Monday Down South: The Top 50 players (still) in college football in 2020
The 2020 college football season is forging ahead, and so is another season of Monday Down South. As of this writing, 54 of 130 FBS teams have cancelled or postponed their seasons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the entire Big Ten, Pac-12, Mid-American, and Mountain West conferences, and a number of other high-profile players across the country have opted out. Accordingly, we’re kicking off the new year with a reset of sorts: A countdown of the best players who – for now, anyway – are still on track to play college football in 2020 as tentatively scheduled. (Or rescheduled, as it were.)
Note: These rankings are a projection for the upcoming season, not necessarily a reflection of a player’s body of work to this point or longer-term potential, etc. As always, all snubs are deliberate and intended to be taken personally.
50. D’Eriq King • QB, Miami
King, a grad transfer from Houston, kicks off the list with as much boom-or-bust potential as any player in America. When he was on the field at UH, he was one of the most dynamic, efficient quarterbacks in America, accounting for 81 total touchdowns with a 155.4 passer rating in 34 career games. It’s been a while though since we’ve seen him in top form: His best season, 2018, ended with a torn ACL; after a slow start last September he abruptly pulled the plug on his senior year in order to preserve a redshirt.
.@UHCougarFB's D'Eriq King now has a pass TD and rush TD in 15 straight games, breaking Tim Tebow's previous record (14) for the longest streak in FBS history.
No other player has an active streak longer than 3 games. pic.twitter.com/gDhbXaPmjj
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) September 20, 2019
At full speed, a healthy King is an automatic upgrade at a position that has been a revolving door the past 2 years and more broadly has limited Miami’s ceiling for most of the past 3 decades. (The U hasn’t had a QB drafted in the first 6 rounds since 1991. 1991!) But whether he raises it high enough to compete for a championship in his lone season in Coral Gables is very much TBD.
49. Tamorrion Terry • WR, Florida State
Terry was one of the very few bright spots in the ill-fated Willie Taggart era and was certainly the only one who qualified as a reliable big-play threat, averaging a sensational 20.3 yards per catch with 17 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons. Aside from junior QB James Blackman, the rest of the offense is in full-on rebuilding mode under first-year coach Mike Norvell; any progress the Noles make on that side of the ball will be with Terry prominently involved.
48. Kyle Hamilton • S, Notre Dame
A fluid, 4-star athlete in a 6-4, 210-pound frame, Hamilton looks like a future first-rounder stepping off the bus. One year in, he’s well on his way to fulfilling that promise. Even as (technically) a back-up, he wasted no time as a true freshman establishing himself the most intriguing talent in the Irish secondary, registering a pick-6 on his first snap in Notre Dame Stadium — the first of his team-high 4 INTs on the year.
47. Tyler Davis • DT, Clemson
It takes a bad man to crack Clemson’s d-line rotation as a true freshman, and by that standard Davis might be the baddest 19-year-old alive. A touted recruit, he immediately vaulted older players to the top of the depth chart and stayed there, starting 13 of 15 games en route to a second-team All-ACC nod from league coaches. Still just a sophomore he’s already as entrenched as any player on one of the nation’s elite units.
46. Tyler Shelvin • DT, LSU
Shelvin isn’t about to light up any box scores after finishing with 39 tackles (3 TFLs) in 2019 as a first-year starter. In his case, though, those aren’t the numbers that matter: At 346 pounds, he more than fits the bill of a true “war daddy” nose tackle, coveted for his ability to absorb a steady diet of double teams while freeing up linebackers to flow to the ball. If anything, LSU’s transition from a base 3-4 look to a 4-3 under new coordinator Bo Pelini will give Shelvin more opportunities to pad the stats vs. one-on-one blocking; regardless, he’s an All-SEC-caliber force on the interior with first-round potential.
45. George Pickens • WR, Georgia
Pickens’ production as a true freshman mattered less than his obvious, outrageous potential, but the encore — a 12-catch, 175-yard effort in the Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl win over Baylor — was exactly the proof-of-concept performance UGA fans had been waiting for. In Year 2, the arrow is pointing into the stratosphere. If the transition to a new QB (grad transfer Jamie Newman) and new play-caller (incoming OC Todd Monken) goes as smoothly as hoped, the only limits on Pickens’ sophomore stat line are his health and his temper.
