Declaring a player a “breakout” is easy once the season is over. Predicting a breakout season before a player establishes himself as a legitimate star is another matter entirely. Freshmen are harder to predict than returning players for the obvious reason that, while we may have watched hours of film, we’ve never seen them on the field facing big-time college competition.
For the Ohio State Buckeyes last season, I’d easily hand the freshman offensive breakout award to Treveyon Henderson. Not a surprise. After all, he was the top-ranked running back in his class, and everyone thought that he was likely to break into the starting lineup pretty fast. He did — and took it from there. On the other side of the ball, cornerback Denzel Burke was the breakout and, to me at least, he was a surprise. A very pleasant one, indeed.
As for returning players, again it’s pretty easy in retrospect: Jaxon Smith-Njigba on offense and Ronnie Hickman on defense. We all knew that JSN had the goods. The problem for him was that Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were likely to get most of the targets, and Smith-Njigba would be somewhat of an afterthought. Hardly. On the other side, it seemed that Hickman came out of nowhere to become the team’s leader in tackles, flying all over the field. At the end of the year, Hickman’s 99 total tackles dwarfed Tommy Eichenberg’s second-place total of 64.
Predicting freshman breakout candidates for 2022
Again, predicting freshman play is really tough. You don’t know how much anyone is going to play or how they will perform. That said, here I go.
On offense, I like wideouts Kyion Grayes and Kaleb Brown. I realize that there are a lot of guys ahead of them on the position depth chart. But some of those guys – Jayden Ballard, Emeka Egbuka, Kamryn Babb, even Julian Fleming – haven’t really proven themselves yet. There’s room.
I think that there are several players to choose from on the defensive side as candidates for having breakout seasons. I’ll start with defensive backs. As we all know, last year the secondary was often shaky, and some of those players are gone. Again – there’s room for newcomers to see some snaps.
Five-star Sonny Stiles has gotten most of the publicity, and I have no doubt that, in the long run, he’ll turn out to be a good one. On the other hand, he’s young, having foregone his senior year in high school to jump into this year’s class. Consequently, he missed spring practice and all of the experience that freshmen gain there. He will enter fall practice a bit behind, I’m afraid. It’s hard to say how long it will take him to catch up and show his stuff.
So, I actually like another freshman safety, Kye Stokes. Stokes, 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds out of Seftner, Florida, starred in the Buckeye spring game, picking up nine tackles and a couple of pass breakups. Additionally, he was the first member of his recruiting class to have his black stripe removed from his helmet. He, too, will be a good one. Also having a very good spring game was redshirt freshman cornerback Jordan Hancock. Burke and Cameron Brown have the starting slots nailed down, but look for Hancock to see a lot of action.
Another defensive freshman possibility is linebacker C.J. Hicks, who emerged early on as the acknowledged leader of this class. His spring game was less impressive than Stokes’, and he has a lot more people sitting in front of him in competition for playing time. I’m not sure how all of the linebackers will end up being positioned in the new scheme, but Steele Chambers, Eichenberg, Teradja Mitchell, and Cody Simon are likely to be ahead of him. Arizona State transfer Chip Trayanum might be too, as well as Reid Carrico and Palaie Gaoteote. Jim Knowles can use anywhere from two to four linebackers in a defensive set, so we’ll have to wait and see who gets the playing time.
2022 Breakout candidates among returning players
On offense, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr., is the likely choice. But I consider him already “broken out.” His three-touchdown Rose Bowl performance did it for me. So – he’s ineligible this year. At least one, and maybe more, of his position room colleagues look likely. I’ve been waiting quite a while now for Julian Fleming to live up to his billing and break out. I think, however, that Egbuka is more likely to shine and is a legitimate breakout candidate. So, too, is tight end Cade Stover. Moving back and forth between offense and defense, Stover may now have an opportunity to be the marquee tight end.
While I hope that all of the receivers above have outstanding seasons, my prediction for offensive breakout player is lineman Donovan Jackson. Jackson was a five-star recruit in the 2021 class but did not enroll early or play in the 2021 spring game. It took him nearly half the season to come up to speed, but he wound up playing 103 snaps last year and should start at guard this year.
Here’s why Jackson is important. Last year, the Buckeyes didn’t have any guards. They started Luke Wypler at center and put four mammoth tackles on the line. Jackson, at a svelte 300 pounds, is lighter and quicker. I’m looking for him to play like a guard on running plays – to pull out in front on runs wide and to be able to get out on linebackers on other runs. OSU had trouble getting their run game going against good defenses. If Donovan Jackson has a breakout season, that run game will improve considerably.
On defense, I also have a couple of favorite candidates. I’ve liked defensive tackle Tyleik Williams ever since I’ve seen him play. Williams, playing behind Taron Vincent, probably won’t start, however. Linebackers Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg are other possibilities. I expect both of them to be really good LBs this year as the defense gets better and better.
My prediction, though, for defensive breakout player is edge rusher J.T. Tuimoloau. Like Jackson, Tuimoloau got a late start last year. And I admit that I expected more from him than the 17 total tackles and 3.5 sacks he got on his 285 defensive snaps. In fact, I expected much more from the whole team in the way of sacks and tackles for loss. Obviously, making plays in the opponents’ backfield will be one of Knowles’ primary goals, and I think that Tuimoloau is the man. So highly touted out of high school, so quick, so big. Jack Sawyer, though, is right behind him and is also a breakout candidate.
So, I picked former five-star linemen on both offense and defense. You bet. It’s on the line where games were lost last year. Of course, I expect there to be more than two breakout players. In fact, there’s no limit. May all Buckeyes break out for the 2022 season!