by Justyn Spanski
Phil Steele Publications Associate/PhilSteele.com Contributor
**NOTE**: Top 25 rankings reflect the College Football Playoff rankings. All PS #’s of players mentioned can be found in Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. All statistics, pass efficiency defense ratings, and power ratings can be found on PhilSteele.com as a subscriber to Phil Steele Plus. Subscribe to Phil Steele Plus right now for just $39.00 through the Super Bowl LIV on the PhilSteele.com Store. Follow Phil Steele on Twitter to receive all of Phil’s insight and analysis for this week’s bowl games and all college football news @philsteele042.
Last year, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence captured all of college football with his strong arm, moxie, awareness in the pocket, and long blonde hair. As a true freshman, Lawrence threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns while only throwing four interceptions on his way to leading Clemson to a perfect 15-0 season and national title with a 44-16 thrashing of No. 1 Alabama.
Lawrence saw significant time under center during the Tigers first four games but was officially named the starter leading up to the fifth game against Syracuse, which led to senior quarterback Kelly Bryant transferring out. Lawrence’s debut as a starter did not go as planned, as he was knocked out early in the first half with a concussion.
Many questioned the move by head coach Dabo Swinney to name Lawrence as the starter so early in his career with the experienced Bryant under center, but those who doubted Lawrence’s ability or questioned Swinney’s decision would soon eat their words as the true freshman sensation would go on to earn numerous awards and accolades in addition to a national title.
Like Lawrence, many other freshmen and sophomores have garnered the attention and praise from coaches, media members, and fans this season.
Highlighted below are a few of the breakout underclassmen from this season and how to watch them during the bowl season.
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
FR, Indian Trail, NC
SSN. STATS: 3,347 pass yds, 35-7 TD-INT ratio, 60.3% completion percentage
When Mack Brown returned to Chapel Hill as the head coach of North Carolina on November 27 last year, he vowed to return the Tarheels to the national spotlight after back-to-back disappointing seasons. One of the top priorities for Brown was identifying his quarterback of the future, and he did that with PS#8 true freshman Sam Howell, a 6’1 225 lb. in-state product. Howell enrolled early and learned the offense under the guidance of offensive coordinator Phil Longo, progressing nicely and finding consistency throughout spring practice and training camp.
On August 26, Brown named Howell the starter for the opener against South Carolina, and the rest is history. In his college debut at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the Tarheel state native impressed, demonstrating poise in the pocket and an ability to thrive under pressure. Howell threw 245 yards and two scores while finishing 15-24 during the 24-20 victory.
That game would set the tone for the true freshman’s season, and he showed flashes of what is to come for Tarheel fans in the future, almost defeating defending national champion Clemson and a 401-yard performance for three scores on 23-33 passing against rival North Carolina State.
Howell has enjoyed a successful freshman season, leading the ACC in passing yards while earning ACC Third-Team honors and ACC Rookie of the Year. There is a lot to be excited about in Chapel Hill, as North Carolina could return his top five receivers in juniors Dazz Newsome, Beau Corrales, and Rontavious Groves and sophomores Dyami Brown and Antoine Green.
— Carolina Football (@TarHeelFootball) December 4, 2019
Howell will face a tough and resilient Temple defense in the Military Bowl on December 27, and he will look to display his big arm that could help propel North Carolina to their first winning season since 2016. Watch for Howell to find his leading receiver Dyami Brown, as the two are coming off a great performance against NC State where they hooked up six times for 150 yards and a touchdown during the 41-10 win.
As mentioned, there is a lot to be excited about with Mack Brown’s program, and Howell will be a name to keep close tabs on during this bowl season and in 2020.
Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
FR, Scottsdale, AZ
SSN. STATS: 3,242 pass yds, 28-9 TD-INT ratio, 71.8% completion percentage
The 2019 season was a pivotal one for the Trojans and head coach Clay Helton’s job security. When sophomore starting quarterback JT Daniels went down with a torn ACL in the opening game against Fresno State, many feared the season was lost and Helton would lose his job at the season’s end.
That prediction could not have been any falser, and that is thanks large in part to freshman signal caller Kedon Slovis. A PS#34 quarterback from the Class of 2019, Slovis was underrecruited and considered to be a below average signing by USC’s standards. At Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, AZ Slovis learned and progressed under 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee XXXIV winning quarterback Kurt Warner.
The Scottsdale native enrolled early for spring practice, quickly making an impression on the coaching staff as he steadily moved up the depth chart heading towards the season. Slovis won the backup job over junior Matt Fink, and Slovis was the one called upon when Daniels went down with the ACL tear.
