I usually put out my positional rankings at the start of every college football season, but under these unique circumstances, where I personally believed we wouldn’t even see these kids plays, I decided to focus more on the NFL. However, now that all conferences are back in action, we’ve seen all teams play at least a few games and we’re in December, I want to give you my top five players at every single position. As always, in this edition I’m evaluating them as college players, not solely draft prospects. There is enough time in spring to evaluate how their skill-sets will translate to the next level. To make the cut in these rankings, you must have played at least three games this season. So top-five type prospects like Penei Sewell and JaMarr Chase won’t make this list, since they opted out for 2020.
In this edition we’ll look at the offense and next week we’ll shift over to defense!
Just missed the cut: D’Eriq King (Miami), Spencer Rattler & Sam Ehlinger (Texas)
Lawrence is the crown jewel of this group and ever since he ended his freshman season by winning a national title against Alabama and carving up that defense loaded with NFL talent, it was clear that he would be the number one pick in the draft once he declared. Yet, while he did have a bit of a slow start to his second year, he has shown growth every step of the way and he has demolished the ACC competition this season. Lawrence is the complete package, in terms throwing staying calm inside the pocket, yet having the sudden movement skills to avoid rushers and quickly re-set to fire absolute lasers. He can win with timing and rhythm, extend plays while looking his eyes downfield and then he has the speed to run for 67-yard touchdowns against an Ohio State defense that is loaded with NFL talent.
However, if it was any other year, we would say Fields is the obvious choice at the top of next year’s draft board. After only being used in some certain packages at Georgia his freshman season and a racial slur pointed at him by one of the members of the baseball team, Fields transferred to OSU, where he immediately turned into a star for the Buckeyes last year. He was a Heisman finalist, thanks to throwing for almost 3300 yards and running for about another 500, while being responsible for 51 total touchdowns and only one interception leading up to the CFP semifinal against Clemson. Fields is really sturdy inside the pocket and consistently finds ways to escape. While he is obviously a threat to burn defenses after pulling the ball on zone reads, the most dangerous part about him is the deep ball.
Somebody who wasn’t as highly touted coming into 2020, but has quickly emerged as a Heisman contender and one of the most impressive quarterbacks in the country is this kid from BYU. Wilson was more part of a run-centric Cougars offense through his first two years on campus, but he has transformed the offense this season, because of what he can do in terms of attacking all areas of the field. He is such a natural athlete and thrower, who can throw from different arm slots and fire rocket balls as well as allow his receivers to uncover late with touch throws. Just watch the Boise State game from a few weeks ago or check out how often BYU decides to go for it on fourth down, because they trust their guy under center. His footwork can get a little hectic and those feet get locked into the ground with a rusher in his face at times, but the improvement has been stunning.
Only a true sophomore, Howell has been one of the most electric passers in the country since the start of last season, when he threw for over 3600 yards and 38 touchdowns (led the ACC) compared to seven picks. He showed some of the best footwork I have seen from a freshman, with his feet firmly planted into the turf, and the Tar Heel coaches asked him to make plenty of full-field reads in his first year as a starter. This season, North Carolina’s offense and the team as a whole has started slow at times, but they have picked things up here down the stretch and while Howell is partially at fault for putting his guys in those spots, he and some of the play-makers he has around him, have enabled them to score in a heartbeat and come back in games. That’s exactly what happened in a 59-53 shootout against Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago.
If there is one quarterback I would have projected to take a big step forward it would have been this senior down in Florida. It took an injury to former starter Feleipe Franks for Trask to get his chance, but once he did, he ran with it. He already completed 67 percent of his passes for almost 3000 yards and 25 TDs versus seven INTs in 11 starts plus last year. Yet, this season he is on pace to finish second behind only what Joe Burrow just did, in terms of passing yards and touchdowns. He is already breaking records with six TDs in the SEC opener and seven straight games of 4+ TDs. Trask routinely wins with recognition of defensive coverages and precise ball-placement. Although a lot of the Gators’ success can be attributed to Dan Mullen’s ability to put defenses in conflict with play-design and field spacing, his quarterback has been right on the money all season long.
