B1G Monday: Ranking the Top 100 college football players in 2021
The 2021 college football season will feature more than 11,000 players on FBS rosters. Here are the top .01 percent.
100. Jahmyr Gibbs • RB, Georgia Tech
As a recruit Gibbs was a late riser, only surging onto the national radar in the course of a spectacular senior season. By then, it was too late for the heavy hitters to sway him from his commitment to Tech, where he arrived last year as the highest-rated prospect since Calvin Johnson. A Day 1 starter, Gibbs easily led the team in scrimmage yards despite missing three games to injury. As long as he remains healthy in Year 2, he’s an intriguing candidate to lead the ACC.
99. Arik Gilbert • WR, Georgia
Of the hundreds of names that matriculated through the transfer portal this offseason, none was more coveted than Gilbert’s, and very few stand to make a bigger splash in their new colors. Although he was relegated to a possession role as a true freshman at LSU, finishing with 368 yards and 2 TDs on 35 catches before opting out late in the year, his pending move from tight end to wide receiver at Georgia is a potential game-changer: Besides filling an urgent vacancy in the wake of George Pickens’ torn ACL, the idea of the supremely athletic Gilbert lining up wide at 6-5/250 pounds also evokes visions of Kyle Pitts-level mismatches in man-to-man coverage. There’s no shortage of gifted targets on hand in Pickens’ absence, but only one of them has the talent to add an entirely new dimension to the attack.
98. Emory Jones • QB, Florida
After 3 years as QB2, we don’t know much about Jones as a passer. But we’ve seen enough of him in the Wildcat role to know what he brings to the table as a runner, and we’ve seen more than enough of Dan Mullen’s offense over the years to know his mobility will be put to good use. The play-calling figures to be much more run-oriented with Jones at the helm than it was with Kyle Trask – last year’s top 3 receivers are gone, too – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be any less efficient.
97. Kingsley Enagbare • Edge, South Carolina
Enagbare’s name probably didn’t register among SEC fans in 2020, a rock-bottom season for South Carolina that played in the shadow of Will Muschamp’s slow-motion exit as head coach. But it did among SEC coaches, who made Enagbare a first-team all-conference pick in spite of Carolina’s overall collapse, and also among pro scouts, who raved about his NFL-ready size, length, and explosiveness for the position at just 20 years old. When it all comes together, the results speak for themselves.
South Carolina DE Kingsley Enagbare was a 1st Team All-SEC DE in 2020 with 23 QB Pressures & 7.0 Sacks
Long + Strong! Fun player to watch pic.twitter.com/GYqBFv9tBi
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 7, 2021
96. Demani Richardson • S, Texas A&M
Richardson, a true junior, is the first of several entries here from Jimbo Fisher’s first full recruiting class in 2019, a group that was recognized at the time as one of the best in school history and is well on its way to living up to the billing. The defense, once a punchline, was a bona fide strength in 2020 – a significant credit to Richardson, the Aggies’ highest-graded defender per Pro Football Focus in tackling (he was credited with a single missed tackle all year) and coverage.
95. Daxton Hill • S, Michigan
Hill, a 5-star recruit, has not quite fulfilled the prophecies hailing him as the reincarnation of Jabrill Peppers. But he is one of the few elite prospects who have more or less panned out for the Wolverines over the past few recruiting cycles, and as a junior, he’s one of the few holdovers whose status is in no doubt under a revamped defensive coaching staff. If the coaches survive the year in their own jobs, Hill’s presence will be one of the key reasons why.
94. Jayden Daniels • QB, Arizona State
The pandemic turned what was supposed to be Daniels’ breakout sophomore campaign into a de facto redshirt year, limiting him to 84 attempts in 4 games. He’ll reset in Year 3 with expectations intact at the head of an offense that’s essentially intact, too – nearly everyone who touched the ball is back, along with 4 of 5 starters up front. The Pac-12 South is ripe for the taking, but probably not for long: It’s looking increasingly likely that this will be ASU’s last, best chance to hang a banner under coach Herm Edwards before the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into pandemic-related recruiting violations closes in.
93. Edefuan Ulofoshio • LB, Washington
Ulofoshio is the only player on this list who began his career as a walk-on, and it’s a testament to just how good he’s been in a limited role the past 2 years that it’s taken him just 452 snaps to make the leap from random scrub to aspiring All-American. A classic middle ‘backer, he averaged nearly a dozen tackles per game in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, best in the Pac-12, and returns as the only active Power 5 linebacker with 80+ PFF grades in each of the past 2 seasons.
92. Greg Eisworth • DB, Iowa State
Our first “super senior,” Eisworth embodies Iowa State’s overachieving ethos with 33 career starts to his credit and first-team All-Big 12 nods in 3 consecutive seasons. A 4-peat in a major conference would be … well, if not unprecedented, then at least rare enough to be beyond my capacities as an archivist. It’s been a while, let’s leave it at that.
91. Bubba Bolden • DB, Miami
Bolden, a USC transfer entering his third and final year at The U, has yet to fully transcend the “potential” phase of his career, especially with regard to missed tackles – PFF dinged him for 16 whiffs in 2020, more than any other Miami defender. Still, the hits he does land tend to be the type you can feel from your seat, and as far as the pros are concerned the number of safeties with Bolden’s combination of throwback size and closing speed in coverage is vanishingly small. Anyone capable of covering that much ground at 6-3/204 is going to be compensated accordingly for a long time.
90. Dillon Gabriel • QB, UCF
Gabriel has suffered a bit in comparison to his UCF predecessor, fellow Hawaiian McKenzie Milton, who set an impossible bar by presiding over a 24-game winning streak in 2017-18 with top-10 finishes in the Heisman vote both years. But Gabriel has been prolific in his own right, connecting on 61 touchdown passes over the past 2 seasons and an FBS-best 41 completions of 40+ yards in 2020.
Me: Alexa, show me the best college quarterback when throwing deep, outside the hashes.
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) October 1, 2020
His new coach, Gus Malzahn, never dialed up downfield shots with anywhere near that kind of frequency at Auburn. But then, he never had a QB whom he could trust to hit them with anywhere near that kind of consistency, either. If Gabriel can’t get Gus thinking vertically, it can’t be done.
89. Myjai Sanders • Edge, Cincinnati
Cincinnati matched its best finish in the AP poll in 2020 largely on the strength of its defense – the Bearcats led the AAC in yards and points allowed – and no one on that side of the ball made a bigger impact than Sanders off the edge. Overlooked out of high school due to his ‘tweener size, he’s bulked up over the past 3 years into a full-fledged, hand-in-the-dirt end who can hold his own against the run without sacrificing any of the burst that makes him such a nightmare for tackles. Sanders was a fast riser on draft boards as a junior and still has room to grow entering his final year.
