After overcoming the rigors of the 2020 college football season, is there anyone who won’t look into the future?
We’ve said goodbye to stars like DeVonta Smith, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Davien Nixon, but there are a slew of new players waiting on the college football fields next season. At ESPN, we’ve invited you to join the Way to America team for the 2021 season.
Iowa State’s Brace Hall and LSU’s Cade York are the only reserves on ESPN America’s list for the 2020 season. Defending national champion Alabama is the only school with three players on the team, and the sophomore class of 2021 will be particularly impressive.
This is what we found:
QB Sam Howell, North Carolina Tar Heels.
In his first two seasons, Howell threw more touchdown passes (68) than Lawrence did to Clemson (66). It’s pretty good company, and after a sophomore season in which Howell had 6-foot, 225-pound passes for 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions, he could be on his way to a Heisman Trophy campaign in 2021. Howell was at his best at the end of the game, throwing 19 touchdowns and no interceptions in the fourth quarter.
Sam Howell will compete for the Heisman Trophy with North Carolina as a junior. Doug Murray/Icon Sports Wire
RB Brees Hall, Iowa State Cyclones.
Hall leads the Cyclones’ talent team that returns next season and was one of the most productive in college football as a sophomore in 2020. Hall, 6-1, 215 pounds, led all FBS players with 1,572 running yards and was second behind Najee Harris with 21 running touchdowns. Hall finished third in the country with eight runs of 30 yards or more and caught 23 passes, including two touchdowns.
RB Bijan Robinson, Texas Longhorns.
Expect the six-foot, 200-pound Robinson to pick up where he left off in his first season, especially with new coach Steve Sarkisian running the show. After overcoming his back injury, Robinson started the last six games and was very good. He has scored at least 220 yards of run/reception in each of the last two games. Robinson averaged 8.9 yards per touchdown last season and accounted for 14 plays of 20 yards or more.
WR Marvin Mims, Oklahoma Sooners…
A true freshman, the 5-11 year old, 177-pound Mims was an electric post player for the Sooners, providing a glimpse of what the former four-star from Frisco, Texas, could do. Last season, Mims set the OU freshman record with nine touchdowns, with four of his targets coming from at least 45 yards out. Spencer Rattler and Mims will be part of one of the scariest quarterback/receiver combinations in the country next season.
RR Chris Olave, Ohio Buckeyes.
Olave, who is touted as one of the top receivers in the upcoming NFL draft, has put professional football on hold for another season, announcing Monday that he will return to Ohio for his final season. The Buckeyes couldn’t have picked a better (or more talented) starter this season. Olive is an elite athlete and an explosive. He was the Buckeyes’ top setter in each of the previous two seasons, and received seven touchdown passes in seven games in 2020.
Justin Fields runs to Chris Olave for a 56-yard touchdown and a 42-21 lead over OSU.
TE Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.
The Chanticleers were very interesting to watch forward last season and should again with quarterback Grayson McCall, who was second on the South Carolina team with 30 strikes, five of which were touchdowns. The 245-pound, 6- to 4-year-old Likely, which averaged 20 yards per catch a year ago, has the size, speed and hands that make it a nightmare for any linebacker or safety.
OT Evan Neal, Alabama Crimson Tide.
Alabama was the closest thing to an NFL offensive line in college football last season. While a few of Tide’s linemen go pro, the 6-7 pound Neal returns as one of the best tackles in the country. He started all 13 right tackle games in 2020 before leaving the Tide’s first year in 2019. No matter where he sits in the lineup, he’s a force and a big reason why Alabama should take the lead again.
OG Kenyon Green, Texas A&M Aggies
The Texas A&M offensive line was an experienced unit last season, but the Maroon Goons were guided by a 6-4, 325-pound Green that was named to several All-American teams as True Sophomore. Green has helped the Aggies average over 200 yards per game and is also a great pass protector.
C. Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa Hawkeyes.
Although Mel Kiper Jr. was the second pick in the draft, Linderbaum wanted to do better at Iowa and returned for his junior season in red. Linderbaum has been a regular Hawkeyes player for two years and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, which is awarded to the best college football center.
OG O’Cyrus Torrence, Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Don’t fall asleep on the Louisiana offensive line next season, because they draft the best lines in college football. The 6-5, 332-pound Torrence is the best of the best on the right wing. He used to weigh over 400 pounds before coming to Lafayette, but he has lost weight and become one of the best indoor offensive players in the country. Torrence, nicknamed Saibo, has been a fixture with the Ragin’ Cajuns in each of his first two seasons.
From Darian Kinnard, Kentucky Wildcats.
Kinnard was a big hit for the Wildcats when they signed him as a coveted talent outside of Ohio, and he was everything they hoped he would be and more. This 6-5 year old and 345 pound Kinnard thought he was going pro, but then decided to come back for his senior season and re-anchor the Kentucky offensive line from the right tackle position.
Universal Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State Wildcats
After an exceptional first season, Vaughn returns as the Swiss Army Knife of the Wildcats. He ran for 642 yards and seven touchdowns, caught 25 passes in the lead, averaged 17.4 yards per catch and averaged 20.7 yards on seven kickoff returns. The 5-5 year old 168 pound Vaughn joins Harris and Travis Etienne as the only three FBS players in 2020 to run for over 600 yards and have over 400 yards of reception.
