• After offering hints of their potential last season, look for sophomores like Michigan's Rashan Gary, Ole Miss's Van Jefferson and Oregon's Justin Herbert to shine this fall.
By Colin Becht
March 30, 2017

It’s fair to begin to expect players to live up to their potential by their sophomore seasons. As they enter their second (or third, in the case of redshirts) seasons of college, the excuses of youth and time for development are over; it’s time for them to prove they are worthy of the hype that brought them into their respective programs in the first place.

So far this season, we’ve already looked at the redshirt freshman who could break out, but now let’s turn to the core of college football stars in the making. These players have bided their time and offered glimpses of their capabilities. Now it’s time to deliver.

This list looks for players who haven’t already emerged in their true freshman or redshirt freshman seasons. So while sophomores like USC quarterback Sam Darnold and Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts may top the early Heisman Trophy odds, let’s identify some players who could break out and become national names this fall.

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While fellow sophomore Shane Buechele aims to hang onto his role as starting quarterback, Duvernay seems the safer bet to post big numbers in 2017. The one-time Baylor pledge became an immediate deep threat in Texas’s offense in 2016, leading the Longhorns with 20.6 yards per reception. He seemed poised for a breakout season as a freshman, posting consecutive games of 81, 96 and 80 yards at midseason, but Duvernay’s late season numbers dropped as Buechele fell into a second-half slump. Assuming Buechele can return to his early-season form (or true freshman Sam Ehlinger proves up to the job), Duvernay should shine as a speedy slot option in coach Tom Herman’s offense.

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The big prize of National Signing Day 2016, Gary has a prime opportunity to prove he is worthy of the hype this fall. Despite limited opportunities last season, Gary still finished with five tackles for loss and one sack. Now with just one starter returning from Michigan’s defense, Gary is set to start at defensive end. And with highly productive defensive tackle Maurice Hurst manning the line next to him, Gary should get plenty of chances to go one on one with an offensive tackle to get to the quarterback. “I’m not sure there’s a better tandem, anchor-tackle, in the country,” Wolverines defensive coordinator Don Brown told the Detroit Free Press.

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Herbert was arguably too successful last season for 2017 to be considered his breakout year. But his emergence as Oregon’s clear answer at quarterback came amid the Ducks’ nosedive, so you can be forgiven for not noticing the true freshman passer who completed 63.5% of his passes with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions. Oregon’s atrocious defense made most of that statistical production worthless in the win-loss column last year, but at least new coach Willie Taggart can take over with his quarterback situation settled. Herbert will have to work with an almost entirely new cast of receivers, but skill position talent has rarely been lacking in Eugene.

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The player responsible for distributing the ball to Jefferson could also make this list, but Jefferson has more production so far to back up his potential than quarterback Shea Patterson, who played in just three games last year. The 6’ 2”, 187-pound Jefferson quickly worked himself into a big role in the Rebels’ passing attack, catching 12 balls over his first three games and finishing the season with 49 receptions for 543 yards. With tight end Evan Engram and wideout Damore’ea Stringfellow off to the NFL, Jefferson is Ole Miss’s leading returning receiver. As Patterson takes over the starting role from Chad Kelly, expect him to turn to Jefferson frequently.

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Quarterback Jacob Eason came into Athens with near endless hype, and while he didn’t blow defenses away, he enters 2017 with a firm grasp of the Bulldogs offense. Key to the success of that offense will be the further use of one of Eason’s top receiving options, fellow former five-star recruit Nauta. The tight end caught 29 passes for 361 yards and was named a freshman All-America. After a full season of working with Eason, expect Nauta’s role within the offense to skyrocket now that top receiver Isaiah McKenzie is gone. Georgia’s offense should center on its ground game with running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel; that should create plenty of opportunities for Nauta to leak out for passes.

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As the Pac-12 freshman defensive playoff of the year, Rapp is already highly regarded on the West Coast. But with the top names of Washington’s secondary, safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones, gone, Rapp takes over as the primary defensive playmaker for the defending Pac-12 champions. It’s a role Rapp should relish after he racked up four interceptions, a forced fumble and 53 tackles last season. He’ll try to maintain a Huskies pass defense that allowed a conference-low 5.7 yards per pass attempt in 2016.

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Hokies defensive tackle Woody Baron had his breakout season as a senior last year, racking up 18.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Behind him, Settle quietly laid the foundation for his own emergence, finishing his redshirt freshman season with seven tackles for loss and a blocked field goal despite not starting a game last year. That should change this fall with Baron and Nigel Williams vacating their starting defensive tackle spots. Settle arrived at Virginia Tech weighing 360 pounds but has cut down to 328 to give him greater agility without negating his ability to plug holes.

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The last time college football fans saw Stidham, he was picking apart Big 12 defenses for Baylor before a broken ankle ended his 2015 season. After a year away and a move to the SEC, Stidham will try to pick up where he left off. He technically still has to win the starting job at Auburn, but all signs point to Stidham guiding the Tigers’ offense in their Sept. 2 opener against Georgia Southern. Stidham shined as a true freshman at Baylor when he filled in for Seth Russell, completing 68.8% of his passes for 11.6 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. With new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s attack relying much more heavily on the passing game than Auburn has in recent season, Stidham could be an ideal fit.

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Williams performed admirably as the Crimson Tide’s right tackle last season, earning freshman All-America honors for the national runners-up. However, now he must prepare for an even larger role as a sophomore as Cam Robinson vacates the left tackle job after 43 starts. Those are big shoes to fill, but so far there’s little reason to doubt the former fourth-ranked offensive tackle recruit in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, is up to the task. Protecting Hurts’s blind side will be essential to the Alabama quarterback making his own sophomore leap.

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