88. Ali Gaye • Edge, LSU
Gaye, a former JUCO transfer, looked like a guy just skimming the surface of his potential in his first year on campus, which considering he led LSU in tackles for loss (9.5) and QB pressures (38) ought to tell you all you need to know about his potential. Gaye’s 6-6, 262-pound frame checks every box athletically for a modern edge rusher, and with a year under his belt he should be that much closer to maxing it out on his way to the next level.
87. Adam Anderson • Edge, Georgia
86. Nakobe Dean • LB, Georgia
Georgia’s absurd linebacker depth over the past few seasons has given the Bulldogs the luxury of a true 2-deep rotation, at the expense of any individual ‘backer separating himself from the pack on paper. Dean and Anderson, though, both former 5-star recruits entering their 3rd and 4th year in the program, respectively, have “breakout candidate” written all over them. As the veteran leaders of the group, they have the makings of the best inside-out tandem in the country – but only if they can transcend the platoon.
85. Jordan Davis • NT, Georgia
Staying on the field has also been an issue for Davis, a classic war daddy on the interior who has been limited to just 749 defensive snaps over 3 years. At 6-6/330, his undeniable dominance against the run is offset by concerns about his consistency and conditioning on passing downs. If he can give the Bulldogs more full-speed, pocket-collapsing reps as a pass rusher this fall, a lucrative draft slot awaits.
84. Tyler Davis • DT, Clemson
A knee injury in the season-opener doomed Davis to the sophomore slump in 2020, limiting him to 7 games at less than 100 percent. Finally healthy again this preseason, he’s back in the starting rotation on Clemson’s abundantly talented d-line, hoping to regain the freshman form that saw him bully his way to a first-team All-ACC nod in 2019. Given that the depth chart boasts arguably the best 5 or 6 d-linemen in the league, just holding down the job for a full season is probably worth another round of postseason honors all on its own.
83. Ikem Ekwonu • OT, NC State
“Big Ick” was a Freshman All-American in 2019 and a fixture at left tackle as a sophomore, posting 80+ PFF grades in both seasons with a combined 87 pancakes, per NC State, including the official Fat Guy Highlight of the Year.
NC State Jet Sweep QB Throwback
The play is nice, but the blocks by the LT and LG are what I’m here for. pic.twitter.com/Z5mm2ceDNB
— Danny Schaechter 🦅 (@CoachDShack) November 11, 2020
At 6-4/320, Year 3 in Raleigh will very likely be his last.
82. Kyren Williams • RB, Notre Dame
Williams was an unexpected hero of Notre Dame’s 2020 Playoff run, accounting for more than 25% of the Irish’s total offense while finishing among the top dozen nationally in touches, yards from scrimmage, and touchdowns. If it’s somehow possible for his role to expand with QB Ian Book and 7 other offensive starters on their way out, no doubt Brian Kelly will make every effort to find it. Otherwise, just hitting last year’s marks is a heavy-duty proposition as it is.
81. Desmond Ridder • QB, Cincinnati
Cincinnati’s style of play prioritizes a steady hand over stat lines, and there’s no steadier hand in the Group of 5 than Ridder, reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year and owner of a 30-5 record as a starter. (That’s an .857 winning percentage, best of any returning FBS quarterback with at least 10 starts.) Look past the fantasy columns: Even when he doesn’t light up the box score, Ridder is seasoned, efficient and a reliable asset as a runner, with more than 2,000 rushing yards (not including sacks), 22 TDs and 25 runs of 20+ yards in his UC career. Depending on who you ask, he may also have a legitimate shot at going in the first round next spring. Now, whether another undefeated regular season will be enough to make Cincy a legitimate Playoff candidate in the meantime is another story.
80. Michael Penix Jr. • QB, Indiana
79. Ty Fryfogle • WR, Indiana
For a few weeks last November, Penix and Fryfogle were the most prolific pass-catch combo in the country, collaborating on an electric midseason run against Michigan (7 connections for 142 yards, 1 TD), Michigan State (11 for 200 yards, 2 TDs), and Ohio State (7 for 218, 3 TDs) that elevated the Hoosiers onto the national stage.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) November 21, 2020
Naturally, in the cursed tradition of Indiana football, the good times were a little too good to last: The following week, Penix suffered a torn ACL against Maryland, his third season-ending injury in as many years; in his absence, Fryfogle tacked on just 6 catches for 79 yards with no scores in IU’s last 3 games. Still, entering their final year together, the prospect of rekindling the spark has fueled the highest preseason expectations for any Indiana team in decades. That may not make the Hoosiers an actual threat to OSU’s grip on the Big Ten East, but pick up where they left off before Penix’s injury and at least they have a chance to make it interesting.
78. Jahan Dotson • WR, Penn State
Dotson was the only part of Penn State’s offense that consistently worked in 2020, finishing atop the Big Ten in receiving yards (884) and touchdowns (8) in the midst of the Nittany Lions’ first losing season since 2004. A huge senior campaign looms; whether the rest of the team is good enough to get anyone outside of the conference to notice is TBD.
77. Mohamed Ibrahim • RB, Minnesota
In an era of running back by rotation, Ibrahim is a true workhorse. As a junior, he put in a full season’s worth of work in half a season’s worth of games, churning out 1,076 yards on an FBS-best 28.7 carries per game. With the entire starting o-line intact – plus 400-pound mauler Daniel Faalele, who’s back in the fold after opting out – the only things standing between Ibrahim and another Herculean workload are his health and vague “tread on the tire” concerns as a pro prospect.
76. Zamir White • RB, Georgia
75. Brian Robinson Jr. • RB, Alabama
White and Robinson are on the opposite end of the tread-on-the-tire spectrum: Limited by a combination of injuries and stacked depth charts, both are long past due for their opportunity to rack up some mileage. Finally healthy after multiple ACL tears, White remains first among equals in Georgia’s crowded backfield rotation and the most likely to separate himself from the pack in his 4th (and presumably last) year in the program. Robinson, a 5th-year senior who has spent his entire career biding his time behind current NFL starters, is finally at the front of the line in a role almost guaranteed to make a star out of anyone who can keep it. Either or both could wind up exceeding their career output to date in the coming months.
74. Malachi Moore • DB, Alabama
Moore was an instant hit as a true freshman, locking down the “Star” position in Alabama’s nickel sets en route to second-team All-SEC honors. Fully entrenched as a sophomore, he has the makings of the Tide’s next great DB in the mold of Minkah Fitzpatrick.
73. Jalen Catalon • S, Arkansas
No aspect of Arkansas’ rebuilding effort improved more dramatically from 2019 to ’20 than the secondary, and no one played a bigger part on the back end than Catalon, an undersized ballhawk who chalked up 99 tackles and 3 INTs in his first year in the lineup. All signs point to him remaining an all-conference fixture for the next 3 years.