44. Sage Surratt • WR, Wake Forest
Surratt is arguably the best of a deep, prolific group of returning ACC wideouts, coming off a breakout year in which he hit 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns in just 9 games before a shoulder injury ended his season. His absence was a major factor in Wake’s late-season fade, which saw a 7-1 start fizzle out in a 1-4 finish, and his freaskishly strong hands on contested catches will be a godsend to a new quarterback.
You just CANNOT defend Sage Surratt!
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 20, 2019
43. Brevin Jordan • TE, Miami
Jordan was the most notable playmaker on an offense with far too few of them last year before a foot injury ended his season in early November. Assuming he’s back to full speed – and assuming he gets vastly better QB play from King than the revolving door behind center he endured his first 2 years – Jordan might be the closest thing the Canes have to a true go-to target.
42. Hamsah Nasirildeen • S, Florida State
FSU’s blue-chip secondary looks like a strength, and no member of that group is more integral than its senior utility man. At 6-4, 220 pounds, Nasirildeen is an ideal specimen for the hybrid spacebacker/nickel role en vogue right now, offering impressive range in coverage in a linebacker’s frame. While he doesn’t possess the freakishly high ceiling of, say, an Isaiah Simmons or Derwin James, his versatility and proven production (192 tackles, 3 INTs the past two years; second-team All-ACC in 2019) suggest he might not be far off.
Awful decision from Trevor Lawrence but one heck of an INT by Hamsah Nasirildeen. pic.twitter.com/PghZwhIpv2
— Rob Paul (@RobPaulNFL) October 12, 2019
41. Derion Kendrick • CB, Clemson
40. Jackson Carman • OL, Clemson
Kendrick and Carman were 5-star gems in the blockbuster 2018 recruiting class headlined by Trevor Lawrence, and after solid turns last year as sophomores they’re right on schedule to break out in a big way in Year 3. Kendrick earned a second-team All-ACC nod from league coaches after flipping to defense from wide receiver; Carman was third-team after starting every game at left tackle. His subsequent success in the Fiesta Bowl, where he held his own opposite Chase freaking Young, was a promising glimpse of the finished product.
39. Liam Eichenberg • OL, Notre Dame
Five Notre Dame o-linemen have been selected as first- or second-round draft picks in the past 6 years — all of whom are now full-time starters at the next level — and Eichenberg is a virtual lock to extend the pipeline. A former top-100 recruit, his 26 consecutive starts at left tackle make him the longest-tenured member of a unit that returns all 6 regulars from 2019 and is on the short list of the best fronts in the country.
38. Pooka Williams Jr. • RB, Kansas
With 2 years of All-Big 12 production under his belt, Williams will reprise his role as the best player on one of the nation’s worst teams for (presumably) the last time. A scintillating open-field runner with tremendous vision, acceleration, and balance, he already ranks 12th on Kansas’ career list for yards for scrimmage (2,689) and ought to make a run this fall at becoming the first player in school history to crack 4,000 yards in 3 years.
Really enjoyed my initial viewing of Kansas RB Pooka Williams (5-10, 170, Jr.). His best game of the year came against Texas. Vision, quick feet, and a competitive runner. pic.twitter.com/QnW1uPSOgn
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) June 6, 2020
37. Trevon Moehrig-Woodard • S, TCU
Gary Patterson has made a nice, long living turning 3-star overachievers into all-conference ball hawks, and arguably no one on that list ranks above Moehrig-Woodard. As a true sophomore, he earned the highest overall grade of any FBS safety per the film-eaters at Pro Football Focus while finishing among the Big 12 leaders in passes defended (11) and INTs (4) in his first season as a starter. Even in a crowded year for proven, veteran safeties across the country, a repeat performance will give him a real shot at becoming TCU’s first All-American in the secondary in a decade.
