College football's spring standouts who could be stars this fall

Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos had eight sacks in 2018, but his performance this spring could have him in line for an even bigger breakout this season as an elite NFL draft prospect. Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports

Every spring practice season supplies a new batch of college football stars.

Some names are already familiar, especially to the diehards and the recruitniks. Others have been backlogged at their positions or needed time to develop. Some spring standouts pan out when the real games begin in the fall. Others inevitably fade. It's why the spring, and particularly spring games, should be viewed with a skeptical eye.

To get as accurate an assessment as possible, we reached out to coaches and surveyed who caught their eye this spring. Not every FBS team is represented, but this collection of 20 players should help get everyone excited -- and informed -- for the season ahead.


Clemson LB Shaq Smith

Smith has been at Clemson for three seasons (he redshirted his first year), but he will become more of a front-and-center player for a defense losing several mainstays in the front seven. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables recently compared Smith's work ethic and leadership to former Tigers All-America lineman Christian Wilkins. After recording 30 tackles, an interception and a sack in his first two seasons, Smith stepped up this spring for a linebacker group losing starters Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar. "Even though he hasn't played a lot, Shaq is one of the best leaders we've had," coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's one of the most respected guys on the team."

NC State RB Zonovan Knight

The competition to replace quarterback Ryan Finley drew more attention this spring, but NC State must also replace leading rusher Reggie Gallaspy, whose 18 touchdowns ranked second in ACC play. Knight, a three-star recruit who enrolled early, made a strong push this spring to be part of the Wolfpack rotation when the season kicks off. Ricky Person Jr.'s injury meant Knight and Trent Pennix were NC State's only scholarship running backs on the field this spring. Knight capped the session with 139 rushing yards, including a 76-yard touchdown, in the spring game. Coach Dave Doeren said he loves Knight's "explosive finishing speed" and field vision.