72. Mykael Wright • CB, Oregon
Wright, a top-5 prospect in the state of California in 2019, was a big fish in the highest-rated recruiting class in Oregon history. So far, so good: As a freshman, he made his mark in the return game, taking a pair of kickoffs back for TDs; as a sophomore, he made a smooth transition to starting corner, where he posted a stellar 82.7 grade from PFF, led the Pac-12 in passes defended, and landed a first-team all-conference nod from league coaches. As a junior, he’s right on track to take his place as one of the premier corners in the country.
Mykael Wright will be terrorizing NFL QBs like this one day pic.twitter.com/3BUC5cZcij
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 8, 2020
71. Tiawan Mullen • CB, Indiana
Mullen earned rave reviews as a true freshman and raised the bar in Year 2, becoming the first cornerback in school history to land a first-team All-America notice from a major selector. Besides his reputation as the Big Ten’s best cover man, he’s also a willing tackler and a surprisingly productive blitzer from the slot, traits that will make him much more attractive among a stacked 2022 draft class than his mediocre size suggests.
70. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson • CB, TCU
LaDainian’s nephew did justice to the family name in 2020, tying for the Power 5 lead in passes defended (13) and turning in the best PFF coverage grade (89.1) of any returning Power 5 corner. He has some work to do against the run – predictably, for a guy listed at 5-9/177 – and his height is an issue in contested catch situations vs. taller wideouts. Stride for stride, though, Hodges-Tomlinson is as sticky as they come.
69. Isaiah Thomas • DL, Oklahoma
Thomas broke out in as a redshirt junior, chalking up 46 QB pressures and 8.5 sacks in his first season in a full-time role. He offers the Sooners the versatility to play inside or out, splitting snaps roughly evenly between end and tackle, and projects as one of the Big 12’s most disruptive forces either way.
68. Dante Stills • DL, West Virginia
Dante has spent the past 3 seasons as one-half of the Stills Bros. alongside his older brother Darius, now with the Las Vegas Raiders after going undrafted. With 3 inches on Darius and better production, he’s highly unlikely to suffer the same fate.
67. Mike Rose • LB, Iowa State
Like all the Iowa State players on this list, Rose is no one’s idea of a “wow” specimen. But he has been a long-tenured tackling machine in the middle of a reliably sturdy ISU defense, racking up 251 over the past 3 years with 29 for loss, putting him among the active FBS leaders in both categories. He also tied for the Big 12 lead in 2020 with 5 interceptions, including a game-clinching pick in the Fiesta Bowl, the Cyclones’ first major bowl win.
66. Devin Lloyd • LB, Utah
Rep for rep, Lloyd was quietly the most productive linebacker in the country in 2020 with 48 tackles and 10 TFLs in just 5 games. Even at just half that pace, he would still rank among the Pac-12’s top defenders. Extrapolated over a full season, it would make him a no-brainer All-American and a sneaky candidate for first-round buzz.
65. Noah Sewell • LB, Oregon
Sewell’s older brother, Penei, was hailed as one of the most dominant offensive linemen in a generation and drafted with the No. 7 overall pick. Despite being limited to just 7 games as a freshman, all indications in Year 1 suggested Noah, the 5-star gem of Oregon’s 2020 recruiting class, is on the same trajectory. Fast and physically imposing in the middle, Sewell’s combination of natural power, closing speed and twitchy instincts should be a lock to crack the triple digits in tackles and look impressive doing it.
The future All-American in Noah Sewell isn't fair
He shouldn't be able to move like this at 6'3, 260 pic.twitter.com/KnrdktGlNH
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 8, 2020
64. Jaxson Kirkland • OL, Washington
Kirkland is the kind of lineman you can afford to take for granted, moving into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman and logging 29 starts over the past 3 years at guard (in 2018-19) and tackle (in ’20). At 6-7/310, he has a prototype frame for the outside and, coming off first-team All-Pac 12 accolades as a junior, the full attention of the next level.
63. Jarrett Patterson • C, Notre Dame
Notre Dame lost 4 starters from one of the nation’s best o-lines, leaving only Patterson to carry on with an entirely rebuilt unit around him. His absence was keenly felt down the stretch last season after a foot injury sidelined him for the last 4 games.
62. Abraham Lucas • OT, Washington State
A lot has changed at Washington State in the past 3 years, including its head coach and its offensive philosophy. But not its right tackle. Lucas has been a fixture, starting 30 consecutive games and earning second-team all-conference honors each of the past 3 seasons.
61. Nicholas Petit-Frere • OT, Ohio State
Our first Buckeye, but certainly not our last. Petit-Frere’s first season as a starter went off as expected, yielding a solid 77.8 PFF grade and a second-team All-Big Ten nod as a redshirt sophomore. In 512 snaps, he allowed zero sacks and just 4 QB pressures (3 of which came in OSU’s championship game loss to Alabama).
60. Jaquan Brisker • S, Penn State
Brisker is the epitome of what I call the Boring Safety, which for a safety is a high compliment: In 2020 he missed a single tackle and allowed just 1 reception of 20+ yards. (It gained 21.) He’s 1 of only 2 returning Power 5 DBs with 80+ PFF grades each of the past 2 seasons.
59. Trent McDuffie • CB, Washington
The other DB in that category: McDuffie, a blue-chip talent who followed up a promising rookie campaign in 2019 with an equally solid (if abbreviated) effort in 2020. In 4 games, he allowed just 6 receptions for 52 yards and no touchdowns, and in 17 career games, he has missed only 2 tackles.
58. Ahmad Gardner • CB, Cincinnati
“Sauce” has earned his rep as one of the nation’s top corners and then some, scoring more touchdowns the past 2 seasons (2) than he’s allowed (zero) on 98 targets – one of the highest numbers faced by any DB in that span. For his efforts, he has been a first-team All-AAC pick both years while Cincinnati as a team has finished in the top 15 nationally in pass efficiency defense.
57. Malik Willis • QB, Liberty
At Auburn, Willis was an afterthought, attempting 14 passes in 2 years as Jarrett Stidham’s backup before transferring out ahead of Bo Nix’s arrival in 2019. At Liberty, he’s on the cusp of becoming one of the sport’s biggest names. An under-the-radar star in 2020, his first season as a starter, Willis’ stock achieved liftoff over the offseason as scouts have dug into the tape and discovered a gem of a player with a spectacular skill set.
Five minutes into Malik Willis All-22 and…
— Kenny G. (@Gritz_Blitz) May 7, 2021
Raw as he still is, Willis’ escapability and major-league arm more than make up for his inconsistency, and his 10-1 record as a starter (including wins over Virginia Tech and previously undefeated Coastal Carolina in the bowl game) speaks for itself. Any semblance of growth as a 5th-year senior will move him into the top tier of the 2022 QB class accompanied by some very lofty comparisons.