It’s kind of funny how everybody thought Alabama would be alright with the guy they put in there after Tua Tagovailoa, but it would cap their ceiling. No, they are once again the favorites to win the national championship and a big reason is the development of Mac Jones, who is putting up numbers that are right on par with Tua’s, completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 341 yards per game and 23 touchdown versus three INTs. He shows great understanding of the offense and can process information quickly to work within the structure of the Crimson Tide attack. He might not have the Howitzer or the supreme athleticism some of these other guys do, working in an RPO- and screen-heavy offense, where they allow their dynamic pass-catchers to create after the catch, but Jones is very accurate and excels on those touch throws down the field.
The three guys who missed the cut are all dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks. While King is more elusive and makes those off-script throws, Rattler is a more explosive passer within Lincoln Riley’s system and Sam Ehlinger may not be most natural passer among the group, but still has a rifle and is as physical a runner as there is at the quarterback position.
Just missed the cut: C.J. Verdell (Oregon), Javian Hawkins (Louisville) & Mohamid Ibrahim (Minnesota)
I know this might be a little be a little controversial at the top here for some people, but I love Najee Harris. He came to Alabama is a consensus top three overall recruit and while you saw the talent, he didn’t run very hard. Three years later he has turned himself into the most punishing ball-carrier in all of college football. He could have easily entered the 2020 draft after putting up 1500 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns on just 236 touches, but surprisingly decided to come back for his senior year and SEC defenders have felt the consequences. While I won’t put him quite on the same level of physicality and top-end speed as another Crimson Tide star back in Derrick Henry, he has a lot of the same qualities, while bringing better start-stop ability and pace to his running, with pretty sweet feet for a workhorse power back.
Etienne is the consensus number one back and I do understand why. While I wasn’t fully on board at the start, when it was his long speed that led to those homerun plays, where he was barely touched – including an 81-yard house call on his first ever collegiate carry – he has certainly impressed me with how much stronger he has become and the contact balance he brings to the table, which are a big reason he forced an NCAA-best 91 missed tackles in 2019, during a record-setting season, in which he racked up 2046 yards and 23 touchdowns from scrimmage on 244 touches. He always keeps those legs churning through contact and what I really like is that he has already surpassed his receiving total from last season with over 500 yards, after he was almost a non-factor in the passing game to start his career. His rushing average of 5.2 is certainly below his lofty standards of 7.8 through his first three years however and we saw some issues in terms of creating on his own against Notre Dame.
The guy that has really emerged at the running back position this season is another guy from Iowa State. After David Montgomery quietly was one of the elite backs in college football for the Cyclones with his individual efforts and ability to force missed tackles, Hall has taken over in a similar mold. He has already easily surpassed his 2019 stats on basically the same amount of touches in three fewer games, with 1260 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns. Hall is a highly patient runner, who allows his blockers to open up seams and then he slices through the defense. He constantly makes the first defender miss and gets more than what is there to be had, with great balance to get back on his feet, but he might be the best in this whole group of making something happen when nothing is there. Hall may not have that ability to go from zero to 100 in a heartbeat like some other guys do, but he somehow gets those breakaway runs and has closed out several games already.
While it certainly hasn’t been the year everybody expected, I could not leave Hubbard off the list. Last year he led the country with 2094 rushing yards and he added just under 200 yards receiving as well, while reaching the end-zone 21 times. Despite being named a first-team All-American, he decided to return to school, which he might regret a little bit now, since he has been banged up for large stretches of the season and the OSU offense simply hasn’t been overly impressive. Still, at his best, Hubbard is a chunk play waiting to happen. He brings great burst through the hole and to get to the edges, while showing the understanding of how to manipulate second-level defenders and punishing lacking discipline for backside contain. His question marks (when healthy) are ball-security, with four fumbles last season, and his involvement as a receiver, most being used to run off defenders on wheel routes and catching some screen passes.