In his first start against Stanford, Slovis wowed fans and experts with his accuracy and arm, finishing 28-33 for 377 yards and three scores. Slovis would go down early two games later against Utah, and he would miss the marquee matchup against Washington, but returned with a strong performance on the road against Notre Dame.
Slovis’ best outing of the year came in the last week of the season against cross town rival UCLA. After back-to-back 400-yard games against Arizona State and California, Slovis would come out with the hot hand again. A 515-yard and four touchdown performance during the 52-35 victory at the Los Angeles Coliseum secured an 8-4 regular season for Clay Helton’s squad and Slovis’ bid for the PAC-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year.
Congrats to the 2019 #Pac12FB All-Conference award-winners!
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) December 10, 2019
Daniels has said he will continue with his recovery process and remain at USC despite rumors he could transfer out given Slovis’ emergence this season and Slovis being labeled by many fans as the quarterback of the future.
Slovis and the Trojans will face off against Iowa in the Holiday Bowl on December 27. Iowa is off a 27-24 win against Nebraska where the Hawkeyes held the Huskers to only 284 yards of total offense and 100 yards passing. The true freshman will look stay hot and finish his freshman year strong with another big performance against an experienced and physical Iowa secondary.
Whether a quarterback battle will ensue when Daniels returns is uncertain at this point, but if you are a Trojan fan you can’t help but be excited for the future with a talented quarterback like Slovis under center. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell signed a multi-year extension Monday to remain as the Trojans OC for the foreseeable future and Slovis’ development as a passer will only improve with Harrell in the coming years.
Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
rSO, Sherwood Park, Alberta, CA
SSN. STATS: 1,936 rush yds, 6.3 yds per carry, 21 TD’s, 21 catches, 183 receiving yds
When Justice Hill (#4DC BAL) decided to forego his senior season and enter the 2019 NFL Draft, many fans in Stillwater welcomed the idea of redshirt sophomore Chuba Hubbard as the lead back in the backfield given his strong performance in 2018. However, almost nobody expected the explosion in rushing as Hubbard has a chance at a 2,000 yard season entering the bowl game, hoping to join Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders as the second 2,000 yard rusher in Oklahoma State history.
The Canadian Cowboy had a very productive redshirt freshman season last year, rushing for 740 yards and seven scores as the feature back. Hubbard showed flashes of greatness last year behind Hill, rushing for 134 yards versus West Virginia in the home finale and 145 yards against Missouri in the bowl game. He also finished fifth on the team in receptions, hauling in 22 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
The Alberta native’s All-American year began at Oregon State where he ran for 221 yards and found the endzone three times on 26 carries. From there, Hubbard would run for 256 yards against Tulsa, 296 against Kansas State, and 223 against TCU to secure four games of more than 200 yards rushing on the season.
While Hubbard did not win the Doak Walker Award nor earn an invite to New York City as a Heisman finalist, the PS#75 running back’s remarkable season in Stillwater is one Cowboy fans will not soon forget. Hubbard is eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft, but he has not yet announced whether he will enter the draft or return for his junior season in 2020.
Hubbard and the Cowboys will face head coach Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl on December 27 and the Aggies will be missing a key piece in their front seven as junior defensive tackle Justin Madubuike announced on December 12 that he will enter the draft and skip the bowl game. The Canadian Cowboy will look to eclipse 200 yards for the fifth time this season with Texas A&M missing their key man in the middle.
— Cowboy Football 🇨🇦🤠 (@CowboyFB) December 17, 2019
An announcement regarding Hubbard’s decision to return or enter the NFL Draft should come soon after the bowl and while there have been no hints as to which direction he will go, one thing is for certain: Hubbard’s historic year is one that will be looked back on many years from now.
Kenneth Gainwell, TB, Memphis
rFR, Yazoo City, MS
SSN. STATS: 1,425 rush yds, 6.4 yds per carry, 12 TD’s, 44 receptions, 532 yds, 3 TD’s
Gainwell has picked up where former Memphis running back Darrell Henderson (#2DC LAR) left off following the 2018 campaign. A redshirt freshman, Gainwell has filled in exceptionally following the departure of the Tigers number two all-time rusher Henderson (3,545 yds ’16-’18), and emerged as a threat in the passing game as well.
Gainwell gained recognition and praise following his 104-yard performance during the Tigers 35-23 victory against Navy on September 26, and from there Gainwell’s season would take off. The following week the Mississippi native would run for 209 yards and two scores on 14 carries against ULM. Gainwell’s best performance in the passing game came against Tulane where the tailback caught nine passes for an impressive 203 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 104 yards and another score on the ground.