36. Andre Cisco • S, Syracuse
35. Paris Ford • S, Pittsburgh
Continuing our tour of proven, veteran safeties: No college DB has been more productive over the past 2 years than Cisco, whose 12 interceptions led the nation in that span despite a lower-body injury that sidelined him for part of 2019. And although it took Ford 3 years to grow into his blue-chip billing as a recruit, his emergence as an All-ACC thumper in 2019 more than justified the wait. Playing in the middle rungs of the ACC might relegate them to the fringes of the national radar, but they have no such concerns re: pro scouts.
Andre Cisco’s tape is a bit of a roller coaster (gives up some big plays/takes risks), but he can really click & close — dude has some legit speed/explosiveness.
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) July 22, 2020
34. Chazz Surratt • LB, North Carolina
The elder Surratt brother was one of the unlikeliest success stories of 2019, a reclamation project who embraced the move from quarterback – where he’d barely seen the field in 2018 after an underwhelming turn in 2017 as a part-time starter – to become the best player on an ascendant UNC defense. From his new position, Surratt led the Tar Heels in tackles, TFLs, and QB hurries and was runner-up for ACC Defensive Player of the Year behind Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. A repeat performance as a senior will make Surratt a strong contender to follow Simmons as a first-round pick.
33. K.J. Britt • LB, Auburn
Britt was frequently overshadowed in 2019 by Auburn’s bloodthirsty d-line, especially all-everything DT Derrick Brown. Not in 2020: With Brown gone, Britt takes over as both the most decorated player on the defense (first-team All-SEC in 2019) and its senior heart.
At 6-0/243, Britt has the athleticism to thrive in the spread era but truly excels in the role of an old-school, between-the-tackles enforcer, grading out as the nation’s best linebacker vs. the run per PFF.
32. Jamie Newman • QB Georgia
Newman was the grand prize of the offseason QB market and steps into a role that could make him the single most scrutinized player in the country this fall – a far cry from his underdog tenure at Wake Forest, where he went 10-6 as a starter in relative obscurity. The scouting reports have generally been more bullish on his prospects than his good-not-great stat lines might suggest; athletically, Newman is considered an upgrade over Jake Fromm, a good fit for UGA’s revamped offense, and a potential early-round pick. As far as the criteria that will define his season, though – getting the Bulldogs over the hump against playoff-caliber opponents, generally, and against Alabama, specifically – he has almost no track record to speak of.
31. Kyle Pitts • TE, Florida
As much a de facto wide receiver as a traditional tight end, the 6-6, 240-pound Pitts is a classic match-up nightmare: Too big, too fast, and too skilled for almost anyone lined up across from him to consistently handle. He was the Gators’ most reliable target in 2019, developing a fast rapport with overachieving QB Kyle Trask and finishing with a team-high 54 catches on his way to a first-team All-SEC nod as a sophomore. Now fully seasoned, he should have few rivals at the position anywhere in the country.
30. Seth Williams • WR, Auburn
Williams is the type of receiver for whom the term “catch radius” was invented – and he was often challenged last year to use all of it. While Bo Nix was predictably erratic as a true freshman, Williams was his young quarterback’s best friend, exploiting his elastic, 6-3 frame to spectacular effect on contested catches (including, most memorably, the game-winner vs. Oregon) and sideline grabs most guys would have no business even attempting, much less hauling in.
— Auburn Tigers | AL.com (@aldotcomTigers) October 26, 2019
If Nix makes the expected leap with a full season under his belt, Williams’ ascension will be that much easier.
29. Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell • WR, Louisville
Overlooked as a 5-8, 155-pound 3-star recruit from Miami, the diminutive speedster has quickly earned a rep as one of the most electric open-field weapons in the game. As a sophomore Atwell led the ACC in receiving yards (1,276), touchdowns (12), and receptions of 10+ yards (45), much of that output coming by virtue of his unusual efficiency on screens. Per PFF – which named Atwell a first-team All-American – he led the nation in yards after catch, accounting for nearly 60 percent of his total.
