The 2019 college football offseason is underway as NFL draft declarations are made and transfer season begins. The recruiting cycle will also pick back up in February, when the remaining prospects sign their letters of intent. This time of year is when optimism builds as new faces and talent start to distinguish themselves with new opportunities.
Though not perfect, recruiting services usually do an excellent job identifying the best high school playmakers with star ratings. Looking back at recent 5-star prospects, one can find numerous future first-round NFL picks and collegiate standouts. Many prove to be foundational pieces for their programs.
We've scoured the list of early declarations and the 247Sports' composite recruiting rankings to find the 5-star players who will be stepping into much larger roles in 2019. Expectations are high even as they prepare for their first significant playing time, and each has the talent to change how their program performs this coming season.
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
The Georgia Bulldogs were hit hard by early NFL draft entrants and transfers, but that's how things work when stacking talent like they have across their roster since Kirby Smart took over.
It's nearly impossible to keep more than one star quarterback at a time since theoretically, only one can play significant snaps. Keeping a talent like 2018's No. 2 overall recruit Justin Fields on the bench for at least two years just isn't feasible when so many schools can offer playing time right away.
Fields decided to transfer to Ryan Day's Ohio State Buckeyes after seeing what the former offensive coordinator was able to accomplish with first-year starter Dwayne Haskins. Fields' lawyer, Tom Mars, is optimistic the NCAA will approve his request for immediate eligibility due to the increased leniency in granting the waivers and the extenuating circumstances that make him a candidate to earn the waiver, per Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch.
If he is allowed to play immediately, expectations will be high for Fields. He showed an immense skill set in limited playing time for the Bulldogs, and Day's passing attack will highlight his talent even more. The 6'3", 221-pound dual threat has great arm strength, natural accuracy and explosiveness as a runner.
It'll also benefit him that the Buckeyes are returning several talented receivers on top of their young recruits who haven't yet played and star running back J.K. Dobbins. Fields should have the Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff race once again if he's on the field this season.
Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
Unlike most of the other former 5-star players on this list, we've been able to see a good amount of what Xavier Thomas is capable of. The 2018 No. 3 overall recruit was part of what was possibly the best defensive line ever seen at the collegiate level, and he's is in for a huge role increase in 2019.
The Clemson Tigers are losing defensive linemen Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins. That massive workload will be thrust on to a group of underclassmen who have the pedigree of worthy replacements. Thomas should be the next star from the unit.
His 6'3", 255-pound frame showed great edge speed as he accumulated 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. It's impressive he finished fifth on the defense in tackles for loss and tied for fourth sacks despite being a rotational player in his first season, and it'd be surprising if he didn't end up first in both categories in 2019.
He'll be part of a unit that'll be under scrutiny as the program tries to defend its championship. The offense is geared for greatness for the next two seasons, but expect some bumps on defense with corner Trayvon Mullen and linebacker Kendall Joseph also departing.
Jacob Eason, QB, Washington
Jacob Eason is another former Georgia Bulldogs quarterback who opted to transfer. The lone 2016 5-star recruit featured on this list, Eason—who is from Lake Stevens, Washington—is trying to build upon a strong reputation that he earned in high school and as a freshman at Georgia by opting to transfer closer to home after losing the starting job to Jake Fromm in 2017.
It's not a guarantee Eason wins the Washington job, even considering the void the departure of four-year starter Jake Browning and his many school passing records will leave behind. Eason will have to battle 4-star freshman Dylan Morris, though it seems unlikely Chris Petersen would give the nod to Morris over Eason, based on seniority and experience.
Eason brings a vastly different skill set to the Huskies than Browning did, and he certainly looks the part of a great quarterback at 6'6" and 227 pounds with a huge arm. He'll have to improve his accuracy and decision-making to make this team a true championship contender, but a learning curve is to be expected despite his ranking and year of experience.
The best case is Eason comes in much more refined with his footwork, which improves his ball placement, and he becomes a star NFL prospect much like Dwayne Haskins did at Ohio State this past season. Even if Eason doesn't take that type of leap, his arm talent is as good as anyone in the country and will give this offense a higher potential ceiling due to the throws he can hit compared to Browning's more limited arm.
Eyabi Anoma, LB, Alabama
Like Clemson, the yearly attrition at Alabama has led to highly touted 5-stars simply replacing future NFLers and setting a ridiculously high standard for how the nation's best programs operate.
As Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs, Christian Miller and Mack Wilson all move on from Alabama, it's time for the next generation of Crimson Tide defenders to take over, and 2018 5-star linebacker Eyabi Anoma is primed to become the next great playmaker for head coach Nick Saban.
Anoma was the fourth-best prospect in last year's class and was listed as an edge defender at 6'5", 235 pounds. But he projects as being versatile enough to serve as more than just a pass-rusher thanks to his unique frame and incredible burst. Saban can mask his raw technique early by moving him around like he did with former Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson.
His upside in coverage is especially intriguing for a defense about to promote numerous other underclassmen. Even if Saban has him put his hand in the dirt as a nickel defensive end, he's going to create havoc due to his natural athleticism and size.
Anoma, Cameron Latu and LaBryan Ray represent the next batch of high-upside front seven defenders from Saban.