56. Michael Mayer • TE, Notre Dame
Mayer has all the makings of the next great Notre Dame tight end coming off a debut in which he tied for the team lead in receptions (42) and generally lived up to the hype. With wide receiver skills in a prototypical TE body, he’s well on his way to becoming one of the future faces of the position.
55. Jalen Wydermyer • TE, Texas A&M
A&M’s wide receivers were largely MIA in 2020, but there was still Wydermyer, an expert chain-mover who converted nearly two-thirds of his team-high 46 catches into first downs, including 14 of 15 grabs on third down. (Tellingly, the Aggies ranked No. 3 nationally in both third-down conversions and time of possession.) With 12 touchdowns over the past 2 years, he’s also the active SEC leader in TD receptions, all but one of them coming in the red zone.
What a grab by Jalen Wydermyer 😳 pic.twitter.com/x7TaJzhYBX
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 5, 2020
Kyle Pitts he is not, but who is? Factor in his value as a blocker, and Wydermyer’s game is arguably as complete as any conventional, in-line tight end prospect in the spread era.
54. Christian Harris • LB, Alabama
Harris has some work to do in coverage, where he was targeted frequently as a sophomore and allowed more yards (539) and touchdowns (3) than any other Alabama defender. (Please, don’t leave him isolated in man-to-man coverage on the outside.) In every other respect, though, he’s your standard-issue Bama middle ‘backer, in his element as a run-stuffer, pass rusher, and sideline-to-sideline thumper. Incredibly, it has been 5 years since the Tide’s last consensus All-American at the position after their run of 7 All-American linebackers in 8 years from 2009-16. That drought is overdue to end.
53. Derion Kendrick • CB, Georgia
If Kendrick wasn’t the best player to pass through the transfer portal this offseason, full-stop, he may well turn out to be the most valuable. Before his arrival from Clemson, cornerback was the glaring vacancy on Georgia’s depth chart following the exit of both of last year’s starters, Eric Stokes (the 29th overall pick in the draft) and Tyson Campbell (No. 33). With Kendrick, a converted quarterback/receiver turned first-team All-ACC corner in 2020, the Bulldogs filled that void with an experienced, gifted player still growing into his next-level talent at the position. Assuming his offseason legal issues are behind him — always a fun sentence to write on the eve of the season — the transition from starting for one title contender to starting for another should be seamless.
52. Andrew Booth Jr. • CB, Clemson
The main reason Clemson’s isn’t sweating Kendrick’s departure: The emergence of Booth, a former 5-star with extraordinary hops who turned a part-time role in a crowded rotation in 2020 into his own personal highlight reel.
— Collin Wilson (@_Collin1) October 11, 2020
Clemson fans should see a lot of Booth this season after he logged just 333 snaps in 11 games as a sophomore — that is, assuming quarterbacks are still willing to test him.
51. Kolby Harvell-Peel • S, Oklahoma State
Harvell-Peel thought better of his initial decision to declare for the draft, setting himself up for a profitable senior season. Returning to his sophomore form, when he led the Big 12 with 18 passes defended, would go a long way to making his about-face pay off.
50. Brock Purdy • QB, Iowa State
Purdy is the best quarterback in Iowa State history by such a wide margin it’s almost comical. In a little less than 3 full seasons as the starter, he owns school records for wins (23), touchdowns (62 passing, 80 total) and pass efficiency (151.9), with passing yards and total offense due to fall by October at the latest. Beyond Purdy, the Cyclones are in better position to contend for a Big 12 crown than they’ve ever been, or likely will be again for a long time. If he goes out as the guy who ended the program’s 109-year conference championship drought, his legacy in Ames may never be surpassed.
49. Kennedy Brooks • RB, Oklahoma
The Sooners felt Brooks’ absence in 2020 after he opted out, failing to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2013. Between a rejuvenated Brooks, who rang up more than 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns on 7.5 per carry in his first 2 seasons, and Tennessee transfer Eric Gray, the chances of that happening again are somewhere between slim and none.
48. Isaiah Spiller • RB, Texas A&M
At 6-1/215, Spiller looks like an I-formation bruiser plunked down in the wrong decade. That suits A&M’s ball-control mentality just fine. The Aggies relied on Spiller to pull work-horse duty on a near-weekly basis as a sophomore, and he responded by averaging 111.8 yards on more than 21 carries per game over the course of an 8-game winning streak to end the year. Without more downfield pop from the passing game, that line might be the bear minimum to keep the gears in motion.
47. Jerrion Ealy • RB/KR, Ole Miss
Ealy, on the other hand, is a perfect fit for the modern spread: Compact, shifty and versatile, with big-play potential to burn. A true home-run hitter, he’s accounted for 2,400 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns the past 2 years as a rusher, receiver and kick returner despite a modest workload at barely 13 touches per game. Out of high school, there was some doubt whether Ealy would ever arrive on campus or pursue a career in pro baseball, but 2 years later, his decision to stick with football has proven to be the right one for a guy clearly on track to play in the NFL.
46. Jamaree Salyer • OL, Georgia
45. Cade Mays • OL, Tennessee
Salyer and Mays were two of the headliners of Georgia’s stacked 2018 recruiting class, and although they’re both on track to live up to that billing heading into their final college season, their paths have taken different routes. Mays, a regular starter in his first 2 seasons at UGA, decided to finish in Knoxville, his hometown, where he moved directly into the lineup last year at guard and tackle. Salyer, a reserve in his first 2 seasons, finally broke through in a full-time role as a junior, grading out as the Bulldogs’ best o-lineman per PFF at left tackle. If Salyer moves inside in 2021 as expected (he started the Sugar Bowl at LG), he and Mays should be far and away the nation’s two most NFL-ready guards.
44. Bryce Young • QB, Alabama
What’s left to say about a dude so hyped he’s joined the top income tax bracket before he’s attempted a meaningful college pass? Young is the most touted recruit of the Saban era, a Day 1 Heisman favorite, and heir apparent to championship-or-bust expectations. I’m trying to show some restraint here, but if he actually comes in this low at year’s end, it will feel like a letdown.
43. John Metchie III • WR, Alabama
As for Young, so too for Metchie, the obvious successor to the parade of first-rounders who commanded most of the attention and targets over his first 2 years. Under different circumstances, it might count as a concern that Metchie’s production remained flat after Jaylen Waddle’s broken ankle opened the door for him to take on a bigger role. Considering the actual circumstances, in which DeVonta Smith singlehandedly absorbed Waddle’s output in one of the greatest individual runs the sport has ever seen, it’s a safe bet Metchie is going to be just fine.
