this considering the skill set he has displayed and how much he has been featured in the offense. Bowers has recorded an 84.1 receiving grade and 3.49 yards per route run through four games, both of which lead all Power 5 tight ends. The 2020 four-star recruit reportedly clocked a 4.5 40-yard time and a 40-inch vertical in high school, and the speed and explosiveness have been apparent on the field. How Kirby Smart and Co. use Bowers with Washington returning from injury will be something to monitor, but either way the future is bright for the freshman.
DL Gervon Dexter, Florida
Dexter has played only 113 snaps in his 2021 true sophomore campaign, and he has performed at a level that Florida should be elated about. He has earned a 90.7 pass-rush grade, which is tied for second among all FBS interior defensive linemen. The 2020 five-star recruit has recorded 11 pressures and a 28.8% pass-rush win rate on 52 pass-rush snaps this season. At 6-foot-6 and 303 pounds, Dexter has a combination of length and strength that make him a force that even SEC offensive lines at Alabama and Tennessee struggled to contain. Right now, Dexter is winning with physical gifts. Once he adds some more polish, he's destined to become a household name.
EDGE Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State
Ebiketie had a mini-breakout campaign in 2020 with the Temple Owls and has since become one of the premier pass-rushers in the Power 5 at Penn State. He has earned a PFF grade above 75.0 in all four of his starts and an 89.2 pass-rush grade overall for the year. Ebiketie is fantastic with his hands and has helped quell the loss of Shaka Toney and Odafe Oweh. He was a key component to Penn State's defensive success against Wisconsin and Auburn. He combined for 11 pressures — eight of which were quarterback hits — and a 27.3% pass-rush win rate in those two outings.
EDGE Tre Williams, Arkansas
Williams is a little bit different from others on this list. He's a sixth-year senior who spent the first five years of his collegiate career with Missouri, where he was average at best. He earned single-season PFF grades in the 60s in his four seasons with playing time and was in and out of starting roles. Williams rejoined forces with his former head coach Barry Odom, who is now the defensive coordinator at Arkansas, and the veteran edge defender looks like a completely different player.
Williams is showing refinement in his game and living inside offensive linemen's shoulder pads. He has earned an 85.7 pass-rush grade for the year and ranks second among Power 5 edge defenders in both pass rush win rate (31.3%) and total pressures (21). Last week, Williams earned an elite 90.1 PFF grade in Arkansas' big win over Texas A&M that featured multiple wins over highly regarded draft prospect Kenyon Green.
LB Jestin Jacobs, Iowa
Jacobs showed up to Iowa in 2019 as a lanky 6-foot-3, 190-pound linebacker. The four-star recruit played only 71 snaps in his first two years on campus but is now enjoying a breakout campaign after packing on 40 pounds since arriving in Iowa City. Jacobs owns an 82.4 PFF grade across 161 snaps in four games and is succeeding against both the run and pass. What's most impressive is that he has sustained his speed and explosiveness despite packing on so much weight.
CB Cordale Flott, LSU
LSU slot corner Flott is the early candidate for most improved player in college football. His 2020 true sophomore campaign was underwhelming: He earned a 54.6 coverage grade and allowed 656 yards, six touchdowns and a 153.0 passer rating when targeted in coverage last year. This year, Flott has been downright stingy. His play recognition and feel for the position are as good as it gets. Flott has raised his coverage grade to 88.2 this season, the highest among FBS slot cornerbacks. He has seen 17 targets in the slot in 2021 and has allowed only two first downs while making two plays on the ball and forcing seven passing stops.
Johnson has been a true playmaker in every facet from the slot in his starting debut. The 2020 four-star recruit owns a grade above 80.0 in coverage, against the run and when blitzing from the slot. Johnson's coverage prowess has been on par with Flott — both are among the best in the country. He is blowing up plays underneath and not letting anything by him. Johnson hasn't allowed a single first down on 17 slot targets while forcing an incompletion and eight passing stops. Man or zone, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound nickel looks like one of the next premier SEC defensive backs.