Spring football is most useful for identifying potential breakout players around the country — guys who haven’t played much (or at all) to this point that could assume major roles this fall.
With only a handful of FBS spring games still to be played, here’s a look at 15 players who’ve made big impressions.
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Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham (RSo.)
Gus Malzahn is banking on the touted Baylor transfer to lead the Tigers’ offense back to the upper reaches of college football. Stidham, who started two games as a true freshman at Baylor, did not disappoint in Auburn’s spring game, going 16-of-20 for 267 yards in one half. Most notably, he connected on several deep balls, an element Auburn has been sorely lacking.
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Florida State RB Cam Akers (Fr.)
The nation's top running back recruit last winter arrived early in Tallahassee and emerged quickly in Jimbo Fisher’s backfield rotation. The Mississippi native carried 10 times for 87 yards in the 'Noles spring game. With recent star Dalvin Cook off to the NFL, Akers and junior Jacques Patrick could share carries when FSU meets Alabama on Sept. 2.
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USC DT Marlon Tuipulotu (Fr.)
One of the Trojans’ biggest questions for 2017 figured to be replacing valuable nose tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. This 17-year-old early enrollee rose to USC’s first string almost immediately. “You don’t see too many 300-pound men with his athleticism and his quick twitch,” coach Clay Helton said of Tuipulotu, who had a spring game-high four tackles.
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Tennessee QB Quinten Dormady (Jr.)
The popular pick to win Tennessee’s quarterback competition has long been redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, the No. 1 dual-threat prospect in his class. But the less heralded Dormady made quite the convincing case with his spring game performance, finishing 10-of-10 for 120 yards and two TDs. He currently holds the lead to replace to Josh Dobbs.
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Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy (Fr.)
Several Tide early enrollees — most notably QB Tua Tagovailoa — stole the show at last Saturday’s spring game, but the five-star South Florida native earned MVP honors. He caught five passes for 134 yards and two TDs. He’ll attempt to become one of incumbent QB Jalen Hurts’ top targets this fall alongside Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster and other returnees.
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Washington CB Byron Murphy (RFr.)
With 2016 starters Kevin King and Sidney Jones off to the NFL, the highest-rated member of UW’s 2016 recruiting class likely locked down a starting job. Matched up against talented receivers, Murphy led the Huskies in interceptions throughout spring. “If the ball’s around him he’s got a very good chance of making a play on it,” said coach Chris Petersen.
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West Virginia QB Will Grier (RJr.)
You’re forgiven if you’d forgotten the whereabouts of Grier, who went 6-0 as Florida’s starter in 2015 before garnering an NCAA-mandated year’s suspension for PED use. Grier transferred to Morgantown where he’ll finally return to the field this fall. He was 12-of-18 for 202 yards in the spring game. “He’s as good as advertised,” said Dana Holgorsen.
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Ohio State WR Johnnie Dixon (RJr.)
New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is charged with fixing the Buckeyes’ downfield passing game, but he needs some receivers to raise their games. Dixon, plagued by injuries most of his career, caught six passes for 108 yards and two scores in Ohio State’s spring game. We’ll see whether that improvement translates come the games that count.
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Notre Dame DE Daelin Hayes (So.)
The Irish couldn’t muster much of a pass rush in 2016 and badly needed the former Top 250 recruit to blossom quickly. That could be coming to fruition. Hayes notched three sacks in last weekend’s Blue and Gold game. “It's pretty clear that Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly.
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Nebraska QB Tanner Lee (RJr.)
Lee is hardly an unknown, having started most of the 2014 and '15 seasons at Tulane before transferring. Still, it’s a positive sign for Huskers fans that Mike Riley felt confident enough coming out of spring to go ahead and name Lee the starter. He beat out redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee was 13-of-19 for 190 yards and three TDs in the spring game.
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Oklahoma CB Parnell Motley (So.)
OU coaches were buzzing all spring about Motley. In the Sooners’ spring game, he picked off Baker Mayfield, broke up another pass and tied for a game-high five tackles. Senior Jordan Thomas is entrenched at one corner, but Motley should see the field plenty this fall whether or not he beats out sophomore Jordan Parker for the other starting job.
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Louisville WR Dez Fitzpatrick (RFr.)
After losing his top three receivers from last season, Heisman winner Lamar Jackson came into spring looking for a new top target. He may have found one in Fitzpatrick, who lit up the Cardinals’ spring game with nine catches for 176 yards and two TDs. “He’s an awesome receiver,” Jackson said of the former four-star recruit from Michigan.
Clemson LB Shaq Smith (RFr.)
While all eyes were on the candidates vying to replace Deshaun Watson, Clemson had several young standouts emerge on defense. Smith, a former five-star recruit led the Tigers in tackles throughout the spring, including 10 in the Tigers’ spring game. Clemson returns veteran LBs Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel but must replace star Ben Boulware.
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Florida QB Feleipe Franks (RFr.)
Now entering Year 8 post-Tebow, Florida fans are desperate for a savior to emerge at quarterback. Franks took a very early step this spring by distancing himself from classmate Kyle Trask. He led the first-string offense during the Gators’ spring game, going 8-of-14 for 119 yards and a touchdown. “He’s ahead. There’s no doubt about it,” said Jim McElwain.
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Virginia Tech WR/CB Caleb Farley (Fr.)
The explosive early enrollee switched from defense to offense halfway through spring camp. He offered a glimpse of his playmaking abilities in last weekend’s spring game, notching 78 yards on just three offensive touches. Tech is hungry for new offensive weapons to emerge after losing WR Isaiah Ford and TE Bucky Hodges. We’ll see if Farley sticks.