There is always some benefit to reflecting on how players emerge in a given season. How can we sharpen our fantasy process and enhance our future abilities to identify the next breakout players? Here are some situations and examples going into the 2023 college football season that warned us of breakouts. With this information, I hope you are able to identify trends that precede potential fantasy player value gains in the future. 

JJ McCarthy- Michigan QB, 2024 draft class eligible

With JJ McCarthy, I would like to acknowledge there were folks who ranked him high already going into the 2023 season. But how could we have seen his rise coming? And how can we identify the next player to gain value like McCarthy has done?

There were numerous things going McCarthy’s way. His team situation was often viewed as a negative, but the reality is that a good offensive line and team can give a player a stable situation and national attention. The spotlight can be helpful.

High end recruiting pedigree is not always a guarantee of success, but he certainly was a good 4-star recruit. He has always been a quality athlete possessing solid arm talent. Importantly, McCarthy showed steady progression in performance from his true freshman season to his sophomore year.

You can see some promising predictive metrics stand out for him such as big time throw rate and intended air yards, along with a low interception rate. This shows that big plays were being attempted and executed while mistakes were minimal for McCarthy. You can especially see these numbers improve even further in 2023. If you aren’t familiar with these metrics, a recent DLF article (subscription required) was dropped by John Arrington covering these more in-depth.

Ultimately there is never a guarantee that a QB will continue to progress and develop. There is a reason the quarterback position is notoriously hard to evaluate and predict. There is a lot that goes into who is set up to develop their skills and have success. However, the argument that “Michigan cannot develop quarterbacks” was one reason McCarthy had not been higher in the Devy community prior to 2023. We must always remember to scout the player and not overly focus on the school.

Jonathon Brooks- Texas RB, 2024 draft class eligible

Brooks is simply the case of someone who was overlooked by many who were looking ahead to the future at the University of Texas. Understandably, Texas players preceding this season such as Bijan Robinson deserved immense amounts of attention. Even Roschon Johnson was drafted in the fourth round of the 2023 NFL draft. 5-star CJ Baxter and former 4-star Jaydon have been the talk over the last two offseasons, and they were talented recruits, no doubt. 

Courtesy of University of Texas Athletics

Brooks was forgotten and passed over by most who were excited to see the next freshman take over in a system that we know likes to feature the lead back. But why were we so quick to dismiss Brooks? He was a 4-star high school back who also was extremely productive in high school in the state of Texas. He scored 70 total TDs as a senior in high school! He came into school at 6’0″ and 185 lbs, but we know that backs can put on an average of roughly 15 lbs in college. He’s now 200 lbs. or more, depending on the site you look at. 

I would understand giving up on Brooks if he was ineffective, lacked explosiveness, or production in his first two seasons backing up Bijan and Roschon. But Brooks had been very efficient and effective when on the field in both his true freshman and sophomore seasons! He was more efficient if using yards per carry than Bijan and Roschon. With somewhat smaller samples (54 combined rushes and receptions through his first two seasons), there’s always uncertainty that the production could be a fluke or not translate to a full workload.

No one should have guaranteed that Brooks would be “the guy”, but as I’ve laid out the signs were there starting with his talented status as a recruit and flashes since he first earned touches as a freshman and sophomore.

Audric Estime- Notre Dame RB, 2024 draft class eligible 

Estime had not been a top back for me as a recruit or even in his early collegiate career. But as a recruit, he was a good 4-star recruit with feature back size and went to a program that has had success with running backs in the past. A very small sample as a true freshman (seven touches) should not have been anything to overreact over.

However, his second season (2022) showed that he was the most effective rusher on the team, though he did split work. I still maintain that if Logan Diggs had remained on the team, they would have cannibalized work from each other. However, the reality is that Diggs left Notre Dame and former running back Chris Tyree switched positions.

Estime has had access to immense opportunity, and with his improvement as a rusher this season he truly has been able to fully break out. Estime has checked many important boxes for a running back prospect, with the recruit status, P5 school, size, efficiency and explosiveness, receiving involvement, and power that really the breakout should have been more obvious. 

Omarion Hampton- UNC RB, 2025 draft class eligible

AND

Ollie Gordon – Oklahoma State RB, 2025 draft class eligible

You can just refer to the above Estime writeup for many of the reasons to have been optimistic for Hampton and Gordon. Hampton and Gordon shared similarities as recruits, size, P5 programs with some historic RB success, and stylistic similarities that Estime had.

Again, the talent as a recruit was there for Hampton and Gordon, and the opportunity was apparent. If you smartly identified Hampton or Gordon as breakout candidates going into 2023, you have been rewarded. You don’t always hit using this criteria for young college backs, as Cartevious Norton is one example that comes to mind as not working out (at least thus far) using this line of thought, albeit with some efficiency issues warning us from his true freshman season. But for every Norton, there is a Hampton, Gordon, or even a Jordan James as another name that comes to mind as breakout hits.

If you can find running backs who check many of these boxes with some opportunity potentially available, it is smart to invest even if we haven’t seen the breakout materialize yet. 

Troy Franklin- Oregon WR, 2024 draft class eligible 

I must recognize that there were plenty of Franklin fans coming out of high school. After all, he was as high as the WR3 in his high school class, depending on the recruit ranking service you reference. Some started to lose faith in him as a good prospect after a freshman season where he was involved but not particularly productive or explosive, despite him being an explosive high school athlete.

Courtesy of 247Sports

In 2022, Franklin started to make the necessary strides as a prospect and led the team in all notable receiving statistics. One of the more promising measures of Franklin’s success in 2022 was his PPR points per touch at 3.35, and for reference Marvin Harrison Jr was just ahead of him at 3.67 points per touch in his stellar second season, as well.

There still continued to be some doubt of how Franklin’s game will translate to the NFL. He has continued to show his development and talent in 2023 as he has been dominant in most metrics and impressive on film. Like all wideouts, there are areas of strength and weakness when you break down the components of his game stylistically. Overall, Franklin is the caliber of athlete and producer to likely have a successful NFL future, and the signs were there that he would eventually rise up to become a high-end prospect.

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