This time of year, with media days on the horizon and the fall camp steadily approaching, our roundtable begins to steer the conversation towards specific teams and looking ahead to what could be. Though this year is as up in the air as can be, we will stick with our tradition and ask the question: who will be the offensive and defensive breakout players in 2020 for your respective teams?
For San Diego State, there are a few players that are on my breakout watchlist. On offense, tight end Daniel Bellinger is a likely candidate as his 2019 performance was stellar in his limited participation. With more playing time, a sturdy frame, and above-average athleticism, he is primed for a strong 2020, as long as his QB can get him the ball. Unlike Bellinger, whose production is contingent on QB play, running back Jordan Byrd also has a chance to burst onto the scene next season. He has a great combination of balance and speed and although he received the fourth most touches last year, he was the most efficient. Keep your eyes on him in the loaded Aztecs backfield.
Defensively, Dwayne Johnson Jr. is my pick, even though he was already dominant a year ago. He hardly missed tackles, clamped down in coverage, and did not allow anything past him on the ground. The reason I have him here is because he actually posted just 2 turnovers, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble. He has the ability to more than triple those numbers in 2020.
Boise State has several breakout candidates going into the 2020 season. One offense, the most intriguing breakout candidate is Octavius Evans. The senior receiver out of Texas has been a potential breakout player for a few years running. After being awarded the coveted number one jersey in 2018, fans were put on notice of his potential. Injuries have prevented Evans from fully realizing his potential so far, but the stars seem to be aligning for a big senior season. Evans should help fill the shoes of John Hightower and be a breakout star for the Broncos.
On defense there are a gluttony of breakout candidates. The most obvious candidates are NT Scale Igiehon, STUD Demitri Washington, CB Markel Reed, and SS JL Skinner. Since those are the obvious ones, let’s pick RS junior Tyreque Jones. Jones appeared in eight games last season and finished with 4.5 tackles-for-loss, an interception, and a fumble recovery. Jones will likely be the starter at free safety and can also be used at nickel. Beyond his obvious talent and progression, Jones is in line for a larger role due to some attrition on the Boise State roster
The New Mexico Lobos have several candidates as well. The biggest difference between this upcoming season and previous ones is that there will be more effort on both sides of the football. Many might think that a player who rushed for 536 yards, including 193 yards in one game, in a season would be a breakout season. However, I think given his talent level the player who could have a breakout year in 2020 could very well be Bryson Carroll. He has the speed to outrun people in the open field, it would behoove the Lobos to get him the ball in space and let him work. If the game against Colorado State last season is any indication, Carroll could be in for a big season.
Defensively for the Lobos there is a ton of excitement around the group given the fact that the new defensive coordinator is former head coach Rocky Long. With Long’s guidance there could be multiple players that have a breakout season for the Lobos. More often than not, under Long’s tutelage, it is the linebackers and defensive backs that stand out in his 3-3-5 scheme. That being said, I believe that Kameron Miller will have a breakout season from his safety position. Usually in Long’s scheme the safety is allowed to play with reckless abandon and that should help Miller’s play out significantly. Expect him to be flying around the ball this fall, or spring, whenever we get going.
I’ll look at Colorado State for this week.
For offense, I’m going to look for running back Jaylen Thomas to have a big year. The sophomore was the third rushing option last season, and put up a respectable 222 yards on 68 carries, plus three touchdowns for good measure. This year, Thomas should be the primary backup to senior Marcus McElroy, who only had 80 carries last year, so a more even split wouldn’t be a surprise. Especially in Addazio’s offense, which is more of a ground-based attack.
Heading over to the defensive side of the ball, Keevan Bailey is my pick. He played in eight games as a true freshman, putting up modest numbers in a backup role. It is very likely he will be inserted into the starting lineup in a talented secondary. Bailey should be able to greatly improve upon his 20 tackles, one sack and one interception with a season under his belt and a full year’s worth of games to wreak havoc. He’s a good bet to take a big leap as a sophomore.
