The Top 100: Ranking the best college football players in 2022
The 2022 college football season will feature more than 11,000 players on 131 FBS rosters. Here’s the top 1 percent.
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100. Leonard Taylor, DT, Miami
The freshman d-line class in 2021 came in hot, with 6 defensive linemen ranked among 247Sports’ top 20 overall recruits. A year later, the hype remains right on schedule. All 6 of those players – Taylor, USC’s Korey Foreman, Ohio State’s JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, Alabama’s Dallas Turner, and LSU’s Maason Smith – are on breakout watch after flashing in reserve roles as rookies, and you could make a case for any or all of them to crack this list. For now, the nod goes to Taylor and his 9.5 tackles for loss in just 200 snaps, making him the one returning member of Miami’s front line whose position seems assured amid a coaching change and an influx of transfers. That kind of explosiveness on the interior is one of the many factors the ‘Canes have been missing for far too long.
99. Tuli Tuipulotu, DL, USC
Most of the intrigue on USC’s d-line is reserved for Foreman, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2021 class. The proven commodity, however, is Tuipulotu, who inherited his brother Marlon’s position on the line and followed him as a first-team All-Pac-12 pick in his first season as a starter. As bad as the defense was as a whole, Tuli is the one holdover from last year’s underachieving unit that new coordinator Alex Grinch should not have to worry about in the rebuild.
98. Carlton Martial, LB, Troy
Even in the Sun Belt, most guys who start out as obscure, sub-6-foot walk-ons are lucky just to get on the field. In Martial’s case, it’s been impossible to keep him off. Officially listed at 5-9, 210 pounds, the three-time all-conference pick enters his 6th and final season on campus with more tackles (443) and TFLs (48) to his credit than any other active D-1 defender, and as the only active player with 80+ grades from Pro Football Focus in 4 consecutive seasons. At that rate, the FBS record for career tackles is well within reach, even if a realistic shot at the next level for an undersized, overachieving tackle machine probably is not.
97. Drake Thomas, LB, NC State
A first-team all-conference pick in 2021, Thomas is the rep for a proven, productive linebacking corps that goes a long way toward justifying the optimism at NC State all by itself. Between Thomas, Isaiah Moore, and ’21 injury casualty Payton Wilson, the starters have racked up a combined 632 tackles, 74 TFLs and 8 interceptions over the past 3 seasons. At full strength, it’s not out of the question for them to give Clemson’s stacked defensive line a run for its money as the ACC’s best overall unit on either side of the ball.
96. Rakim Jarrett, WR, Maryland
A 5-star burner from the DC suburbs, Jarrett inevitably evokes comparisons to another local product who chose to rep the home-state colors, Stefon Diggs: Same size, same hype, same blazing speed in the open field, same penchant for flash-frying opposing DBs and letting them know it.
Gotta love Rakim Jarrett.
The little “Come on, follow me across the formation in man coverage, I dare ya” wave.
One of the top 2023 eligible WRs. 5⭐️ pic.twitter.com/fijO3YKhxd
— Travis May (@FF_TravisM) December 29, 2021
On paper, Jarrett even has the same production, posting a nearly identical stat line last year as a true sophomore (62 catches, 829 yards, 5 TDs) to Diggs’ in his final season at Maryland in 2015 (62/792/5). Unlike Diggs in his campus years, Jarrett also has the benefit of playing with a legit quarterback, Taulia Tagovailoa, who’s on pace to leave with all of the major school passing records. Their chemistry may not make much of a dent against the top half of the Big Ten schedule – all 6 losses in 2021 came at the hands of winning opponents, by an average margin of 30.2 ppg – but it can at least make the process of eking out bowl eligibility a little more interesting.
95. Mohamed Ibrahim, RB, Minnesota
Ibrahim was an iron man in 2020, averaging 168.4 yards on 30 touches per game against a COVID-shortened schedule. In 2021, the bill came due when he ruptured his Achilles’ on his 30th carry of the Gophers’ season-opener against Ohio State. Now in Year 6, Ibrahim is back atop the depth chart and out to prove he still has enough tread on the tires to carry a full load for a Big Ten West contender without sacrificing his shot at a productive pro career. Given that last year’s leading rushers, Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas, are now at Oregon and Kansas, respectively, and top backup Trey Potts is also coming off a career-threatening injury, keeping Ibrahim’s touches in check might be easier said than done.
94. Will Shipley, RB, Clemson
At full speed, Shipley was the only player on Clemson’s offense who lived up to the hype in 2021, overcoming a midseason knee injury to lead the team in all-purpose yards (1,235) and touchdowns (11) as a freshman. In Year 2, Shipley already boasts the frame and versatility of a future pro. As long as the quarterback situation remains in flux – and as long as he stays healthy – workhorse duty awaits.
93. Jammie Robinson, DB, Florida State
A refugee from the Will Muschamp era at South Carolina, Robinson washed ashore at FSU and immediately established himself as the Seminoles’ most versatile defender. Moving between nickel and free safety, he led the team in tackles (84) and interceptions (4) in 2021 en route to a first-team All-ACC nod from league coaches, adding 7 TFLs for good measure. A lone defensive back can’t save Mike Norvell from meeting the same fate as Muschamp all by himself, but aside from QB Jordan Travis, arguably no other FSU player this fall will play a more prominent role in the effort.
92. Cam Smith, CB, South Carolina
Boring name, good player. As a sophomore, Smith was the standout in a completely rebuilt Carolina secondary and quietly one of the feistiest young cornerbacks in the SEC, finishing with 14 PBUs and 3 interceptions in the Gamecocks’ last 4 regular-season games.
South Carolina Corner Cam Smith really took off last year and exploded onto the scene with 11 pass breakups.
Cover 0 rep in the slot. thought it was impressive how much he trusted his speed. One of his 3 interceptions on the season. pic.twitter.com/sI50QRd3Ix
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) May 2, 2022
Per PFF, Smith allowed just 184 yards and a single touchdown on 32 targets, good enough to share the top coverage grade among SEC defensive backs (89.7) with Auburn’s Roger McCreary and Alabama’s Jordan Battle. With his rep established and expectations in Columbia on the rise, the “quiet” phase of his career may be over for good.
91. Demani Richardson, DB, Texas A&M
The epitome of the “boring” safety, Richardson quickly asserted himself in the lineup as true freshman in 2019 and never left, starting 31 of 35 games over the past 3 years with a minimum of drama or flash. For a safety, boring is a compliment: In Richardson’s case, he’s posted the top PFF tackling grade of any A&M defender each of the past 2 seasons while allowing just 3 career touchdowns in coverage. As one of the last remaining headliners from Jimbo Fisher’s first full recruiting class, he has a chance to go out as a mainstay of the Aggies’ climb into the SEC’s top tier.
90. Jaquelin Roy, DT, LSU
An enormous man with expectations to match, Roy will move into the anchor role in LSU’s front four after 2 productive years (10 tackles for loss, 50 QB pressures) as an underclassman. Even on part-time duty in 2021, he was one of the nation’s most disruptive interior pass rushers, posting an 89.6 PFF pass-rushing grade – second-best among Power 5 DTs behind Georgia’s Jalen Carter. Between Roy and Maason Smith, the Tigers’ pocket-collapsing potential in the middle of the line might be unmatched in the SEC or anywhere else.
89. Siaki Ika, DT, Baylor
One of the most massive players in the country, Ika was initially marked for stardom at LSU after playing a bit part on the 2019 national championship team as a true freshman. Instead, he joined the exodus from Baton Rouge barely a month into the Tigers’ doomed 2020 season. He resurfaced last year in Waco, reuniting with his former defensive coordinator at LSU, Dave Aranda, and immediately made his presence felt in Baylor’s surprise run to the Big 12 title. Firmly entrenched now in Year 4, Ika’s raw size and power will make him the big kahuna of a unit that lost five starters to the NFL.
88. Anton Harrison, OT, Oklahoma
Starting left tackle at Oklahoma in the Stoops/Riley era was a virtually automatic ticket to the next level: 9 players who manned the position have been drafted since 2005, 4 of them in the first round. Harrison, a rising junior with room to grow on his 6-5 frame, is a safe bet to carry on the tradition under Brent Venables. In his first season as a starter in 2021, PFF dinged Harrison for just 2 sacks and 17 pressures allowed on 382 pass-blocking snaps, good for the third-best pass-blocking grade in the Big 12. With more consistency in the run game his stock could soar.
87. Jaxson Kirkland, OL, Washington
It’s been a sobering 12 months for Kirkland and his team. This time last year, he was being floated as an aspiring first-rounder; instead, his stock gradually sank over the course of the season along with an offense that foundered from start to finish. His most high-profile assignments opposite Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux made money for them both. In November, the Huskies’ embattled head coach, Jimmy Lake, was suspended over a sideline altercation with a player and subsequently fired with 2 games left to play. (Between the COVID-shortened 2020 schedule and the early hook in 2021, Lake’s tenure spanned just 13 games.) Then, after initially declaring for the draft last winter, Kirkland opted to withdraw his name due to an ankle injury that would have forced him to skip crucial pre-draft workouts, putting his status for 2022 in doubt.
The good news: The NCAA approved a petition to reinstate Kirkland’s 6th and final year of eligibility, giving him a fresh opportunity to remind scouts what they saw in him in the first place. He has the frame (6-7/310), the experience (39 career starts), the versatility (more than 1,000 snaps at both guard and tackle), and the credentials (first-team All-Pac-12 in back-to-back seasons). If it all comes together under a new staff, last year’s slide could be forgotten in a hurry.