28. Kenneth Gainwell • RB, Memphis
Gainwell took the baton from departed All-American Darrell Henderson in perfect stride in 2019, instantly establishing himself as an elite all-purpose dynamo on par with the likes of Henderson and DeAngelo Williams. Only a redshirt freshman, he ranked 4th nationally in yards from scrimmage and was the only player in any conference to account for at least 1,000 yards rushing (1,459) and 500 yards receiving (610). If he eclipses 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons he’ll join an exclusive club that includes Williams and only 4 other players in FBS history.
27. Quincy Roche • DE, Miami
His name didn’t generate nearly as many headlines as D’Eriq King and the other free-agent quarterbacks, but Roche was the most valuable player available on the grad-transfer market last winter and it wasn’t particularly close. Marginal size (6-3/235) notwithstanding, he was a reliable terror off the edge at Temple, easily leading the AAC in 2019 in sacks (13) and TFLs (19) en route to being named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year; he posted the highest overall PFF grade of any returning d-lineman in the country.
Quincy Roche – things you see over and over again… First step and hand usage!
Can’t wait to see him down at Miami pic.twitter.com/buXnjVrfbQ
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) August 1, 2020
Initially, Roche was set to pair opposite Miami’s returning sack king, Greg Rousseau, to form the pass rush from hell – that is, until Rousseau, a certain first-rounder in 2021, opted out of the season. Still, between Roche and UCLA transfer Jaelan Phillips, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in 2017, the bookends remain undeniably the strength of the team.
26. Nick Bolton • LB, Missouri
Bolton was the SEC’s most underrated player in 2019, toiling for the first half of the season in the shadow of a more decorated veteran at the same position (Cale Garrett, prior to his season-ending injury) and for the second half opposite an offense in free fall over the course of a 5-game losing streak. In the midst of the collapse, though, Bolton was the only reliable bright spot, finishing with 8 TFLs, 8 PBUs, and a regular-season conference-high 107 tackles as a first-year starter — good enough for league coaches to vote him first-team All-SEC, and to ensure that he won’t be catching anyone by surprise as a junior.
25. Kylin Hill • RB, Mississippi State
Hill, a second-team All-SEC pick in 2019, won the offseason by leading the long-overdue campaign to change Mississippi’s state flag. For his next feat, he’ll attempt to adapt his ferocious, downhill style to Mike Leach’s Air Raid mentality, in which backs serve more as check-down receivers out of the backfield than traditional runners: In his last 7 years at Washington State, Leach’s primary RB averaged 62.7 receptions, compared to Hill’s 44 career catches over the last 3 years combined. Kylin, your take?
I’m perfect for this offense man I love it
— Kylin Hill (@H_Kylin) August 6, 2020
There you have it.
24. Patrick Surtain II • CB, Alabama
Surtain was a massively hyped talent even by Bama standards, and after a couple of by-the-book seasons in the starting lineup, his time has come. Although he’s yet to display the highlight-reel range and play-making chops of, say, Minkah Fitzpatrick (the player to whom he was most often compared as a recruit), Surtain’s 6-2, 200-pound frame is a textbook example of the long, physical type coveted at the next level, and combined with his fluid athleticism guarantees he’ll be in the running to be the top corner off the board in 2021.
23. Caden Sterns • S, Texas
An instant star in 2018, Sterns took a notably step back as a sophomore due to a leg injury that cost him entire month of October. At full health, he’s an elite combination of physicality and coverage savvy on the back end; a return to his freshman form (62 tackles, 4 INTs, first-team All-Big 12) should restore his status as a rising star with a lucrative future.
22. Samuel Cosmi • OL, Texas
21. Creed Humphrey • OL, Oklahoma
With 26 starts apiece over the past 2 seasons, Cosmi and Humphrey are the quintessential “install and ignore” guys on their respective fronts – the kind whose value is most obvious by the fact that it can be so easily taken for granted. Both became entrenched starters as redshirt freshmen, earned all-conference nods in 2019 as sophomores (first team for Humphrey, second for Cosmi), and carry first-round potential into Year 4. Assuming he leaves early, Humphrey is a virtual lock to be the first center off the board in 2021, while Cosmi aims to be, incredibly, just the second Longhorns OL drafted at any point since 2008.
