15 breakout players for college football's 2017 season

Dr. Saturday

We’ve brought you lists of impact transfers and comeback players, so with the 2017 season so close, we decided it was time to give you a group of players poised to have big breakout seasons. You may have heard of some of these players. Others may be unfamiliar — for now. You’ll be aware of them soon enough.

Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma: Somebody has to catch all of those Baker Mayfield passes now that Dede Westbrook is gone, right? Mark Andrews, a 6-foot-5, 254-pound junior, could be the one to fill the void. He can’t make up that kind of lost production all on his own, but Andrews figures to see an increased role after catching 31 passes for 489 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. Of OU’s top five pass-catchers in 2016, he is the only one who will see the field in 2017 now that Nick Basquine is out for the year. Though listed as a tight end, Andrews lines up all over the field (often in the slot) and is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, especially in the red zone (14 career TD catches).

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[Dr. Saturday’s Top 25 – No. 5 Oklahoma]

Marlon Davidson, DL, Auburn: Marlon Davidson lived up to his billing as a five-star recruit in 2016. He quickly moved into the starting lineup at defensive end and had a pretty solid year, accumulating 38 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. At 6-foot-3 and 282 pounds, he has the chance to develop into a dominant force on the Tigers’ defensive line. He has dealt with a knee injury during preseason camp, but is expected to be ready for the start of the year. Expect a big leap forward.

[Dr. Saturday’s Top 25 – No. 10 Auburn]

Healed from a shoulder injury, Jesse Ertz’s passing number should be much better in 2017. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)
Healed from a shoulder injury, Jesse Ertz’s passing number should be much better in 2017. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

Jesse Ertz, QB, Kansas State: Jesse Ertz hurt his shoulder midway through the 2016 season, but he played through the pain and finished the season with 1,755 passing yards, 1,012 rushing yards and 21 combined touchdowns. The shoulder injury limited KSU’s passing attack, but after an offseason surgery, Ertz, who previously missed 2015 with a knee injury, should be full-strength for the Wildcats. If he’s healthy, Ertz will present a true dual-threat to Big 12 defenses and could be one of the league’s most dangerous players, especially if he can increase his completion percentage.

[Dr. Saturday’s Top 25 – No. 19 Kansas State]

Chris Evans, RB, Michigan: Jim Harbaugh has brought in a lot of heralded recruits during his time at Michigan, but Chris Evans wasn’t among that crop of four-and-five-star prospects. That didn’t stop Evans from making an immediate impact for the Wolverines in 2016 as a true freshman. As the No. 2 running back behind De’Veon Smith, Evans rushed for 614 yards and four touchdowns on just 88 carries — a 7.0-yard average. UM should have plenty of depth at the position in 2017, but it’ll start with the speedy Evans, who has reportedly added some bulk to his 200-pound frame to sustain a bigger workload.

[Dr. Saturday’s Top 25 – No. 12 Michigan]

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Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan: Yes, another Michigan player. When you lose as many starters as the Wolverines, there are going to be a lot of new faces making major contributions. But if you follow recruiting in any capacity, you know the name Rashan Gary. Gary was the No. 1 overall prospect in 2016. He played in every game last season at defensive end, and now he’s ready to thrive. As a reserve, the 6-foot-5, 287-pound Gary totaled 26 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Expect those numbers to skyrocket in 2017, provided he stays healthy. Gary is a beast.

Daniel Jones, QB, Duke: Daniel Jones was thrust into the starting lineup for Duke as a redshirt freshman after Thomas Sirk went down with another Achilles injury. As soon as the season began, Jones did not looked overwhelmed at all in the role. Though Duke had a down year and missed a bowl for the first time since 2011, Jones proved he belonged in the ACC by throwing for 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns. And when Sirk returned to health, Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe made it clear that Jones was his starting quarterback. Cutcliffe gets the most out of his teams and Jones looks like a guy with an NFL future. Don’t be surprised if the Blue Devils outperform expectations in 2017.

Tennessee RB John Kelly had an increased role down the stretch in 2016. Now he’s the No. 1 option. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Tennessee RB John Kelly had an increased role down the stretch in 2016. Now he’s the No. 1 option. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

John Kelly, RB, Tennessee: Tennessee fans got a good look at John Kelly after Jalen Hurd decided to leave the program and they liked what they saw. Kelly split time with Alvin Kamara and had a few 100-yard games late in the year. He finished the season with 630 yards and five touchdowns on 98 attempts, good for a 6.4-yard average. Now the No. 1 back, Kelly is poised to put up huge numbers for the Vols as a junior. UT will be breaking in a new quarterback, so Kelly will be relied on pretty heavily. He should be up to the challenge.