86. Olusegun Oluwatimi, C, Michigan
Three-fifths of the starting o-line that dominated Ohio State last November returns intact. The most urgent vacancy: Center. Enter Oluwatimi, a 2021 Rimington Award finalist who, with 32 career starts under his belt at Virginia, was easily the most accomplished pivot on the transfer market. He slid directly into a starting role in the spring, looked the part, and enters the season as well-entrenched as any of the holdovers on what should again be one of the Big Ten’s sturdiest fronts.
85. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
Besides reminding fans of a certain age of their impending mortality, Porter is a candidate for a surprising distinction: First Penn State DB ever drafted in the first round. (Seriously, you can look it up yourself.) At 6-2/196, he boasts coveted length, 2 years as a starter, and, yes, All-Pro DNA. With 7 career touchdowns allowed to just 1 interception, the actual production is TBD. If it all comes together in Year 4, that ratio could easily flip.
84. Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa
Kirk Ferentz has been taking lanky local kids, beefing them up, and shipping them off to the pros since before any of his current players were even born. Campbell, a middle linebacker in an edge rusher’s body, is next on the list. Barely 200 pounds out of high school, Campbell cracked the starting lineup last year at 6-5/243, led the nation in total tackles, and surged on draft boards in response. The only thing scouts need to see in Year 4 that they haven’t so far: Pass-rushing production befitting his length, which in Iowa’s resolutely blitz-averse scheme is a question likely to remain unanswered.
83. Will McDonald IV, Edge, Iowa State
2021 was a huge missed opportunity for Iowa State. The Cyclones opened in the preseason top 10 for the first time and finished with the second-best scoring margin in Big 12 play, but also went 2-5 in games decided by single digits in a year the conference crown was ripe for the taking. Now, most of the mainstays of the past few upwardly mobile seasons are on their way out.
Iowa State’s Will McDonald is such a gifted pass rusher. Can put speed to power, has a great first step, gets skinny through tight interior gaps & has a non-stop motor. Totaled 11.5 sacks along with 5 FF’s in 2021. Had only 2 offers out of HS: ISU & New Mexico. pic.twitter.com/ZbbTukNh1t
— Jake Lemming (@hsfbscout) July 9, 2022
McDonald is a notable exception. A 5th-year senior with 29 career sacks and 9 forced fumbles to his credit, he passed on the draft despite earning first-team All-Big 12 honors for the second year in a row. As a pass rusher, he has nothing left to prove. If he can answer doubts about whether he has enough sand in the pants to hold up against the run, the extra year will be well worth it.
82. Gervon Dexter, DT, Florida
Dexter, a 6-6, 313-pound specimen, is 1 of only 2 5-star recruits to sign with Florida out of high school in the past 7 years — a stark reminder of the gap between the Gators and the blue-chip outfits that have consistently beaten them en route to championships in that span. If Billy Napier is going to reverse that trend, a breakthrough by his most talented player in what will likely be Dexter’s last season in Gainesville would be an encouraging start.
81. Will Levis, QB, Kentucky
Levis has been widely touted as a top-10 pick in the “Way Too Early” mock draft cycle for 2023, and if you’re inclined to buy that stock, this position probably seems like short shrift. Maybe it is. He certainly checks the boxes in terms of size and mobility. And with all due respect to the immortal Lynn Bowden Jr., Levis’ first season in Lexington was the best by a Kentucky QB in a long time, going back to Andre’ Woodson in 2007, at least. If you squint hard enough, it’s possible to look at his situation — former transfer from the Big Ten, intriguing physical profile, encouraging turn in his first season as a starter — and conjure up the outline of a Joe Burrow-like leap as a 5th-year senior.
In other ways, though, Levis remains a work in progress. He was still relatively raw as a passer in 2021, serving up 13 interceptions, and half of his 24 touchdown passes came at the expense of UL-Monroe, Chattanooga, Vanderbilt and New Mexico State. In fact, the less often he put the ball in the air in the Wildcats’ run-first attack, the better – in 6 regular-season wins vs. Power 5 opponents he maxed out at just 22 attempts. He finished in the middle of the pack among SEC starters in pass efficiency and QBR, and lost a pair of wideouts (Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali) who accounted for 2/3s of the team’s receiving yards.
Anyway, mock drafts on the Internet are free to read and you should take them for what they’re worth. For a former 3-star recruit who arrived from Penn State as a wild card just to win the starting job, Levis’ tenure in Lexington is shaping up as a success. For a future franchise QB, he still has a lot to prove.
80. Chris Rodriguez Jr., RB, Kentucky
If nothing else, the increased scrutiny on Kentucky’s passing game this fall will also mean more eyes on the resident workhorse. Rodriguez has been the engine of the Wildcats’ ground game the past 2 years, piling up 2,164 yards and 20 touchdowns on 6.3 yards a pop. What he lacks in highlight-reel sizzle, he more than makes up for in week-in, week-out consistency: Rodriguez led all Power 5 backs in 2021 with 10 100-yard rushing games, including all 9 of Kentucky’s FBS wins.
79. Blake Corum, RB, Michigan
The electric half of Michigan’s thunder-and-lightning RB combo, Corum lit up defenses for 1,093 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2021 despite ceding the every-down role to All-Big Ten grinder Hassan Haskins. With Haskins gone, he’s in line to inherit the lion’s share of carries this fall in a timeshare with rising sophomore Donovan Edwards; together, they’ll give Michigan arguably the nation’s best 1-2 backfield punch for the second year in a row. The only caveat: If Edwards takes over as the dual threat, how effectively will the 5-8, 200-pound Corum adapt to the dirty work?
78. Riley Moss, CB, Iowa
Iowa thrived on takeaways in 2021, finishing with an FBS-best 25 interceptions as a team, and no individual Hawkeye had a more finely tuned nose for the ball than Moss, a first-team All-Big Ten pick who took 2 of his 4 INTs on the year to the house.
Riley Moss: 4 INT’s in zone coverage this season, most in College Football🤫 pic.twitter.com/nwzsvO041k
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 2, 2021
Altogether, Moss’ 10 career picks since 2018 leads all active FBS players. His reputation as a strictly zone-coverage corner in Iowa’s defense limits his ceiling as a pro prospect, but that doesn’t make throwing in his direction any better of an idea.
77. Parker Washington, WR, Penn State
Washington spent the past 2 years as a sidekick to the departed Jahan Dotson, a first-team All-Big Ten pick who went 16th overall in the draft. It’s his turn to shine. As WR2, Washington’s hallmark was consistency: Multiple receptions in 20 of 22 career games, including 4 or more in 15 games. He also capped his sophomore campaign with a couple of one-handed, above-the-rim gems against Michigan State in the regular-season finale and Arkansas in the bowl game that whetted Penn State fans’ appetites heading into the offseason.
MY GOODNESS PARKER WASHINGTON 🤯pic.twitter.com/Vcdxw18NwR
— Saturday Gameday (@SaturdayGameday) January 1, 2022
The mandate in ’22: More big plays. Washington only found the end zone 4 times last year, 3 of them coming against Villanova and Rutgers. If he struggles to stretch the field a la Dotson or KJ Hamler, incoming Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley has a chance to claim that role and the limelight that comes with it.
76. Zay Flowers, WR, Boston College
Traditionally, the Boston College model has emphasized recruiting and developing prep school offensive linemen from the Northeast to win in the trenches, not electric open-field playmakers from the opposite corner of the continent. In fact, prior to Jeff Hafley’s arrival as head coach in 2020, it might have been the last place in America you’d expect to find a player like Flowers: An undersized South Florida native with an excess of juice when the ball is in his hands and no recent precedent in Chestnut Hill.
Touchdown of the year for Boston College scored by Zay Flowers gets called back because of an illegal blindside block on the QB Jurkovec 😭#BostonCollege #BC #WakeForest #CollegeFootball pic.twitter.com/GZEr4pziIt
— Mr Matthew F1 (@NotMrMatthewF1) November 27, 2021
By his own account, Flowers was heavily recruited over the offseason by other schools and turned down 6 figures to stay in Boston, where he’s earned All-ACC honors each of the past 2 seasons but can’t command as much on the NIL market. The bet is that, with QB Phil Jurkovec back from the injury that tanked the offense for most of last season, solidifying his draft stock as a senior (and earning a BC degree in the process) will be worth more in the long run. It’s a good bet.
75. Tyler Van Dyke, QB, Miami
The U’s reputation as a quarterback factory is ancient history, along with the U’s national reputation in general. But while Van Dyke certainly isn’t the first candidate over the years to restore some of the old luster to the position, early returns suggest he might be the best. As a redshirt freshman, he replaced an injured D’Eriq King in the 4th game and oversaw an attack that averaged 35.6 ppg over the last 8. Miami closed on a 5-1 run, and Van Dyke’s final passer rating (160.1) was good for the second-best mark in school history behind only Vinny Testaverde’s (165.8) in his Heisman-winning campaign in 1986.
Tyler Van Dyke to freshman Brashard Smith. Who is ready to see these 2 connect more in 2022? pic.twitter.com/KpcRKo6uaX
— Cane Clips (@cane_clips) February 6, 2022
The midseason turnaround wasn’t enough to save his head coach’s job from a bunch of boosters tired of mediocrity, but it did get the attention of draftniks, who quickly anointed the 6-4, 224-pound Van Dyke as a potential first-rounder in 2023. If so, he’d be the first Miami QB to go higher than the 6th round since 1992.
74. Zion Nelson, OT, Miami
They may not recognize his name, but many fans outside Miami’s base will remember Nelson from his disastrous debut in 2019. As a freshman, he was thrust into the opening-day lineup against Florida and looked overwhelmed, earning a flat 0.0 passing block grade from PFF in front of a national audience. So if you’re just catching up, well, obviously he’s come a long way. Three years later, Nelson has filled out his 6-5, 316-pound frame and has legitimate first-round aspirations heading into his 4th season as the Canes’ starting left tackle. The potential was always there; now it’s time to pay off the growing pains in full.