20. Brock Purdy • QB, Iowa State
Each of Purdy’s first 2 seasons in Ames ranks among the best in school history. He’ll open Year 3 as Iowa State’s reigning career leader in both yards per attempt (9.0) and overall efficiency (157.0), with the marks for passing yards and touchdowns just over the horizon – his 2019 output set single-season ISU records in both categories while accounting for nearly three-quarters of the team’s total offense, one of the highest individual shares in the nation.
Texas brought pressure, but Brock Purdy was too quick! 🌪
Iowa State got a HUGE victory over the Longhorns on Saturday!
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 20, 2019
The only lingering issue standing between him and dark-horse Heisman buzz? Turning the tide in close games: The Cyclones went 1-4 last year in 1-score decisions, settling for the title of best 7-6 team in the country.
19. Spencer Rattler • QB, Oklahoma
Yes, he’s redshirt freshman. Yes, technically he’s still waiting on his official promotion to QB1. No, it doesn’t matter. For a guy who’s yet to take a significant snap at the college level, Rattler is as sure a thing as they come: A blue-chip talent running Lincoln Riley’s offense. He was the No. 1 quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class; Riley’s track record at the position speaks for itself. After redshirting behind Jalen Hurts, Rattler is ready to roll and an automatic Heisman candidate until further notice.
18. Sam Howell • QB, North Carolina
Howell was a major recruiting coup for UNC, supplying Mack Brown with his first victory as head coach when he flipped his commitment from Florida State in December 2018. Based on the early returns, there are many more Ws to come. Howell was a revelation from Day 1, leading a 4th-quarter comeback against South Carolina in his first career start, and sustained that momentum through one of the most prolific freshman campaigns on record, finishing as the ACC leader in touchdowns (38, a school record) while only narrowly trailing Trevor Lawrence in passing yards (3,665 to 3,641) and overall efficiency (160.3, slightly better than Lawrence’s freshman rating in 2018). With essentially the entire offense back from a team that went 3-6 in 1-score games, the future in Chapel Hill is as bright as it’s been in a long, long time.
17. Carlos “Boogie” Basham • DE, Wake Forest
Basham is a testament to Wake’s developmental approach, a once-marginal prospect who has leveled up each year of his career from redshirt to rotational player to solid starter to bona fide force. In 2019 he ranked 2nd in the ACC in sacks (10) and TFLs (8) as a redshirt junior, setting up a potentially huge send-off. With Rousseau (who led in both categories) and Pitt’s Jaylen Twyman opting out of the season, Boogie is the league’s most bankable returning defender at any position and a legitimate candidate to play his way into first-round consideration.
16. JaCoby Stevens • S, LSU
15. Richard LeCounte III • S, Georgia
As a rule these days, former 5-star recruits who lock down full-time roles as sophomores don’t tend to stick around for their senior years. Stevens and LeCounte are exceptions: Both opted to pass on the draft on the heels of a breakthrough season as juniors for one more shot at improving their stock, and to serve as the veteran leaders of their respective units. They’re the most versatile, too, as they were the only 2 SEC players in 2019 to record at least 5 TFLs and 3 INTs.
LSU's JaCoby Stevens with a BEAUTIFUL one-handed interception.pic.twitter.com/emW7eR1ijG
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) October 19, 2019
14. Alex Leatherwood • OL, Alabama
13. Dylan Moses • LB, Alabama
12. Najee Harris • RB, Alabama
Elsewhere on the “returning senior” front, no team fared better than Bama: Leatherwood, Moses, and Harris are all former 5-star prospects with All-SEC credentials who undoubtedly would have heard their names called in the first 2 or 3 rounds. (Ditto WR DeVonta Smith; see below.) Finally, some good news for the Tide! By itself, Moses’ return was predictable, given that he missed all of what was widely expected to be an All-American season with a torn ACL in the preseason; Leatherwood’s, however, was not, and Harris’ decision to pass on the draft after an eye-opening junior campaign shocked almost everyone. A healthy, maxed-out Najee assuming the bell-cow role behind 4 returning starters up front is a terrifying proposition.