One of my favorite running backs in the country is Javonte Williams. North Carolina runs a two-back system with him and Michael Carter, as they both are over 1100 scrimmage years on the year already, but the big difference between the two are touchdowns, as Williams is at a whopping 18 through nine games – already slightly surpassing his totals from a year ago. At 5’10”, 220 pounds, Williams has a really strong lower body and not only can he slip through some small creases, but he is a load to bring down, constantly gaining yards through contact and having would-be-tacklers slip off him. Thanks to his hard-nosed running style, he is a specialist for short-yardage and goal-line situations. He doesn’t quite have true breakaway speed and doesn’t really explode through the hole, but while it might be that number 25 he’s wearing, this Tar Heel reminds me a little bit of Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Verdell may be the premiere big-play threat at the running back position outside of Etienne and surprisingly falls forward more than he should, Hawkins himself is highly elusive but runs tougher than his size indicates, while Ibrahim there is no-nonsense runner, as Minnesota almost exlcusively runs inside zone with him and it’s one cut and run through somebody’s face.
Just missed the cut: Jahan Dotson (Penn State), Elijah Moore (Ole Miss), Marlon Williams (UCF) & Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC)
Nothing about him physically really screams out top wide receiver, with a rather thin frame, average size and there are always receivers on Alabama that would beat him in a race, but Smith still has 2330 receiving yards 26 touchdowns over these last 21 games. This guy really put his name on the map with that game-winning touchdown in overtime in the National Championship game versus Georgia three years ago, but he has become more involved every season. Smitty catches pretty much everything thrown his way and while he is “only” 6’1”, he plays the catch point as if he was 6’6” and he routinely embarrasses defenders. He is already a master at stutter releases, he does a great job of stacking his man on vertical routes and I love how he works back to the ball. Smith was the only receiver I saw give freshman sensation CB Derek Stingley Jr. trouble and he badly won that matchup.
Number two was a tough choice here, but I think the guy who can dominate the competition more so than anybody else at that position is Wallace. Whenever I check the measurements and see than he is only six feet tall, I scratch my head, because all I see is him towering over defensive backs when the ball is in the air. That 2018 season was special, when Wallace caught 86 passes for just under 1500 yards and 12 touchdowns. Last season he got hurt after nine games (right around 100 yards and a TD per) and he is right at that pace again this season. His ability to adjust mid-air and dominate in contested catch situations have resulted in a lot of chunks on downfield threats and made him a beast in the red-zone. The inability to consistently separate and not having faced a ton of press, will be question marks for his transition into the pros, but at the collegiate level only injuries have really been able to slow him down.
After that, I went with a prospect I’m very high on, but we have only seen in five games this season. Bateman originally opted out for 2020, but then came back only to decide it was better to prepare for the upcoming draft, since Minnesota took a big step back as a program. As a sophomore, Bateman kind of stole the show away from Tyler Johnson, who still led the team in all the major receiving categories, but the young guy was so impressive winning vertically and running away from people after the catch. Bateman is a very fluid mover and he really ate up the middle of the field in 2019. However, he is also an alpha with the ball in the air and displays highly trustworthy hands overall. The one thing he has to improve upon is getting through challenges off the line, since he got to operate a lot out of the slot for the Gophers.
Olave is another guy who only measures in at six feet, but when you put on the tape, you feel like you have to add like four inches. A lot of people got to eat in that 2019 Buckeye offense, but this young man led all receivers with 840 yards and 12 touchdowns through the air on 48 catches. That scoring total had a lot to do with the ability to pluck the ball off the head of defenders in the end-zone. Olave comes off the ball with some urgency, consistently catches the ball away from his frame and is very competitive after the catch. I like how he can counter those downfield routes with the ability to quickly stop his momentum on routes back towards the quarterback, but he whiffs on some blocks by not breaking down in space accordingly.
And finally, another receiver who just decided to opt out for the remainder of the season, thanks in large part to how much the reigning national champs have struggled this season. Still, Marshall put in some good work when he was out there, catching 48 passes for 731 yards and ten touchdowns in seven games. Those are right around the numbers he posted last season in 12 contests, even though he was the number three option behind JaMarr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Marshall presents ideal size and great play strength at 6’3”, 200 pounds. He is physical off the line and at the catch point, while fighting himself free downfield with his arms and subtle push-offs. While he comes off the ball a little lethargic at times, he can win at all three levels and quickly brings the ball into his body.
