One of the beautiful things about college football is that every season brings a new group of stars. Think about all of the players who you had never heard of before the 2020 season but they quickly became household names. It happens every year and is bound to happen during the 2021 season.
The only variable is who those players will be. Will they be five-star freshmen from Ohio State and Alabama or young quarterbacks from smaller programs like Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall or Marshall’s Grant Wells were last year?
Here are our picks for the breakout stars of the 2021 college football season.
Jalen Berger, Wisconsin
In Wisconsin’s shortened 2020 season, Jalen Berger amassed just 60 carries for over 300 yards. But in a full season, he’s poised to emerge as the school’s latest star running back.
He offers a similar size and skillset to Jonathan Taylor, who is Wisconsin’s most recent star running back. Of course, it’ll be interesting to see if the Badgers can lean on their passing game a little more with Graham Mertz. But Wisconsin’s bread and butter is always on the ground, which should enable Berger to be a key figure and have a standout season.
Kaiir Elam, Florida
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Kaiir Elam is the nephew of safety Matt Elam, who was a bust in the NFL but had a great career at Florida. Producing defensive backs is something the Gators have done well for a long time with Kaiir Elam likely being the next in line.
In fact, by the end of the 2020 season, opposing teams were already starting to figure out that they shouldn’t throw in Elam’s direction if they can help it. That means his numbers could lag because he gets fewer opportunities to break up passes and get interceptions. But at 6-foot-2, Elam has the size, strength, and athleticism to be one of the elite cornerbacks in the country.
Tyler Goodson, Iowa
Tyler Goodson has had two solid seasons at Iowa, but this could be the year that the Hawkeye takes things a step further and becomes one of the best running backs in the country.
Rather than splitting carries with Mekhi Sargent, Goodson is in a position to be Iowa’s workhorse back in 2021. He’ll get as many carries as he can handle, and with a couple of years in a college weight program, Goodson should be ready. He’s averaged 5.1 yards per carry during his first two seasons with the Hawkeyes, so just imagine how productive he can be if he can get 20-plus carries per game.
Iowa will expect to compete in the Big Ten West Division this year, and Goodson will be a huge factor in helping the Hawkeyes reach the conference title game.
Dontario Drummond, Ole Miss
The Rebels have produced a ridiculous amount of elite wide receivers in the past handful of years. We’re talking about A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and Elijah Moore, and that’s only dating back to 2016. Drummond looks like he’ll be the next in line.
With Moore now in the NFL, Drummond will be asked to fill the void and make up for his absence. While he has just 38 career receptions, Drummond had seven touchdowns on just 25 catches in 2020. He has the explosiveness to make plays and will have the opportunity to see a lot of passes thrown his way. On top of that, he has an experienced quarterback in Matt Corral and a coach in Lane Kiffin who won’t be afraid to air it out. It’s the perfect storm for Drummond to become a star.
Carson Strong, Nevada
If you’re looking for a quarterback to come from a second-tier program and become a star the way Zach Wilson did at BYU last year, look no further than Carson Strong.
He’s had two seasons as the starter at Nevada under his belt, giving him the experience and confidence to take his game to the next level. He tossed 27 touchdown passes and just four interceptions last season while completing 70% of his passes. That includes five touchdowns during his team’s bowl victory.
While his team didn’t face a high level of competition last year, Strong’s numbers were still impressive. Within the first month of the season, Nevada will play road games against Cal, Kansas State, and Boise State, giving Strong several opportunities to lead the Wolf Pack to a big win and put him on the national radar.
Tony Grimes, North Carolina
Tony Grimes could have played one more year of prep ball in 2020 but instead chose to enroll at North Carolina. Naturally, he had some rough moments as a freshman but started to get up to speed later in the season. As a former five-star prospect, he has all of the tools to be an elite college corner and should be much better in 2021 now that he has some experience under his belt.
The North Carolina defense will have to take on more responsibility this season, which means Grimes will have more of an opportunity to make a name for himself as one of the best corners in the ACC and in the country.
John Metchie, Alabama
All of the familiar names that we’ve grown accustomed to hearing at Alabama like DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Jerry Jeudy are gone. Of course, the talent isn’t gone, as John Metchie appears ready to become the Crimson Tide’s best receiver.
With Waddle hurt for much of 2020, Metchie actually finished second on the team in receiving with 916 yards on 55 catches with six touchdown catches. He has all of the tools to be an NFL receiver one day, much like so many of his predecessors at Alabama. But for now, Metchie will have to settle for being the top target of quarterback Bryce Young and the next great Alabama wide receiver.
Bijan Robinson, Texas
Despite getting just 86 carries as a freshman last year, Robinson made good use of them by averaging 8.6 yards per carry. He was nothing if not efficient in a supporting role and will hope to bring that into the starting role this season.
With a new quarterback, Texas will have to lean on the running game, which should give Robinson plenty of opportunities to touch the ball. Plus, he’s arguably the team’s most explosive player on the offensive side of the ball. Steve Sarkisian knows that to get the Longhorns to the top of the Big 12, he’ll have to give Robinson plenty of touches, which means it won’t be long until he’s a household name.
Bryan Bresee, Clemson
Bryan Bresee was one of the best players in the class of 2020 and had a decent freshman campaign with 33 tackles and four sacks. He also started 10 of Clemson’s games, so he saw plenty of the field. However, this is the year that Bresee takes things to the next level.
With so many of Dabo Swinney’s recruits, they contribute as a freshman and then become stars as sophomores and juniors. By the end of the season, Bresee was starting to show signs of breaking out. If he can pick up where he left off, there’s a chance he’ll be one of the best defensive linemen in the country this season while helping the Tigers push for another national championship.
D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
Speaking of Clemson winning another national championship, if it happens, D.J. Uiagalelei will undoubtedly be a big part of it. He’s not yet a household name, in part because his name is difficult to say and difficult to say. Plus, he spent most of 2020 as the freshman backing up Trevor Lawrence. But Uiagalelei is now the main man at Clemson.
We saw enough from him in the team’s loss to Notre Dame last season that the Tigers will be just fine with him at quarterback. There might be a little bit of a learning curve, but Uiagalelei has the tools and the poise to keep the Tigers in the national title hunt in 2021, so it’ll be just a matter of time until every fan know how to spell and say Uiagalelei.
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