11. Sam Ehlinger • QB, Texas
Arguably no quarterback carried a heavier burden for his team in 2019 than Ehlinger, who accounted for more total yards (4,236) than any other returning FBS player and a higher share of his team’s total offense (71.4 percent) than any other Power 5 holdover except Iowa State’s Brock Purdy (No. 20 on the list). Ideally, Texas would like to see the latter number decline due to a talented set of running backs eating into the QB’s share of the carries – all the better for Ehlinger to boost his passer rating for the 3rd year in a row. When it really counts, though, there’s zero doubt who holds the fate of the offense in his hands.
10. Tylan Wallace • WR, Oklahoma State
Wallace was the best receiver in college football in 2018 and was in the running again last year before a torn ACL ended his season in late October. It’s hard to imagine him returning to school under any other circumstances, but for one more year at least the NFL’s loss is OSU’s gain. Although undersized for a top prospect, Wallace plays much bigger than his 6-0, 185-pound frame, routinely hauls in acrobatic grabs in the red zone, and excels after the catch – 50 of his 139 receptions over the past 2 seasons have gained at least 20 yards, including 12 of his 20 touchdowns.
9. Marvin Wilson • DT, Florida State
Another mid-season injury casualty, Wilson’s decision to return for his senior year at FSU under his 3rd different head coach was the stunner of the winter. A 300-plus-pounder in the Derrick Brown mold, Wilson combines the mass of a traditional run-stuffing nose with the length and pocket-collapsing power demanded from a three-down tackle at the next level. He’s one of PFF’s highest-graded DTs each of the past 2 years and its No. 1 interior prospect in 2021, portending a very Brown-like campaign ahead.
Florida State DI Marvin Wilson, @PFF's top interior pass-rusher through three weeks, put on an absolute show against Virginia on Saturday.
Dude is special. pic.twitter.com/PolwpzymG6
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) September 15, 2019
8. Trey Smith • OL, Tennessee
After a dominant debut in 2017, Smith has struggled to reach his full potential the past 2 years due mainly to a blood clot condition that sidelined him midway through 2018 and for virtually all of the following offseason. Despite the hiatus, Smith ultimately played in every game in 2019, locking down the starting left guard spot in September, and didn’t allow a sack; by year’s end he was back to his former, pile-driving self on his way to first-team All-SEC honors. As a senior, he’ll serve as the anchor of a front facing vastly higher expectations and the most important variable in whether it succeeds in fulfilling them.
7. Jaylen Waddle • WR/KR, Alabama
6. DeVonta Smith • WR, Alabama
Man for man, Alabama’s 2018-19 receiving corps ranks among the best ever assembled at the college level, and there’s no better evidence for its place on that list than Waddle’s fourth-wheel status in the rotation: With 2,400 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns on just 120 career touches (including kick/punt returns), he’s already established himself as one of most efficiently lethal weapons ever to wear a crimson jersey … almost entirely as a backup. What is “the other guy” capable of when he become the guy?
Jaylen Waddle 58-yd touchdown….and wow that man is fast. 🏃🏾♂️💨💨💨💨💨💨💨
Auburn 24 pic.twitter.com/YN8BvaVpvb
— Alabama Crimson Tide | AL.com (@aldotcomTide) November 30, 2019
Between Waddle and Smith – both favorites to follow Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III as first-round picks – Bama can still stake its claim to the best 1-2 receiving punch in the country, an incredible statement for a team that lost 2 playmakers on the order of Jeudy and Ruggs. The more pressing question: Who’s going to throw them the ball? And will he be given anywhere near the free rein downfield as Tua Tagovailoa?