42. Charlie Kolar • TE, Iowa State
Huge (6-6/260), experienced (18 career starts) and productive (106 catches for 1,425 yards, 17 TDs), Kolar is the perfect fit for an ISU offense that is decidedly not built for speed. Coaches have tabbed him as a first-team All-Big 12 pick in back-to-back seasons, and with his size, steady hands and consistency as a blocker, he’s a strong candidate to be the first tight end off the board next spring.
41. David Bell • WR, Purdue
It was easy the past couple of years to think of Bell as second banana in the same WR corps as Rondale Moore. In fact, with Moore’s impact diminished by injuries, Bell has been the brightest star on Purdue’s offense, by far, hauling in more receptions (139) for more yards (1,660) and touchdowns (15) over the past 2 seasons than any returning Big Ten wideout, often with just as much panache as his more hyped teammate.
David Bell and Rondale Moore
Purdue’s WR corps is unfair 🔥pic.twitter.com/jDaooa9YAU
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 21, 2020
Bell’s uncanny body control, extension, and strong hands on contested catches allow him to play much bigger than his listed 6-2/205. If he manages to create more downfield separation in Year 3, his stock will soar.
40. Brandon Joseph • S, Northwestern
Joseph is the kind of hidden gem the Northwesterns of the world dream about — an obscure, 3-star prospect from a far-flung hotbed (southeast Texas, A&M’s backyard) who was somehow ignored by the locals and spends the next 4 years making them regret it. In just 8 games as a redshirt freshman, he tied for the national lead in interceptions (6), anchored the nation’s No. 1 pass efficiency defense, scored a viral highlight at Justin Fields’ expense in the Big Ten Championship Game, and closed out the year as the first consensus All-American DB in school history.
Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph continues to be one of the most impressive freshmen in the country. That’s 6 INTs in 8 games.
Great eval by Northwestern staff to sign him out of College Station, Texas. pic.twitter.com/Pq60UlOfrb
— Max Olson (@max_olson) December 19, 2020
The only downside of a debut like that: Following up now that everybody knows your name.
39. Haskell Garrett • DT, Ohio State
A longtime reserve, Garrett took full advantage of his opportunity to move into the starting lineup in 2020 despite (checks notes) getting shot in the face just a few weeks prior to the Buckeyes’ season-opener. Close call notwithstanding, he didn’t miss a beat, anchoring a front that ranked 6th nationally in rushing defense while posting the best PFF grade (88.1) of any full-time Big Ten defender. Garrett’s decision to return for a 5th season was one of the more surprising draft deferrals and set the tone for another sustained Playoff run.
38. Drake Jackson • Edge, USC
Jackson was an obvious breakout candidate before the pandemic cut the Pac-12 schedule in half, and even within the abbreviated window, he made enough plays (17 QB pressures, 6 TFLs in 6 games) to keep the embers alive. At that rate, he has all the tools to become the first USC edge rusher to go in the first round in a decade.
37. Kedon Slovis • QB, USC
Slovis is on the same trajectory as Jackson: Intriguing in Year 1, holding pattern in Year 2, poised for a breakout in Year 3 with NFL scouts’ full attention. His arm and chutzpah are well-established, with 17 touchdowns and three fourth-quarter comebacks to his credit last year in just six games; with seven interceptions in the same span, his consistency is TBD. As ever, the Trojans are never more than a year away from national relevance, and as ever the quarterback will be the most important variable in whether this is the year.
36. DJ Uiagalelei • QB, Clemson
Practice it with me now: ooh-ee-AHN-gah-leh-lay. You already know the heir to the Clemson quarterbacking throne is an automatic Heisman candidate, and you can bet by midseason his name will be rolling off the tongue as effortlessly as Tagovailoa. Still, in the meantime don’t let yourself be the guy at the UGA-Clemson watch party on opening night choking in the face of a daunting vowel-to-consonant ratio.
35. Tank Bigsby • RB, Auburn
The gem of the Tigers’ 2020 recruiting class was their best player as a true freshman, a Cadillac Williams clone who shed tacklers at will and gained nearly two-thirds of his 834 rushing yards after contact — much of that total coming on a gimpy ankle over the second half of the season. A guy nicknamed “Tank” is, not surprisingly, probably not going to offer much in the way of breakaway speed. (Bigsby had just 3 carries of 30+ yards in 2020, with a long of 47.) As far as keeping the chains moving, though, his natural power and balance between the tackles put him in a class by himself.
34. Bijan Robinson • RB, Texas
The first viral highlight of Robinson’s college career was an ugly one: An ill-considered, very nearly ill-fated hurdle attempt that ended with the freshman face-planting into the turf and bending backward in nauseating fashion. Very quickly, though, it was obvious it would not be his last.
Bijan’s huge first play! pic.twitter.com/C7yqxBRxcm
— Hook'em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) November 7, 2020
Once he found his footing, Robinson was as advertised, exploding for 667 scrimmage yards and 6 touchdowns on an astounding 11.9 yards per touch in Texas’ last 4 games, while flashing a Najee-esque blend of elusiveness, power, balance and hands out of the backfield. Over the course of a full season, with a new coach who has already pledged to double his workload, a Najee-esque stat line in Year 2 could very well be in the cards.
33. Eli Ricks • CB, LSU
32. Kayshon Boutte • WR, LSU
The silver lining in LSU’s hungover 2020 season was the emergence of Ricks and Boutte, a pair of up-and-coming freshmen who look a lot alike in uniform — both wear No. 1 — and share a lot in common otherwise: 5-star ratings as recruits, a knack for the end zone, and, as of the end of their first year in Baton Rouge, barely containable expectations for Year 2.
ELI RICKS intercepts Kyle Trask for the pick-6😳
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 13, 2020
Ricks was on the star track right out of the gate, starting 7 of 10 games and turning in the second-best PFF coverage grade on the season (85.6) of any SEC defender, behind only Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II; by the time he housed his second pick-6 in the Tigers’ chaotic upset at Florida, his ticket to the preseason hype train had already been punched. Boutte’s rise was much steeper, beginning with leading receiver Terrance Marshall Jr.’s decision to opt out of the last 3 games, followed by Arik Gilbert in the last 2. Shoved into the spotlight, Boutte owned the moment in historic fashion.
How Kayshon Boutte closed out his freshman season at LSU:
— Eight catches for 111 yards vs. Alabama
— Five catches, 108 yards and a touchdown vs. Florida
— 14 catches, a school-record 308 yards and three TDs tonight vs. Ole Miss
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) December 20, 2020
A small sample size to build an All-American case around, sure, but when someone as touted as Boutte shows you who they are, believe them. LSU’s preseason expectations are back to normal and the assumption that its young headliners are bound to take the next step is one of the big reasons why.