For the Falcons, I have two players on offense to keep an eye on. First is David Cormier, a wide receiver who sat out last year because of his loss of cadet in good standing. He is a receiver very much in the mold of Jalen Robinette and Garaud Sanders, standing at 6’3” and weighing 210 pounds. He has shown good hands in practice and can go up and get the high passes. Brandon Lewis is a slotback in the mold of Ben Waters, short in stature but a speed burner who can outrun defenders, probably even more so than Waters.
On defense, I expect Christopher Herrera to continue the development he showed at the end of the year when he took over as a starting defensive end and came up with 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a pass breakup.
As a side note, given the suspension of Donald Hammond, whoever takes over at quarterback will most likely be a “breakout” because he will be starting from zero and will most likely produce a good amount of yards and do a fine job at running the offense, if not to the level of Hammond.
My breakout players for Wyoming are actually a couple of seniors, Esaias Gandy and Ayden Eberhardt.
First, Esaias Gandy looks to take over at safety for Alijah Halliburton (130 tackles, 2 sacks & 2 INTs in 2019). Halliburton showed last season that a senior can step in to start at safety and be very productive as Halliburton was replacing Andrew Wingard last year. Gandy has experience in the program at safety. If he can stay healthy, Gandy could have a huge increase in his stats from the 25 tackles (37 in his career) made in 2019. Gandy already showed a knack for making some plays last season (1 forced fumble & 2 fumbles recovered). Again, if Gandy can stay healthy, he might emerge for the Cowboys on defense similar to how Halliburton did in 2019.
Second, Ayden Eberhardt is a WR for Wyoming. Not exactly the most glamorous position for the Cowboys in recent years as Wyoming has struggled to throw the ball. Wyoming lost John Okwoli, Austin Conway & Raghib Ismail Jr at WR to graduation. As such, expect Ayden to have a few more passes thrown to him his senior year. Last season, Ayden had 8 receptions for 168 yds & 2 TDs. Ayden flashed the potential to make a few big plays, averaging 21 yds/catch. Whether Levi Williams or Sean Chambers plays at QB, I expect Wyoming to continue to improve (look at the Arizona Bowl) in the passing game over the terrible results of most of 2018 & 2019. Both QBs have some experience in the offense and have shown signs of promise. Next season, Ayden will have the opportunity to emerge as a go-to receiver for the Cowboys. While I don’t expect huge results, Ayden could breakout by more than quadrupling his production from 2019 in his senior year. That is if he stays healthy, and Wyoming continues to find more competency in the passing game.
There are multiple players on both sides that could be argued for Nevada.
First, let’s start on the offensive side. This choice might not be your typical “breakout” player — because of his productive freshman year — but I believe this person will undergo significant improvement this season. That player I’m thinking of is quarterback Carson Strong. Strong returns all of his important skill position players, including All-Conference receiver Romeo Doubs (44 rec., 649 yards, 4 TDs in ‘19) and a potential All-Conference talent Elijah Cooks (76 rec., 926 yards, 8 TDs). In his first season as a starter, Strong underwent a roller coaster 2019 campaign behind a dismal run-game and one of the worst offensive lines in the nation. It’s Nevada returns all five starters on the line, which is important for continuity, thus the level for improvement could increase. The line will need to improve to put Strong in more manageable situations, which seemed to occur inconsistently last year. With an additional season under center, weapons at the skill positions and offensive line continuity, I think Strong is poised for a strong (no pun intended) redshirt sophomore season.
Defensively, I see defensive end Sam Hammond as a potential breakout player. There were stints last season where he and All-Mountain first team honoree Dom Peterson would create havoc in the backfield. New defensive coordinator Brian Ward is expected to use multiple defensive fronts — drifting away from Jeff Casteel’s 3-man front — so both Peterson and Hammond could move around the line, giving opposing offensive different looks while attempting to seek potential advantages or mismatches. As the conference’s returning sack and tackle-for-loss leader, offenses will look to minimize Peterson’s production on a week-by-week basis, so he will experience fair share of double teams. Consequently, this could potentially crack open opportunities for the remainder of the Wolf Pack defensive line, especially Hammond. He possesses great length, listed at 6-foot-5, along with strength and athleticism to perpetuate havoc. He totaled 3.0 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks last year, but I believe his potential will open up room for improvement in both of those departments in 2020.