It was perhaps the most unique opening weekend of college football ever. With fewer than 10 games on the docket, the American Conference, C-USA, and Sun Belt took center stage of the college football universe in the week’s marquee games. With increased exposure, many players rose to the occasion and delivered career performances.
Here are eight breakout offensive players who made their mark on college football’s opening weekend — looking poised to sustain their success throughout the 2020 season.
Grant Wells, QB, Marshall
2019 Stats: N/A
The Heisman Trophy campaign of Marshall redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells has already commenced, as suggested by a graphic ESPN ran during Saturday’s SMU-Texas State game. Out of all college football players who have played a down this season, none have impressed like the Charleston, WV native in his first career start. Wells became the de facto starter after the transfer of former starting quarterback Isaiah Green and Marshall’s offense didn’t miss a beat. Wells completed 13/20 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns... by halftime on Saturday. Yes, the opponent was Eastern Kentucky of the FCS, but Wells perfectly placed many of his passes, including his touchdown strike to Xavier Gaines on the opening drive and 42-yard dime to Jaron Woodyard in the second quarter. He completed 70% of his passes and surpassed the 300-yard passing mark before checking out after his first drive of the third quarter.
QB Grant Wells is putting on a show for Marshall in his first career start.— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) September 5, 2020
4 TDs in the first half ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/SzfETNQL76
Sean Dykes, TE, Memphis
2019 Stats: 2 receptions, 9 yards
Memphis has never been shy about its utilization of the tight end. Over the last three years, ex-Tiger Joey Magnifico caught 62 passes for 978 yards, playing a key role in Memphis’ explosive offense from the tight end position. With Magnifico gone, his successor has already made his arrival. Dykes led his team in receptions and receiving yards on Saturday night, collecting 10 receptions for 137 yards under the bright lights of the Liberty Bowl. He was able to create impressive separation from Arkansas State defenders throughout the field, but most importantly, in the end zone. He initiated Memphis’ scoring for the night with a strong corner route and an uncontested touchdown reception. Two quarters later, Dykes hauled in Memphis’ final touchdown of the night, wide open in the center of the end zone. The senior tight end missed the majority of 2019 with a knee injury, but he’s back and could realistically compete for the John Mackey Award with sharp, wide receiver-like movements and a reliable set of hands.
Jalen Tolbert, WR, South Alabama
2019 Stats: 27 receptions, 521 yards, 6 TD
The 2020 college football season officially kicked off on Thursday, and Tolbert was easily the most impactful star that night. In the 2019 finale against Arkansas State, he gave us an inkling of what was to come. Tolbert captured five passes for 144 yards and four touchdowns in that contest last November, and his momentum carried over nine months to September 2020. The 6’3” wideout is the favorite target of South Alabama quarterback Desmond Trotter, and the pair connected six times for 169 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Miss this past week. Overall, Tolbert’s stats of nine receptions, 313 yards, and six touchdowns over his past two games are All-American numbers. The Trotter-to-Tolbert connection could be the x-factor which resurrects a South Alabama program still looking for its first winning season since joining the FBS.
Rashee Rice, WR, SMU
2019 Stats: 25 receptions, 403 yards, 1 TD
SMU has a longstanding, successful pipeline of wide receivers to the NFL. From Emmanuel Sanders to Cole Beasley to Trey Quinn to Courtland Sutton, the Mustangs never fail to feature elite talent at the receiver position on the roster. After the reigning FBS reception leader James Proche was drafted in April, it was time to find the next breakout receiver on Sonny Dykes’ roster. Rice fit that mold in his 2020 opener against Texas State. He caught five passes from veteran quarterback Shane Buechele, averaging over 20 yards per reception to finish with 101 yards. He’ll serve as SMU’s primary deep threat going forward, and given Buechele’s arm talent, Rice could be poised to author the stat sheet. He found success lining up both in the slot and on the ends, and the sophomore is fit to play a vital role this season in gaining precious yards after receptions.
Another nice long connection... Rice had to go up and get this one pic.twitter.com/aQPiaFJcwt— FFBallerEK (@ekballer) September 6, 2020
Jason Bean, QB, North Texas
2019 Stats: 22/35, 176 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT
You’ll have to go back to 2015 to find the last time Mason Fine didn’t serve as the primary starting quarterback for the Mean Green. Longtime offensive mastermind Seth Littrell made his play-calling debut for North Texas on Saturday, which coincided with Bean’s first collegiate start. The result was 57 points on the scoreboard and a strong outing from the redshirt sophomore. Bean averaged nearly 20 yards per completion, finishing with statistics of 11/18, 217 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception against FCS program Houston Baptist. His limited number of attempts is a result of splitting time with two other Mean Green quarterbacks in the opener. However, Bean made his snaps count, including his rushing reps. He faked a handoff on a zone read and swung to the right of the line of scrimmage, gaining a full head of speed en route to a 37-yard touchdown — an outstanding display of mobility.
Rodrigues Clark, RB, Memphis
2019 Stats: 20 rushes, 105 yards, 2 TD
The reigning American Conference champions suffered a major loss when running back Kenneth Gainwell announced his decision to opt out of the season. Replacing a top five running back in the sport is never easy, but the Tigers’ offense looked comfortable with Clark manning the backfield Saturday night. Clark split the backfield with Kylan Watkins and finished as Memphis’ leading rusher with 105 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. The offensive line blocked incredibly well for the sophomore, and he responded by making smart decisions and finding the best available route to pursue. Memphis has produced 1,400-yard running backs in consecutive seasons, and Ryan Silverfield’s offense hopes Clark can sustain similar production. He was held without a reception in Week 1, but it will be interesting to see if Silverfield follows in Mike Norvell’s footsteps by frequenting the halfback screen and if Clark is involved into those plays going forward.
Dahu Green, WR, Arkansas State
2019 Stats: 5 receptions, 99 yards
Like many players on this list, Green is the next man up for a talented departed player. Arkansas State lost Omar Bayless, the second leading receiver in the FBS last season, and the Red Wolves are longing to replace the Sun Belt Player of the Year’s production. Green, an Oklahoma transfer, only caught seven passes in his previous 10 games suiting up for Arkansas State. But on Saturday, Green started and proved to be a lethal target on jump balls, using his strength and 6’5” frame to secure downfield passes. He finished with 99 yards on five receptions and should be Arkansas State’s go-to on short-yardage situations and in the red zone this year given his size and catch radius.
Wyatt Green, OT, South Alabama
2019 Stats: 6 games played
It’s time to give the men in the trenches some recognition. Not many offensive lines in Week 1 were as impressive as the unit for South Alabama. The Jaguars allowed zero sacks and two tackles for loss to the Southern Miss defense, and they did it with a rather inexperienced line. Green, who is beginning his first season as the No. 1 left tackle on the depth chart, anchored his side of the line with offensive guard Tyler Jernigan, who collectively gave fits to the Golden Eagles defensive line the entire night. Watch any South Alabama highlight from Thursday, and you’ll see Green shuffling his feet well and keeping his entire frame in front of his assignment. There are also many examples from the opener of Green handling one defender and quickly taking care of business versus the next line of defense.