There seems to be a star who comes out of nowhere every season to steal the spotlight in college football. In 2010, it was Cam Newton as led Auburn to a national championship. Two years later, the world got to know ex-Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel, who became the first freshman to win the Heisman. The end of the decade brought us Bryce Love and Baker Mayfield in 2017, Kyler Murray in 2018 and Joe Burrow one year later. DeVonta Smith capped off a stellar career last year in a record-setting season that culminated with the Heisman Trophy. He was a known commodity last offseason, sure, but did you really think he’d take home the Heisman Trophy? Put your hand down … no you didn’t.
So who’s going to be “that guy” in 2021?
There are plenty of talented players in college football to from which to choose — many of whom have already enjoyed a reasonable amount of success early in their careers. There’s no doubt that some of those players — as well as some names you might not recognize yet — could steal the spotlight. Our CBS Sports college football crew broke down some of the under-the-radar players you should keep your eye on heading into the fall.
While plenty of the storylines around Oklahoma’s defensive improvement will tie back to Alex Grinch, I think our attention will turn to the players on the field executing at a championship level in 2021. It was with Grinch’s guidance that Ugwoegbu moved from an edge-rushing position to linebacker, and it’s there in the middle of the field that the 6-foot-4, 251-pound junior will have a chance to be a breakout star. He doesn’t miss tackles in space and has great length to be disruptive at the second level. After only three starts in 2020, there’s plenty of runway for him to become a household name.
Tom Fornelli: Texas A&M RB Devon Achane
Most college football fans outside of College Station, Texas, had no idea who Devon Achane was until the end of the season. Hell, there were probably a few Aggies fans who weren’t all that familiar with him, but his performance in A&Ms Orange Bowl win over North Carolina was a glimpse of what’s likely to come. Achane finished his freshman season with 364 yards on only 43 carries, but 140 of those yards came on 12 carries in the Orange Bowl. That performance earned Achane Orange Bowl MVP honors, and the former four-star prospect with legit track speed (his 20.69 200-meter time in high school was the quickest in the nation) will see a more prominent role in 2021. He could be one of the most exciting players in the SEC this season.
David Cobb: North Carolina WR Khafre Brown
With star junior quarterback Sam Howell back behind a veteran offensive line, you can bet the Tar Heels will want to sling the football around this season. The only problem is that the top-four pass catchers from last season’s prolific offense have departed. That leaves a massive void, and Khafre Brown looks capable of helping to fill it.
Brown made 15 catches for 337 yards and two touchdowns last season as a freshman while playing behind his draft-bound older brother, Dyami Brown, and fellow standout Dazz Newsome. That duo combined for 109 receptions last season, and there will be a great opportunity for Khafre to catch 60 or more passes in 2021 as he helps replace their production. The former four-star prospect has been missing from spring practice due to a lower body injury, but provided that he is healthy for preseason practice, he’s ready to be a breakout star in the ACC this season.
If not now, when? Demetris Robertson transferred from Cal to Georgia prior to the 2018 season in the hopes of living up to his five-star status in his home state. Instead, he’s been a non-factor. Robertson had just 12 catches for 110 yards in his first senior season in 2020, so it should come as no surprise that he utilized the NCAA waiver for a free year of eligibility. Star wide receiver George Pickens suffered a knee injury earlier this offseason and Dominick Blaylock is still recovering from his second ACL injury. Simply put, the door is wide open for Robertson. Even if Pickens and Blaylock return this fall, it’s unlikely that either will start the season at 100%. Robertson, a 6-foot, 194-pound speedster, has upside and versatility to become a force in the Bulldogs offense. He’ll show it early and often in 2021.