73. O’Cyrus Torrence, OG, Florida
Torrence was a small-school product from rural Louisiana, well off the beaten path even for obsessive and overworked SEC recruiting staffs, which explains how he initially wound up just down the road at Louisiana despite his colossal size. His path to Gainesville was more straightforward: Entrenched from Day 1, Torrence started 35 games at UL over 3 years and earned All-Sun Belt honors in each of the past 2, a reflection of his tenure on one of the nation’s most respected o-lines. When Billy Napier landed the Florida job last December, he wasted no time convincing his best player to come with him. On an offense with more questions than answers under the new staff – and in a conference where all 10 of last year’s first- and second-team All-SEC o-linemen went pro – Torrence is already as bankable as any returning blocker in the league.
72. Colby Wooden, DL, Auburn
Auburn is on its 3rd defensive coordinator in as many years, but at this point in Wooden’s career, there’s nothing they can throw at him that he hasn’t already done. At 6-5/284, Wooden is a prototype for the hybrid “heavy end” role in vogue as defenses evolve in response to the spread, with his snaps over the past 2 seasons roughly evenly divided between traditional DE (in 2020) and 3-tech DT (2021). Regardless of where he lines up, he’s a force, bringing 66 career pressures and 19 TFLs to a front that projects as the Tigers’ biggest strength.
71. Byron Young, DL, Alabama
Young was easy to overlook last year on a front featuring Will Anderson Jr., Phidarian Mathis, and Dallas Turner, and on a roster where he was far and away the least recognizable “B. Young.” Tennessee fans will justifiably remind you that, on paper, he wasn’t even the most productive Byron Young in the SEC. Week-in, week-out, however, he was a key cog in Alabama’s “turnaround” against the run, posting a stellar 88.8 run-stopping grade per PFF at the heart of a unit that ranked 4th nationally in rushing defense – easily Bama’s best finish in that column since 2017. More pass-rushing juice as a senior could send his stock into overdrive.
70. Emil Ekiyor Jr., OG, Alabama
Alabama’s legendary 2020 offense is officially a nostalgia act, with 8 starters off that unit projected as NFL starters this fall. (A 9th, OL Deonte Brown, is also holding down an active roster spot.) The last remaining link: Ekiyor, back for his 5th year in Tuscaloosa and his third atop the depth chart at right guard. It’s difficult for a strictly interior lineman to compete with the kind of hype surrounding the new left tackle, 5-star sophomore JC Latham, heir apparent to the Tide’s streak of All-Americans/first-round picks at a more high-value position. But o-line watchers can afford to take all the time they want breaking down the next big thing because Ekiyor, the entrenched vet, has already shown them just about all they need to see.
69. Cooper Beebe, OT, Kansas State
Beebe is your typical K-State success story – a local kid’s journey from overlooked to overachiever – although by his own admission the Wildcats were not his first choice. He told reporters last year that, as a Jayhawks fan growing up, he was actually more interested in Kansas until a KU assistant coach took pity and warned him during a recruiting trip to Lawrence that he’d be better off pretty much anywhere else. Beebe declined to name the coach, but he has made good on the advice. He converted from d-line to o-line in his first year in Manhattan, cracked the starting lineup in 2020 as a redshirt freshman, and didn’t allow a sack in ’21 en route to first-team All-Big 12 honors.
68. Dante Stills, DL, West Virginia
It’s the end of an era: Between Dante, a 5th-year senior, and his older brother Darius, currently trying to catch on in the pros, at least one member of the Stills Brothers has been wreaking havoc at West Virginia since 2017. (Their dad, Gary, is a former WVU great who played a decade in the NFL.) For his part, Dante is both the bigger (6-4/285) and the more versatile brother, racking up 39 TFLs over the past 3 seasons at end and tackle.
His decision to take advantage of the free COVID year for one more go-round on campus might have come as a surprise, given that guys who pass on the draft with that much production under their belt are rarely due for a leap from Year 4 to Year 5. But if he keeps the pace, Stills doesn’t have far to go to go out as the Big 12’s best defensive player.
67. Andre Carter II, Edge, Army
West Point is typically the last place you’d expect to find a premium athlete at a premium position, but the 6-7, 265-pound Carter defies the scrappy stereotype with room to spare. As a junior, he came out of nowhere to finish 2nd nationally with 15.5 sacks, an Army record, while also flashing legitimately eye-opening athleticism in space for his size.
— Black Knight Nation (@BKKnightNation) November 6, 2021
Military academy players aren’t supposed to look like that or move like that, and certainly not in the same package. Another step forward as a senior, and Carter has a very real chance to become the first player from Army, Navy, or Air Force drafted in the first 3 rounds since the immediate aftermath of World War II.
66. Tyler Davis, DT, Clemson
It’s been a painful couple of years for Davis, a 2019 Freshman All-American whose career since has been defined by injuries. He’s missed 9 games over the past 2 seasons to various ailments and hasn’t been 100% at any point – even en route to a first-team All-ACC nod in 2021, which probably owed more to reputation than performance. Now a senior, a healthy turn for a change is crucial for both his draft stock and Clemson’s bid for the title of nation’s best d-line.
65. Devin Leary, QB, NC State
Leary flew under the radar nationally in 2021, overshadowed by more familiar and more prolific names in the suddenly high-flying ACC. Locally, though, he’s a made man. Coming off a broken leg in 2020, Leary broke Philip Rivers’ school record with 35 touchdown passes to just 5 interceptions, good for the 3rd-best TD:INT ratio in the country; in the process, he led N.C. State to its best finish in the AP poll (20th) since Rivers’ junior year in 2002. With most of that team back, the Wolfpack are enjoying their highest expectations in ages with Leary as the headliner. If they make good, rest assured his star will rise accordingly.
64. Sam Hartman, QB, Wake Forest
63. AT Perry, WR, Wake Forest
Wake Forest has been playing football for 115 years, and 2021 was right up there with the best. The Deacs won the ACC Atlantic, matched the school record for wins (11), and turned in their best ever finish in the AP poll (15th) – all more or less out of nowhere after league media picked them to finish 5th in the division in the preseason, as usual. More than anything else, that was a testament to Hartman, who made an abrupt leap in Year 4 from random beardo to big-play machine at the helm of an offense that obliterated school records and ranked 4th nationally at 41.0 points per game.
Most Pass TDs on 20+ yard throws:
1. Sam Hartman – 19
2. Kenny Pickett – 17
3. CJ Stroud – 14
4. Bryce Young – 13pic.twitter.com/5YKaLDEpTV
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 30, 2021
His connection with Perry, in particular, was a revelation. While hardly a blazer at 6-5 (see above), Perry accounted for 15 of Hartman’s 39 touchdowns and was 1 of only 6 Power 5 receivers to average 15+ yards on 70+ receptions. The other 5: First-rounders Jameson Williams and Garrett Wilson; future first-rounders Jordan Addison and Jaxon Smith-Njigba; and departed teammate Jaquarii Roberson. As pro prospects, Hartman’s size, Perry’s speed, and suspicions that their success is as much a product of Wake’s “slow mesh” scheme as the other way around will limit their appeal. On the scoreboard, it won’t make any difference.
62. Xavier Hutchinson, WR, Iowa State
The only former JUCO product on this list, Hutchinson is one of the few holdovers on a depleted ISU offense and easily the most decorated. His first 2 seasons in Ames yielded 1,758 yards, 9 TDs and first-team All-Big 12 honors both years. But the other half of that connection, long-tenured QB Brock Purdy, is gone, and the biggest headache for opposing defenses, All-American RB Breece Hall, is too. Ditto the Cyclones’ other primary receiver, TE Charlie Kolar. While the new cast settles in, Hutchinson has a giant target in his back until further notice.
61. Connor Galvin, OT, Baylor
Galvin, a 5th-year senior, has the rare distinction of playing a key role in not just one but two successful rebuilding cycles. He arrived at Baylor in 2018, just as the program was emerging from the smoking crater left by the Art Briles scandal, and was a starter on the 2019 team that crashed the Big 12 title game under coach Matt Rhule. Then the Bears just crashed, limping to a 2-7 record in 2020 under Rhule’s successor, Dave Aranda. But the ’21 edition rose again, setting a school record for wins (12) on the way to a conference championship, and Galvin was singled out as the Big 12’s O-Lineman of the Year. Firmly entrenched in Year 5, he’s overdue for some stability.
60. Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Edge, Kansas State
Arguably no player in this list was more obscure at this time last year than Anudike-Uzomah, including the ones who had yet to take a college snap. A marginal recruit with only 1 other FBS offer out of high school (from Tulsa), his stock went from zero to a hundred last fall on his way to 11 sacks, 43 pressures and 6 forced fumbles, tied for the national lead. Throw in a handful of dominant reps against the run, and this time around he can rest assured he has the rest of the Big 12’s full attention and respect.
59. Derick Hall, Edge, Auburn
Hall saved his best for last in 2021, capping a solid redshirt junior campaign with a career day (6 pressures, 3 sacks) in the Iron Bowl – an effort that resonated with scouts and very nearly redeemed Auburn’s spiraling season. A streaky rusher with speed and power, when it all comes together opposing tackles are at his mercy.
Derick Hall forces the fumble and Marcus Harris recovers it for an Auburn touchdown pic.twitter.com/ZbnwJeLK6a
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) October 16, 2021
With his coaches’ jobs on the line and question marks across the offense, the Tigers need as much of the Iron Bowl version of Hall as they can get.
58. Zach Evans, RB, Ole Miss
No SEC outfit lost more of its 2021 production than Ole Miss, or invested nearly as much in the portal to replace it. Fully half of the starting lineup in ’22 could be manned by transfers – none of whom comes with more sizzle than Evans, a former 5-star who struggled to stay on the field at TCU but looked the part and then some when he did. In 2 years as a Frog, he averaged 7.7 yards a pop with 10 touchdowns on just 164 touches, and was on pace for a monster year in 2021 before a midseason ankle injury shut him down.