Gainwell was stifled in the AAC title game against Cincinnati on December 7, only running for 44 yards on 18 carries. Gainwell will look to get back on track in the Cotton Bowl against Penn State on December 28, where he will have an excellent chance to display his sprinter speed and decisive open field cuts and jukes on national television against a prominent Power 5 program like the Nittany Lions.
Gainwell’s 2019 season has been a pleasant surprise for the Tigers and the PS#262 tailback himself. With running back Patrick Taylor graduating, Gainwell will only see his role expand and his expectations raised in 2020.
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
SO, Harvey, LA
SSN. STATS: 73 receptions, 1,498 yds, 18 TD’s, 20.5 yds per catch
Heisman winner Joe Burrow has been without a doubt the biggest benefactor of new passing game coordinator Joe Brady’s transformation of the Tigers offense, but the receiving group led by Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase is a very close second. Brady, who is also the wideouts coach, has done a complete makeover of the unit and most notably Chase.
As a true freshman in 2018, Chase hauled in 23 catches for 313 yards and three touchdowns, but his season was plagued by drops and inconsistency. Thanks to Brady’s “Summer of 10,000 catches” the Louisiana native has seen his production skyrocket in his second year on the Bayou.
With his impressive 20.5 yards per catch and 18 touchdowns, it is clearly evident Chase is the deep threat for Burrow. In the regular season finale against Texas A&M, Chase displayed his speed and deep threat ability as he hauled in seven catches for 197 yards and two scores, including a 78 score where he blew past two members of the Aggies secondary to walk in for an easy score.
The Best Receiver in the Country
Ja’Marr Chase is the winner of the 2019 Biletnikoff Award! pic.twitter.com/EYAeJIOB4G
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) December 13, 2019
The Oklahoma defense has had a great turnaround of their own under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch following an abysmal 2018 season on the defensive side of the ball, but the Sooners defense and secondary in particular will have their hands full with Chase in the Peach Bowl semifinal game on December 28. The sophomore will look to have another big game and help lead the Tigers to a spot in the national championship in New Orleans.
With Burrow graduating, redshirt sophomore Myles Brennan is expected to take over the reins under center for Brady and head coach Ed Orgeron in 2020. After a historic 2019 season for LSU and himself, Chase has earned the respect as the best receiver in the country and the top receiver eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Jaylen Waddle, AP, Alabama
SO, Houston, TX
SSN. STATS: 32 receptions, 553 yds, 6 TD’s, 17.3 yds per catch, 19 PR’s, 474 yds, 1 TD, 4 KR’s, 152 yds, 1 TD
If you watched Alabama play LSU or Auburn this season, there is a good chance you saw an electric returner wearing number 17 take two scores to the house. That man is Jaylen Waddle and he may be the most dynamic all-purpose player in the nation.
As a freshman in 2018, Waddle made an immediate impact, catching 45 passes for 848 yards and seven touchdowns while also handling the punt return duties where he returned 16 punts for 233 yards and a touchdown while averaging 14.6 yards per return. He earned 2nd Team All-SEC honors while being named a 1st Team Freshman All-American
Waddle arguably had his best game in a Crimson Tide uniform on November 30 in the Iron Bowl against Auburn where he caught four passes for 98 yards and three touchdowns while returning a kickoff 98 yards for an electrifying touchdown. The Tide ultimately ended up losing the contest to their in-state rivals 48-45, but Waddle’s exceptional performance could not be denied.
This Jaylen Waddle touchdown return is a work of art. pic.twitter.com/4ZcGsgYp42
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
Waddle and Alabama will take on Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day where they will look to finish the season strong after failing to make the College Football Playoff for the first time in the playoff’s history. The Michigan secondary is led by seniors Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus, who are physical and experienced members of defensive coordinator Don Brown’s system. Waddle will look to get open for big plays much like Ohio State did on November 30 against the Wolverines.
His FOURTH touchdown of the game. Incredible. pic.twitter.com/mypZCE3D43
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
The Tide are expected to lose junior wideouts Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs to the draft, opening the door for Waddle to become the clear number one receiver in 2020. It is undetermined whether Tua Tagovailoa or Mac Jones will be under center for Nick Saban next fall, but whoever is the quarterback will have one of the premier athletes in the country at their disposal.
Charlie Kolar, TE, Iowa State
rSO, Norman, OK
SSN. STATS: 48 receptions, 675 yds, 7 TD’s, 14.1 yds per catch
Matt Campbell has done an excellent job since taking over at Iowa State in 2016, producing back-to-back 8-5 seasons and he will look for his third consecutive 8-5 season on December 28 against Notre Dame in the Camping World Bowl. Campbell has gone out and secured high ranking recruiting classes, and redshirt sophomore tight end Charlie Kolar is evidence of Campbell’s recruiting tactics and offensive scheme.