DL Miles Murphy, Clemson Tigers
Defensive end injuries forced Clemson to bring in younger players in 2020, including Murphy. He showed the kind of promise everyone expected when he signed with the Tigers. A newcomer, Murphy (6-5, 275 pounds) led the team with 12 tackles for loss and also pressured eight quarterbacks. Murphy has what it takes to become one of the nation’s best defensive players by 2021.
DL Brian Bresee, Clemson Tigers
Clemson’s talented young defender was hard to miss last season and Brese, with her 6-5, 300-pound performance, won the CCA Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Brese, who was named the nation’s top quarterback by ESPN, joined Clemson’s team and led the team with 11 quarterbacks. He also made 6.5 lost tackles, including four sacks, and gave the Tigers a dominant presence in the middle of their defensive line.
DL Jordan Davis, Georgia Bulldogs.
Some inside linemen compete in pairs and then go to the 330-pound Davis 6-6. He swallowed two teams, not to mention the Bombers and quarterbacks. Davis turned down the chance to be drafted in the NFL, preferring to come back for his senior season. He’s not a guy who puts up big tackle numbers, but his real value lies in the way he destroys the pocket on every play.
DL Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon Ducks
After a true freshman season in which the 6-5, 250-pound Thibodeaux knocked out everyone in the Pac-12 with a nine-sack high team, it came back for a shortened season in 2020 and was just as devastating. Thibodeaux combines power and speed as a passer, but he’s also a defender who makes life difficult for opposing offensive lines in racing games.
Kayvon Thibodeau, a 6-foot defensive lineman weighing 250 pounds, led Oregon with three sacks in a 2020 season cut short by the lockout. Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire
LB Will Anderson, Jr, Alabama Crimson Tide
The 6-4 year old at 235 pounds is the latest in an endless list of talented online players who have completed the Alabama program. He was an outstanding freshman for the Crimson Tide, finishing second on the team with 10.5 loss packages and 7 sacks. Since Anderson has been on campus, coaches have raved about his skills and work ethic, and he’s just getting started.
L.B. Devin Lloyd, Utah Utes.
The Utes’ defense got a big boost when Lloyd announced earlier this month that he would be returning for his senior season. Butkus North Junior Tournament finalist Lloyd, 6-3, 232 pounds, made 10 tackles for loss in five games and was one of the best defensive playmakers in the Pac-12. Lloyd will once again lead the Utah defense, likely through 2021.
LB Mike Rose, Iowa Cyclones.
The return of the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for next season is always a nice bonus and is one of the many reasons the Cyclones have such high expectations for 2021. At 6-4, 245-pound Rose led Iowa State with 96 tackles as a junior, including 10.5 for loss, and also intercepted five passes. His leadership skills in the locker room are just as valuable.
BC Tiawan Mullen, Indiana Hoosiers
In year two, Mullen became the first Indiana cornerback in program history to earn First Team All-America honors. He combines great coverage skills with the ability to make big moves in the racing game. In eight games last season, Mullen (5-10, 176 pounds) averaged 3.5 sacks, three steals and a forced fumble.
CB Josh Joby, Alabama Crimson Tide.
Jobe was overshadowed by NFL’s Patrick Surtain II for much of last season. But Jobe, 6-1, 192 pounds, was just as effective as Surtain in passing coverage and returns for his senior season to lead a once again talented Alabama second team. Jobe was sixth on the team with 55 tackles overall and second behind Surtain with 11 broken passes.
С. Brandon Joseph, Northwest Wildcats.
The Northwestern defense was a 2020 commitment. The Wildcats placed fifth nationally in defense and Joseph was a gum in the backfield. The redshirt freshman, 6-1, weighing in at 192 pounds, made six interceptions, including a one-handed attempt and a masterful hit in the Big Ten championship loss to Ohio State. He has played some of his best in some of the Wildcats biggest games and is looking forward to an even more intense second season.
Brandon Joseph intercepts a pass from Justin Fields in the end zone and drops the ball with one hand.
Kyle Hamilton, Irish fighter from Notre Dame.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoa wasn’t the only Notre Dame defender last season. The 6-4, 219-pound Hamilton was a pillar of the safety and led the Fighting Irish with 63 tackles, including 51 solo stops. He’s a total security that Alabama quarterback Mack Jones says you need to be aware of at all times, or he could ruin your game.
Cade York, LSU Tigers.
What a luxury for LSU to be able to move inside the opponent’s 40 yard line and know that York is worth money at that distance. Last season, the second-year player from McKinney, Texas, scored from 50 yards out in six of 10 USL games. He hit 9 of 11 from 40 yards and over and 18 of 21 overall. His 57 yards (school record) helped LSU to its biggest win of the season, a 37-34 victory over Florida.
P. Lou Hadley, Miami Hurricanes…
Last season, Headley was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award as the best college football player, finishing second nationally with a 47.3-yard average. A former Australian football player, the 220-pound, 6-4 Headley hit 19 shots from 50 yards or more, and the Hurricanes led all FBS teams in regular season shots.
KR Marcus Jones, Houston Panthers.
Jones, an AAC first team corner, led all FBS players in penalties (337) and averaged 19.8 yards per game last season as a junior. Jones, 5-8, 185 pounds, dropped 72 yards and a touchdown against South Florida. He was the only FBS player to have at least two games with 100 yards kicking back and an average of 20.4 yards over five kicks.
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