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The breakout player for each Top 25 team

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Sure, everyone knew who Tua Tagovailoa was coming into the year, but he has already exceeded expectations in his first two collegiate starts. Who else has been a pleasant surprise for the nation’s top teams? From top-ranked recruits to under-the-radar gems, these 25 players have broken out in a big way so far in 2018.


No. 1 Alabama: QB Tua Tagovailoa

Welcome to the Heisman Trophy race, Tua Tagovailoa. Oh, and welcome to life as a starting quarterback. Those two things seemed to happen simultaneously for the lefty from Hawai’i as he began the season as the starter against Louisville and then won the job outright last week. The former championship game hero has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions and completed 71.4 percent of his passes this season. — Alex Scarborough


No. 2 Clemson: QB Trevor Lawrence

He’s still not the starter, but it’s hard to argue that anyone has created more buzz at Clemson through two games than Lawrence. He threw three touchdowns in his debut against Furman, then tossed a bomb to Tee Higgins on his first pass against Texas A&M. Higgins corralled the throw and ran for a 64-yard TD. Lawrence will continue to see action and continue to excite fans, even if Kelly Bryant has the starting gig locked down for the time being. — David M. Hale


No. 3 Georgia: WR Mecole Hardman

Hardman — not Cal transfer Demetris Robertson — has become the breakout receiver the Bulldogs have been looking for. The 5-foot-11 junior’s production actually extends to the end of last season, though, when he caught an 80-yard touchdown in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. This season, he started off strong with a 59-yard touchdown in the opener against Austin Peay, and then against division rival South Carolina, he pulled in a team-high six receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown. — Scarborough


No. 4 Ohio State: QB Dwayne Haskins

Haskins has stepped in as the starter for the Buckeyes and has not looked back since taking over. Haskins has thrown for 546 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception in two games so far this season. He is the first Ohio State quarterback to throw for at least four touchdowns in the first two games of the season and looks to be getting more and more comfortable within this offense. — Tom VanHaaren


No. 5 Oklahoma: LB Curtis Bolton

Going into the season, the Sooners had penciled in former blue-chip recruit Caleb Kelly in at Will linebacker. Bolton had other ideas. A fifth-year senior who had spent the majority of his career on special teams, Bolton stunningly unseated Kelly for the starting job during the preseason. Then in his first career start, he recorded six tackles and scored a touchdown off a blocked punt to earn Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors. He followed that up last weekend against UCLA with eight tackles and 1.5 sacks. The Sooners have been much sharper defensively so far this season. Bolton has been a big reason why. — Jake Trotter


No. 6 Wisconsin: WR A.J. Taylor

The Badgers have a few new faces on this team, and safety Scott Nelson very likely could be the pick as breakout player, but Taylor has made the most out of his first two games so far. Taylor had a career day against New Mexico, hauling in five passes for 134 yards and one touchdown in the 45-14 win. In two games this season, Taylor almost has half the amount of receiving yards he had in 2017. — VanHaaren


No. 7 Auburn: DL Big Kat Bryant

He already has one of the best nicknames in college football. But now Bryant — you might remember him as Markaviest, but he’s now Big Kat on the official Auburn roster — is looking like a playmaker in his second year on the Plains. The former four-star prospect already has a pair of sacks, adding yet another pass-rusher to an already loaded front seven. — Scarborough


No. 8 Notre Dame: WR Jafar Armstrong

The converted wide receiver is off to a good start in his new hybrid role as a starting running back and pass-catcher. Armstrong scored twice in Notre Dame’s opening win against Michigan and started off last week’s game against Ball State with another touchdown. Head coach Brian Kelly said Armstrong remains a work in progress while learning a new spot for an Irish team that is short on depth in the backfield, but a physical running style and lots of versatility give the redshirt freshman a high ceiling. — Dan Murphy


No. 9 Stanford: TE Colby Parkinson

After making 10 catches as a freshman, Parkinson appears in line for a bigger role this season. Through two games, he has made five catches — including two of Stanford’s five receiving touchdowns — and should be one of the beneficiaries as opposing defenses key in even more heavily on running back Bryce Love. At 6-foot-7, he’s the type of big body that coach David Shaw loves to target in the red zone. — Kyle Bonagura


No. 10 Washington: WR Aaron Fuller

Fuller saw regular playing time during each of the past two seasons, but didn’t have a real breakout performance until this year’s season opener against Auburn when he caught seven passes for 135 yards. Through two games, his 13 catches are half as many as he caught all of last season, and he’s already within 82 yards of his season yardage total from a year ago (291). Coming into the season, it was clear QB Jake Browning needed a receiver to step up, and Fuller appears to be that guy. — Bonagura


No. 11 Penn State: WR K.J. Hamler

Hamler, who spent his first year in Happy Valley recovering from a knee injury, described himself and roommate Miles Sanders as “the new faces” of Penn State’s offense. Those faces were smiling this week after they helped post 51 points in a blowout at Pittsburgh. Hamler gives the Nittany Lions the explosive play potential that has been a central part of their offensive resurgence in the past couple of years. He’s averaging 31.25 yards per return and a highlight per game on kickoff returns to go along with his three offensive touchdowns fueled by speed. — Murphy


No. 12 LSU: RB Nick Brossette

The Tigers needed someone to step up and fill the void left by Derrius Guice, and Brossette has answered the challenge. Brossette, who didn’t even have a collegiate touchdown to his name before this season, was a big part of the Tigers’ season-opening win over Miami, rushing for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Currently, he’s fourth in the SEC, averaging 131 rushing yards per game. — Sam Khan Jr.