Christian Miller, LB, Alabama: In a lighthearted exchange with a reporter, Nick Saban begrudgingly talked up linebacker Christian Miller the other day, saying the junior has “done a nice job” and had a “really good camp.” That’s good news for Alabama fans wondering who will be getting after the quarterback in 2017. Miller, a redshirt junior, was a solid backup for the Tide last year after coming into the program as a touted recruit. He has waited for his turn to start. It looks like 2017 will be his chance at outside linebacker.

Isaac Nauta, TE, Georgia: Georgia needs some reliable pass-catchers to step up for stud sophomore QB Jacob Eason. Perhaps his classmate Isaac Nauta can be that guy. Nauta was a five-star recruit for the Bulldogs alongside Eason in 2016 who ended up finishing third on the team with 29 catches. Those catches went for 361 yards and three touchdowns. At 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, Nauta can be a difficult matchup for opposing defenses. He’ll be in line for increased targets in 2017 as the Bulldogs look for a competent passing game to go with what should be one of the better running games in the country.

[Dr. Saturday’s Top 25 – No. 16 Georgia]

Shea Patterson, QB, Ole Miss: With only three games left in 2016, Ole Miss decided to pull the redshirt off five-star freshman Shea Patterson. Patterson got his feet wet and played pretty well, showing college football fans why the Rebels were so thrilled to land his commitment. He showed flashes of brilliance in those three games, throwing for 880 yards and six touchdowns, but also showed plenty of room for growth (three interceptions, 54.5 completion percentage). With a bowl ban already in place and Hugh Freeze out the door, Ole Miss could have a real “go-for-it” approach to its season. Patterson should thrive, making the Rebels a team SEC teams won’t want to face.

Cal’s Demetris Robertson has All-Pac-12 potential. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Cal’s Demetris Robertson has All-Pac-12 potential. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Demetris Robertson, WR, Cal: It was a big deal with Demetris Robertson spurned home-state Georgia to go out West and signed with Cal. He showed why with a stellar true freshman season: 50 catches for 767 yards and 7 touchdowns. While the Golden Bears appear to be entering a rebuild, Robertson could emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top playmakers. Cal’s quarterback competition hasn’t been settled yet, but whoever wins the job will look Robertson’s way early and often.

Bradrick Shaw, RB, Wisconsin: Despite playing behind Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, Bradrick Shaw always flashed when he got the ball in 2016 as a redshirt freshman. Now after Clement and Ogunbowale graduated, the speedy Shaw has the chance to really showcase his abilities in the Big Ten. The 2017 Wisconsin team is built like many before it. It is equipped to run the ball right down your throat. Shaw, who had 457 yards and five touchdowns, will make a formidable duo with Pitt transfer Chris James for the Badgers.

[Dr. Saturday’s Top 25 – No. 15 Wisconsin]

Kendall Sheffield, CB, Ohio State: Kendall Sheffield was a heralded recruit who signed with Alabama out of the 2015 class. He was pushing for playing time ahead of the 2016 season, but opted to transfer. After a year in junior college, Sheffield resurfaced at another big program: Ohio State. The Buckeyes crank out stellar defensive backs on a yearly basis. Sheffield could be next. He’ll presumably line up opposite Denzel Ward for OSU. He’ll have plenty of chances to make big plays.

Josh Sweat totaled 4.5 sacks over Florida State’s final three games in 2016. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Josh Sweat totaled 4.5 sacks over Florida State’s final three games in 2016. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State: Josh Sweat, a five-star recruit in 2015, has dealt with injuries during his FSU career, but he finally produced at a high level late in the 2016 campaign. Over the last three games of the season, Sweat led the team with 4.5 sacks to finish the season with seven total. He also had 41 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss. If his knee is completely healthy, Sweat is going to be in the backfield constantly. He could be one of the ACC leaders in sacks.

Vita Vea, DL, Washington: Washington has a lot of top talent to replace from a defense that helped the Huskies reach the College Football Playoff. One area UW should be just fine is at defensive tackle. The massive 6-foot-5, 340-pound Vita Vea has NFL evaluators salivating for his potential as a run-stuffer and interior pass-rusher. He started only five games in 2016, but finished the year with 39 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He’ll see those numbers increase provided Pac-12 offenses don’t run away from him *too* much.

[Dr. Saturday’s Top 25 – No. 9 Washington]

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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