Friday, August 19, 2022

Staff Picks: Kendall Milton, Cameron Ward among college football breakout stars in 2022 season

The 2022 college football season is right around the corner, and you can bet that it will introduce us to some new stars. The ebbs and flows of the sport’s talent pool have only picked up in the era of mass transfers, and the new rhythms make it more likely that stars will appear in unexpected places once the games begin.

Just take former Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, for example. After two seasons of solid — but not spectacular — production at Wake Forest, Walker transferred to Michigan State for his junior season and became one of the sport’s stars in 2021, rushing for 1,636 yards and earning the designation of Heisman Trophy finalist.

Then, in April, Walker became the second running back taken in the 2022 NFL Draft as he completed a remarkable journey from seemingly average Power Five running back to early-round NFL Draft pick in less than a year’s time. He was the ultimate breakout star of the 2021 season and a case study in how a change in system can raise a player’s ceiling.

So who do we think could be in line to play the role of breakout star in the 2022 season? Our team members make their picks for this edition of Staff Picks.

Kendall Milton, RB, Georgia

The junior running back for the Bulldogs is in a perfect spot to become the SEC’s best running back after sitting behind Zamir White and James Cook during his first two years in Athens. Milton had 56 carries for 264 yards and one touchdown in 2021, and the 6-foot-1, 210 pounder could emerge as the No. 1 back in Athens before all is said and done. Why? Fellow running back Kenny McIntosh, who also could be considered in this section, is a more multi-faceted back who will likely take over Cook’s role as a more hybrid running back/receiver out of the backfield. That will leave the tough yards to Milton, who should top the 1,000-yard mark on a team that will likely play for the SEC Championship for the second straight season.  — Barrett Sallee

Cameron Ward, QB, Washington State

If you aren’t familiar with the former FCS signal-caller who transferred to Washington State this offseason, get acquainted. Ward was a no-name recruit whose only D-I offer came from Incarnate Word, but then-coach Eric Morris turned Ward into the Jerry Rice Award winner as the best freshman in FCS during the Covid-shortened spring 2021 season. Ward went nuclear in his first full campaign last fall, completing 65% of his passes for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns in just 13 games, including 328 yards and four touchdowns in UIW’s first ever FCS Playoff victory over Stephen F. Austin. 

Morris accepted the offensive coordinator job at under Jake Dickert at Wazzu over the offseason and brought Ward with him to Pullman. It’s hard to ignore the comparisons to QB Bailey Zappe and OC Zach Kittley moving from Houston Baptist to Western Kentucky together — and that resulted in the most productive passing offense of all time. Ward has the talent to reach similar lofty goals in a familiar system. — Shehan Jeyarajah

Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU 

Within Big 12 circles, Johnston is already known as a downfield threat. But as he prepares for his junior season in new head coach Sonny Dykes’ system, Johnston is poised to break out on the national scene and position himself as an early-round selection in the 2023 NFL Draft. In Dykes’ four seasons at SMU, the Mustangs averaged a top-20 passing offense. By comparison, the Horned Frogs ranked 60th and 99th nationally in passing offense during Johnston’s first two seasons on campus. As Dykes implements his system from SMU at TCU, Johnston will be an obvious beneficiary of an improved throwing game. 

At 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, and as the third-highest rated TCU signee of the 247Sports era, he’s got the frame and pedigree to make the jump from All-Big 12 performer to All-American. If he can stay healthy, look for Johnston to match or surpass his career numbers to this point (55 catches for 1,121 yards and eight touchdowns) in the season ahead and become one of the nation’s top breakout stars. SMU had a pass-catcher selected in each of the last three NFL Drafts after playing in Dykes’ system, and it’ll be no surprise if Johnston keeps Dykes’ streak alive — potentially even as a first-rounder. — David Cobb

Jared Verse, DE, Florida State

The comparisons to Jermaine Johnson are going to be plentiful. Johnson arrived at Florida State from Georgia and wound up as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 before becoming a first-round draft pick. Those are high expectations, and it’s a bit unfair (if not premature) to simply assume Verse will replicate those accolades. However, the belief that Verse could be at least an all-conference player seems appropriate. Verse was a FCS Freshman All-American an had 13.5 sacks in 15 career games at Albany. If he can handle the jump in talent, Verse could position himself as one of the more critical transfers of 2022. — Ben Kercheval

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