31. Marvin Mims • WR, Oklahoma
Mims was on the field for barely a third of Oklahoma’s offensive snaps as a true freshman and cracked the starting lineup just once. But nobody got more bang for their buck: Even as a part-timer, Mims led OU in receptions (37) and receiving yards (610) and hauled in a Big 12-best 9 touchdowns — roughly 1 TD for every 5 passes on which he was the target. All but one of those scores came on throws that traveled 20+ yards in the air, establishing him as one of the most ruthlessly efficient deep route runners in the game.
Oklahoma true freshman WR Marvin Mims is special. Look at this route. pic.twitter.com/5DyQ0BBxij
— Chris Hummer (@chris_hummer) December 19, 2020
That’s not a sustainable pace as Mims’ role inevitably expands. Still, in a system that prior to last year had produced an All-American wide receiver in 3 of the previous 4 seasons, it’s not hard to see what’s next.
30. Treylon Burks • WR, Arkansas
Burks, an Arkansas native, could have taken his imposing size and decorated high school résumé just about anywhere. Instead, he opted to play close to home for a program at rock bottom, and with his breakout sophomore campaign in 2020, he’s well on his way to upholding his part of the rebuild. At 6-3/225, Burks’ combination of high-rise skills in the red zone and home-run speed might be unmatched by any active college receiver.
29. Josh Jobe • CB, Alabama
28. Jordan Battle • S, Alabama
A technically sound, veteran corner with NFL length. A big, versatile safety who’s equally comfortable in the box and in coverage. At this point, Nick Saban may as well be growing these dudes on trees. Jobe and Battle both looked the part in their first year as starters and should have no problem carrying on the tradition of sweltering Bama secondaries as the unit’s elder statesmen.
27. JT Daniels • QB, Georgia
It’s easy to overstate Daniels’ impact over the last 4 games of 2020, partly because it’s so narratively compelling — blue-chip transfer takes over struggling position, emerges as Missing Piece of the Puzzle, etc. In fact, with respect to his impressive efficiency and 4-0 record as UGA’s starter, he remains far from a proven commodity over a full season, against elite competition, or with a championship at stake. But there is one very obvious reason to give him the benefit of the doubt based on a limited window into his game: His golden arm.
JT Daniels had a really good game this week. This was his best play. Showed pocket awareness and mobility, reset his feet and fired a 30 yard bullet to the WR1 of the 2022 class.
Yes, George should have caught it #devy pic.twitter.com/h1MvS6tILE
— Brandon Lejeune (@DevyDeepDive) November 25, 2020
Of Daniels’ 119 attempts last year, 29 of them traveled 20+ yards downfield, the highest rate of any SEC passer and the 6th-highest nationally among QBs with at least 100 attempts. His average depth of target (12.7 yards per attempt) ranked 4th nationally, coming in more than 2 full yards better than Jake Fromm’s career-high (10.3 ypa) in 2019. He completed 44.8% of those throws with 5 touchdowns, easily surpassing Fromm’s success rate on 20+ yard attempts over the previous 2 years. In short, he stands to bring some legitimate downfield juice to an attack that desperately needs it. Actually delivering on that promise may be the most consequential if of the entire season.
26. Brenton Cox Jr. • Edge, Florida
After a false start at Georgia, Cox justified his enormous recruiting hype with 48 QB pressures and 10 TFLs in his first eligible season as a Gator. At this point in the proceedings, everyone is an aspiring first-rounder, and with Cox’s 6-4, 253-pound frame and explosive skill set, he is no exception.
25. Bryan Bresee • DT, Clemson
Bresee was who the recruitniks thought he was in 2020, making immediate inroads into Clemson’s starting lineup and inflicting his fair share of pain on one of the game’s dominant fronts. Opposing coaches set aside their usual deference to seniority to make him a first-team All-ACC pick, both a telling nod of respect for a rookie and a subconscious plea for mercy over the next 2 years.
24. George Karlaftis • DL, Purdue
23. Aidan Hutchinson • DL, Michigan
A couple of big, athletic strongside ends in the Bosa mold, Karlaftis and Hutchinson both had their already-abridged 2020 seasons cut short by injury. In 2019, they were virtually unblockable. At full speed, their combination of towering size against the run and explosiveness as pass rushers puts them in rare company with the nation’s most versatile d-linemen.
22. Zach Harrison • DE, Ohio State
Is it going a little overboard to mention a guy with 499 career snaps in the same breath Chase Young, the most feared pass rusher of the past decade? Probably! If anyone justifies the comparison, though, it’s Harrison, a first-year starter with the size, burst, and 5-star pedigree to make the leap to full-blown stardom as a junior. In limited reps in 2020, he previewed the destruction awaiting Big Ten offenses this fall with 22 QB pressures, 6 TFLs and an 88.8 PFF grade, the best of any returning B1G defender.
21. Nik Bonitto • Edge, Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s former reputation as a pipeline for elite d-linemen has had a rough decade: The once-vaunted front four hasn’t produced an All-American since Gerald McCoy in 2009, who was also the last DL or outside linebacker drafted higher than the third round. In Bonitto, though, the Sooners have a legitimate candidate to break both droughts. As a redshirt sophomore, PFF credited him with the nation’s best individual pressure rate (25.7%) and the top pass-rushing grade of any FBS player (93.6). If OU has any chance of leveling up against elite opponents in January, that’s the kind of juice they’ll need to do it.
20. Kenyon Green • OL, Texas A&M
Green, a former 5-star recruit, has started all 23 games over his first 2 seasons in College Station, becoming a fast favorite among o-line Twitter for his size, power, and flat out nastiness. Year 3 brings four new starters along the rest of the front, leaving Green as the de facto veteran of the group, and the inevitable move from left guard to left tackle – all the better for generating first-round buzz. Wherever he lines up, Green’s mission is to maul.
19. Kaiir Elam • CB, Florida
Elam regressed a bit from a stellar debut in 2019, most notably as a tackler, where his success rate fell from 100% as a rookie to just 75% last year, per PFF. Still, he was solid enough in coverage to be voted first-team All-SEC by the coaches and to put himself squarely in position to become Florida’s next first-round corner in 2022. His fluidity and ball skills on a 6-2 frame have the makings of true shutdown potential.
18. Justyn Ross • WR, Clemson
Ross’ stock surged at the most opportune possible moment as a true freshman, on the strength of a couple of career-making performances in Clemson’s 2018 Playoff run. Two years later, on the other side of a good-not-great sophomore effort and a medical redshirt in 2020, he’s still waiting for the payoff. With a clean bill of health, Ross should be the undisputed WR1 in a group that lost both of last year’s top receivers, Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, to the NFL. His ceiling is obvious enough; how close he comes to hitting it, and how often, will be major variables in how close the Tigers come in their bid to reclaim the title.