For the four extra names here – Dotson has been the one true bright-spot for a struggling Penn State program with his highlight reel grabs, I had to mention the nation’s leading receiver in Moore, who has been beating SEC defenses over the top all season long, Williams is the number one option in maybe the most explosive aerial attack in college football, with over 1000 yards and 10 TDs already in eight games, and St. Brown has made that transition from slot to Michael Pittman’s role look very smooth so far.
Doesn’t qualify: Pat Freiermuth (Penn State)
I don’t think you can really argue who number one is here. Pitts has stood above the rest like nobody else at his position. The 6’6”, 240-pound beast gets moved around by the Gator coaches a lot and has proven to be a mismatch on pretty much anybody with his combination of size and speed. He was already a problem in 2019, but he quickly reminded us of who he is, with four touchdowns in the season-opener. And he has already cracked the 500-yard mark and scored 11 TDs in six games this year, with the only thing slowing him down being a hit to the head in the Georgia game. You can simply line him up as an outside receiver and he will win the majority of the battles, but when they put him in-line and give him those favorable matchups, his speed and ability to elevate over people is almost unfair. The only thing you may look at is that he isn’t a real asset as a full-time blocker attached to the line.
Somebody I believe gets a little overlooked, also looking ahead to the 2021 draft, is another TE from the U. Jordan is very much so a version of Pitts that gives up a few inches on him and a little bit of speed. Miami moved him all over the field in 2019 and he was by far the most versatile weapon for them, finishing with just under 500 yards through the air. While he only reached the end-zone twice, 13 of his 35 receptions in (37 percent) included at least 10 yards of additional yardage after the catch, as he quickly turns upfield and doesn’t mind running into some defenders. He already had an impressive showing early this season against Louisville, when he caught seven passes for 120 yards and a score, but he has missed a few games since then with injury. The one issue I have with him is that I haven’t seen him consistently win at the catch point.
The most advanced guy among this group is Kolar. The 6’6”, 245 pounds tight-end was a first-team All-Big 12 selection in 2019, thanks to catching 51 passes for 697 yards and seven scores. He has clearly been quarterback Brock Purdy’s favorite target over these last two years, thanks to his ability to win over the middle of the field with stick and slant routes, as well as how dependable he is, having dropped only two of the 64 catchable passes his way in 2019. Kolar is a very natural pass-catcher, who has no problem adjusting to the ball when it’s in the air and tracking it over either shoulder. Plus then he is non-nonsense after the catch usually, turning upfield and getting to the across the marker. He doesn’t nearly present the same athletic profile as the two guys ahead of him however, as I would describe him as a very crafty player.
Long was somebody that really wasn’t on my radar too much coming into this season. He caught 28 passes for just over 500 yards and two TDs in 11 games in 2019, averaging a crazy 18.2 yards per grab, even though BC used three different TEs at a high rate. Still, those to me where more the product of those guys being open off play-action with that run-first approach. This year Long has looked so much more dynamic getting into his routes, winning down the seams and running after the catch. I would clearly put him at the top of the list in terms of his capabilities as an in-line blocker, being charged with reach- and down-blocks on D-linemen and kicking out backside defenders. He always stays under great balance and keeps his feet under himself in that area.
And finally there’s Ferguson, who might present the most impressive frame of the bunch at 6’3”, 250 pounds, which he uses in Wisconsin’s run-heavy offense, creating movement at the point of attack and pushing second-level defenders backwards routinely. While there certainly aren’t a ton of opportunities in the passing game because of what this team likes to do, their top tight-end did rack up almost 700 yards and six TDs on his 69 grabs over those first two years in Madison. Ferguson presents a large catch radius and wins over the top of guys in the red-zone or down the middle of the field. The Badgers target him a lot on out and corner routes from a tight or wing alignment, plus he has some wiggle and power after the catch. However, I think he certainly benefits from rarely being matched up against space players in the pattern and he lunges forward too much at times as a blocker.