Good luck tackling Zach Evans in the open field pic.twitter.com/VSedlkBLQa
— Joe Broback (@joebroback) September 25, 2021
As a Rebel, he should fit right in as a slightly bigger version of the departed Jerrion Ealy, with breakaway juice to spare and arguably better vision. Unlike Ealy, who somehow went undrafted, Evans also tends to come in near the top of any list of draft-eligible RBs in 2023. (Although again: Apply generous doses of salt to the preseason draft buzz.) The only caveat is staying healthy enough to actually follow through.
57. Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State
Forbes is college football’s answer to Trevon Diggs – a big-play magnet in all directions. On the plus side: 8 interceptions over the past 2 years, including 3 pick-sixes in 2020 as a true freshman. On the other: Eleven touchdowns allowed, per PFF, including 4 in the first 6 games in 2021. The second half of the season was less eventful on both counts, possibly a sign of a young player taking fewer risks as he matures. Opposing coaches apparently thought so, voting Forbes second-team All-SEC at a crowded position. But with certain players, sometimes conceding the gambles that don’t pay off is worth it for the ones that do.
56. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, CB, TCU
LaDainian’s nephew came out of nowhere in 2020, playing his way into a first-team All-Big 12 nod in his first year as a starter, and doubled down on the distinction in ’21 even as the rest of TCU’s defense collapsed around him. Listed at 5-9/180, Hodges-Tomlinson is as sticky and fearless as they come, defying his stature on contested catches and flying downhill as a tackler. He’ll never be a first-round specimen, but even against bigger receivers, nothing they get at his expense will come easy.
55. Jalen Catalon, DB, Arkansas
Catalon’s season was cut short in 2021 by a shoulder injury, leaving the Hogs to navigate the back half of the schedule without their best defensive player. The upshot: They get a guy who was a candidate for an early exit back for a full round as a redshirt junior. At full speed, Catalon is an all-conference ballhawk who covers ground in decisive, frequently violet bursts – especially coming downhill on RPO patrol, where he tends to arrive more like an old-school headhunter than a 5-10, 199-pound ‘tweener. Missed tackles are an issue (26 over the past 2 years, by PFF’s count), but ultimately a small price to pay for his range and instincts.
54. KJ Jefferson, QB, Arkansas
The scouting report on Jefferson begins with his imposing size, followed closely by his mobility: At 6-3/242, he was the Razorbacks’ leading rusher in 2021 and led the nation in average yards per carry after contact, per PFF — a combination that can lead to some ambitious comparisons. Beyond his raw potential, though, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his efficiency. Jefferson’s 164.7 passer rating in 2021 ranked 2nd in Arkansas history and 10th nationally, casting his reputation as a work in progress as a severe underestimation. In his best games, shootout losses at Ole Miss and Alabama, he went blow-for-blow with Matt Corral and Bryce Young, accounting for 9 total touchdowns in two of the season’s most memorable thrillers. If that was just the beta test, the finished product is going to be a sight to behold.
53. Brennan Armstrong, QB, Virginia
Virginia football isn’t exactly renowned for high-octane offense – shoot, Virginia basketball isn’t, either – but the 2021 edition generally and Armstrong specifically blew that assumption out of the water. As a team, UVA finished in the top 5 nationally in total offense and yards per play, best in the ACC on both counts. Individually, Armstrong set school records for total touchdowns (40) and total offense, shattering the latter mark by more than 1,000 yards. He connected on 73 passes of 20+ yards in 11 games, most in the nation on a per-game basis. And he made plays with his legs.
Should be Heisman candidate, Brennan Armstrong. pic.twitter.com/YDRZApqE03
— Spencer Percy (@QCHspencer) October 31, 2021
Yet for all of that, Armstrong’s value may have been most obvious in the one game he missed, a 28-3 loss to Notre Dame in mid-November, when his absence due to a broken rib confirmed just how central his presence was to the offense’s success. Draft-wise, he’s a polarizing prospect due to concerns over his accuracy, his interception total (21 over the past 2 years), and the unmistakable Tebow vibes conveyed by his skill set — Armstrong even throws lefty, for good measure. But as the face of the program, he’s the most exciting player to come through Charlottesville in ages.
52. Malik Cunningham, QB, Louisville
Ever since he put on a Louisville uniform, Cunningham has had the misfortune of vaguely reminding people of Lamar Jackson without actually being Lamar Jackson, lending an off-brand quality to his reputation as a result. Unfair comparisons aside, though, his production speaks for itself. A true dual threat, Cunningham enters the season as the only active FBS player who has accounted for 100 career touchdowns (62 passing, 38 rushing) and 1 of only 4 with more than 10,000 yards of total offense. He ranks 2nd in school history in both columns behind only Jackson, whom he’ll likely pass in both this year. And compared to just about anyone other than Lamar, he’s clearly one of the nation’s most electrifying threats with the ball in his hands.
What a run by Malik Cunningham 👀🔥
(via @UofLFootball) pic.twitter.com/I6yQPMCjKh
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) November 19, 2021
Cunningham led all quarterbacks nationally in rushing yards and TDs in 2021, and looked so effortless doing it that some locals complained the offense wasn’t exploiting his option skills enough. In another era, he might have been a wishbone legend ignored by the NFL. In this one, he has one more shot to prove he can do it all.
51. Jordan McFadden, OL, Clemson
At (officially) 6-2, 310 pounds, McFadden is built like an oversize load on the highway and just as frustrating to get around. Since moving into the starting five in 2020 he’s logged 25 consecutive starts on both ends of the line and graded out as Clemson’s best o-lineman per PFF each of the past 2 seasons. While last year’s front as a unit was a basket case, for his part McFadden allowed 1 sack in the season opener against Georgia and none the rest of the way. His marginal height/length will dictate a move inside in the NFL, if he gets a fair shot at all. For now, he’s the most reliable bookend in the ACC.
50. Dawand Jones, OT, Ohio State
By Ohio State recruiting standards, Jones was an afterthought. In high school, he was more committed to basketball than football, and was reportedly on the verge of settling for a hoops scholarship at a MAC school until his coach convinced some big-time football schools late in the process that this unrefined, athletic giant of a kid was worth a look. Even at 6-8/360, Jones was easily the lowest-rated member of the Buckeyes’ 2019 signing class according to 247Sports’ composite rating.
But the ingredients were all there, and after a couple of years in the oven, he emerged in 2021 fully baked. Jones started every game at right tackle, stood out as a dominant run blocker, earned the top PFF grade on Ohio State’s o-line, and looked like a no-brainer to move on to the next level. However it unfolds from here, at the very least he’ll never have to worry about flying under anybody’s radar again.
49. Andrew Vorhees, OL, USC
Vorhees has been around so long he started out blocking for Sam Darnold as a freshman, and his 37 career starts haven’t exactly aligned with the golden era of o-line play at USC in the meantime. Still, as thoroughly as Lincoln Riley has remade the skill positions through the portal, it’s the core group of 5th- and 6th-year vets up front who will make or break the transition. For his part, Vorhees has largely held up his end of the bargain over the course of his career, manning three positions and holding opposing rushers without a sack in 2021. He was the only FBS player last year to earn 90+ PFF grades for run and pass blocking, good enough for the best overall grade (90.1) of any returning lineman in the country.
48. Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah
The highest-rated recruit in Utah history, Phillips spurned offers from the likes of USC, Alabama and Ohio State to play in Salt Lake City and wasted no time justifying the distinction. As a sophomore, he was a fixture in the Utes’ Rose Bowl run, finishing with a conference-best 13 PBUs and a pair of interceptions while facing more targets (87) than any other Pac-12 defender. Fittingly for a one-time OSU commit, Phillips was also the only Utah DB who looked like he belonged against the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl itself: On a day the rest of the back seven was engulfed in flames, he picked off a pass in the end zone, tracked down Jaxon Smith-Njigba to force a touchdown-saving fumble, and allowed a pedestrian 38 yards on 8 targets.
Great closing speed from Clark Phillips III against Jaxon Smith-Njigba. This IS the matchup to watch today. pic.twitter.com/9SMJHFh4wK
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) January 1, 2022
For that, I’ve got Phillips down here as the best pure cover man west of the Mississippi in 2022, full stop. If he’s not, the list of candidates challenging him for the title will be very short.
47. Brandon Joseph, DB, Notre Dame
At Northwestern, Joseph was a two-time All-Big Ten pick with 9 interceptions over the past 2 years, the most for any returning FBS player. At Notre Dame, he’ll move into the free-range role vacated by All-American Kyle Hamilton, the kind of athlete who makes getting drafted 14th overall seem like a snub. Joseph isn’t on Hamilton’s level as a raw specimen (who is?), but his experience, versatility and elite ball skills did make him the most sought-after safety on the transfer market. If he clicks, his presence could be the difference between another good-not-great Irish defense and one that keeps them in playoff contention.
46. Jayden Reed, WR/KR, Michigan State
Reed fell through the cracks as a recruit due to his marginal size (5-11, 155), ultimately landing at Western Michigan. But it only took one season in the MAC for him to earn his Big Ten call-up, and his big-play presence in 2021 was a major factor in Michigan State’s turnaround. Although he looks like a guy you might expect to be confined to the slot, Reed boasts the full skill set – in fact, he was often at his best last year on the outside, climbing the ladder against tight coverage to come down with highlight-reel grabs that consistently defied his stature.
