<
>

Stanford QB Chryst, Ohio State RB Weber among CFB's next big things

play
Predicting college football's next big things (2:39)

College football reporter Chris Low looks at players and coaches who will take their games to the next level in 2016. (2:39)

Part of the charm of college football is looking for the next big thing in a sport drenched in tradition.

You know, the next Herschel Walker, the next Woody Hayes or the next "The band is out on the field" finish to a game.

It's what we do as college football junkies, a way to pass the time until the next season arrives.

Who knew at this time a year ago that Baker Mayfield would go from just another quarterback competing for a starting job to a Heisman Trophy candidate? Who knew Tom Herman would lead Houston to a magical season? Who knew Kevin Dodd would morph into a star in his own right?

So with the 2015 season still very fresh in our minds, we take a stab at the "Next Big Things" for 2016.

The next Baker Mayfield: Stanford QB Keller Chryst

For a guy who just sort of showed up on Oklahoma's campus after transferring from Texas Tech and walking on, Mayfield was terrific for the Sooners. He won the job in preseason camp and accounted for 43 touchdowns in leading OU to a Big 12 championship and College Football Playoff appearance. Nobody is predicting that Chryst is going to make a run at 50 touchdowns next season, but he has the talent, size and pedigree to give Pac-12 defenses fits. It helps that he'll have Christian McCaffrey in his backfield, and it also helps that the 6-foot-5, 233-pound Chryst is already a better passer than Kevin Hogan was at this point in his career. A third-year sophomore, Chryst's father, Geep, is the former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator, and his uncle, Paul, is Wisconsin's head coach. Chryst was impressive during his limited time of subbing for Hogan last season and he still has to beat out fourth-year junior Ryan Burns for the job, but Chryst's massive upside has Stanford fans stoked about the future.

The next Vernon Adams: Oregon QB Dakota Prukop

Unlike Adams, who didn't become eligible at Oregon until two weeks before the opener, Prukop is already on campus at Oregon and will go through spring practice. He was quite the commodity after graduating from Montana State and deciding he wanted to play his final season in the FBS ranks. Oregon beat out Alabama and several other tradition-rich schools to get him. Prukop accounted for 69 touchdowns in his two years as Montana State's starter and is an excellent fit for Oregon's offense. Montana State used some of the same spread concepts in their offense as Oregon did. Once Adams was healthy last season, he was terrific in running the Ducks' offense. Prukop might end up being more of a cross between Adams and Marcus Mariota. Either way, he's primed for a big season in his new football digs.

The next Connor Williams: Ole Miss OT pledge Gregory Little

When Ole Miss landed Laremy Tunsil three years ago, he almost immediately became the cornerstone of the offensive line. The 6-foot-5, 318-pound Little, who is expected to sign with the Rebels next week, is poised to follow in Tunsil's footsteps. He's the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2016 ESPN 300 and chose Ole Miss over Alabama. The Rebels also have a real need at offensive tackle. Tunsil turned pro, and their starting right tackle from a year ago, Fahn Cooper, was a senior. It's never easy for a true freshman to come in and start right away at left tackle, which is what Williams did last season for Texas in earning consensus freshman All-American honors. Little's size and power make him a natural to protect Chad Kelly's blind side, but those who've scouted Little say what sets him apart is how technically sound he is at a young age and how naturally he plays the position.

The next Deshaun Watson: Florida State S Derwin James

No need to leave the ACC for next year's true sophomore breakout star. It was obvious Watson was destined for greatness after his freshman season at Clemson, and the same goes for James. The Seminoles have had their share of stud defensive backs, most recently Jalen Ramsey. The 6-3, 212-pound James is next in line. As a freshman, he finished second on the team with 91 tackles, the most ever by an FSU defensive back, and shows the versatility to cover down the field on one play and rush the passer the next. In 2016, he'll be one of the better defenders in college football.

The next Christian McCaffrey: Michigan State DL Malik McDowell

McCaffrey went from very good to great in his sophomore season at Stanford, and that's exactly what McDowell will do as a junior. He's the only returning starter on Michigan State's defensive line after earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore. The 6-foot-6, 280-pound McDowell has everything it takes to be the top interior defensive lineman in the country. He has a huge wingspan, explosive burst off the ball and the power to collapse the pocket. He grew up from his freshman to his sophomore season and will be even more aware as a junior of what opposing offenses are trying to do to slow him down. Interior linemen don't always put up big numbers, but McDowell had 13 tackles for loss last season and eight quarterback hurries. The bad news for the Spartans is that next season almost certainly will be McDowell's last in East Lansing because he'll play his way into being a top-10 NFL draft pick.

