One of the best things about college football is that players can make huge leaps in size and skill from one year to the next. Often times, that leap also coincides with an opportunity for playing time in the starting lineup and leads to a very productive season.
For these eight players, some combination of the two has them on this list of players who could break out in 2016.
The Solid Bets
These guys will be seeing more playing time for sure, and have shown flashes of greatness in part-time action as underclassmen.
LB Vontae Diggs
A junior who played in all 24 games in his first two seasons, Diggs was a late addition to the 2014 recruiting class which Diaco had about a month to solidify existing commitments and build on. The Chicago-area native has displayed great range and quickness as the backup to Graham Stewart, and will now be stepping into his starting job. In a defense filled with talented playmakers, look for Diggs to hold the edge and make plays from sideline to sideline.
WR Hergy Mayala
Like Diggs, Mayala has stood out upon setting foot on campus. The only thing keeping him from being an impact player as a true freshman was an arm injury which kept him out for a bit early in the season. Classmate Tyraiq Beals had a great freshman season in the slot—such that he isn’t reasonably eligible for this list—but Mayala will be a strong outside receiver, a true No. 2, opposite senior Noel Thomas.
Because Thomas will see a lot of attention from opposing defenses, we could see a lot of Mayala wide open on the other side of the field.
DT Mikal Myers
Myers is another player who has seen a lot of action over the past few years in a rotational role but will now be a starter. The 6-foot-1, 325-pound menace will be taking over for Julian Campenni at nose tackle. The position doesn’t produce a ton of highlights or fill up the stat sheet, but if you see his counterparts in the front seven freed up to make plays, you should also know that it’s because Myers is doing his job well in the middle.
These players have been on the field a lot, as starters, but haven’t had a chance to shine just yet. Is this their year?
QB Bryant Shirreffs
The best option UConn has had under center in at least five years, Shirreffs had an up and down sophomore season, his first as the starting quarterback for the Huskies. Though Diaco implied that there may be a camp competition for the job at the conference media days, Bob has ended that discussion by stating that Shirreffs is the unquestioned starter.
At many points last year, Shirreffs was forced to run for his life behind an offensive line which especially struggled in pass protection. With hopefully a better offensive line, continuity in the system, and the improvement of the skill position players, there’s no reason the former NC State transfer can’t have a much stronger junior season.
RB Ron Johnson
Like Diggs, Johnson was a late addition to the 2014 recruiting class by Diaco, who was able to pry Johnson away from a verbal commitment to Louisville. The Florida native has seen consistent playing time since he was a true freshman, but took a step back in his sophomore season in yards (429 to 224), yards per attempt (3.8 to 2.5), and even carries (114 to 88) in the same amount of games. This year should be different, as Johnson has appeared sharp since the Blue-White game last year and has been impressing the coaching staff with his maturity. He stands to be another beneficiary of improved offensive line play as well.
File this under the “crazier things have happened” line of logic.
WR Brian Lemelle
Lemelle, a 3-star recruit from Pennsylvania out of the class of 2013, also showed great promise after a freshman season in which he hauled in 16 receptions for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately injuries and an inept offense kept him from maximizing on his talents across the next two seasons, but promise lies ahead for 2016. With multiple established contributors at tight end, running back, and receiver, touches may be at a premium, but Lemelle definitely has an opportunity to make an impact out of the slot along with sophomore Tyraiq Beals.
TE Tyler Davis
Recruited out of Long Island as a quarterback, Tyler Davis has transitioned this offseason to tight end, where he will have a chance to fill some of the roles of the F position. His athleticism and football intelligence will serve him well and he has taken reps with the first team offense in practice.
WR/KR Quayvon Skanes
With each passing year of Bob Diaco’s tenure, it becomes less and less likely that a true freshman sees significant time on the field. Class of 2016 recruit Quayvon Skanes is one of the leading candidates to still break through.
A dynamic athlete who played quarterback for his high school team last year, claiming a Chicago city title, Skanes could see time at receiver but his greatest opportunity for impact is in the return game. UConn’s punt return unit was a bit of a running joke last year, with the first returned punt coming midway through the season. If he can help UConn get better field position, or even score some touchdowns, it could mean an unexpected win or two for the Huskies.
The Not Included
WR Tyraiq Beals, TE Alec Bloom, TE Tommy Myers, C Ryan Crozier, LB Matt Walsh, RB Arkeel Newsome are all very good players who should improve their productivity this coming season. But as established starters and players who have already been top performers at their position, they were omitted from the list above. All of them should take a step forward, but had too good of a 2015 season to be considered a break out player in 2016.