Payton Thorne finds Jayden Reed on 4th and 15 for the TD 😮 pic.twitter.com/leoOOhE5Xz
— ESPN (@espn) November 27, 2021
Altogether, Reed’s 59 receptions on the season yielded 42 first downs, 21 gains of 20+ yards, and 10 touchdowns, including the go-ahead score late in the Spartans’ Peach Bowl win over Pitt. Factor in his quick-strike capacity in the return game, and you have a threat every time he touches the ball.
45. Devon Achane, RB/KR, Texas A&M
Achane, an All-American sprinter in multiple events, is a legitimate candidate for the title of Fastest Man in Football at any level, under any conditions. Unlike a lot of track guys, he sacrifices none of that speed when the pads go on.
— Recruiting Analytics (@RAanalytics) October 11, 2021
For some context, Next Gen Stats recorded only 3 NFL players who topped 22 mph last year with the ball in their hands, and none who hit 22.2. (The top speed in the Next Gen database, for the record, is an absurd 23.24 mph by Tyreek Hill in 2016.) At any rate, opposing defenses certainly don’t need to consult the analytics to fear that extra gear. In his first 2 years on campus, Achane scored 16 touchdowns on just 211 touches, 9 of them coming on plays that covered 20+ yards. Workhorse snaps may not be on the table for a guy listed at 5-9/185, but with Isaiah Spiller and his 15-20 touches per game off to the next level, Achane will have plenty of opportunities to add his name to the rich tradition of all-purpose A&M speedsters.
44. Henry To’o To’o, LB, Alabama
In the age of the spacebacker, To’o To’o is a throwback: A heat-seeking “Mike” who looks like he belongs to the days when the first line on the job description was butting heads with opposing fullbacks. Alas, the I-formation is all but extinct, the shoulder pads keep shrinking, and To’o To’o is playing in an era that requires him to spend more time chasing sideline to sideline than thumping in the box. He has the range, finishing as Alabama’s top tackler in 2021 after leading Tennessee in total stops in ’19 and ’20. It’s a different story against the pass, where he’s graded out among the SEC’s worst coverage defenders per PFF each of the past 2 years, which accounts for why he doesn’t come in much higher here. He may not even realize it himself, but at heart To’o To’o is clearly a man born to wear a neck roll.
43. Brenton Cox Jr., Edge, Florida
Another intra-league transfer, Cox has successfully pulled off the transition from 5-star bust at Georgia to entrenched star across the state line. In 2 seasons as a Gator, he’s racked up 25 TFLs, highlighted by a 4-sack outing in last year’s win over Florida State that doubled his total for the season.
— Florida Gators Football (@GatorsFB) May 10, 2022
The word in Year 5 is consistency: Cox’s production has tended to come in streaks — he followed up his big day against FSU with 4 more TFLs in the bowl game, making a relatively underachieving season up to that point look better on paper than it really was — and his effort at times has visibly lagged. That’s an issue for the new coaching staff. But when it all comes together, he’s as pure a terror off the edge as anyone in the country.
42. Isaiah Foskey, Edge, Notre Dame
Brian Kelly didn’t get the Irish all the way there, but he did realize over the second half of his tenure that competing for a national championship meant significantly leveling up on the defensive line. On that front, he made tangible progress: 4 Notre Dame edge rushers have been drafted in the past 3 years, compared to just 1 in the previous decade. And Foskey, a redshirt junior coming off his first season as a starter, is on track to go out as the best of the bunch, by far. He broke out in a big way in 2021 with 11 sacks and 6 forced fumbles, tied for the FBS lead.
Isaiah Foskey. One arm to beat the left tackle, the other to sack Kedon Slovis. This is impressive stuff. pic.twitter.com/BGlUh3VRHB
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 26, 2021
Prior to Foskey, Notre Dame hasn’t had a real difference-maker off the edge since … Victor Abiamiri? That name do anything for you? He was a second-round pick in 2007, which pretty well sums up the state of the position in the meantime. For Kelly’s successor, Marcus Freeman, being able to point to an All-American and/or first-rounder on his watch would go a long way toward landing the next one.
41. Grayson McCall, QB, Coastal Carolina
He’s not exactly a household name, but considering the part he’s played in putting Coastal Carolina football on the map over the past 2 years, you can make a compelling case that McCall is the most valuable player in America. In that span, he’s gone 20-2 as a starter, accounted for 64 touchdowns to 6 INTs, and overseen an offense that’s averaged 39 points per game – all for a program that 18 months ago most college football fans were barely aware even existed. In 2021, McCall was PFF’s highest-graded passer nationally and broke the FBS record for pass efficiency, the 6th consecutive season that mark has fallen. The names on the list just below his: Baker Mayfield, Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow and Mac Jones.
The entire country just saw this throw and catch from Grayson McCall to Jaivon Heiligh.
My goodness. pic.twitter.com/QbazdZksyS
— Scott Watkins (@scottwatkinsTU) October 20, 2021
Heading into Year 4, McCall is probably maxed out athletically and unlikely to add any new statistical feats to an already stellar rèsumè, which puts a ceiling on his stock as a potential Heisman candidate or first-rounder. PFF grades and slick ball-handling don’t go viral. It can also be tempting to write him off as a system QB, the product of Coastal’s unique spin on the spread option and marginal strength of schedule. Still, there may not be another college quarterback this fall operating his system more effectively, whether anybody other than the most diehard Xs-and-Os freaks are tuning in or not.
40. Sean Tucker, RB, Syracuse
As a freshman, Tucker was one of the few plus signs in the Orange’s miserable, COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, emerging as the team’s top back and hinting at bigger things to come. In 2021, he paid off that promise in a big way, churning out nine 100-yard rushing games en route to a school-record 1,496 yards on 6.1 per carry. More efficiency than flash, Tucker won’t have many opportunities in Year 3 to shine for a national audience outside of a Friday-night tilt against Virginia. But with little else to get excited about until hoops season, at least ‘Cuse fans can still look forward to being pleased with his performance.
39. Caleb Chandler, OG, Louisville
Chandler’s career at Louisville has run the gamut. He blocked for Lamar Jackson as a true freshman, earned his first starts during the 2018 collapse that cost Bobby Petrino his job, and has started all 40 games of the subsequent rebuilding years under Scott Satterfield. With 2,642 snaps under his belt in Year 6, he’s achieved the peak of o-linehood: Being so easily taken for granted everyone else can afford to forget he’s there. In 2021, PFF charged Chandler with allowing a single QB hit and no sacks while turning in the highest overall grade of any returning ACC lineman.
38. John Michael Schmitz, C, Minnesota
A late bloomer in his 6th year on campus, Schmitz is the preseason favorite for the coveted and completely fictional Keep On Truckin’ Trophy, awarded in spirit to the player who has come the furthest over the course of a prolonged career. In Schmitz’s case, he’s patiently grown from an anonymous, undersized redshirt in 2017 into an all-conference mainstay with a legitimate NFL future, climbing another rung on the ladder each year. In 2021, he graded out as PFF’s No. 2 center nationally behind Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum, and while no one is about to put Schmitz in Linderbaum’s category as a physical mauler, the opportunity to succeed him as an All-American and the first center off the board next spring is wide open for the taking.
37. Braelon Allen, RB, Wisconsin
Allen spent the first month of his freshman campaign on the bench, watching his team struggle to a 1-3 start. Once he got on the field, though, it was obvious he won’t be coming off until his time on campus is up. In his 9 starts, the king-sized rookie averaged 135.4 yards on 7.0 per carry, scored 12 touchdowns, and generally cemented himself as the next great Wisconsin back. The Badgers, back to looking like pretty much every Badgers offense since the dawn of time, finished 8-1.
Braelon Allen. 22 carries, 228 yards, 3 TD, 17 years old. pic.twitter.com/q6qBEANH60
— George Balekji (@GeorgeBalekji) November 20, 2021
Roughly two-thirds of Allen’s output came after contact, per PFF; all of it came before his 18th birthday, a frightening prospect for would-be tacklers who didn’t need to be convinced they were dealing with a full-grown man as it was. The next step: Bringing more to the passing game, both as a receiver and a blocker.
36. Zach Harrison, Edge, Ohio State
Harrison was not the reincarnation of Chase Young in his first season as a starter, finishing with just 4 sacks, and in what will likely be his last he’s facing serious competition for reps from a couple of rising sophomores, JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer. Still, he was more disruptive in 2021 than his raw stats suggested, generating 28 pressures and earning the top overall PFF grade of any Ohio State defender for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles made his reputation in large part by overseeing a series of productive edge rushers at Oklahoma State, none of them with Harrison’s blue-chip talent. If he finally unlocks that potential as a senior, the wait will be worth it.
35. Zach Charbonnet, RB, UCLA
At 6-1/220, it’s tempting to typecast Charbonnet as an old-school plodder stuck in the wrong decade, and after two injury-plagued seasons at Michigan that seemed like a fair call. Ironically, it turns out that it took playing for a spread icon, Chip Kelly, to unlock his potential. A big back with nimble feet and exceptional balance to go with the downhill power you’d expect, Charbonnet looked right at home in his first season as a Bruin, accounting for 1,334 yards and 13 TDs and generally emerging as the best player on UCLA’s best team of the Kelly era.
Zach Charbonnet, a thread. pic.twitter.com/L6pWHYdmxe
— Nick Penticoff (@NickPenticoff) May 22, 2022
Beyond his stats and stature, Charbonnet also checks a couple of routine boxes that will endear him to the next level: Pass protection and ball security. At Michigan, coaches repeatedly singled him out for his success on blitz pick-ups, and he’s fumbled just once in 371 career carries.
34. Marvin Mims, WR, Oklahoma
For volume, Mims’ much-anticipated sophomore campaign was a failure to launch. Despite playing in every game, his 32 receptions in 2021 marked a slight decline from 36 in 2020 and tied for 4th on his own team. For sheer explosiveness, on the other hand, few players anywhere delivered more bang for the buck. Mims’ limited touches still yielded 22.0 yards per catch, best among Power 5 targets with at least 30 receptions and 8 gains of 40+ yards.
