NCAAF 2017: Top 10 breakout stars of the year

The year is coming to a close. Who were college football's breakout stars of 2017?


10. Joshua Jackson, CB, Iowa

Iowa’s Josh Jackson was well on the way to a spot on this list midway through his junior season. 

Three interceptions in a rout against Ohio State later, and Jackson had not only solidified himself as one of 2017’s breakout stars, but one of the best cornerbacks in the nation.

Widely tipped as a mid-first round pick in this year’s NFL Draft, Jackson was one of the driving forces behind UI’s 7-5 season, including a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College.

9. Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame

Two players from Notre Dame’s famed offensive line received All-American nods; senior Quenton Nelson was a unanimous choice. 

The Holmdel, NJ native had been on plenty of radars before 2017, but showed up in a big way in his final year of college football, winning his team’s MVP honors, before falling just short of the Outland Trophy, recognizing college football’s best interior lineman.

Nelson is almost assured a first-round pick in April’s Draft, with Bleacher Report nominating him as headed to the Miami Dolphins with pick 14. 

8. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State

After switching from outside linebacker early in his career, Bradley Chubb has slowly built a name and reputation for himself at North Carolina State; just this year, he passed four-time Pro Bowler Mario Williams for most sacks in the school’s history.

Chubb enjoyed his best year as a member of the Wolfpack in 2017, his senior season, where he went from school hero to nationally recognized NFL prospect, as the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Chubb has every chance to break this year’s top five draft picks, but is currently projected by Bleacher Report to go seventh to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

7. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith very much mirrored his team this year. He certainly lived up to the hype, winning a slew of awards, and was his team’s best player in their biggest game of the year.

For his exploits in 2017, many thought Smith should’ve been recognized as a Heisman Trophy finalist, and you can hardly argue with the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

Also recognized with the Butkus Award, the nation’s top linebacker solidified a defense that shocked Auburn on route to a CFP appearance. If they’re hoping to top Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma, he will have to play a starring role.

6. McKenzie Milton, QB, Central Florida

We’ve reached our first quarterback on the list, and it’s Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton, arguably 2017’s most impressive Group of 5 quarterback, and perhaps the school’s best since Daunte Culpepper.

Despite almost as many passing attempts from last year to this, Milton has almost doubled his yardage, off the back of a completion percentage that has improved from 57.7% to 69.2%.

Milton’s UCF team will travel to Atlanta on New Year’s Day to face Auburn in the Peach Bowl, where the Knights and their QB have the chance to cap off a spectacular year with a premier bowl victory.

5. Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona

After starting the year as a backup, sophomore Khalil Tate became Arizona’s full-time starting quarterback this year, and promptly equaled a Pac-12 conference record of four Offensive Player of the Week nods.

By the end of the year, fans were discussing where Dawkins would be playing next year, such was the impression made by the Lamar Jackson/Michael Vick-ish talents of Tate.

It remains to be seen where he will take the Wildcats’ offense next year, and how he will do it, but the Inglewood native was one of this year’s most impressive breakout talents.

4. Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn

Much of Auburn’s hopes in a Peach Bowl victory lie with their RB Kerryon Johnson, cruelly denied a Heisman Trophy finalist nod, in some eyes, with many suggesting Auburn’s hopes for bowl victory rely solely on him.

Johnson picked up an injury in a miraculous Iron Bowl victory over Alabama, and his team felt the full force of his absence the following week, when they went down to Georgia in the SEC Championship game, denying them a CFP appearance.

The Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year led all-comers with 1,320 rushing yards, and lead his team with 17 touchdowns, on route to another 10-win season for the Tigers.

3. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

Without many household names on their roster, and few resume-building wins, Wisconsin’s remarkable season surely had to have an equally as remarkable trigger point, and it did – freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.

Taylor was not recognized as a Heisman Trophy Finalist this year, but many see his 1,847 rushing yards from this year and 6.8 yards per carry as an indicator he has a good chance to win one in the future.

Already one of the most complete backs in the country, Taylor is the kind of player the Badgers can build around over the next three years, in order to remedy this year’s failure to make the College Football Playoffs.

2. Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State

Just the second Group of 5 player to appear on this list, Rashaad Penny’s appearance at number two shows the kind of influence the senior had on college football this year.

On route to a 10-2 season for San Diego State, Penny more than doubled his rushing yards from the previous season (1,005 to 2,027) on his way to leading the FBS in that statistic.

Somehow, Penny was not a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, but has likely solidified his NFL chops with one of the most impressive seasons in his school’s history.

1. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford

It’s fitting the other side of the world was the starting point for a season so outstanding it ended in a Heisman Finalist nod.

Sydney, Australia was the venue when Stanford running back Bryce Love kicked off his exceptional 2017 with 180 yards off just 13 carries, his best average for a game this year.

When it was all said and done, Love had perhaps outmatched his impressive predecessor Christian McCaffrey, who went with the number eight pick to the Carolina Panthers in last year’s Draft. Is Love destined for the same?

Which breakout players impressed you this season? Discuss in the comments below!

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