The rise of Wisconsin's Braelon Allen and 10 more second-year stars

by Ricardo Gutierrez - Wisconsin's Braelon Allen didn't expect to play much as a freshman, but before long he made it clear he was the latest great Badgers back. He's one of many true sophomores primed for huge things in 2022.

College football's second-year stars, led by Wisconsin's Braelon Allen Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire 9:00 AM ET Adam RittenbergESPN Senior Writer Close College football reporter. Joined ESPN.com in 2008. Graduate of Northwestern University. MADISON, Wis. -- Braelon Allen had modest expectations for his first season at Wisconsin. "I didn't really expect to play at all," he told ESPN. His initial goal, like many true freshmen at a program that prides itself on player development, was to simply get on the field. Special teams provided the likeliest path. Maybe he could mix in a few carries as a short-yardage back. Allen didn't enroll early, as he was playing a pandemic-delayed high school season in the spring of 2021. He began college as a 17-year-old, a factoid that would follow him throughout his first fall as a Badger. As it turned out, so would other numbers. Like 100. After injuries to older running backs created opportunity, Allen sparked a struggling Wisconsin offense by rushing for 100 yards or more in seven consecutive games, the longest stretch by a freshman in team history. Despite only four starts, Allen joined Ron Dayne, James White and Jonathan Taylor as the only Wisconsin true freshmen to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a season. He led the Big Ten in runs of 30 yards or longer (9), was stopped behind the line of scrimmage on only 4.8% of his attempts, and finished by earning Las Vegas Bowl MVP honors in a win over Arizona State. "Obviously, it wasn't anything like I expected going into the year," Allen said. Allen has much higher expectations for his second season. A massive back at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he wants to uphold Wisconsin's rich running back tradition while forging his own path. He's one of several second-year players around the country who could factor into national awards races and help their teams compete for conference championships and possibly more. The list of second-year stars includes the most talked-about quarterback transfer of the offseason, a hero from Georgia's national championship run, Clemson's next great defender and another Big Ten running back from a notable team. Jump to: Ten more second-year players to watch in 2022 Here's a closer look at Allen, and other second-year players (true sophomores, not redshirt sophomores) to know around college football heading into the 2022 season. Allen's pragmatic outlook about his first college season shouldn't be construed as a lack of ambition. He came to Wisconsin with big plans, which only have been magnified after his freshman-year breakthrough. Before he got to campus, he texted coach Paul Chryst, calling dibs on the jersey number zero. "I knew you could wear zero now, nobody here had worn it," Allen said. "The thought process behind it was to be the first and the last to wear it at Wisconsin." Upon seeing Allen's text, Chryst hit the "like" button. "I liked where he was coming from, I bought it," Chryst said. "It fits him well right now. One of the questions I had was: 'Are you putting a mark on yourself?' But you've got to own it. I think he's embraced that." Editor's Picks Position U 2022: Which schools produce the most talent at each position? 3h David M. Hale 2 Related Allen made his mark mostly on defense as a high school star in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, 80 miles northeast of Camp Randall Stadium. He earned All-America honors as a safety in 2019, when he recorded three interceptions. In July 2020, Allen committed to Wisconsin as an ESPN 300 safety. He initially pledged for the 2022 class, but reclassified for 2021, and then shined at running back during a shortened spring season, averaging 14.6 yards per carry and piling up 1,039 yards in seven games. After committing to Wisconsin, Allen wasn't sure where he'd line up, but the initial debate came down to safety or linebacker. "Running back wasn't really in the discussion at all," he said. His performance on offense during the spring of 2021 made running back the clear choice for Wisconsin's coaches. Allen was less sure at first. He had heard chatter about whether he could play the position at his size, although some of the same things were said about him as a safety. He was big, checking in at 238 pounds on the preseason roster. But no program has a better big-back tradition than Wisconsin, highlighted by Ron Dayne, the team's most recent Heisman Trophy winner, but also including P.J. Hill, John Clay and others. "One of the thoughts I had is if I'm going to play running back in college, it needs to be here," Allen said. "This is the place." Allen entered his first camp down the depth chart at running back. But he soon made an impression. "I was like, there's no way this kid is 17," linebacker Nick Herbig said. Added defensive lineman Keeanu Benton: "I asked for a birth certificate." Despite playing defense as a younger player, Allen tracked Wisconsin's running backs, especially Melvin Gordon, another in-state product who in 2014 won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top collegiate running back. When Gordon set the FBS single-game rushing record with 408 yards against Nebraska, Allen was sold. "My favorite player growing up," he said. Gordon served as an honorary captain for Wisconsin's game against Nebraska last season. Allen met him before kickoff. "Honestly, a dream come true," he said. He went on to have his best game, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns, including Gordon-like scoring runs of 71 and 53 yards. He received a congratulatory text from Gordon after the game. Allen and Gordon are different -- Gordon played