MARVIN MIMS. INCREDIBLE.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 9, 2021
Obviously, losing two blue-chip quarterbacks to the portal is not ideal. But other than the two guys who left Oklahoma, Caleb Williams and Spencer Rattler, the Sooners landed the best available QB on the market in UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel, a deep-ball specialist who threw for 70 touchdowns in 26 games at UCF and led the nation in 40-yard completions in 2020. (He missed nearly all of ’21 to a broken collarbone.) In Norman, Gabriel will be reunited with his old UCF coordinator, Jeff Lebby, who joined Brent Venables’ staff after two seasons at Ole Miss and is largely responsible for getting Gabriel to back out of a commitment to transfer to UCLA. All of which is to say that to whatever extent the play-calling was responsible for keeping Mims’ stat line in check last year, that is highly unlikely to be the case again.
33. Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU
A top-10 recruit in the state of Texas, Johnston was a big fish in TCU’s 2020 signing class and is already most of the way to living up to the billing. At 6-4/212, he’s the complete package – size, speed, ball skills in abundance, and an established big-play track record at 20.4 yards per catch over his first 2 seasons. The only thing missing: A viable quarterback. The incumbent, Max Duggan, is a better runner than passer, and his limitations go a long way toward explaining why Johnston has been limited to just 55 receptions to date. New head coach Sonny Dykes has declared the job wide open heading into preseason camp, but with Duggan still on top of the depth chart and no new faces behind him who have taken a college snap, it’s possible we won’t really get to see Johnston’s talent in full bloom until he’s wearing an NFL uniform.
32. Antonio Johnson, DB, Texas A&M
Johnson made a name for himself in 2021 primarily as a ballhawk, finishing among the Aggies’ leaders in tackles and TFLs from his nickel corner role. But he was arguably their steadiest player in coverage, too, limiting opposing receivers to just 5.6 yards per catch on 41 receptions, per PFF — best in the SEC among DBs with at least 100 coverage snaps. That didn’t move the needle with SEC coaches, who declined to elevate a true sophomore with only one interception to the all-conference team. But for a former top-100 recruit getting first-round hype on a unit with high expectations, recognition in Year 3 shouldn’t be a problem.
31. BJ Ojulari, Edge, LSU
For the time being, it’s still obligatory to point out that Ojulari is the younger brother of former Georgia/current New York Giants edge terror Azeez Ojulari, one of the SEC’s best pure pass rushers of the past decade. That won’t be the case much longer. Marked for stardom from pretty much the day he set foot on campus, BJ broke out in 2021 with a team-high 7 sacks as a sophomore, and already boasts an impressive repertoire of ways to embarrass opposing tackles as he and fellow bookend Ali Gaye shift into secure-the-bag mode in Year 3.
LSU Edge BJ Ojulari v. Evan Neal pic.twitter.com/PqhKqNk5tJ
— Bobby Skinner (@BobbySkinner_) June 23, 2022
Azeez’s line in his third and final season at UGA in 2020: pressures, 9.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles over 10 games. If BJ can’t top that against a full schedule, he should never hear the end of it.
30. Eli Ricks, CB, Alabama
It’s not really the case that the emergence of a free-for-all transfer market benefits the Alabamas of the world more than it does the sport’s Have Nots – most of the players in the portal are moving down the food chain, not up. But it is true that the Tide have taken full advantage of the opportunity to address specific holes in the lineup, and Ricks is a prime example. Bama lost both of last year’s starting cornerbacks, Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis, and wasn’t satisfied with the backups after injuries sidelined the starters in the postseason. (Would Jobe or Armour-Davis have given up the go-ahead touchdown pass in the national title game loss to Georgia?) Enter Ricks.
Eli Ricks checks a lot of boxes. Great size and length with superb ball skills. He is going to thrive under Nick Saban. pic.twitter.com/oUq1eeYxYR
— Kendell Hollowell (@KHollowell_) July 5, 2022
A former 5-star who was heavily recruited by Alabama (along with everyone else), Ricks made a big splash as a true freshman at LSU in 2020, allowing just 13 receptions in coverage and returning 2 of his 4 INTs for touchdowns. He was off to a quieter start in 2021 before opting for season-ending surgery on his shoulder – one of the many midseason business decisions in Baton Rouge last October – but still crosses the rivalry line with impressive length, ball skills and expectations intact. Opposite rising sophomore Kool-Aid McKinstry, the new corners come in well down the list of the Tide’s immediate concerns.
29. Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia
The Bust Police were monitoring the situation after a shoulder injury sidelined Ringo for all of 2020, but his first season on the field quickly erased any suspicion. He started every game as a redshirt freshman last season, allowed a meager 40.7% completion rate on 59 targets, and cemented his place in Georgia lore with the game-icing pick-six off Bryce Young in the CFP Championship Game. An elite size/speed specimen at 6-2/205, Ringo is a rare example of true man-on-an-island, shutdown corner potential. As long as his injury issues are behind him, he’s well on his way to being the first corner off the board.
28. Tank Bigsby, RB, Auburn
When you recruit a running back nicknamed “Tank,” you know what you’re getting. Although not quite built like a stereotypical bruiser at 6-0/213, Bigsby (given name Cartavious) has fully justified the handle over his first 2 seasons, forcing 95 missed tackles per PFF in the face of stacked boxes and nagging injuries. In the process, his hard-charging style has so endeared him to Auburn fans that they might even allow him to live down running out of bounds at the worst possible time in last year’s soul-crushing loss to Alabama, which says all you need to know. Between Bigsby and thundering sophomore Jarquez Hunter, the Tigers boast arguably the best 1-2 backfield punch in the country, and certainly the least fun to imagine taking on in the open field.
27. Spencer Rattler, QB, South Carolina
At Oklahoma, Rattler’s stock sank like a rock over the first half of 2021, culminating in a permanent midseason benching in favor of supernova freshman Caleb Williams. For a guy who opened the season as a literal Heisman favorite, there’s no way to spin that as anything but a massive disappointment. (For the record, on last year’s version of this list Rattler came in at No. 2.) But make no mistake: Blue-chip QBs with a 15-2 record as a starter don’t grow on trees, and for South Carolina – a program that hasn’t had a quarterback drafted in any round since 1990 – he’s the kind of player who stands to singlehandedly legitimize Shane Beamer’s rebuilding project.
No introduction needed. pic.twitter.com/1KEL6dCIl1
— Gamecock Football (@GamecockFB) July 26, 2022
Regression notwithstanding, the hype exists for a reason. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, Rattler easily led the Big 12 in yards per attempt (9.6), touchdowns (28), overall passer rating (172.6), and Total QBR (81.2), at the head of an OU attack that averaged 43.0 points per game. He won all 5 starts last year before getting the hook against Texas, and likely never would have been in danger of losing his job to a lesser talent than Williams. He’s not nearly as sure a thing as he seemed to be at this time last year, obviously. But as reclamation projects go, Rattler’s presence in Columbia is a coup.
26. Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson
The heir apparent to former All-American/first-round rover Isaiah Simmons, Simpson is a premier athlete with the most versatile defensive skill set in the college game – a rangy “Will” linebacker, oversized nickel corner, and/or tenacious pass rusher as needed. His sophomore highlight reel in 2021 was a testament to all of the above, including outmuscling offensive linemen in short yardage, blowing up screens from the slot and tracking down quarterbacks off the edge.
#Clemson LB/S Trenton Simpson does it all for their defense. Assisting in the run game, short area zone coverages plus the ability to chase down the football.
All three are on display on consecutive plays.
— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) July 30, 2022
As impressive as he was running sideline to sideline, Simpson was at his best straight ahead, as a blitzer. He generated 31 pressures and 7 sacks on just 90 pass-rushing snaps, per PFF, good for the ACC’s top individual pass-rushing grade.
25. Jarrett Patterson, C, Notre Dame
Patterson was the fresh face on a line that anchored Notre Dame’s 2020 Playoff run, and the only returning starter from that group in ’21. Now, after a successful transition year for the rest of the unit, he’s back for Year 5 as the grizzled captain of a front that again looks like the Irish’s biggest strength. In 34 starts and 2,351 career snaps, he’s yet to allow a sack.
24. Paris Johnson Jr., OL, Ohio State
Johnson comes from just down the road in Cincinnati, where he may as well have been born and raised to play left tackle for the Buckeyes. So far, he’s right on schedule: 5-star recruit, bit role as a freshman, full-time starter in Year 2, full-blown expectations entering Year 3. He’ll take over at LT following his initiation at right guard in 2021, which figures to be both a smooth transition and a lucrative one – in a relatively down year for proven, next-level o-linemen, Johnson is widely touted as the top tackle in the ’23 draft cycle having yet to take a single college snap at the position.
23. Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern
Northwestern’s highest-rated recruit in nearly a decade, Skoronski has justified the billing in his first 2 seasons and then some. As a freshman, he moved directly into the starting lineup at left tackle and never left, playing nearly every offensive snap in 2020 and ’21 and posting 80+ PFF grades both years. Athletically, his raw measurables may be less intriguing than his consistency – Evan Neal he is not — but given a relatively undistinguished crop of draft-eligible tackles Skoronski’s technical savvy could easily move him to the head of the class.
22. Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame
A dynamic receiving threat in the body of an old-school masher, Mayer is the kind of athlete who translates in any era. In 2021, he ranked No. 2 among FBS tight ends in receptions (71) and touchdowns (7) while giving opposing linebackers and DBs just as much to worry about as a blocker.
Michael Mayer tossing a safety around. pic.twitter.com/Kt2rydHtxB
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) November 28, 2021
Maybe bet the under on his 40-yard dash time at the combine; in every other respect Mayer is a complete player with a shot at triple-digit receptions in 2022 and a lucrative future ahead of him.