The next Jabrill Peppers: Ohio State RB Mike Weber

Peppers was exactly what Michigan had hoped he would be in 2015 after an early-season injury two years ago forced him to redshirt. The Wolverines' archrival is hoping for the same kind of impact from Weber, the front-runner to take over for Ezekiel Elliott. Weber probably would have played some last season were it not for a torn meniscus he suffered in preseason practice. He's completely healthy now and reminds some in the Ohio State program of Carlos Hyde with his bruising running style. The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder turned more than a few heads during bowl practices. A lot of times it's beneficial for a player to sit out a year anyway, and now Weber is eager to show just why he was the subject of such a fierce recruiting battle between Ohio State and Michigan.

The next Laquon Treadwell: Georgia RB Nick Chubb

That awful image of Treadwell breaking his leg just before he reached the end zone against Auburn two years ago was replaced by Treadwell having a record-setting season for Ole Miss in 2015 and helping to lead the Rebels to a top-10 ranking. Look for Chubb to have a similar bounce-back season for the Bulldogs. One of the more explosive backs in the country, Chubb was gashing defenses and averaging 149 rushing yards per game before tearing three ligaments in his left knee against Tennessee. Serious knee injuries can be tricky for running backs, but Chubb is ahead of schedule in his recovery -- and he didn't tear his ACL or suffer any nerve or artery damage. And if he's just back to 90 percent by the fall, that's a scary proposition for opposing defenses.

The next Kevin Dodd: Texas A&M DE Daeshon Hall

Dodd was unblockable down the stretch for Clemson, which was huge because his more highly touted sidekick at defensive end, Shaq Lawson, was limited because of a knee injury. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Hall should also shine despite being overshadowed by another member of his team's defense. Hall has gained 50 pounds since his freshman season and gives the Aggies one of the best returning pass-rushing tandems in the country. Everybody knows about junior Myles Garrett and for good reason. He had 19.5 tackles for loss, including 12.5 sacks last season. But Hall, who elected to return for his senior season, racked up 14.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks a year ago. Shoulder injuries stunted Hall's development in the weight room when he first arrived at Texas A&M, but he blossomed last season, and the best is yet to come.

The next Carl Nassib: Baylor QB Seth Russell

Nassib, a former walk-on, came out of nowhere to be one of the most productive defensive linemen in the country last season for Penn State. Russell won't come out of nowhere because he started as Baylor's quarterback last season, but he's had to wait his turn after playing behind Bryce Petty and Nick Florence, and then breaking a bone in his neck against Iowa State last year. At the time of the injury, Russell was having a huge season. He had accounted for 35 touchdowns before he was injured, and the Bears were unbeaten. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder will be a fifth-year senior and still has plenty of talented playmakers around him. He'll also have starting experience for half a season. Don't be surprised if Russell makes a legitimate run at the Heisman Trophy.

The next Kirk Ferentz: Tennessee's Butch Jones

Iowa lost a total of 25 games in the four seasons under Ferentz before going 12-2 last season and coming within a game of the College Football Playoff. The expectation on Rocky Top is that Jones, in his fourth season, will elevate the Vols into that stratosphere in 2016. They won nine games a year ago but were unable to hold leads in narrow losses to Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Oklahoma. Jones didn't stand pat this offseason. He hired Bob Shoop away from Penn State as his defensive coordinator. What's more, two key seniors on defense, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton, both decided to return to school. Quarterback Josh Dobbs will be a third-year starter, and Jalen Hurd is one of the more underrated running backs in the country. The schedule also tilts in Tennessee's favor with Alabama and Florida both coming to Knoxville. If Jones and the Vols can finish some games next season, they should be right in the middle of the playoff chase.

The next Kirby Smart: Notre Dame OC Mike Sanford

After all those years of being a defensive coordinator under Nick Saban, Smart was picky, and it paid off. He got his dream job when Georgia hired him to return to his alma mater as head coach. Sanford has been at Notre Dame for only one season as offensive coordinator, but his name popped up in several job openings this past offseason, including Syracuse and Virginia. Sanford, 34, is widely considered to be one of the brightest offensive minds in the college game and is especially adept at developing quarterbacks. Look at what he did last season with Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. The Boise State offense under Sanford was a juggernaut in 2014, and he also coached under David Shaw at Stanford. The Irish had better enjoy Sanford in 2016 because he's destined to land a big-time head-coaching job.

The next Houston Cougars: Washington Huskies

The first season was the charm for Tom Herman at Houston. Here's betting the third season will be the charm for Chris Petersen at Washington. The Huskies have lost six games in each of his first two seasons, but Petersen brings back a talented nucleus of younger players, notably sophomore quarterback Jake Browning and sophomore running back Myles Gaskin. Four starters are back on the offensive line, and a defense that led the Pac-12 last season in scoring defense (18.8 points), total defense (351.8 yards) and red zone defense (79.5 percent) returns seven starters. Washington probably will be picked somewhere in the middle of the Pac-12's North Division in the preseason. But if the Huskies can win some key games on the road, they're talented enough to make some real noise in the Pac-12 next season.