Freiermuth unfortunately suffered an undisclosed season-ending injury after catching 23 passes for 310 yards over the Nittany Lions’ first four games. While Kyle Pitts has gained some ground on him because of what he has shown this season already, “Baby Gronk” at Penn State was my TE1 coming into this year and I won’t rule him out for that come next April. He can do more as a true Y and is a monster in all areas.
Just missed the cut: Jackson Carman (Clemson) & Alaric Jackson (Iowa)
With Penei Sewell opting out for the season, the title for the top offensive tackle in college football was kind of up for grabs and I believe Darrisaw has certainly grabbed it. At 6’5”, 310 pounds he has great length and easy movement skills. While he couldn’t really develop a real kick-slide, because the Hokies didn’t use a whole lot of true drop-back pass game in 2019, Darrisaw has already shown some growth in that area, while having the punch to stun rushers and the length to guide the around the corner. He widens the edge on the front-side of zone runs routinely and has the agility to scoop-block form the other end, while having the tight grip to torque bodies. He has been pushing people around in the run game all year and has been really tough to get around in pass-pro.
Leatherwood doesn’t blow me away as much as Darrisaw with his athletic profile, but he has plenty of talent and more than gotten the job done for Alabama at left tackle this last two years. He has a well-coordinated kick-set and doesn’t overreact to rushers, while having the thick, sturdy base to swallow power. While he might not be a road-grader in the run game, he puts that big frame right in front of defenders from snap to whistle and sometimes I feel like his defenders doesn’t even see the ball on zone plays. He will most likely repeat as a first-team All-SEC selection, like he was last year, when he allowed only nine total pressures and on his quarterbacks. One of the things that really stood out to me was how he and Jedrick Wills on the right side completely neutralized those great edge rushers for Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
One of my favorite watched on the offensive lines has been this kid from Texas. Cosmi started all but his first game for the Longhorns after a redshirt year and could easily gone pro this past April, after being named a second-team All-Big 12 selection. At 6’7”, 310 pounds he may not present the widest frame, but he has outstanding functional athleticism. This guy brings great leg-drive as a run-blocker and he definitely has that finishing mentality. You see him wash down the front- and cut off the back-side of run plays with great success, but what I love to see is how often he beats linebackers to the spot. He excels at knocking down the hands of edge rushers in the pass game and keeps those guys close to his frame, plus when those guys land on the turf, he is on top of them soon after. The problem with his pass-sets is that he literally gets “caught on the wrong foot” and gets too narrow with his base at times, which limits his ability to anchor and is how LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson beat him a few times in 2019.
Eichenberg has started every game since the beginning of his sophomore year. He jumps out of his stance with his punch ready to fire and he always keeps that post-leg ready in his pass-sets. That is why he hasn’t allowed a single sack since week five of the 2018 season. That’s crazy. In the zone run game he displays appropriate play strength and excellent mobility, which allows him cross-face interior linemen and seal them off at the back-side. You see cut off angles for linebackers routinely and he pushes guys around until the echo of the whistle. However, he gets caught with his feet stopped in the pass game at times to allow rushers to get around him and he has his weight shifted too far over his toes as a run-blocker at times, which leads to him slipping off defenders.
After a redshirt year, Christensen has started all 35 games of his career with the Cougars and has improved every step of the way. In the run game, his understanding of angles and ability to put his body in the right position, thanks in part to the strength in his arms, makes him effective. As a pass-protector, that football IQ he displays is a huge factor as well, in terms of understanding the depth of the pocket and when he can just put guys off the edge past the arc, while adjusting his kicks to the alignment and tendencies of the opposition, and not much room for defenders once he puts those clamps on them. With that being said, he gets too wide with his arms and stands up pretty straight in pass-pro sets, while being vulnerable to some inside counters. Still, he is currently PFF’s highest-graded offensive tackle in college.
Carman is a behemoth at 6’5”, 335 pounds, who can move much better than you would expect and often gets defenders to almost quit, while Jackson actually shed a few pounds this offseason and now gets an even better jump on his pass-sets, but hasn’t lost his mean streak in the run game.
