Hogan, Burbridge among 10 biggest breakout players of the year
The 2015 regular season is in the books, and only the bowl games stand between us and a long wait for the return of college football. This is the time to reflect on the season we’ve just witnessed, the time to hand out awards and select all-star teams.
In that spirit we’re picking out ten breakout performers from the 2015 season, from a variety of positions. These may be players who made a much greater impact than in the past, players who were limited by a lack of opportunity prior to 2015, or even freshmen who have exploded onto the scene.
Quarterback: Kevin Hogan, Stanford Cardinal
Hogan first started for Stanford as a redshirt freshman midway through the 2012 season, and has been under center for the Cardinal ever since. He’s spent much of that time flattering to deceive, displaying many of the qualities you’d want in a star QB, but rarely showing all of them in the same game. He sprang into life towards the end of the 2014 season, earning a +11 grade through the final three games, that dragged his grade for the year up to +0.8.
It seemed set to be the same old story when Hogan opened 2015 with a -3.5 grade in the Cardinal’s loss at Northwestern, but that was easily his worst display of the season. Stanford rallied from that point, with Hogan’s the steady hand at the tiller. He threw for 2,644 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions, earning an impressive +23.5 overall grade and finally delivering on his potential.
Running back: Leonard Fournette, LSU Tigers
Given the hype that surrounded Fournette when he arrived in Baton Rouge, and accompanied him as a freshman, not many would consider him a breakout candidate. However, from a grading perspective, there’s a night-and-day difference between Fournette the freshman and Fournette the sophomore.
As a freshmen he rushed for 1034 yards, scored 10 touchdowns, averaged 2.2 yards after contact and forced 31 missed tackles on his way to a solid +8.3 overall grade. As a sophomore that stat line grew to 1741 yards, 18 touchdowns, 3.7 yards after contact and 77 missed tackles on his way to a 32.8 overall grade. In 2014, Fournette was good, but not even the best of that terrific freshman class; yet he was peerless among backs for much of the 2015 season.
Wide receiver: Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State Spartans
In 2014, Michigan State QB Connor Cook had a special connection to wide receiver Tony Lippett, targeting him 105 times. Burbidge was his second-favorite receiver, but a distant second — he received a paltry 50 targets and finished with 29 catches for 358 yards and one touchdown, earning a -0.2 overall grade. In 2015 it was Burbridge who had earned Cook’s trust — he was targeted 137 times and turned that into 80 catches for 1,219 yards and seven touchdowns. That improved performance helped Burbridge to a +24.6 overall grade, fifth-best among Power-5 wide outs.
Tight end: Gerald Everett, South Alabama Jaguars
Indiana RB Jordan Howard isn’t the only former UAB Blazer to thrive in a new home in 2015, South Alabama tight end Gerald Everett was another unqualified success. With UAB in 2014, Everett caught 17 passes for 292 yards and one touchdown, his +3.1 overall grade ranked 69th out of 191 qualified tight ends. In 2015, he was the focal point of the South Alabama passing attack, catching 41 passes for 575 yards and eight touchdowns — all three totals led the team. That earned Everett a +12.9 overall grade, 12th out of 216 tight ends, and his +7.7 receiving grade ranked fourth.
Offensive line: Tyrell Crosby, Oregon Ducks
Few players better illustrate the improvement a player can make from their true freshman season to their sophomore year than Oregon OT Tyrell Crosby. Thrust into the line-up almost as soon as he set foot on the Duck’s campus in 2014, Crosby was forced to learn on the job, and it showed. Playing mostly at right tackle, but also seeing time on the left, Crosby conceded four sacks and 17 total pressures. He finished an uneven season with a -8.6 overall grade, graded negatively in pass protection (-8.8), and just about broke even as a run blocker (+0.2). Crosby looked a different player in 2015, earning a +22.9 overall grade. That grade included real progress in pass protection (+3.3), but it was in the run game that Crosby shone, his +24.5 run block grade was second among the nations tackles.
Edge defender: Carl Nassib, Penn State Nittany Lions
Forced to bide his time behind more established starters, Nassib had to wait four years for his opportunity, but he grasped it with both hands when it came. Nassib recorded two sacks, seven total pressures and posted a +3.7 overall grade as a backup in 2014, more was expected in 2015 after he’d assumed a starting role, but few could have foreseen a sack season, a single-season record at Penn State. Nassib didn’t just lead the nation in sacks — he generated 52 total pressures from 226 pass rush snaps, giving him a pass rushing productivity of 19.0 and making him the most productive 4-3 defensive end in the nation on a per-snap basis.
Interior defender: Jonathan Bullard, Florida Gators
Bullard’s is no rag-to-riches story. A former five-star recruit, much was expected of Bullard and he made an immediate impact, earning a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team in 2012 before developing into a solid defensive lineman, if not quite living up to that five-star potential. In 2014, Bullard accumulated an +8.8 overall grade, good for 118th out of 426 eligible interior defenders, but someway short of the best. Fast forward one year and Bullard looks every bit the star that was expected of him.
His +53.8 overall grade ranks second among interior defenders (DTs and 3-4 DE). His impact as a pass rusher improved (two sacks and 16 total pressures in 2014 became seven sacks and 30 total pressures), but it was his work in run defense that made him special. Bullard finished 2015 with a +44.9 run defense grade — the best in the nation among interior defenders.
Linebacker: Jatavis Brown, Akron Zips
In 2014, Brown was an above-average, if somewhat undersized linebacker who led the zips with 57 defensive stops, and contributed handily as a pass rusher, with four sacks and 17 total pressures to his name. That earned him a more than useful +11.1 overall grade (67th out of 384 LBs), with +0.9 coming as a pass rusher, +1.7 in coverage. Brown took a step forward in 2015, with his +36.5 overall grade the second-best mark among the nations linebackers. His +10.1 coverage grade was a significant improvement, but it was his improvement as a pass rusher that was most noticeable. Brown recorded 13 sacks, and 46 total pressures, helping him to a +21.6 pass rush grade, and that improved production came on just 42 more pass rushes than he’d had in 2014.
Cornerback: Shawun Lurry, Northern Illinois Huskies
Barely used or tested in 2014, Lurry played just 46 snaps as a freshman. He was targeted nine times and allowed four completions for 59 yards. Lurry saw no shortage of action as a sophomore however, playing 738 snaps and being targeted 77 times. He held up remarkably well for a first-year starter, earning a +13.9 coverage grade, which was tied for eighth-best among corners, and conceding just one touchdown. Moreover, throwing the ball in Lurry’s direction was positively dangerous for opponents, he made a nation-leading nine interceptions, and broke up a further nine passes. Opposing QBs had a 40.2 passer rating when targeting him.
Safety: Derwin James, Florida State Seminoles
The only true freshman on this list, James was nothing short of sensational in his debut season, earning a +25.3 overall grade and a nomination as second-team PFF All-American. A safety by trade, James did a little bit of everything and did it all well, as his grades in coverage (+5.8), run defense (+7.7) and pass rushing (+12.2) show. He allowed just 44.8 percent of passes that came into his coverage to be completed, with none going for a touchdown. However, it was as a pass rusher that James made the biggest impression, racking up five sacks, 23 total pressures and demonstrating the ability to engage and defeat blockers to get the quarterback.