College football breakout candidates: Cade Klubnik among Power Five players who could emerge as stars in 2023
There are a handful of players every college football season who morph into some of the game’s top stars. We’ve seen it at plenty of positions, though quarterback has been particularly heavy on that front in recent years. The 2018 season saw the arrival of Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, followed by Joe Burrow’s meteoric rise at LSU in 2019 as both guided their programs to national championships in those respective seasons. More recently, Stetson Bennett IV went from former walk-on to two-time national champion at Georgia as the Bulldogs took home the sport’s top prize in the past two seasons.
So who might be due for a rapid rise in 2023? Spring practice is now in the rearview, and that gives coaching staffs across the country a far better sense of what players have the potential to achieve stardom by the end of the year. Sure, there is no guarantee that success on the practice field will translate to success on Saturdays in the fall, but that’s often an indicator that something special is brewing.
It’s time to examine one offensive player and one defensive player for each Power Five conference who could be on the verge of taking their game to the next level in 2023. The below names aren’t completely unheard of — many were highly touted recruits — but they’ve yet to have that season at the Power Five level that defines them as a top playmaker.
Offense — Clemson QB Cade Klubnik: Klubnik became Clemson’s future at quarterback when he committed to the Tigers as a five-star prospect in the Class of 2022. The question was how long it would take for his time to come as QB1. As it turned out, Klubnik overtook DJ Uiagalelei as starter by the final weeks of the 2022 season as Clemson returned to its perch as the ACC champion. While it was a nice preview of what Klubnik offered, now comes his first full season as starter for coach Dabo Swinney. With the addition of Garrett Riley as offensive coordinator and QBs coach — Riley held the same role at TCU a year ago as the Horned Frogs crashed the College Football Playoff party — Klubnik has Heisman-potential upside if Riley can do with Kulbnik what he did with Max Duggan last year in Fort Worth, Texas.
Defense — Miami DL Leonard Taylor: If Miami rebounds from last year’s uninspiring start to the Mario Cristobal era, watch for Taylor to make his mark on the defensive line. At 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, Taylor has garnered first-round NFL Draft pick consideration in some circles despite having yet to truly breakout into a star for the Hurricanes. The former five-star prospect registered 45 total tackles with 19 for loss and five sacks over the past two seasons. Taylor was injured for Miami’s spring practice slate, but if he’s at full strength by Week 1, he has the credentials to create headaches for opposing quarterbacks.
Offense — TCU WR JoJo Earle: TCU is reloading on offense after losing the core of the unit that guided the Horned Frogs to a College Football Playoff National Championship appearance in 2022. That might just be the golden ticket to Earle becoming a Power Five playmaker after two seasons at Alabama in which he was limited by injuries, including a broken foot last offseason. Now healthy and back in his home state of Texas after entering the transfer portal, Earle is poised to be heavily involved in first-year offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ scheme after an impressive spring. 247Sports ranked Earle as the 12th best receiver in the 2021 recruiting class when the Fort Worth-area native committed to the Crimson Tide.
Defense — Oklahoma LB Dasan McCullough: Oklahoma coach Brent Venables tapped into the transfer portal in an effort to fix the Sooners’ defensive struggles from 2022, and his staff will expect to get immediate returns from McCullough. The Indiana transfer was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 17 overall transfer for the current cycle upon exiting Bloomington, Indiana, appearing in all 12 games with four starts for the Hoosiers in 2022. As a projected Week 1 starter for the Sooners, McCullough can significantly build off that foundation in an effort to reinvigorate life into a defense that was surprisingly a liability for OU during Venables’ debut campaign.
Offense — Penn State WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith: Lambert-Smith isn’t a complete stranger, having caught for 1,048 yards and seven touchdowns over the past three seasons at Penn State. But the former four-star prospect has yet to become the guy for the Nittany Lions at wide receiver. That could change in 2023. Lambert-Smith will be Penn State’s top returning pass-catcher after losing Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley in the offseason, and he’ll have a five-star talent to work with at quarterback as Drew Allar succeeds Sean Clifford. The nation got a preview of what Lambert-Smith might bring to the table this fall when he caught for 124 yards in the Nittany Lions’ Rose Bowl win against Utah, including an 88-yard touchdown reception.
Defense — Minnesota DE Jah Joyner: Joyner’s numbers didn’t jump off the page during his first full season of playing time at Minnesota last year, ending 2022 with 15 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. But his six quarterback pressures last season led a Golden Gophers defense that struggled to get to the quarterback, tallying just 19 sacks as a team. Joyner tracks to move into a full-time starting role in 2023 after not starting until Week 5 last season, and coach P.J. Fleck added a new voice to his staff by hiring Wilson DeLattiboudere as defensive line coach. If Joyner builds off the foundation from 2022, look for him to be one of the Big Ten’s rising pass rushers in 2023.
Offense — Arizona State RB Cameron Skattebo: Skattebo is proven at the FCS level, to say the least. The Sacramento State transfer ended 2022 rushing for 1,373 yards and seven touchdowns en route to being named an All-American and Big Sky Player of the Year. To give some extra context on those numbers, Skattebo recorded a first down or touchdown on 40.3 percent of his touches. Now, it’s on Skattebo to prove that success will translate to the Power Five level at Arizona State. He already shined during ASU’s spring game, unofficially registering more than 100 all-purpose yards and one rushing touchdown. Nobody should be surprised if he takes over the rushing attack for the Sun Devils in their first year under coach Kenny Dillingham.
Defense — Oregon DB Dontae Manning: Oregon needs another playmaker to step up in the secondary after Christian Gonzalez became a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and Manning might just be primed to fill that void in 2023. Ranked by 247Sports as the fourth-best cornerback in the country for the 2020 cycle, Manning hasn’t quite lived up to the hype thus far, but he appeared in all 13 games for Oregon in 2022, including starts in the final two games. Of note, Manning had three different defensive coordinators in his first three seasons in Eugene, but that changes in 2023 with Tosh Lupoi still in place from a year ago. If there’s a time for the former four-star prospect to finally shine, it’s now.
Offense — Missouri WR Luther Burden III: The prize of Missouri’s 2022 signing class, Burden flashed at times as a true freshman for the Tigers, ending the year with 45 catches for 375 yards and six touchdowns total. And while contingent on improved quarterback play at Mizzou this year, Burden seems poised to remind the country this year why he ranked as a five-star prospect during his recruitment. Burden’s six touchdown catches accounted for nearly half of incumbent starter Brady Cook’s passing touchdowns last fall, with Cook throwing for 2,739 yards and 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Cook is competing with redshirt freshman Sam Horn, a former four-star prospect, and Miami transfer Jake Garcia in an effort to retain that job.
Defense — Alabama DB Caleb Downs: Ranked by 247Sports as the top safety in the 2023 recruiting cycle, Downs has lived up to the hype since arriving to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as an early enrollee. Though he’s yet to play a down at the collegiate level, coach Nick Saban told reporters in April that Downs “has added a lot to the secondary” during spring practice for the Crimson Tide. Alabama lost multiple starting safeties to the 2023 NFL Draft, so there’s clear window for the former five-star prospect to be an immediate impact player if he stays on his current trajectory.