Just missed the cut: Tyler Linderbaum (C, Iowa), Trey Smith (G, Tennessee) & Trey Hill (C, Georgia)
There is a pretty clear front-runner in this group as well and I don’t think anybody wants to get in his way. Davis bullied defenders in the run game and routinely opened big lanes for 2000-yard rusher J.K. Dobbins last season. The Buckeyes mainly run zone, where the backs obviously love to cut upfield behind him, but he can also reach-block and work pushing guys backwards at the second level. The consensus All-American selection in 2019 didn’t allow a single sack or hit on his quarterback Justin Fields. Davis’ anchor in the pass game will not be broken and he completely negates some of rushes on the interior. He’s not super comfortable getting out in space in the screen game or whatever, but within the tackles, nobody moves bodies and protects the integrity of the pocket like this guy.
Behind him I’m going with what could be the next great center from Alabama. At 6’6”, 325 pounds, Dickerson is closer to tackle measurements, but he has the thickness of an interior D-linemen. He is a great positional run blocker, who routinely reaches nose tackles one-on-one and does a great job of setting up his guards to take over down-linemen so he can climb up to the linebackers. Dickerson provides a strong anchor in the pass game and his length helps him at picking up stunters and countering twists with his guards, although his pad-level can a bit of an issue at times, in terms of getting underneath big defensive tackles and matching guys laterally. Still, he is the key-piece to great Alabama offensive lines these last couple of years.
Coming from a wrestling background is evident for Humphrey went you watch him on tape. He knows how to get underneath the pads of defenders to gain leverage in the run game or stymy their momentum in pass pro, especially picking up A-gap blitzers. Thanks to how light he is on his feet, he has no issues mirror guys at the line or reaching-blocking 0- and 1-techniques. He also has the mobility to get out in front as a puller and the Sooners use him quite a bit on play-actions and rollouts in that mold. Coming into 2020, Humphrey seemed to be on his to being the highest-drafted center we have seen in years, but he has looked a tad bit slow overall and he looks a little hesitant to shoot up to the second level, while getting caught leaning into some blocks in the run game in general. Baylor’s Brayvion Roy in particular gave him some issues in the 2019 Big 12 Championship game.
We get to our second interior O-lineman from the Buckeyes, where I’m looking at the center position. At 6’5”, 315 pounds, Myers is a certainly on the tall side and because he is built rather high-hipped, that doesn’t allow him to explode out of his stance like some other players at his position might and he gets a little too high in his pass-sets in general, but he brings physicality in the run game and technique and smarts in pass protection. He does a great job scooping up D-linemen on combo-blocks in the Buckeyes’ zone run game and his length helps at walling off second-level defenders. Myers is a very active communicator in protections and when he is soloed up, he can stun rushers with a punch off the snap and can hold his ground against big D-tackles in those situations. However, as impressive as the 2019 is, you have to mention that he played in-between two tremendous All-Big Ten guards.
Deonte Brown is another one of my favorites to watch up front. This guy is built like a freaking tank at 6’4”, 340 pounds, but he moves so much better than you might expect. I think his pad-level and knee-bend are both excellent and he brings a lot of thump at initial contact, where it is driving defenders vertically or sort securing them with that inside arm on zone plays whilst aiming at the backer already. The Crimson Tide use their left guard as their primary puller in the run game, either kicking out or leading up in the hole. Trying to go through Brown in the pass game is like pushing a five-man sled around by yourself I feel like. There’s just not much happening once he engages with a defender, because his base is so strong and his frame blocks out so much space. His one big issue is that if first contact doesn’t put him in control, he’s not nearly as effective.
Three other guys I want to point out here – Linderbaum transitioned from the defensive line just two years ago and has made the adjustment look smooth, while keeping his low pad-level and urgency off the ball, Smith dealt with blood cot issues early on in his career, but is starting to reach his potential with the physicality he brings to the table and Hill might be a little limited in his movement skills, but his play strength makes up for it.
Check back next week for the defensive players!