5. Chuba Hubbard • RB, Oklahoma State
Hubbard broke out in a big way in 2019, turning in the best season by an Oklahoma State back since Barry Sanders and the best by a native Canadian since Bronko Nagurski. The numbers speak for themselves: First nationally in rushing yards (2,034), 2nd in rushing touchdowns (21), 1st in runs of 30 yards or more (15). Hubbard was a no-brainer pick for Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year (which is saying something), and assuming he can coexist with coach Mike Gundy long enough to stay on the field, there’s no reason to doubt he can do it again.
4. Derek Stingley Jr. • CB, LSU
For sheer athletic spectacle, Stingley was the rare freshman talent for whom the 5-star recruiting hype wasn’t effusive enough. In short order, the Baton Rouge native graduated from early enrollee to Day 1 starter to future face of his position, all without appearing to break a sweat.
This one belonged to Derek Stingley. pic.twitter.com/fD0yOtfIho
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 26, 2019
Much of Stingley’s brilliance translated on the stat sheet, where he led the SEC in interceptions (6) and total passes defended (21) and earned the top coverage grade of any FBS corner according to PFF. Despite an all-conference snub from SEC coaches – who typically deferred to older players, relegating Stingley to second-team – in December he duly became the first true freshman DB this century voted a consensus All-American.
In LSU’s subsequent Playoff wins over Oklahoma and Clemson, he allowed 2 receptions on 9 targets for a grand total of 25 yards. Beyond the numbers, Stingley’s raw potential frequently leaped off the screen in ways that made his rookie moments (specifically a rough afternoon opposite DeVonta Smith) look like fleeting glitches. At 6-1, his combination of length, agility and highlight-reel ball skills made him a no-brainer pro prospect before his 19th birthday. The fact that he has to wait 2 more years to cash in is almost as unfair to the quarterbacks and receivers who have to face him as it is to Stingley himself.
3. Ja’Marr Chase • WR, LSU
For much of 2019, Chase was just one member of a receiving corps that shared in the spoils of LSU’s revamped passing game more or less equally. By the end, he was undeniably the star, accounting for nearly 40 percent of Joe Burrow’s passing yards in the final 7 games and 11 of his 30 touchdowns, capping that run with a 221-yard, 2-TD performance in the national title game. (Most of that output coming at the expense of Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, a subsequent first-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons.) Altogether, Chase finished as the FBS leader in receiving yards (1,780), touchdowns (20), and yards per catch (21.2) among players with at least 65 receptions – all single-season LSU records, and all as a true sophomore who’s only just realizing his potential.
2. Travis Etienne • RB, Clemson
There’s nothing more Etienne can possibly prove as a college player. He could have left after last season as Clemson’s career rushing leader and the ACC’s career leader in touchdowns (62) and yards per carry (7.8). He’s won ACC Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons. He’s finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting in back-to-back seasons. He’s started in back-to-back national championship games, earning a ring in the first. He’s played in 42 consecutive games and put on 25 pounds since his freshman season without losing a step; as a junior, he demonstrably improved both his physicality, posting the highest broken-tackle rate of any FBS back, and his versatility as a receiver.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) December 29, 2019
What’s left? More of the same, hopefully. The best-case scenario for Etienne’s senior season (and the projection here, obviously) is a repeat of the last two, ending in a deluge of records, accolades, and confetti as he rides off into the sunset of a massive rookie contract. The worst-case… well, let’s not go there. At this point in his career, frankly any outcome that involves his draft status remaining intact in January is a good one.
1. Trevor Lawrence • QB, Clemson
Who else? With Justin Fields having likely taken his last snap at Ohio State, Lawrence is the indisputable face of college football in 2020 — on the field and off. Hailed as a transcendent talent before he ever arrived on campus, he’s already exceeded the hype in his face 2 seasons, overseeing a 25-1 run that cemented both Clemson’s status as an emerging dynasty and his own status as the most coveted pro prospect since Andrew Luck.
Circumstances willing, both trajectories should continue this fall at the helm of the nation’s No. 1 team. However the next few months unfold, though, with his outspoken leadership of the movement for organized student-athlete rights at one of the most uncertain moments in the sport’s history, Lawrence’s legacy at this level is already secure.