What makes for a breakout season for a college receiver? A hundred catches? A thousand yards? You could give 10 different answers and all 10 could be correct. The truth is, thanks to the diversity of systems at the college level, what may count as a middle-of-the-road season statistically may count as a fantastic season elsewhere. Catch 50 passes at Texas Tech, you’re probably the third receiver; catch 50 passes at Army, you’re making history. For the purpose of this list, the receivers are on the verge of entering the public consciousness, or at least within their conference. Guys like Nelson Agholor of USC or Sammie Coates of Auburn may make some “Breakout” lists, but they are already featured targets on their offense. For this list, a (relatively experienced) receiver must be stepping into an opportunity to be the main target on their team, as well as having the ability to be that target, and also have an established quarterback to get him the ball. Feel free to add your own suggestions, there are far more than 5 receivers who are going to be household names by the time December comes around. Well, I should hope so.
Geno Lewis, Penn State
With senior receivers Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder graduating, the Nittany Lions are losing 125 of their 241 catches from last season, a substantial amount. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who had an outstanding first season, will need to find some new targets to bail out tight end Jesse James. Step forward Lewis, who started a handful of games last season and caught 18 passes for 234 yards and 3 scores, improving steadily as the year progressed. This season, the junior is the leading returning receiver, and has spent much of the offseason developing a rapport with Hackenberg, who is seeking a new top target. Lewis, a 4-star recruit in 2012, isn’t a burner, but he’s a big, strong, target with soft hands, and has the range to snag those errant passes that young quarterbacks are prone to. He’s also a passable kick returner.
Mitch Mathews, Brigham Young
Like Penn State, the Cougars have a rising quarterback facing a clearout at the receiver position. With school all-time receiving leader Cody Hoffman and 2 other seniors moving on, BYU is losing nearly 55% of its receptions from last season, from those 3 players alone. Replacing Hoffman will be the tallest of orders, but they have a quality option in Mathews, a 6’6 receiver who saw action in 9 games, starting 3, before a shoulder injury cut short his season. Mathews caught 23 passes for 397 yards and 4 TDs, and has the height and ability to catch almost anything thrown his way, a huge advantage when you have the often inaccurate Taysom Hill at quarterback. Despite Mathews’ lack of speed, he showed a knack for the big play last season, with 19 of his 23 receptions earning first downs, and 7 catches of 25 yards or more. Mathews won’t have to carry the passing game on his own either, with the arrival of UTEP-transfer Jordan Leslie (44-612-7). Mathews won’t wow anyone with blazing speed and silky-smooth skills, but he will have his fair share of receptions at the end of the season.
Ronnie Moore, Bowling Green
Like the other teams on this list, the Falcons are losing a couple of their top receivers who accounted for a chunk of receptions. Unlike the other teams on this list, the Falcons are replacing their stars with a 5’9, 164-pound dynamo who can score from anywhere on the field. Last season, Moore played in all 14 games, starting 5, and caught 28 passes for 547 yards and an impressive 7 TDs. A former-high school running back, the freshman also ran for 138 yards on just 14 carries, returned kicks, and took a punt back 49 yards. With a new offensive-minded coach taking over, it will be in Dino Baber’s best interest to create as many ways as possible to get the ball in Moore’s hands. With fellow freshman star Matt Johnson leading the way at quarterback, this could be a very productive pass-catch combination for the next few years.
Shaq Roland, South Carolina
The Gamecocks may have lost quarterback Connor Shaw and top receiver Bruce Ellington, but they look to be in good shape with Dylan Thompson back. Thompson may be different in style to Shaw, but he’s shown enough over the last couple of years to suggest he can carry the team. He’ll need to find a new top target though. Step forward Roland, a 4-star recruit back in 2012 who finished strong last year. Firstly though, he’s got to make sure he stays on the field. After catching just 5 passes in his freshman year, Roland got off to a slow start in 2013, then was suspended for 3 games midseason. He slowly worked his way back into Steve Spurrier’s good books, finishing with 13 receptions over his last 3 games, including 6 receptions for 112 yards against Wisconsin. Roland finished with 28 receptions for 455 yards and 5 TDs, and if he can keep his nose clean, he could be the next star receiver in Columbia.
Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys looked to be in decent shape at receiver for 2014, at least until Josh Stewart declared for the draft. When you include departing seniors Tracy and Charlie Moore (no relation), that’s 146 of the team’s 280 catches from last season. Seales was the third leading receiver with 39 receptions for 571 yards and 3 TDs, his redshirt freshman year, and has the opportunity to be the guy here. He wasn’t highly recruited out of Texas, only receiving alternative offers from non-AQ and FCS schools, despite his obvious skillset. He’s a big (6’2) receiver with excellent speed and hands, but he lacked the polish of many of the other receivers. A redshirt gave him the opportunity to work with the Cowboys coaches, and it certainly paid off. Seales started all 13 games last season, and could be poised to join the upper echelon of Big 12 receivers in 2014.