Every year, a handful of players start the college football season as relative unknowns and go on to finish the season as bona fide superstars. If you need just one example, look no further than LSU’s Joe Burrow this past year.
Sometimes, a player just needs a different supporting cast, an increased role or a simple coaching change to become a team’s breakout star. Here, using the vast PFF database, we list the top breakout candidates ahead of the 2020 college season. Any mentions as to recruitment come courtesy of our friends at ESPN. And remember, this list is in order by position; it is not a ranking.
[Editor’s Note: Check out PFF’s 2021 Mock Draft Simulator as well as 2020 NFL Draft grades for all 32 teams. And if you haven’t already, be sure to pick up a copy of PFF’s 2020 NFL Draft Guide by subscribing to PFF EDGE or ELITE.]
QB GRANT GUNNELL, ARIZONA
Given the departure of Khalil Tate, Gunnell will be in as Arizona’s starting signal-caller for the 2020 college season. We saw him take 185 dropbacks in his true freshman 2019 season, and he impressed with an 85.4 passing grade and a turnover-worthy play rate that would have been among the best in the country if he qualified for a rank (just two turnover-worthy plays overall). Not only did he make smart decisions with the ball, but his accuracy was also pinpoint — on throws that traveled past the line of scrimmage, he actually posted an accurate pass rate that would have ranked just behind Joe Burrow and Kedon Slovis as the best in college football. Gunnell, once a four-star recruit who received offers from Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame, et al., could very well be the biggest breakout of the 2020 season.
QB MICHAEL PENIX JR., INDIANA
Penix was slated to be the Hoosiers’ starting quarterback for the entirety of the 2019 season, but injuries limited him to only six games and 165 dropbacks. On those limited reps, though, Penix looked like one of the top quarterbacks in college football. He displayed dependable accuracy, decision-making, pocket presence, arm strength and mobility en route to an 83.5 passing grade that would have ranked 18th in the FBS. Penix also produced a big-time throw rate that would have ranked 15th, a turnover-worthy play rate that would have ranked fifth and his short- and intermediate-range uncatchable pass rate would have ranked sixth.
QB CHASE GARBERS, CALIFORNIA
Like Penix, Garbers saw his 2019 campaign derailed by injuries, but his season ended with a strong run and a 78.0 overall grade. His decision-making greatly improved from 2018, and nowhere was this more apparent than in his deep passing, where he threw 14 big-time throws versus just one turnover-worthy play across his 41 pass attempts that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. Cal brought in Bill Musgrave to revamp their offense in 2020, and a healthy Garbers has all the potential to thrive in that scheme.
QB SPENCER RATTLER, OKLAHOMA
This is an obvious one. Rattler was the No. 1 quarterback recruit of the 2019 class, and he’ll be looking to continue the run of highly graded Oklahoma quarterbacks. He took only 12 dropbacks and attempted 11 passes in 2019, but he still completed seven of those pass attempts for 81 yards and one touchdown, recording a 78.1 passing grade in his limited action.