-- Last year at this time, the college football world was buzzing about an ACC quarterback who had lit up the opposition in the postseason.
OK, that certainly applied to Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. But we're talking about lesser-known league counterpart Lamar Jackson, who didn't have nearly the same name recognition as the Tigers star.
Jackson used a strong bowl game for Louisville -- 227 passing yards, 226 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a victory over Texas A&M -- to emerge as a 2016 sleeper. That sleeper status eventually turned into a Heisman Trophy for the Cardinals sophomore, who'll be back for a repeat attempt in 2017.
So who are this year's Lamar Jacksons, guys who dominated in the bowl season and could be primed for monster follow-up seasons?
First, a disclaimer. We excluded USC quarterback Sam Darnold, LSU running back Derrius Guice, Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway and Clemson wide receiver Deon Cain because they already have been on the national landscape for most of the season.
Scarbrough showcased his freakish skill set against Washington and Clemson in the College Football Playoff, combining for 273 yards and four touchdowns in less than seven quarters of play. Unfortunately, Scarbrough was unable to finish the title game after suffering a broken right leg late in the third quarter, which was a big blow to the Tide's offense. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Scarbrough is a rare combination of size, power and speed and has the ability to hit the home run from anywhere on the field at any time. Heading into his senior year next fall, he should be on the short list of Heisman contenders but will need to show he can remain healthy -- injuries have plagued him through his first four seasons in Tuscaloosa.
Florida Gators safety Chauncey Gardner
The true freshman made his presence felt with two interceptions (including one that he returned 58 yards for a touchdown) in the Gators' 30-3 drubbing of Iowa in the Outback Bowl. After contributing on special teams for most of the year, Gardner was forced into action late in the season due to a plethora of injuries on the Gators defense. A four-star recruit who was also a standout on the track team, Gardner has the speed, athleticism and versatility to line up in multiple spots in the secondary. Gardner finished the year with three pass breakups and three interceptions in just three starts and appears to be next in line of the long list of playmakers to go through the Florida secondary.
In the College Football Playoff National Championship, Ferrell faced star Alabama left offensive tackle Cam Robinson. His performance was up and down, to put it kindly. He didn't do a good enough job of setting the edge against Robinson on Scarbrough's two touchdown runs, got flagged for roughing the passer on another play and left with an ankle injury in the third quarter. He still belongs on this list, though. The explosive Ferrell showed good burst off the edge at times and put Robinson on roller skates late with an effective speed-to-power move, in addition to doing a better job of holding up against the run as the game progressed. And don't forget the game before, when Ohio State had a tough time keeping him out of the backfield -- Ferrell had three tackles for loss and a sack against the Buckeyes in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. Finally, co-defensive coordinator and defensive ends coach Marion Hobby has done an excellent job developing players, so look for Ferrell to continue to make strides as a redshirt sophomore in 2017.
Murray had just two receptions in the Capital One Orange Bowl, but he made them count -- both went for touchdowns, including a 92-yard bomb that helped the Seminoles knock off Michigan. After teammate Bobo Wilson suffered a season-ending injury in late October, the true sophomore saw his role increase and continued to improve as he gained experience each week. He is a smooth and sudden athlete who shares similar traits to another former Florida State wide receiver, Rashad Greene. Murray should quickly become a household name at the start of next season in what will be a roster that is loaded with returning talent.
After lining up at outside linebacker his first two seasons, Evans moved inside this fall. A career reserve, he was forced into the lineup early in the Washington game after starter Shaun Dion Hamilton went down with a season-ending knee injury. The junior answered the bell. He was all over the field, showcasing his range in two playoff games with 18 total tackles, as well as putting his versatility on display as an edge rusher with 1.5 sacks. Whether he remains at inside linebacker or moves back outside, Evans will play a big role for the Tide defense next year and help ease the loss of linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams.
It's not like Jackson filled up the stat sheet against West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl, finishing with four tackles and a sack. But Jackson's explosive get-off, flexibility and bend firing off the edge immediately stand out when you throw on his tape. He's not a one-dimensional speed rusher. He does a nice job of using his hands and redirecting inside. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he gets covered up in the run game at times, but he fights to get off blocks and chases with good effort. Plus, he's a true freshman who doesn't appear to have filled out his frame. If he bulks up and continues to develop his pass-rush moves, he'll be a force in 2017.
The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Kongbo didn't make much of an impact on the stat sheet this year. But his upside stood out during his performance against Nebraska -- two TFLs, one sack, two quarterback hurries -- in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. He has the quick hands and feet to slip blocks and make plays in the backfield against the run. It's also worth noting that Tennessee was thin at defensive tackle, forcing him to play on the inside, where he's not big enough to hold up against the run when he doesn't win with quickness. Ideally, he'll move back to end next season, and he should play a bigger role with Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen both moving on. Kongbo also moves well for his size and has the potential to develop into a productive pass-rusher. Finally, he's more raw than most redshirt sophomores, considering his background. Kongbo was born in the Congo and didn't start playing football until he was a senior in high school, then he started his college career at Wyoming, where he redshirted. After that, he transferred to Arizona Western College, where he played for a year, before transferring to Tennessee. He should only get better with experience, and he'll no doubt benefit from playing in the same program for the second consecutive season.
Burnett had yet to break the 100-yard mark in a game and had caught four touchdown passes all year before catching 13 passes for 164 yards and three touchdowns against Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual. He's got an above-average feel for coverage and locating pockets in zone looks. The adjustment he made on the touchdown that tied the game at 49 late in the fourth quarter was an excellent example of that feel and also of his good chemistry with Sam Darnold, who emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the country this year. Burnett also stretched the field with his speed and flashed good burst as well as the ability to make the first defender miss after the catch. He'll be USC's top returning receiver with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers moving on, so he should get far more targets. In addition, offensive coordinator Tee Martin should continue to find ways to get the ball in Burnett's hands. Two areas in which the 6-foot, 170-pound Burnett can improve: He needs to get stronger physically and hone his route-running skills.
The 6-foot-4, 309-pound Thompson was named the AutoZone Liberty Bowl MVP after recording eight tackles, 3.5 TFLs and three sacks against TCU. He's a frustrating player to watch, as his pads rise and he gets stood up at times. However, he's tough to move off the ball when he stays low, and he flashes the ability to overpower blockers when he stays low. He's also versatile enough to line up both inside and outside, making him a good fit for head coach Kirby Smart's defense. He should be that much better in his second season playing for Smart, and he'll be a tough matchup for any offensive line if he's more consistent with keeping his pads down.
The sophomore has battled nagging hamstring injuries in his first two seasons, but he regained his health late in the year and provided a spark for South Carolina down the stretch. This was capped off by a monster performance in the Birmingham Bowl, recording a single-game school record for receptions with 14 -- for 190 yards and a touchdown -- against South Florida. Samuel is a thickly built receiver whose physical route-running and strength as a runner were showcased against the Bulls. With just one senior starter in their bowl game, the future for the Gamecocks' offense looks bright, led by blossoming quarterback Jake Bentley, who should continue to lean on Samuel next fall.