No. 13 Virginia Tech: DB Caleb Farley

The biggest concern entering the year for the Hokies was the secondary, but the redshirt freshman has provided an emphatic answer thus far. Virginia Tech lost three corners to the NFL during the offseason, and transfer Jeremy Webb suffered a season-ending injury over the summer. That left the Hokies scrambling, but Farley — who was recruited at corner, switched to receiver, then switched back — offered a solution. In the opener against FSU, he picked off two passes and recorded a sack and a QB hurry, giving the Hokies a new playmaker on the back end of the defense. — Hale


No. 14 West Virginia: NT Kenny Bigelow

Bigelow is making the most of his second chance with football while solidifying West Virginia’s defensive line. Once a blue-chip recruit who originally signed with USC, Bigelow temporarily retired last November after a series of knee injuries. But instead of giving up football, he transferred to West Virginia, where he’s re-emerged as a force up the middle. Bigelow set the tone for this season, blowing up a Tennessee passing attempt on the first play of the year. Run defense has been an Achilles’ heel for West Virginia since joining the Big 12. If Bigelow can help shore that up, West Virginia could be a legitimate threat for the league crown. — Trotter


No. 15 TCU: DT Corey Bethley

Stepping in for preseason All-Big 12 defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury during the preseason, Bethley has been a disrupter for the Horned Frogs. Through two games, Bethley has four tackles for loss and three sacks. Even without Blacklock, TCU’s defensive line has remained imposing. Bethley has been a big part of that. He’ll be a huge key for the Horned Frogs this weekend against Ohio State. — Trotter


No. 16 Mississippi State: RB Kylin Hill

There might be a new feature back in Starkville. Hill had a career day in a Week 2 win at Kansas State, rushing for 211 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 carries. Hill, a sophomore, leads the SEC in yards per carry (a whopping 10.04) and has a team-high 26 carries thus far while Aeris Williams, the Bulldogs’ leading rusher in 2017, has just two. — Khan


No. 17 Boise State: WR Sean Modster

Modster emerged as a key playmaker in the first two weeks. Coming into the season, Modster had never recorded a 100-yard receiving game in his career, but that changed in Week 1 when he put together a seven-catch, 167-yard, two-touchdown performance in a win over Troy. His 241 receiving yards for the season puts him in the top 15 nationally thus far, and he’s less than 100 yards from exceeding his previous career high for receiving yards in a season (335 in 2017). — Khan


No. 18 UCF: WR Tre Nixon

McKenzie Milton has a new target downfield in Ole Miss transfer Nixon, who opened his UCF career with five catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a win over UConn. He followed that with a solid day against South Carolina State and is one of three UCF receivers with over 100 yards on the season already. — Hale


No. 19 Michigan: DB Ambry Thomas

Thomas was the lone bright spot in Michigan’s game against Notre Dame, returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Thomas is one of the fastest players on the team, and while he had been designated for special teams and defense initially, he also was worked in to the offense against Western Michigan in the second game. Thomas was named the Big Ten co-special teams player of the week after the Notre Dame game and could find himself seeing more snaps on offense. — VanHaaren


No. 20 Oregon: OT Penei Sewell

Before Sewell started in the season opener at left tackle for the Ducks, the program had not started a true freshman on the offensive line in nearly two decades. The top-ranked player in Utah coming out of the Class of 2018, Sewell has so far surpassed the high expectations he arrived with. — Bonagura


No. 21 Miami: DT Gerald Willis III

There weren’t a ton of positives from an opening-week loss to LSU, but Miami did find an emerging star in defensive tackle Gerald Willis. The former Florida Gator recorded four tackles for loss, a QB hurry and a pass breakup. Before the season, Mark Richt pointed to the defensive tackle spot as his biggest concern. Willis has ensured there’s at least one strong solution there. — Hale


No. 22 USC: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown

If he’s not already USC’s best receiver, the true freshman isn’t far off. He caught seven passes for 98 yards and a touchdown in his debut, during which the chemistry he has built with quarterback JT Daniels since middle school was on display. He didn’t see the field as much as he should have in the Trojans’ humbling loss to Stanford on Saturday, but that doesn’t change how bright St. Brown’s future is at USC. — Bonagura


No. 23 Arizona State: LB Merlin Robertson

In just his second college game, Robertson finished with nine tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup as Arizona State upset Michigan State at home. The game earned Robertson the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week award. He had a much quieter game in the opener, but did register one tackle for loss against UTSA. — Bonagura


No. 24 Oklahoma State: WR Tylan Wallace

The Cowboys were in need of a new go-to receiver with Biletnikoff Award winner James Washington now in the NFL. So far, sophomore Tylan Wallace has answered that call in Washington’s spot. Saturday, Wallace finished with 10 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown, his second of the season. The Cowboys quietly lead the country in total offense, although they’ve played against two overmatched opponents. Wallace and the Oklahoma State offense will face its first real test this weekend against Boise State and its battled-tested defense. — Trotter


No. 25 Michigan State: WR Cody White

Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise, given the way he finished his rookie season, that White has established himself as a reliable and dangerous option for quarterback Brian Lewerke. His 14 catches, two touchdowns and 183 receiving yards are all team highs after two games. White brings something different to the table than veteran receivers Felton Davis (size) and Darrell Stewart (speed). For an offense that has traditionally relied on one standout receiver under coach Mark Dantonio, this trio will give the Spartans a lot of options on offense. — Murphy

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