One year ago, who would have thought that Julián Álvarez would be the breakout star of the World Cup instead of Gio Reyna, or that TCU backup Max Duggan would lead the Horned Frogs to a national championship game on the 1-yard line of 2022’s closing? Trying to predict which figures will rise to the forefront in 2023 is an imperfect task. Athletes or coaches on the brink of stardom could instead fall off the edge and never be heard from again or their emergence could be delayed a few years. Around the corner may instead be a Joe Burrow-type who was previously dismissed before returning with a vengeance. 2023 should introduce the country to a few, new names. The tarot cards are imperfect.
There are two levels of breakout stars. Some are names whose potential we were introduced to in 2022 that are about to burst into through the atmosphere and warp drive into superstardom. Then, there are the figures who are about to lose their anonymity. Here’s our best crack at which characters the zeitgeist will turn into household names over the next calendar year.
A year ago, Perkins gave his soft-commitment to Texas A&M at the Under Armour All-American Game. He wisely sidestepped the Aggies’ quagmire by shifting his Letter of Intent to LSU on Signing Day. As Brian Kelly’s lone 5-star recruit, LSU’s versatile freshman outside linebacker led the revitalization of the Tigers defense in 2022 and should leave an even more prominent footprint in 2023. The 2022 Freshman All-American eraser is attracted to ball carriers like a bee to honey. Outside of Alabama, LSU has produced more defensive talent than any program in the last decade. The Tasmanian Devil has earned the snappiest nickname since Honey Badger and could be as important to LSU as Will Anderson was for Bama.
TCU’s offensive coordinator maps out passage to the end zone with the command of an expert cartographer. The brother of USC mastermind Lincoln Riley was the nation’s Broyles Award winner, given to the nation’s top assistant. Of the last 27 award winners, 22 became head coaches so it’s only a matter of time until his work with Max Duggan and TCU’s offense earns the attention of a needy program. Only three offenses rank in the opt 25 in passing offense and rushing. That’s a testament to how Riley has reconfigured the classic Air Raid offense.
The “other Hurley brother” doesn’t have the same name recognition as his brother Bobby, who was a celebrated point guard for Duke’s back-to-back national championship squad in the early 90s. Nor is he as legendary in the coaching field as his dad, Bon Hurley, was for decades at St. Anthony’s High School. Dan Hurley is an inimitable game changer on the collegiate level though. There’s no denying it anymore. From Wagner to Rhode Island and after getting UConn back to No. 1, he has demonstrated the coaching acumen of one of the 10 best program architects in the entire country. He started making progress in 2022, but doing it in the tournament is how he escapes the pincer of Bob and Bobby’s overshadowing legacies.
Wisconsin’s traditional pro-style offense has relied upon its massive O-Line to turn ordinary backs into supreme lords of the ground game. That stuck-in-tar offense may be getting an update with the hiring of UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo and the arrival of SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai. New coach Luke Fickell sounds like he wants to open things up for Wisconsin and Mordecai is the vessel for his vision. Whether Wisconsin’s late entry into 21st century college football pans out, is dependent on Mordecai spinning the ball like he did at SMU for 7,100 yards and 72 touchdowns the last two seasons. Or this attempt at evolution could turn out worse than Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.
Don’t roll your eyes at Indiana’s Mr. Football 2020. UCLA added a vanilla running back named Carson Steele in the transfer portal to tote the rock in a Chip Kelly offense and you expect me to believe he won’t be a name on the tongues of every college football analyst by October? Before the season Bruce Feldman highlighted Steele as one of his athletic freaks in college football and Steele responded by rushing for nearly 1600 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore including. Stylistically, Steele’s physicality is comparable to UCLA’s starter in 2022, Zach Charbonnet and his penchant for creating yards after contact.
Henderson spent the last two years in the G League and if it weren’t for Victor Wembanyama he’d be the highly coveted guard whom executives would be drooling over as the center of the draft solar system. As a result of living under Wembanyama’s penumbra, and not playing college hoops, Henderson’s been out of sight, out of mind. He’s currently averaging 19.5 points on 52 percent shooting percentage and dishing 6.5 assists per game for the G League Ignite. He’s still a ball of soft clay who needs some molding before he’s deftly quarterbacking an NBA offense, but on pick-and-rolls or on his menacing drives to the hoop, he is consistently extracting souls at the rim.
The 2022 National Gatorade Player of the Year flew under the radar at Penn State. He shouldn’t have. Singleton’s 120 yards and two touchdowns in a Rose Bowl victory over Utah’s vaunted unit is a preamble to what he may have in store for 2023. James Franklin’s Nittany Lions have typically relied on backs like Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and Journey Brown to power their offense. Singleton is the next big thing for Penn State as they push Michigan and Ohio State for playoff spots in the fall.
The upcoming Women’s World Cup presents an opportunity for Smith to become American soccer royalty in the void left behind by Carli Lloyd and the semi-retired Megan Rapinoe.
The 22-year-old Sophie Smith is the next prodigy to stamp her name in USWNT lore. In 2022, Smith was named the youngest-ever NWSL MVP after leading the Portland Thorns to the title. Her ascension carried over to the national team where she dotted 11 goals into the back of the net, making her the youngest player to lead the USWNT in scoring in a calendar year since 21-year-old Mia Hamm did so in 1993.
The Big 12’s premier pass rusher went largely unnoticed at Texas Tech. However, NFL scouts in need of quarterback wranglers in the first round, have their eyes trained on Wilson. Will Anderson is obviously the top edge rusher in the 2023 class, but Wilson is everyone’s Plan B. The 6-foot-6, 275-pounder has a pterodactyl’s wingspan, the power to bullrush past blockers and speed to finesse around them. He won’t be the first one, but he is the best defensive disruptor who spent much of the season operating in the dimmest of spotlights.
Klieman took the Brian Kelly path to an FBS coaching job. Winning four national championships in five seasons at North Dakota State got him on the radar, but there was skepticism he could grow a program that wasn’t already perched atop college football Everest. Following Bill Snyder is a gargantuan task. Snyder engineered one of the most improbable turnarounds in college football history, but his successor Ron Prince created such a mess dropping the ball that Snyder unretired to clean it up. And while he shepherded Kansas State to a Big 12 title in 2022, it feels like he hasn’t maxed out his aspirations. Brian Kelly didn’t stop at Cincinnati and Klieman could be on the lookout for a high-profile vacancy by December.
Baltimore has taken their lumps as the worst team in baseball between 2018 and 2021. Finally, the Orioles minor league system is beginning to spit out the returns on years of investments at the top of the draft. Ruschman and Henderson made their major league debuts in 2022, but few noticed. Henderson was the top minor league prospect in MLB, which means in theory he should have All-Star-in-waiting capabilities being developed, and is still considered a rookie for the 2023 season.
The Orioles young batters should be joined in the majors by ace-in-training Grayson Rodriguez, rated as the top pitching prospect in baseball. There’s no guarantee each of their lottery tickets will be jackpots, but this trio has shown promise.