• Players like Penn State's Juwan Johnson and Notre Dame's Daelin Hayes look like they're set for big 2017 seasons after shining this spring.
By Colin Becht
May 12, 2017

It won’t show up in the 2017 stats, but the road to a breakout season begins in spring practice. Just look at Mitch Trubisky, who completed 10 of his first 11 passes in North Carolina’s spring game last year to help lock down the starting job en route to becoming the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft. So if you’re looking for hints on who could be the rising stars of this fall, take a closer look at some of the spring’s most impressive players.

This group of eight players, which includes a surprisingly large contingent of wide receivers, all went above and beyond this spring.

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As Lamar Jackson sets out to defend his Heisman Trophy in 2017, he’ll have to do so without his top three targets from last season: wide receivers James Quick and Jamari Staples and tight end Cole Hikutini. Enter Dez Fitzpatrick, who redshirted last season. Fitzpatrick drew praise after a closed scrimmage from coach Bobby Petrino and then really put on a show in Louisville’s spring game, catching nine passes for 176 yards with two touchdowns, including an 80-yard score in which he caught the ball over the middle at midfield and proceeded to simply outrun the secondary to break open the play.

With Jaylen Smith (36 catches, 615 yards last season) back, expected progress from sophomore Seth Dawkins and the addition of Fitzpatrick, Jackson should have no shortage of options to throw to this fall.

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Despite the hype of being the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2016, Rashan Gary had to take a backseat at Michigan last season behind an experienced, disruptive defensive line. Now, with the playbook down and the depth chart wide open, he’s ready to shine. “Some guys wait for their rightful turn and some guys earn their rightful turn,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said. “[Gary’s] kind of earned it.” That has been clear throughout the spring in both drills and in the Wolverines’ spring game, where he showed Michigan might not suffer much of a dropoff from last year’s pass rush, which ranked fourth in the nation with 3.54 sacks per game.

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Grading pass rushers in the spring is always difficult given that they’re typically not allowed to hit the quarterback, which makes it hard to determine whether they would have actually gotten a sack rather than forced a quarterback to scramble or throw under pressure. But based on the level of Daelin Hayes’s production and coach Brian Kelly’s assessment, it seems pretty clear why he’ll garner plenty of hype heading into the fall. The sophomore was credited with three sacks in Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold game along with seven tackles. “It’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Kelly said after the game. The Fighting Irish could desperately use some disruption this season after they ranked seventh-worst in the country in sacks last year with 14.

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First came Amari Cooper. Then there was Calvin Ridley. Next up, Jerry Jeudy? The four-star recruit is already drawing the comparison thanks to a sensational spring capped by a breakout performance in Alabama’s A-Day game. He caught five passes 134 yards with two scores to earn MVP honors for the game. It’s worth noting that with the way the Crimson Tide divvied up its players for its spring game, Jeudy was mostly playing against backups. Still, his display was enough to impress Ridley, Alabama’s top returning receiver. “I think Jerry is like me when I first got here,” Ridley said. Given that Ridley caught 89 passes for 1,045 yards as a true freshman in 2015, a remake from Jeudy would be just fine. With Ridley, Cam Sims, Trevon Diggs, Robert Foster and three other four- or five-star recruits in Alabama’s 2017 haul, competition for catches will be fierce. But if Jeudy keeps garnering comparisons to Ridley, he’ll be impossible to keep off of the field.

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As quarterback Shane Buechele looks to hang on to his starting role in 2017, he’s been smart to identify a go-to playmaker. At 6’6”, wide receiver Collin Johnson is hard to miss yet made a limited impact last season with 315 yards as a true freshman. Based on his spring, Johnson’s sophomore numbers should blow past his freshman stats. He caught eight passes for 117 yards with two scores, including a sensational diving grab in the end zone.

Texas needs a reliable receiver to emerge after lacking one last year. Johnson looks likely to fill that role and seems to be developing great chemistry with Buechele.

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With last year’s leading receiving Chris Godwin off to the NFL, the title of Trace McSorley’s go-to target is up for grabs. Consider Juwan Johnson a serious candidate. Though Johnson caught just two passes last season as a redshirt freshman, he’s drawing rave reviews for his progress this spring. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead described Johnson’s performance in spring practices as “phenomenal,” and the 6’4”, 218-pounder was the near-unanimous selection among his teammates for Penn State’s most impressive player this spring. Johnson capped it with seven catches for 81 yards in the Nittany Lions’ spring game. With DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall back, Penn State has no shortage of receivers ready to fill Godwin’s shoes. But Johnson has shown he has the size, speed and dedication to put himself in the mix, too.

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After sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, Tanner Lee wasted little time earning his role at Nebraska, securing the starting quarterback job by the end of spring practice. The Tulane transfer looked sharp all spring in his battle with Patrick O’Brien, and Lee finished spring camp off with a solid showing in front of 78,312 fans in the Cornhuskers’ spring game. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 190 yards with three touchdowns, including this spot-on throw that should have coach Mike Riley salivating:

After working with Tommy Armstrong Jr. for his first two seasons, Riley finally gets the pro-style passer he wants.

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Few units face more pressure than Washington’s collection of cornerbacks. A defending conference champ and College Football Playoff participant loses both its starting corners, both of whom earned second-round picks in the NFL draft. The Huskies don’t seem too concerned, however, and redshirt freshman Byron Murphy is a big reason why. Murphy had an active spring, leading the team in interceptions and put himself in prime position to earn a starting role opposite Jordan Miller. While that may seem like a big leap from scout team to first team, keep in mind his scout team role pitted him against speedster and No. 9 overall draft pick John Ross every day. Now he and Miller will have to replace Sidney Jones and Kevin King, who helped the Huskies rank first in the Pac-12 in interceptions. Good thing Murphy has a knack for takeaways. “One thing I say about Byron, man, is he loves the ball, he gets the ball, he makes plays on the ball,” Miller said. “I feel like he’s a ball magnet.”

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