Hunter Johnson, QB, Northwestern
Another former 5-star quarterback who decided to move closer to home via transfer is Hunter Johnson. Indiana's Mr. Football in 2016 lasted just one year at Clemson before opting to transfer to Northwestern, making quite the statement by selecting Pat Fitzgerald's program over Jeff Brohm's Boilermakers. He will have three years of eligibility as he takes over for Clayton Thorson.
The 6'2", 208-pound pro-style quarterback was the No. 2 signal-caller in the 2017 class behind Stanford's Davis Mills and ahead of Jake Fromm. A good athlete despite being labeled as a pro-style quarterback, Johnson will bring more of a big-play element to the Wildcats offense compared to his predecessor. His high school highlights are littered with aggressive deep passes and impressive scrambles that Thorson strayed away from as his career advanced.
Johnson will lead a young offense in 2019, so some growing pains are bound to occur even if his skill set is dynamic. Running back Isaiah Bowser and receiver Ben Skowronek return, but the rest of the unit lacks clarity as to who will step up. Should one more playmaker emerge, the Wildcats will again compete for the Big Ten crown.
Justin Shorter, WR, Penn State
The 2019 Penn State offense is without question set to look dramatically different than the 2018 iteration, and that's a good thing considering how the unit took a step back. Quarterback Tommy Stevens is set to take over one of the youngest offenses in the conference, but it's not lacking talent. The biggest beneficiary of Stevens' likely promotion, DeAndre Thompkins' graduation and Juwan Johnson's possible transfer will be Justin Shorter.
The 2018 5-star caught just three passes for 20 yards in very limited time, but the opportunity to establish himself next to star slot receiver KJ Hamler is all his to take. The 6'4", 226-pounder brings a new element to the offense with his vertical leaping, large catch radius and surprising speed for his weight.
His highlights are reminiscent of former Nittany Lions star receiver Allen Robinson. It'll be critical for offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne to establish Shorter early as he works in several new running backs and other young receivers. The overall consistency of the offense is in dire need of improvement for the Nittany Lions to compete for the Big Ten title.
Stephen Carr, RB, USC
Another USC Trojan set to claim a bigger role is former 5-star Stephen Carr. Carr originally broke on to the scene as a freshman in 2017 as he split carries with Ronald Jones, but a string of injuries and USC's own internal issues led to a disappointing sophomore campaign. Now he has the chance to fulfill the potential he showed to be the most breathtaking back on the West Coast.
It's been a tough stretch for Carr as he suffered a torn plantar fascia midway through 2017, then herniated a disk that led to back surgery and finally an ankle injury that kept him out since early November. When he was on the field, he had just two games with more than 54 rushing yards. Some of that was due to his rust, but his young teammates also struggled to find consistency, and he suffered.
Now with the benefit of a full offseason to train and the offense moving on from Tee Martin as offensive coordinator, Carr should be the favorite to win the starting job. With all due respect to Vavae Malepeai and Markese Stepp, neither quite showed the explosiveness and upside Carr did as a freshman. He'll emerge as a star back if he's indeed 100 percent.
Brenton Cox, OLB, Georgia
One of the crown jewels from Kirby Smart's brief tenure with the Georgia Bulldogs has been landing pass-rusher Brenton Cox. The 6'4", 245-pounder was the 23rd-ranked 5-star in 2018 thanks to his rare movement ability for his size. He was able to earn snaps early in the season as a situational rusher, but he will overtake D'Andre Walker's "Jack" linebacker job in 2019 as Walker graduates.
He was able to make a significant impact in his limited playing time in 2018, filling up the stat sheet in a unique way. Most linebackers are one-dimensional or not effective at all. But Cox was able to tally 20 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and three passes defended. It's clear he can develop into a well-rounded force like Roquan Smith was with the Bulldogs.
There's going to be plenty of opportunities for Cox to quickly establish himself, as Georgia is losing seniors Walker, Jonathan Ledbetter and Juwan Taylor from its front seven. Cox will be expected to help increase the number of sacks the Bulldogs created in 2018, which ranked 84th with 24 total on the season. A defense as talented as this should be closer to 35 or more and within the top 25 teams in the country.
Palaie Gaoteote IV, LB, USC
After starting off his collegiate career dealing with a meniscus tear in his knee, it didn't take long at all for Palaie Gaoteote IV to show the talent that earned him a 5-star rating out of Bishop Gorman in 2018. Gaoteote relieved senior Cameron Smith as the starter after Smith suffered a knee injury midway through the season and missed a month of action. He tallied 38 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in his limited playing time.
He's the undisputed starter in the middle of the USC defense in 2019 and potentially set for a leadership role. His relentless positivity and attitude have made their presence felt already, according to Aidan Berg of the Daily Trojan. He has the makings of the next USC star linebacker because of his on-field talent and off-field personality.
Gaoteote's sideline-to-sideline speed is a special trait considering he plays at 250 pounds. Like Devin White did at LSU, Gaoteote runs like a much smaller player despite hitting like you'd expect with his weight. Expect him to lead the Trojans in tackles and challenge for the All-Pac 12 team in 2019.