at around 210 pounds -- but Allen models much of his running style after his childhood hero. As Allen settled more into playing running back, he studied a range of body types and styles, from brawnier backs such as Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley , to smaller ones such as Christian McCaffrey , Austin Ekeler and Tony Pollard . "Smaller backs can help me with different things," Allen said. "Christian McCaffrey is honestly my favorite back to watch overall, just because of his versatility. As a bigger back, if I can have that, it's not something that people see often, unless you go back to 2017 with Le'Veon Bell, who was like 6-2 and 230 pounds, and was the best pass-catcher out of the backfield. That's the main focus right now." Allen had only eight receptions last season. Wisconsin's featured running backs generally haven't been huge receiving threats, although White had 39 receptions in 2013 and Taylor had 26 in 2019. The pass-catching element is part of Allen's evolution at a position loaded with Wisconsin tradition but also providing a platform to be new and different. "He doesn't feel like he's arrived," Chryst said. "Last spring, he was playing high school football. He's one of those types where there's a thirst for knowledge. There's a recognition that there's more to learn, more to grasp. A lot of the good ones are that way. I don't think he'll always consider himself raw, but he'll never consider himself 'there.'" Allen continues to grow elements of his game, but one thing that comes naturally is power. He started lifting weights as a high school freshman, which coincided with a growth spurt that added an inch and about 35 pounds to his frame. After football, Allen wants to be a personal trainer, and plans to study nutrition and exercise science at Wisconsin. He has approached name, image and likeness with his future in mind, and wants to build a sustainable fitness brand. Allen partnered with high school friend Andrew Stone, a thrower for Wisconsin's track and field team, to sell training programs online. Both had weight room videos that went viral, as Stone deadlifted 675 pounds while still in high school, and Allen power-cleaned 405 pounds weeks after arriving at Wisconsin. "We plan on building something where people can go on our website, get training programs, get tips on diet and nutrition, and eventually start selling workout apparel," Allen said. Last summer, Allen playfully challenged the state's other big running back, the Green Bay Packers AJ Dillon , to a squat-off. This spring, the 247-pound Dillon responded. Earlier this month, both flexed at the expense of minor league baseball mascots: Dillon leveled Elvis the Kingfish, while a day later, Allen crushed Weaver the Dock Spider. "He's a truck, he's a unit," said Herbig, who has to collide with Allen in practice. "You definitely feel it for sure." Opposing defenders soon will be the ones feeling Allen again. He wants to take Wisconsin back to the Big Ten championship after a three-year drought, the Badgers' longest since the game launched in 2011. Allen expects to continue molding a memorable legacy. "Obviously, the goal is to be the best ever, which here is going to be a very difficult thing to accomplish," he said. "We'll see. You've just gotta keep working." Here's a look at 10 other second-year players to watch around college football this fall. USC QB Caleb Williams 2021 stats (at Oklahoma): 1,912 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 64.5% completions, 169.6 passer rating, 86.5 total QBR Despite less than a season as a starter, Williams became the biggest prize in the winter quarterback transfer market after the promise he showed at Oklahoma. He reunited with coach Lincoln Riley and will lead a USC offense that could be one of the nation's most productive units. Williams has natural leadership skills, great instincts and playmaking ability, recording a completion of 50 yards or more in seven games last season. He has room to grow after struggling against two of the Big 12's better defenses (Baylor and Iowa State), but should take a step this fall under Riley and with a strong supporting cast featuring fellow transfers Jordan Addison (Pitt), Mario Williams (Oklahoma), Travis Dye (Oregon) and others. Clemson S Andrew Mukuba 2021 stats: 54 tackles, 1 sack, 9 pass breakups, 1 fumble recovery Clemson has had its share of notable freshmen under Dabo Swinney, but no defensive back had ever started a season opener for the Tigers until Mukuba in 2021. He went on to start 10 games at safety, the most for any Clemson true freshman defensive back in the modern era. Mukuba earned ACC defensive rookie of the year honors and freshman All-America honors. The 6-foot, 185-pound Texan showed strong coverage skills, tying for the team lead in pass breakups and finishing fifth in tackles. Mukuba earned third-team All-ACC honors and will anchor the secondary under new coordinator Wes Goodwin this fall. Georgia TE Brock Bowers 2021 stats: 56 receptions, 882 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns, 14 yards per reception A historically elite defense propelled Georgia to a national title, but the Bulldogs probably wouldn't have won it all without Bowers' contributions. The Napa, California, native boosted a shorthanded passing game, recording 25 more receptions, eight more touchdowns and nearly twice as many receiving yards as any other Bulldog. Bowers earned first-team All-SEC honors, second-team AP All-America honors and earned the Shaun Alexander freshman of the year award. He tied Georgia's single-season team record for touchdown receptions and had four games of 100 receiving yards or more. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore once again should be Stetson Bennett 's top target this fall, as he challenges for the Mackey Award. Texas WR Xavier Worthy 2021 stats: 62 receptions, 918 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns, 15.8 yards per reception, 47 punt return yards, 33 kickoff return yards Texas' quarterback shuffling and defensive woes overshadowed an exceptional debut from Worthy, who set single-season Longhorns freshman records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. He led the Big 12 and all FBS freshman receivers in receiving yards, and earned first-team all-league honors in addition to being named Big 12 offensive freshman of the year and newcomer of the year. The 6-foot-1, 163-pound Worthy showed both explosiveness (15 receptions of 20 yards or more, including seven touchdowns) and reliability (at least one catch in every game with four or more in eight of 12 contests). He will be a building block for coach Steve Sarkisian's offense for at least two more seasons. Oklahoma State DE Collin Oliver 2021 stats: 11.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, 29 tackles, 5 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 14% pressure rate An ESPN 300 recruit in the 2021 class, Oliver immediately helped a defense that propelled Oklahoma State to the Big 12 championship game and a No. 7 AP finish. He set an Oklahoma State freshman record and finished seventh nationally in sacks, recording two sacks against both Oklahoma and Baylor. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Oliver was a unanimous choice for Big 12 defensive freshman of the year, and earned second-team all-league honors. He also was in the mix for several national freshman of the year honors, after leading the team in both sacks and tackles for loss. Oliver's presence will help new coordinator Derek Mason as Oklahoma State tries to maintain its dominance on defense despite losing several key players. Coastal Carolina DE/OLB Josaiah Stewart 2021 stats: 12.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 43 tackles, 95.1% tackle rate Few defenders at any age turned in a better season than Stewart did for Coastal Carolina in 2021. The Everett, Mass., native set a single-season team sacks record while leading the Sun Belt and all FBS freshman in the category, and ranking fifth nationally. He earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors and made multiple freshman All-America teams. Stewart set Coastal Carolina's single-game sacks record (3.5) against Kansas and finished one sack shy of the league single-season record. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Stewart, who will move from defensive end to the bandit position this season, will help lead a Chanticleers defense that finished in the top 25 nationally and helped the team to its second consecutive 11-win season. Ohio State RB TreVeyon Henderson 2021 stats: 1,248 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns, 183 carries, 27 receptions, 312 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns College football's two best second-year running backs reside in the Big Ten with Allen and Henderson, who set an Ohio State freshman record with 19 total touchdowns and recorded the second-highest freshman rushing total in team history. A big-play machine, Henderson tied Allen for second in the FBS in yards per carry (6.8), while recording 34 runs of 10 yards or longer and tying for the national lead with four runs of 50 yards or longer. A second-team All-Big Ten selection, Henderson showed versatility as a pass-catcher, recording a 70-yard touchdown reception in his Ohio State debut and a 26-yard touchdown against Maryland. He enters his second season as the featured back in what could be the nation's most dynamic offense. Notre Dame OT Joe Alt 2021 stats: Started the final eight games at left tackle Few positions are tougher for true freshmen to make an impact than left tackle, especially at a program known for elite line play such as Notre Dame. But Alt, who came to Notre Dame with most of his experience at tight end, became a pleasant surprise for the Irish last season. Alt actually replaced another freshman, Blake Fisher , who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening game. Alt's emergence as a starter coincided with Notre Dame's improvement on offense, as the team averaged 38 points in its final eight games and eclipsed 400 total yards in seven of its those contests. He made several freshman All-America teams and should anchor Notre Dame's line along with Fisher for years to come. Syracuse CB Darian Chestnut 2021 stats: 43 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 8 pass breakups Chestnut won a starting job in the preseason and showed no trepidation at the position, even in an ACC with improved quarterback and wide receiver play in 2021. He started all 12 games for a top-20 Orange defense, led the team in interceptions and finished second in the lead in passes defended (11). The 6-foot, 198-pound Chestnut earned third-team All-ACC honors and finished behind Andrew Mukuba in ACC defensive rookie of the year voting. Chestnut had an interception in his Syracuse debut, a diving pick at Florida State and another in the end zone against Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett. He will play a significant role again this season for coordinator Tony White's secondary. Alabama OLB Dallas Turner 2021 stats: 8.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 30 tackles, 1 fumble recovery Turner made only three starts but ended the season playing his best football opposite Will Anderson , the nation's most dominant defender, who himself wasn't too shabby as a true freshman. Rated as ESPN's No. 12 recruit in the 2021 class, Turner met the lofty expectations, recording 5.5 sacks in his final four games (Iron Bowl, SEC championship, CFP semifinal and national championship game), and at least one sack in six of his final seven contests. He also had two sacks against LSU in his second career start. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Floridian is poised for a huge second season, especially as opposing offenses focus on limiting Anderson. They could form the nation's best pass-rushing tandem.