17. Garrett Wilson • WR, Ohio State
One of the most touted receivers of the past few recruiting cycles, Wilson is as about close to a complete package as they come – long, smooth, technically sound, feisty after the catch and capable of coming down with balls most other wideouts would struggle just to get a finger on. In almost any other offense, his steady output over his first 2 seasons (73 catches for 1,155 yards and 11 TDs) would be just the prelude to a monster junior campaign that saw him eclipse that line with room to spare. In Ohio State’s offense, the presence of fellow headliner Chris Olave and a half-dozen other blue-chip wideouts vying for meaningful targets means he’ll have to make the ones that come his way count that much more.
16. Tyler Linderbaum • C, Iowa
I defy anyone to come up with anything more quintessentially Iowan than a small-town offensive lineman named “Linderbaum” whose offseason included a victory in something called the Solon Beef Day Hay Bale Toss. If you didn’t already know he’s an All-American center who posted the best run-blocking grade in the Big Ten as a sophomore before reading that, would you have to be told?
15. Breece Hall • RB, Iowa State
Week-in, week-out, Hall was the most consistent back in America in 2020, scoring at least once in every game and going over 100 yards from scrimmage in all but one. (The lone exception: A 91-yard outing in a win over Texas.) He claimed the national rushing crown, Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, and a 6th-place finish in the Heisman vote while becoming only Iowa State’s third consensus All-American at any position since World War II. The only real question left is whether he can sustain that pace 2 years in a row.
14. D’Eriq King • QB, Miami
In certain ways, King remains a polarizing player: A dynamic athlete who’s also vastly undersized for an NFL prospect; a prolific touchdown machine who’s also somewhat inconsistent as a passer; a team captain at Miami who also faced a backlash for opting out of his final season at Houston after 4 games; a decorated vet with more career starts to his credit (37) than any other returning FBS quarterback who also feels like he still has something to prove as a 6th-year senior, coming off his second major knee injury in 3 years.
In all the most important ways, though, King largely was who the ‘Canes hoped he would be in 2020, which is the first undeniable difference-maker they’ve had at the position since the end of the dynasty years in the early aughts. (You could go back even further than that, depending on your feelings about Ken Dorsey.) Miami’s 34.0 ppg marked its best scoring average vs. FBS opponents in more than a decade. Whatever else he is – volatile in some respects, limited in others – as long as he’s healthy, King gives an otherwise unremarkable version of The U a chance in every game, which puts him on the short list of the most valuable players anywhere.
13. Myles Murphy • Edge, Clemson
There are 5-star recruits, and then there are guys like Murphy, who show up so fully formed they rightfully deserve a sixth.
Last night will go down in history as the last time a college team tried to block Myles Murphy with a tight end/H-back. pic.twitter.com/hpEjwTAvhN
— Larry Williams (@LarryWilliamsTI) September 13, 2020
As a freshman, he rocketed to the top of Clemson’s stacked defensive end rotation and was the most productive player on the entire unit, leading the team in TFLs (11.5) and overall PFF grade (85.2) in just 423 snaps. As a sophomore, he has a head start on transcending the platoon and beginning his ascent on the long, luminous list of the best d-linemen in the Swinney/Venables era.
12. Will Anderson • Edge, Alabama
Another 6-star dude, Anderson started every game in Bama’s national title run and came on strong down the stretch, registering all 8 of his sacks for the season after Thanksgiving. Altogether, PFF credited Anderson with an FBS-best 60 QB pressures on the year, a number that only a steady diet of double teams should prevent him from eclipsing in Year 2 as an established every-down force.
11. Darian Kinnard • OT, Kentucky
Which is the more unlikely development: Kentucky’s o-line establishing itself over the past few seasons as one of the SEC’s most reliable units, or Kinnard’s decision last winter to spurn the draft for another turn as its most reliable member? With 26 consecutive starts at right tackle and elite PFF grades in each of the past 2 seasons (89.2 in 2019, 91.5 in ’20), he has absolutely nothing left to prove as a senior except that he clearly belongs among the top linemen in next year’s draft. If he plays his way into the first round Kinnard would be the first Kentucky OL to earn the distinction since 1977.
10. Thayer Munford • OT, Ohio State
Munford was a wall in 2020, effectively shutting out opposing rushers – zero sacks, zero QB hits – while also posting an elite 90.3 PFF grade as a run-blocker. In his 4th season as the Buckeyes’ starting left tackle, he’s at the pinnacle of o-linehood: The guy everyone else has the luxury of forgetting about altogether.
9. Chris Olave • WR, Ohio State
No one is any danger of forgetting about Olave, the clear favorite for the 2021 “How Was This Guy Only a 3-Star Recruit?” Award, among others. The California native isn’t the biggest, but he is everything else you could want from the position, with 22 touchdowns in as many games since his breakout afternoon against Michigan the end of his freshman season in 2018.
CHRIS OLAVE 😱 pic.twitter.com/I1Z8z9DeLV
— Buckeye Videos+ (@BuckeyeVideos) November 1, 2020
Last year’s output (50 catches for 729 yards and 7 TDs in 7 games) could have easily justified an early exit for the draft; prorated across a full season, it would shatter every OSU receiving record – single-season and career – and make Olave a serious Heisman candidate, a la DeVonta Smith. Again, the main obstacles are a new quarterback and a depth chart with so many other young, gifted receivers also demanding to be fed.
8. Matt Corral • QB, Ole Miss
Corral looked like an entirely different quarterback last year than the guy who lost his starting job in 2019, smashing Ole Miss records for total offense (384.3 yards per game), yards per attempt (10.2) and pass efficiency (177.6) with room to spare. As a team, the Rebels set a new SEC mark for total offense in conference games (555.5 ypg) and averaged 40.7 points in SEC play — more than a full touchdown per game better than the previous school record.
That’s certainly enough to generate some Heisman buzz going into his second season on Lane Kiffin’s watch, although Corral has a couple of significant obstacles to overcome to actually sniff national relevance. One: A rock-bottom defense that often threatens to render his gonzo stat lines irrelevant in a losing effort. And two: A reckless streak that sometimes resulted in random flurries of turnovers. Corral served up a league-worst 14 interceptions in 2020, making him the first SEC quarterback in a decade with more than a dozen picks in fewer than 300 attempts. But 13 of those picks came in just 3 games, losses to Arkansas (6 INTs), Auburn (2) and LSU (5), compared to just 1 INT in the other 7 games. The Rebels went 5-2 in those games, the losses coming in early shootouts vs. Florida and Alabama in which they rang up a combined 1,260 yards of total offense.
For Corral’s rep to transcend the stat sheet, Ole Miss will have to steal enough of those types of games to make at least a dark-horse run in the SEC West. The upside: If he matches last year’s output with fewer giveaways, the defense doesn’t have to improve that much to do exactly that. The downside: As long as shootout logic prevails, the giveaways may just be the price of trying to keep pace.