Kolar saw three starts at tight end in 2018, catching 11 passes for 137 yards and three scores. He was heavily utilized in two-tight end sets where his 6’6 250 lb. frame was used as an extra blocker in the run game and on play action.
— Cyclone Football (@CycloneFB) December 19, 2019
This year Kolar saw his role expand and he has become a reliable target for sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy. On November 23 Kolar had his best outing as a Cyclone in the 41-31 win against Kansas, catching six passes for 100 yards.
Matt Campbell openly expressed his disappointment and frustration in November when Kolar was not named a finalist for the Mackey Award which is given annually to the nation’s best tight end. Campbell cited Kolar as a dominant blocker in both the run and pass game and as a key reason for Brock Purdy’s surge in year two.
Kolar is expected to return to Ames for 2020 and he will look to continue to build upon a strong 2019 season for the surging Cyclones.
Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami, FL
rFR, Coconut Creek, FL
SSN. STATS: 49 tackles, 14 SKS, 4 TFL’s, 6 QBH’s, 2 FF’s
It has been a frustrating and disappointing season in Manny Diaz’s first year at the helm in Coral Gables, but the defense has been a bright spot and redshirt freshman Gregory Rousseau in particular has dominated. After redshirting his first year and learning behind veteran defensive line members Gerald Willis and Joe Jackson, Rousseau has exploded in 2019.
Rousseau secured the first sack of his college career in the Camping World Kickoff game against Florida on August 24. Following a strong performance during the 17-9 win against Virginia on October 11 where he secured a sack and forced fumble, Rousseau earned one of the starting defensive end spots and did not disappoint the rest of the regular season, tallying 33 tackles and nine sacks.
The accolades keep coming in for No. 15.
— Canes Football (@CanesFootball) December 19, 2019
The Hurricanes will face Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl on December 26 and Rousseau will look to cap off his dominant year against a struggling Bulldogs squad who has dropped two of their last three.
Miami will certainly look to have a much better season in 2020 and Rousseau will be counted on as a leader in the locker room and production along an always talented ‘Canes front seven.
Derek Stingley Jr, DB, LSU
FR, Baton Rouge, LA
SSN. STATS: 34 tackles, 1 TFL, 6 INT, 15 PBU, 15 PR’s, 146 yds
When you watch Stingley play, you must imagine there is no possible way he is a true freshman. But…he is. The freshman phenom has taken the nation by storm with his lockdown corner abilities and amazing ball skills during LSU’s 13-0 season.
The PS#1 defensive back in the class of 2019, Stingley has overachieved expectations that were placed on him by Tiger fans the moment he stepped foot on campus in January. Throughout spring practice and training camp, Ed Orgeron praised Stingley for his ability to perform under pressure and ability to locate the ball.
Stingley earned the other starting corner position opposite Kristian Fulton in training camp and emerged as the number one corner in Week 1 against Georgia Southern. In back-to-back matchups against top ten opponents Florida and Auburn, Stingley showcased his ability to come up with the big play in key situations when he secured two critical interceptions in the victories.
In the SEC title game against Georgia, Stingley showed once again why he is one of the best defensive backs in college football with five tackles and two impressive interceptions of Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm. Stingley’s interceptions caught the attention of many former Tigers and fans around the country for his textbook technique in coverage and ability to secure these difficult picks with ease.
He takes what he wants 🤭 pic.twitter.com/VyZmbpAKRp
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) December 8, 2019
Stingley has also been handled the punt return duties this season, returning 15 punts for 146 yards. Stingley is truly a special player and the matchup issues will only get worse for LSU’s opponents next season as Coach O has said he will utilize the electric Stingley on offense next in 2020.
The Oklahoma offense has been among the nation’s best this season, averaging 554 yards per game. A Biletnikoff finalist, junior CeeDee Lamb is the Sooners top receiver, hauling in 57 catches for 1,206 yards and 14 scores on the year. Stingley will line up against Lamb and their battle will be one of the best matchups all bowl season.
If Stingley was able to declare for the NFL Draft this spring, many experts have said he would most likely be a top ten pick. That is high praise for the true freshman, who still has two years of eligibility left before he can declare for the draft (eligibile for 2022 NFL Draft). If Stingley is indeed utilized on offense next year, he has a good chance to join Michigan great and 1997 Heisman winner Charles Woodson as the second primarily defensive player to win college football’s most prestigious individual award.