Prior to the 2016 college football season, there weren't many folks predicting Lamar Jackson would hoist the Heisman Trophy four months later. Every year we see guys like Jackson emerge and become household names in college football.
Who will be that player this year?
I reached out to five NFL personnel executives to get their thoughts on the topic. They've spent the last few weeks visiting college campuses and they have their eyes set on a few young players set to emerge as stars. Here's what they had to say when I asked them which player was set to break out this fall.
Executive 1: Miami RB Mark Walton
"Coach (Mark) Richt's system has always produced solid backs. It's now Walton's turn. When studying (David) Njoku and (Brad) Kaaya last fall, I couldn't help but notice him. He can do it all. Run with power, or finesse. He's going to have a huge year."
Executive 2: Ohio State CB Denzel Ward
"Ward is a better player than his former teammate Marshon Lattimore. He's faster, he has better balls skills and he's more durable. He is an elite player."
Executive 3: Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham
"This is a tough one. I think Will Grier will have a good year at West Virginia but I'll go with Stidham at Auburn. He's going to fit perfectly in (Gus) Malzahn's system."
Executive 4: Stidham
"I love the big freshman running back at Alabama (Najee Harris), but my top choice would be the Auburn quarterback. If it all clicks for him this year, Auburn could have a magical season."
Executive 5: Alabama RB Najee Harris
"Najee Harris is a freak. He might not be the guy against Florida State (in the season opener), but by the end of the year, this will be the Tide running back everybody is talking about."
Summary: That's two votes for Stidham and one apiece for Walton, Ward and Harris.
Conclusion: I love seeing the variety of names mentioned by these personnel executives. I've seen Ward and Walton while studying their teammates and they definitely caught my eye. Both guys are special athletes with an extremely high ceiling. I'm looking forward to watching Stidham this fall, especially on Sept. 9, when Auburn travels to Clemson to take on the defending national champs.
Harris was mentioned by two of these executives. It's rare for a freshman to generate this much excitement based on a school visit. That tells me all I need to know about his natural ability and potential. He's a member of a very crowded backfield in Tuscaloosa, but it sounds like he might emerge as the leader of the pack before the season concludes.