21. Bryan Reese, DT, Clemson
Bresee’s sophomore surge was derailed by a torn ACL, sidelining him for nearly all of last season plus spring practice. But there’s no suspense here: A healthy Bresee might be the most unblockable force in America. In 2020, he justified his enormous recruiting hype by moving directly into the starting rotation on the nation’s deepest d-line, earning a rare first-team All-ACC nod as a true freshman. He was off to a similarly promising start in ’21 before his season was cut short. Assuming he’s back at full speed in Year 3, the only real question is to what extent a steady diet of double- and triple-teams will allow him to quantify what everybody already knows.
20. Josh Downs, WR, North Carolina
In a year when almost every other aspect of UNC’s season went sideways, Downs’ emergence as a sophomore was the one part of the plan that went exactly right. He out-produced the rest of the Tar Heels’ WR corps combined, setting school records for receptions (101) and receiving yards (1,335), and generally looked extremely cool doing it.
Sam Howell to Josh Downs.
Appreciate it while you can.
— Michael “Duke” Hardison (@mt_hardison) September 19, 2021
Last year, Howell was the established face of the program with Downs in the role of up-and-comer. This year, that dynamic will be reversed, with Downs the vet and a couple of underclassmen vying for the vacancy behind center. More help from the surrounding cast would be welcome, even if it means fewer targets for Downs. Either way, to diminish his star it will take an all-around disaster.
19. Calijah Kancey, DT, Pittsburgh
When you think undersized, hyperactive DT from Pitt with explosive quickness, violent hands, relentless motor, and elite production, only one name comes to mind: Calijah Kancey.
Take a moment and appreciate 🎱
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) September 12, 2021
Oh, you were thinking of a different name? Fair enough. I won’t invoke it here out of respect to Mr. Kancey, whose dominant redshirt sophomore campaign – 13 TFLs, 38 pressures, the top overall PFF grade among ACC interior d-linemen – deserves to stand on its own merits. Let’s just say that if he manages to hit those marks again, the path to the next level for a 6-foot, 270-pound ball of chaos with a second residence in opposing backfields is a lot clearer than it was 10 years ago.
18. Nolan Smith, Edge, Georgia
Smith has always fit the profile of a guy destined to go three-and-out – elite recruit, premium position, productive turn as a full-time starter in Year 3 – and getting him back for Year 4 was a major victory in the Bulldogs’ bid to repeat. He was right at home last year on a defense that produced 6 first-rounders*, generating 28 pressures and 10 TFLs as well as the best individual PFF grade against the run on one of the best run defenses of the past decade. As a rule, Georgia’s depth and mind-your-gap mentality tends to prevent individual defenders from standing out from the pack, at least on paper. But a healthy, maxed-out Smith on a mostly rebuilding unit elsewhere may be the exception.
(* Yes, I’m counting Nakobe Dean as an honorary first-rounder here, because come on.)
17. Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia
Bowers landed in Athens last year fully formed: A Day 1 starter with a rare combination of old-school blocking chops and spread-friendly versatility in space, all at 18 years old. In the absence of a go-to wideout, he filled the role easily, setting Kirby Smart-era highs for receptions (56), yards (886), and touchdowns (13) while flashing advanced ball skills, home-run speed and grown-man power in the process.
Brock Bowers is a playmaker pic.twitter.com/Z7MyJmHJ3K
— SEC on CBS 🏈 (@SEConCBS) December 5, 2021
The only downside of mastering your position as a freshman is sustaining it for at least 2 more years before you can really cash in. If he’d been eligible, Bowers might have been the first tight end drafted earlier this year; instead, he’ll likely have to yield more snaps and targets this fall to a couple of former 5-stars, Darnell Washington and Arik Gilbert, who were projected ahead of him in ’21 before their seasons were derailed by injury (Washington) and personal issues (Gilbert), respectively. Together, that rotation is potentially a defense’s worst nightmare. Still, even in the best-case scenario where all three of them are consistently available, there should be no doubt who ranks first among equals.
16. Jordan Battle, DB, Alabama
Ah yes, another year, another versatile, decorated Bama safety who’s equally comfortable in the box and in coverage. What else is new? In the Saban era, the position has yielded 5 consensus All-Americans and 10 draft picks. Battle, our highest-rated senior, has done his part to uphold the tradition, racking up 151 tackles over the past 2 seasons while posting the top PFF coverage grade among SEC safeties in both of them. He was also the only SEC player in 2021 with multiple INT returns for touchdowns — most notably the game-clinching pick-six off Stetson Bennett IV in the SEC Championship Game — and is 1 of only 2 first-team All-SEC defenders (along with teammate Will Anderson Jr.) back in 2022. After watching 5 safeties go in the top 50 picks in April, he’s in prime position to move to the top of that list in ’23.
15. Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU
Boutte came on late in his freshman season and had what was shaping up as a prolific sophomore campaign cut short by a broken ankle. In between, he was unstoppable: In his last 9 games – the last 3 of 2020 and the first 6 of ’21 – Boutte accounted for 1,036 yards and 13 touchdowns, an All-American pace that exceeded the 5-star recruiting hype and put him on the fast track to becoming a first-rounder. No other college wideout is smoother in the open field or has a more finely attuned nose for the end zone.
Kayshon Boutte really employs a “less is more” approach to his route running. He just knows how to get open in the most efficient way possible.
He’s extremely effective manipulating defenders with his head and body! pic.twitter.com/LodHVrySpw
— Ben Glassmire (@BenGlassmireNFL) June 19, 2022
Boutte’s rehab hasn’t been quite as smooth as his routes (he required a second surgery that kept him out of spring practice), and from the sound of it, neither was his first impression on new coach Brian Kelly, who at one point described his best player as “distracted.” Even in the same breath, though, Kelly conceded that he knows full well what he has with Boutte at full speed, adding, “I’m not that hard-headed.” If he picks up where he left off with a new quarterback, Boutte is overdue for a blockbuster year before he moves on.
14. Xavier Worthy, WR, Texas
Worthy was a latecomer to Steve Sarkisian’s first Texas recruiting class, backing out of a letter of intent to Michigan last spring, but wasted no time living up to his name. As a freshman, he was the one reliable spark in the Longhorns’ idling passing game, breaking out in a monster performance against Oklahoma and finishing with more catches (62), yards (981) and touchdowns (12) than the next 3 UT wideouts combined.
In Year 2, he’s already reportedly turned down a lucrative offer to leave Austin in favor of playing (and gaming) with golden-boy QB Quinn Ewers, whose return to his home state following a gap year at Ohio State stands to take the offense to another level. If so, it will probably be Ewers who winds up getting most of the face time and the accolades that come with it. For now, though, he’s the half of the equation who still has something to prove.
13. Deuce Vaughn, RB, Kansas State
Standing all of 5-6, Vaughn is the kid who gets picked last at recess on the first day of school and first every day from then on. Elusive, versatile, and surprisingly durable – he averaged just shy of 22 touches per game in 2021 – he’s accounted for more than a third of the Wildcats’ total offense each of the past 2 years, racking up 2,948 yards and 31 touchdowns as a rusher and receiver. That includes 34 plays of 20+ yards, on which Vaughn routinely obliterates pursuit angles and leaves would-be tacklers grasping at air.
Deuce Vaughn, a thread. pic.twitter.com/bTQ8s43M0M
— Nick Penticoff (@NickPenticoff) June 12, 2022
Snubbed as a recruit by every FBS school in his native Texas, Vaughn has made a special point of reminding them about it whenever possible: In 8 games against Texas, Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor, he’s averaged 145.8 yards with 13 TDs. Until he turns out to be literally the second coming of Darren Sproles at the next level, doubts about his size will always loom, well, very large. Otherwise, barring an unprecedented growth spurt at 20 years old, there’s nothing left for him to prove.
12. Jahmyr Gibbs, RB/KR, Alabama
As a recruit, Gibbs was the highest-rated prospect to sign with Georgia Tech out of high school since Calvin Johnson, and his production there reflected it: His 1,805 all-purpose yards in 2021 more than tripled the output of any other player on the team. He was the Jackets’ leading rusher, second-leading receiver and an All-ACC-caliber return man – none of it good enough to prevent them from going 2-9 vs. FBS opponents or getting outscored 100-0 in their last 2 games.
So, sure, Tech’s loss is Bama’s gain, the rich get richer, etc. But who can blame the man for leaping at an opportunity where his talents will not be wasted? If anything, Gibbs’ Kamara-esque skill set is an upgrade over the workmanlike Brian Robinson Jr., who was productive enough last year in the full-time role but limited as a receiver and generally seemed like a square peg in Alabama’s spread passing attack. All of the Tide’s portal additions on offense are breakout candidates – see also: WR Jermaine Burton (Georgia), WR Tyler Harrell (Louisville) and OL Tyler Steen (Vanderbilt) – but of the new faces, Gibbs is the only one whose star is already well established.
11. Tre’Veyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State
A former high school sprinter, Henderson’s combination of home-run speed on a muscled-up, 215-pound frame made him the highest-rated back in the 2021 class, a distinction he wasted no time confirming on a 70-yard touchdown in his national TV debut. From there, the hits kept on coming. His 1,567 yards and 19 touchdowns from scrimmage led all freshmen nationally on both counts, with the film frequently eclipsing the stats.
TreVeyon Henderson is the fastest man alive
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 13, 2021
On most offenses, an obvious 5-star talent who backed up the hype with instant production would ascend directly to the Heisman shortlist. On Ohio State’s, Henderson remains overshadowed (for now) by a couple of household names, reigning Heisman finalist CJ Stroud and Rose Bowl legend Jaxon Smith-Njigba, relegating him to the middle tier of candidates in the preseason odds. But depending on how many defenses decide Henderson is the preferable poison, that dynamic can change as quickly as he can find the end zone.
