FBS Breakout Stars to Watch in 2019

Now that a bow has been placed on the 2018 college football season, all eyes will shift towards the NFL draft this upcoming April. The 103 underclassmen granted eligibility for the 2019 draft is the second-most all-time, trailing only last year's 106. We've already seen waves made with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray turning his back (at least for the time being) on professional baseball to declare his eligibility following a historic junior season.

But while most attention will turn towards the pro ranks, a number of players who enjoyed breakout 2018 seasons will be returning to campus this fall to continue their amateur careers. Apologies in advance for any notable omissions from this shortlist, but here are my top five returning stars to watch in 2019:

5. Evan Weaver (Sr.) LB, California

The 6'3", 235 lb. linebacker out of Washington state burst on to the scene in his junior season, leading a stout Cal defense that finished in the top 10 nationally in several categories, including ranking sixth in turnovers forced. Weaver was part of a three-headed monster linebacking core that included departing seniors Jordan Kunaszyk (92 solo tackles, third in FBS) and Alex Funches (8 TFL, 5 sacks), and ranked second in the country with 155 total tackles.

Weaver and Kunaszyk combined for a ridiculous 298 total tackles, including 18.5 for a loss. Toss in 4.5 sacks and 2 interceptions for Weaver, including a pivotal pick that he returned for a game-deciding touchdown against No. 15 Washington in Week 8, and it's clear to see why the fiery linebacker jumped on to the radar of many NFL scouts. But rejoice, Bears faithful, that will be packed with veteran leadership.

4. Eno Benjamin (Jr.) RB, Arizona State

Another Pac-12 stand out comes in at No. 4 on the list, and for good reason. As a true sophomore, Benjamin shattered the Sun Devils' single-season rushing record that had stood for 45 years, finishing the year with 1,642 yards on the ground and over 1,900 total yards from scrimmage. The Texas native was the poster child for durability, leading the FBS in plays from scrimmage (335).

More astounding, however, was the fact that in those 335 touches, Benjamin fumbled just once. He also added the ASU single-game rushing record to his resume, stampeding Oregon State for 312 rushing yards and 4 total touchdowns in Week 5. The Doak Walker semi-finalist will look to continue his dominance this fall, and could sneak into Heisman consideration should he duplicate or even exceed his 2018 campaign.

3. Travis Etienne (Jr.) RB, Clemson

The 2018 ACC Player of the Year only comes in at No. 3 on this list simply by virtue of the caliber of the players in the two slots ahead of him. But it could really be 1a, 1b, and 1c. As a sophomore, Etienne finished the season with more rushing yards than Eno Benjamin in nearly 100 fewer carries, averaging 8.1 yds per attempt, and found himself in the end zone at the staggering rate of once every 8.5 carries. He had eight games of two touchdowns or more, including a stretch of three consecutive games where he scored three times.

As part of a general departure from the bell-cow running back in college football, Etienne carried the ball more than 15 times in just three games all season, yet his production was off the charts. He was named a first-team All-American by ESPN, and was named to the second-team by both Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press. He'll head into 2019 as a frontrunner in the Heisman discussion, that is unless he's knocked off by the next star back on the list.

2. Jonathan Taylor (Jr.) RB, Wisconsin

It's pretty difficult to top a true freshman season in which a player rushes for nearly 2,000 yards, has ten 100-yard rushing games (including two 200+ yard games), and is sixth in Heisman voting. But that's exactly what the Badgers' latest legendary back did in 2018. Taylor led FBS in carries and total yards from scrimmage, and led the country in rushing by nearly 300 yards. His career rushing total now stands at 4,171 yards, and is on pace to shatter the all-time mark set by fellow Badger Ron Dayne.

That being said, it's highly unlikely Taylor will stick around for his senior season should he have another other-worldly season in 2019. He rushed for 100+ yards in 12 of 13 games, 200+ in four games, and blew the doors off of Purdue in Week 11 with a 321-yard performance that included a walk-off touchdown in triple-overtime. Taylor was the primary reason Wisconsin scratched out 7 wins in a season where their passing attack was one of the worst in college football.

While Taylor will miss a pair of departing All-Big Ten guards in Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel, he faced stacked boxes all year and still carved up the competition. Barring injury, it will be interesting to see if Taylor can defend his Doak Walker trophy against the likes of Etienne and Benjamin this fall.

1. Trevor Lawrence (So.) QB, Clemson

While Lawrence's numbers may not have been extraordinary by the gaudy standards of college football, they were very good. Couple that with the fact he was an undisputed leader on one of the greatest teams we've ever seen as a true freshman, and it's difficult to say anyone in the sport has greater upside than the 19-year-old Georgia native. He finished second in the ACC to fifth-year senior and top NFL prospect Ryan Finley in completions, attempts, completion percentage, and yards.

Lawrence topped Finley to lead the conference in yards per attempt and passing touchdowns, and threw 30 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions. His passer rating of 157.2 was good for 12th best in the country, and he played masterfully on the biggest stage, going a combined 47-of-71 (66.2%) for 674 yards and 6 touchdown passes with no interceptions in the CFP.

At 6'5, 205 lbs., he's already projecting to be a blue-chip NFL prospect, and silenced any doubt that Dabo Swinney and the Clemson coaching staff made the right decision in moving on from Kelly Bryant. First, however, are two more seasons at arguably the top program in the country, sure to provide Lawrence with many more opportunities to solidify his legacy.

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