7. DeMarvin Leal • DL, Texas A&M
Leal’s game is a testament to the maxim that defensive linemen are not about the stats. Although he didn’t rank among the SEC’s leaders any conventional category in 2020, finishing with 37 tackles, 7 TFLs and 2.5 sacks, Leal was easily one of the league’s most disruptive forces on tape, playing inside and out with an impressive range of power, explosiveness and considerably more agility than ought to be possible for a man his size.
— Lorenz (@ScoutingLenz) February 28, 2021
Leal’s impact did register on paper in a couple of meaningful ways: One, in an 88.3 PFF grade, best among returning SEC d-linemen; and two, as the anchor of a front that ranked No. 2 nationally against the run. By this time next year it will be registered in the most meaningful way of all, in his bank account after he’s a top-10 pick.
6. Evan Neal • OL, Alabama
Neal is a lot like his predecessors in Alabama’s left tackle pipeline – blue-chip recruit, 3-year starter, obvious first-rounder – only more so: Bigger, freakier, even more coveted as a potential pro. With his viral vertical jump this summer, Neal became a kind of Paul Bunyan figure, a mountain of a man with all the power you’d expect from a 6-7, 350-pound All-American combined with a level of gravity-defying athleticism that you definitely would not. He is possibly the most ideal specimen for the position who has ever lived … at least until, you know, the next one comes along right behind him.
5. Derek Stingley Jr. • CB, LSU
No one was more solidly on board the Stingley bandwagon heading into last season than yours truly, and no one outside Baton Rouge was more disappointed by his failure to launch. That said, much of his sophomore malaise can be chalked up to injury (he missed the opener due to an unspecified medical emergency and never appeared close to 100%), and there’s no reason to believe the aspects of his game that made him an instant star in 2019 – length, stickiness in coverage, elite ball skills – have somehow abandoned him as an upperclassmen. Stingley still looks for all the world like an A+ prospect, a guy capable of erasing his side of the field from the game plan, the future of the position.
Plus, hey, DeVonta Smith finally graduated.
4. Kyle Hamilton • S, Notre Dame
Not many big-time college football players are born in Greece, and although I can’t be 100% sure, I’m willing to wager even fewer are certified members of Mensa International. I can say with absolute certainty, however, that there’s no one else right now who possesses anything like Hamilton’s dynamic range and cover skills on the back end on a legitimate 6-4, 220-pound frame.
— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) May 21, 2021
3. Sam Howell • QB, North Carolina
In 2 years at UNC, Howell has already ascended to the top of the school record book in just about every passing category you can think of, piling up 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns along with rave reviews from the likes of PFF (his 92.3 grade in 2020 ranked 6th among all FBS quarterbacks) and NFL scouts. As a sophomore, he posted the second-best efficiency rating in ACC history (179.1) behind only Jameis Winston’s Heisman campaign in 2013. In the process, he led a previously stagnant program to the Orange Bowl and played his way into serious contention to become the No. 1 overall pick in 2022.
Does that make him a legitimate Heisman candidate? For all his success on paper, Howell has remained essentially a regional star, overshadowed by Trevor Lawrence as the ACC’s standard bearer at the position, for a program that rarely competes for championships. (Depending on how willing you are to dismiss Carolina’s 2015 appearance in the ACC title game, you could realistically say never competes for championships.)
The Tar Heels’ most high-profile game of 2020, a 31-17 loss to Notre Dame the day after Thanksgiving, was Howell’s worst outing of the season. In a race that prioritizes big-game heroics and championship bona fides above draft cred or raw stats, his name barely made a ripple.
The only way that changes this year is via a serious run at the ACC crown. The schedule is friendly enough, omitting Clemson from the cross-division draw and setting up a straight path to a showdown with the Tigers in the conference championship game. The supporting cast, less so. Outgoing starters at wide receiver (Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome) and running back (Michael Carter, Javonte Williams) accounted for more than 70% of UNC’s yards from scrimmage each of the past 2 years. If the offense goes on putting up 500 yards and 40 points per game in their absence, Howell will have earned all the credit that comes his way.
2. Spencer Rattler • QB, Oklahoma
Expectations for Rattler’s first season as a starter were so high that anything short of a sustained Heisman Trophy and Playoff run would have been considered a disappointment, and early, back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State put both out of reach. As the season wore on, though, it was obvious that Rattler is who he was supposed to be, easily leading the Big 12 in yards per attempt (9.6), touchdowns (28), and overall efficiency (172.6) at the head of an attack that averaged 43.0 points per game. He posted the top PFF grade (92.5) of any returning FBS quarterback. The Sooners’ blowout win over Florida in the Cotton Bowl capped an 8-game winning streak to close the year and set the stage for a prolific 2021.
Again, the bar for Rattler’s redshirt sophomore season — most likely his last at OU — is set at Heisman and national championship contention. On the latter front, Oklahoma has taken a step in the wrong direction in 4 consecutive seasons. The 2017 team at least looked like it belonged, pushing Georgia to the limit in an overtime classic in the Rose Bowl. By contrast, the combination of a lopsided loss to Alabama in 2018 and a 63-28 slaughter vs. LSU in 2019 was proof for the rest of the country that, when it really counts, amassing gaudy numbers in the Big 12 amounts to a lot of empty calories. Bowl performance notwithstanding, falling short of the Playoff altogether last year did nothing to change that.
Rattler is a special talent, but even more so than for his predecessors, the Playoff busts loom larger for him than any statistical benchmarks he might be chasing. At this point, the numbers are baked in to expectations. When the same can no longer be said for a perfunctory exit in the semis, it will qualify as a genuine breakthrough.
1. Kayvon Thibodeaux • Edge, Oregon
If they built pass rushers on assembly lines, Thibodeaux would be the luxury model – sleek, fast and impeccably engineered for the modern game. Dude is fully loaded: burst off the ball; bend around the corner; wingspan to win with leverage; hands to win in close combat; motor to track down running backs in pursuit; instincts to make plays in the open field. Any available route to the quarterback is at his disposal.
2022 1st Round Pick Kayvon Thibodeaux
…just make some notes and store away for later. pic.twitter.com/bW0cgUZN0O
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) December 6, 2020
For what it’s worth, he has the production, too, with 68 QB pressures and 24 TFLs in 20 career games, in addition to a gilded résumé for a guy with fewer than 1,000 snaps at the college level.
But one of the defining marks of the great ones is that the experience of watching them take over a game is too unique, too visceral to be faithfully translated into a mere box score. The numbers can only take you so far.
Thibodeaux, more than any other player in college football in 2021, has to be seen to be believed.