10. Noah Sewell, LB, Oregon
Sewell followed his older brother, Penei, to Eugene, and he’s right on schedule to follow him out as a first-round pick. Huge, fast and instinctive, Noah is a natural middle ‘backer who often seems to know exactly where the ball is going before the snap and arrives there with authority.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 11, 2021
Like a big cat on the hunt, Sewell’s hair-on-fire style is more suited to straight-line pursuit than changing direction in space – PFF rates him as average at best in coverage and as a surprisingly inconsistent tackler, ringing him up him for 19 whiffs in 2021 alone. But for a big hitter who’s around the ball as often and with as much intensity as he is, the few that get away are a very minor cost of doing business.
9. Myles Murphy, Edge, Clemson
For an aspiring architect, Murphy has been more inclined toward destruction. A Day 1 starter as a true freshman, he’s been the one constant on Clemson’s highly touted but injury-ravaged d-line over the past 2 seasons, generating 62 QB pressures, 26 TFLs, 12 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and second-team All-ACC notices both years – in his case, arguably less an honor than a snub.
My goodness Myles Murphy pic.twitter.com/9aJ1WnqU9s
— Tolley Jenkins (@tolleyjenkins) November 15, 2021
Explosive, productive rushers who check in at 6-5/275 are few and far between – that exact profile just got Travon Walker drafted No. 1 overall even without the “productive” part – and it’s Murphy’s every-down sturdiness against the run that elevates him above the ranks of pass-rush specialists: His 84.1 PFF grade vs. the run in 2021 was the best of any returning front-seven defender in the ACC. There may be splashier prospects in terms of length or bend or whatever the new buzzword is for edge players in the upcoming cycle, but good luck finding any who check more boxes across the board.
8. Caleb Williams, QB, USC
7. Jordan Addison, WR, USC
In ye olden days, conventional wisdom dictated that losing record + new head coach = automatic rebuilding year, with expectations on hold until further notice. But there was nothing conventional about USC poaching Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, and with the NCAA declaring open season on proven commodities like Williams and Addison, the honeymoon phase of the process is on the verge of being phased out. Of the roughly 2,000 players who passed through the transfer portal this offseason, the 5-star phenom QB and reigning Biletnikoff Award winner ranked 1) and 1a).
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) November 28, 2020
Riley is an acclaimed quarterback guru, and we already know what Williams can do in his system: After taking over at midseason last year at OU, he accounted for 27 TDs and ranked 5th nationally in pass efficiency as a true freshman. Addison, a former 4-star recruit in his own right, is coming off a 1,600-yard, 18-touchdown campaign surpassed at Pitt only by Larry freakin’ Fitzgerald. (As a sign of how highly he was prized, USC is unretiring the No. 3 jersey worn by Keyshawn Johnson and Carson Palmer on Addison’s behalf.) Their convergence in the same offense immediately makes the Trojans Pac-12 contenders with a chance in every game, and that’s without even getting into how Riley addressed the rest of the lineup. At $10 million a year, patience is a luxury he can’t afford.
6. Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia
Half of Georgia’s starting defense was drafted in the first round, a record-breaking exodus that featured 3 defensive linemen, including the No. 1 overall pick. Am I seriously about to suggest to you, the sober and sophisticated reader, that the lone returning member of that front was somehow the most physically dominant specimen of them all? Yes. Yes, I am.
Jalen Carter is just freakish man pic.twitter.com/7UJaiwYFU7
— 𝙏𝙅 ☔️ (@ImperiumNFL) August 1, 2022
Although he technically came off the bench in all but 2 games, Carter led UGA’s interior d-line rotation in total snaps and almost everything else, including tackles for loss (8.5) and QB pressures (34). Beyond his own huddle, he posted the top PFF pass-rushing grade among Power 5 DTs, recording sacks against double teams, triple teams, and on moves that showed off his shocking athleticism for a 300-pounder. Outside of tossing around o-linemen at will, he served as a punishing lead blocker on the goal line, caught a touchdown pass out of the backfield, and blocked 2 kicks, one of them coming at a clutch moment in the national title game. A one-man gang can’t have the same effect as last year’s fully staffed wrecking crew all by himself, but when the man in question has Carter’s appetite and capacity for destruction, the drop-off doesn’t have to be nearly as steep as the departures suggest.
5. Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
The initial promise of Steve Sarkisian’s debut season in Austin went bust in a hurry, but one promise he did manage to keep: More opportunities for his best player. After being limited to a part-time role as a freshman, Robinson emerged last year as a bona fide bell cow, churning out 1,422 yards on 22 touches per game and justifying the accusation that he’d been severely underutilized by the previous staff. A dozen of those touches went for 20+ yards and 15 for touchdowns.
BIJAN ROBINSON IS ELECTRIC. pic.twitter.com/y8pJyh9EDm
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 9, 2021
The workload caught up with him in November, when an elbow injury sidelined him for the last 2 games following the Horns’ season-defining humiliation against Kansas. By that point, self-preservation was a higher priority than stat-padding, anyway. At full speed, though, Robinson is the model of a modern spread back, boasting ideal size, explosiveness, elusiveness — he forced 79 missed tackles in 2021, per PFF, most of any returning RB nationally — and versatility as a receiver. Win or lose, a maxed-out Bijan in Year 3 should be appointment viewing.
4. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
3. CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State
The old cliché about “momentum” carrying over from the bowl game has always been more useful as a preseason hype line than an accurate gauge on reality. (Momentum is not real.) But in the Buckeyes’ case, their 683-yard, 48-point Rose Bowl bonanza against Utah with a pair of soon-to-be first-round wideouts in street clothes was less a revelation than a statement confirming what they already knew: Stroud’s success as a first-year starter was never dependent on Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave’s presence on the receiving end, and Smith-Njigba may have already eclipsed them both.
4 minutes left.
CJ Stroud drops a dime to Jaxon Smith-Njigba pic.twitter.com/6gYhedBc4F
— Mr. Ohio (@MrOH1O) March 22, 2022
Even before his record-breaking turn against the Utes, Smith-Njigba ended the regular season as OSU’s leader in receptions (80), yards (1,259), and yards per catch (15.7) despite being largely confined to the slot and overshadowed by Wilson and Olave on the outside — their names both appeared on at least one NCAA-recognized All-American team while Smith-Njigba and his superior stat line were relegated to third-team All-Big Ten. Recognition wasn’t an issue for Stroud, of course, who quickly put early doubts to bed on his way to becoming OSU’s third Heisman-finalist QB in the last four years. With Smith-Njigba’s promotion from the “wait till next year” role to the spotlight, both of their reputations were already assured, along with the assumption that the nation’s most explosive offense is not about to descend from orbit anytime soon. The finale was just making it as clear as possible to as wide an audience as possible exactly what that looks like.
2. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
Under the circumstances, there was almost nothing Young could have realistically done in his first year as a starter to exceed the hype, up to and including winning the Heisman. He merely was who he was supposed to be: Dynamic, efficient and poised beyond his years, packaging his precocious skill set into one of the most prolific passing seasons in Alabama history. He started the year touted as the next Russell Wilson, and ended it as a can’t-miss pro prospect in his own right.
The only box he didn’t check is the big one. Five quarterbacks have led the Tide to national championships under Nick Saban – 6 if you count Tua Tagovailoa’s dramatic turn off the bench in the 2018 title game – none of whom seemed as obviously destined to add their name to the list when they arrived on campus as Young. His bid for a second Heisman will be one of the season’s major subplots. But his bid for Rushmore status will come down to closing the deal in January.
1. Will Anderson Jr., Edge, Alabama
Prior to Anderson, the Saban-era Tide had a well-established track record of cranking out elite prospects at every position except one: Outside linebacker. For all the raw edge-rushing talent to man the “Jack” role over the years — think Courtney Upshaw, Tim Williams, Terrell Lewis — as of last year it remained the only exception on either side of the ball without a consensus All-American or first-round pick on Saban’s watch. Anderson, the most coveted edge rusher in the 2020 class, was recruited specifically to be that dude, and in his first 2 seasons, he’s gone above and beyond the mandate.
Will Anderson doing Will Anderson things. pic.twitter.com/US0YnCyrHv
— Patrick Greenfield (@PCGreenfield) November 7, 2021
As a true freshman, he started every game and led the nation with 60 QB pressures. As a sophomore, he was the most unblockable player in the college game, generating a staggering 82 pressures and setting the FBS record for tackles for loss (34.5) since the NCAA began tracking the statistic in 2000. On a down-to-down basis, he posted the top PFF grade against the run on a unit that ranked No. 4 nationally in rushing defense. He was a unanimous All-American, won the Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player, and finished 5th in a Heisman vote that by all rights he should have won.
In his last go-round on campus, the Heisman buzz seems beside the point. Anderson does have the advantage of being a known quantity with no shortage of preseason hype or goodwill in light of last year’s snub. He also faces distinct disadvantages: He still plays on the wrong side of the ball, he’s still forced to share the spotlight at Bama with a much more conventional candidate in Bryce Young, and measuring up to his own lofty benchmarks on paper will be close to impossible. Compared to last year’s iron-man workload, Anderson figures to yield more snaps to heir apparent Dallas Turner and a stacked group of underclassmen even if he remains healthy. The Vegas odds confirm him as a long shot, if they bother to list him at all.
Instead, with a player like Anderson, it’s healthier to accept that if the Heisman business isn’t equipped to give him his proper due, then it says a lot more about the business than it does about the player. It diminishes the award and not the other way around. If the honor reserved for the nation’s best player is effectively out of reach for the player the sport widely acknowledges fits that description, what’s the point? At the end of the day, his game deserves to stand on its own terms.