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The 25 Most Intriguing College Football Players in 2021

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The Most Intriguing lists are back. As we continue to preview the college football season, we’ll take a look at the coaches, players and off-field power brokers who will generate the most curiosity and interest in 2021. This week: the 25 most intriguing players.

Most Intriguing Players

1. Bryce Young, Alabama quarterback. He hasn’t started a college game or even seen any crucial playing time, yet by late July, Young had NIL deals worth what coach Nick Saban said is “almost seven figures.” The heir to a position that has produced consecutive top-15 NFL draft picks, is Young ready to become Alabama’s next great quarterback? The sophomore is leading an offense that is nearly as inexperienced as he is, which will require him to be ready in a hurry. However, this Bama team figures to rely more on its defense (especially early in the season) than the past few editions.

Bryce Young, Alabama QB, during spring practice

2. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma QB. The Sooners are the hot team of the offseason, riding a bowl blowout of Florida into expectations that it’s their time to return to winning national championships. Rattler could be the key—is he capable of performing the way Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray did in leading Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff? He still has some proving to do. Rattler’s 172.56 efficiency rating last year was the lowest for an Oklahoma starting quarterback since 2014, which was before Lincoln Riley brought his QB-friendly scheme to Norman.

3. D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson QB. Another highly talented, much-hyped QB stepping into a high-profile legacy spot. The school that produced Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson may have its next big thing in Big D.J. In terms of arm talent, there might not be anyone in the college game on par with Uiagalelei. He was spectacular in a pair of starts last year while Lawrence was out with COVID-19, most notably at Notre Dame in a 47–40 overtime classic. Although plenty athletic and big enough to run through tackles, the 6' 4" 250-pounder was a tepid runner in 2020. He needs to improve that part of his game to enhance Clemson’s red zone offense.

4. Breece Hall, Iowa State running back. The Cyclones’ quest to dethrone Oklahoma in the Big 12 and break the blueblood stranglehold on the playoff could rest largely on how far Hall’s legs can carry them. Nobody ran for more than Hall’s 1,572 yards last season, and only two Alabama Heisman finalists scored more than his 23 touchdowns. Wichita has produced two all-time great running backs in Gayle Sayers and Barry Sanders, and while Hall doesn’t possess their flair for the spectacular, he could be the next RB from that city to make a major impact at the NFL level.

5. JT Daniels, Georgia QB. Does Kirby Smart finally have his quarterback? Justin Fields was too young (or Smart was too guarded) to be the Bulldogs’ star at that position; Jake Fromm was good but not great; and last season was a mess at that position until Daniels was ready to take over. He was really good over the course of Georgia’s last four games, all victories. Now, the USC transfer could be poised for a huge season—although at the rate the Bulldogs are suffering personnel losses at wide receiver and tight end, it might be time to downsize expectations.

6. Chris Olave, Ohio State wide receiver. Now that DeVonta Smith has opened all eyes to the impact a receiver can make, why not Olave as the next Heisman Trophy winner from that position? Thing is, he might not even be the best wideout on his own team, with Garrett Wilson as option 1A for Ohio State’s inexperienced quarterbacks. But Olave has been exceptional from the moment he arrived in Columbus, blocking kicks on special teams when he wasn’t catching touchdowns on offense. He has the total receiving package, from hands to route running to blocking ability.

7. Sam Howell, North Carolina QB. The Tar Heels have had three players taken as the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft. Howell has the chance to become the first No. 1. But first he’s trying to lead North Carolina to crack the Clemson hammerlock on the Atlantic Coast Conference and win the school’s first league title since 1980. The junior has thrown for more than 8,000 yards and 68 touchdown passes, which means he’s on the cusp of putting the UNC career records in both those categories out of sight in just three seasons.

8. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame safety. The junior from Atlanta has a chance to be the highest-impact defensive player in the nation in 2021, and one of the highest defensive draft picks in ’22. Hamilton has both the physical measurables (6' 4", 219 pounds and a 41-inch vertical jump) and the production (104 total tackles, five interceptions, 12 passes broken up, 5.5 tackles for loss in two seasons). With the Fighting Irish working in a lot of new starters on offense, they might turn to the defense to carry the first few weeks of the season. And that begins with Hamilton.

9. D’Eriq King, Miami QB. He’s the poster child for modern college football: a sixth-year super senior who used the transfer portal to his advantage and has signed some lucrative NIL deals. Now we’ll see whether King is far enough along in his recovery from January reconstructive knee surgery to have the same major impact for the Hurricanes as he did in 2020. He’s expected to start in the season-opening showdown with Alabama; we’ll see whether he’s up to 10 rushes per game to go along with 30 pass attempts. King may be on his way to 1,000 career pass attempts, 500 career rushing attempts and 60 career receptions—which may be an FBS first. Add in 11 kickoff returns, and he’s done everything in college but sell popcorn.

10. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon defensive end. The Ducks’ five-star recruiting coup out of Los Angeles in 2019 has paid dividends ever since, with Thibodeaux racking up 23.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in two seasons for a team that has won consecutive Pac-12 championship games and played in New Year’s Six bowls. In both those Pac-12 title games, Thibodeaux was a major disruptive force. With another productive season that showcases more game-to-game consistency, he will be on the NFL radar as a potential top-five pick.

11. McKenzie Milton, Florida State QB. He hasn’t played in a game since late November 2018, when Milton’s right leg was destroyed on a run against South Florida. Years of recovery and one transfer later, the brilliantly resourceful and heady Milton may yet be the starter for the Seminoles on Labor Day against Notre Dame. Even if Milton doesn’t get the starting nod over Jordan Travis, any game action he sees will be a remarkable triumph when it appeared that his career was over on that fateful day nearly three years ago.

12. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati QB. The four-year starter opted to come back for his senior season, elevating hopes of a Group of 5 conference breakthrough into the playoff. He should improve his draft stock in the process. Ridder is a winner, with a 30–5 record as a starter, and he has taken on a steadily larger role as the centerpiece of the Bearcats’ offense as his career has evolved. He has an active streak of 143 passes without an interception, and eight straight games completing at least 60 percent of his passes. Ridder also became a father to a baby girl with his longtime girlfriend in April.

13. Bijan Robinson, Texas RB. If Tom Herman had fully tapped into Robinson’s potential last season, would he still be coaching the Longhorns? Rest assured Steve Sarkisian isn’t going to underuse his most talented player. Robinson didn’t get more than seven touches in a game until the fifth contest of 2020, whereupon he started putting up big numbers. By season’s end he had more than 200 all-purpose yards in consecutive games, against Kansas State and Colorado, scoring six touchdowns. If Sark plugs Robinson into a Najee Harris–type role (with something approaching Harris’s 23 touches from scrimmage per game in 2020), the production could be huge.

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14. Malik Willis, Liberty QB. After languishing for two seasons on the bench at Auburn, Willis teamed up prolifically with Hugh Freeze last season to put both himself and the program on the map. The top dual-threat quarterback in the nation ran for 200 yards more than the second-best rushing QB last year, racking up 944 yards on the ground. But Willis was also productive throwing the ball, with 2,260 yards through the air and 20 touchdown passes. With continued improvement in the passing game, he can elevate himself into potential first-round draft pick territory.

15. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana QB. The leader of the Hoosiers’ football renaissance is coming back from his own reconstructive knee surgery, but coach Tom Allen said he expects Penix to be full-go for the big season opener at Iowa. Penix’s heroics keyed Indiana’s season-opening upset of Penn State, which set a tone for both programs, and his 491 passing yards and five touchdowns at Ohio State pushed the Buckeyes to the brink. The lefthander needs to show the NFL he has the durability to play a full season, after each of the last two ended with ACL tears.

Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr throws vs. Ohio State

16. Evan Neal, Alabama offensive tackle. At 6' 7", 360 pounds, he’s absolutely massive. And then you see what Neal can do with all that bulk, and it’s unfair for defensive players who end up in his path. Too talented to keep out of the lineup since arriving at Bama, Neal has started 26 games in two seasons at two positions (left guard and right tackle). With a young quarterback and plenty of other turnover on the Alabama offense, Neal will be counted on as a cornerstone of that unit before likely moving on to the NFL in 2022—perhaps as the top offensive lineman selected.

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17. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina QB. McCall has compiled a pretty good body of work in a short period of time after being a lightly recruited prospect out of greater Charlotte. As a redshirt freshman, he was the catalyst behind the most surprising season for any FBS program in 2020, the Chanticleers’ 11–1 joyride. He’s also the national leader in pass efficiency among returning QBs who attempted at least 200 passes. Add in 569 rushing yards and 33 total touchdowns, and McCall should be getting more attention as one of the elite quarterbacks in the nation in 2021.

18. Kedon Slovis, USC QB. Slovis didn’t arrive as the most highly touted quarterback, but he could leave USC as a three-year starter who becomes a first-round draft pick. He was Captain Comeback last season, leading the Trojans on fourth-quarter rallies to beat Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. He nearly pulled it off a fourth time in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon, but Slovis’s third interception of the contest ended that comeback. Slovis is guaranteed to put up big numbers in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid attack, but the Trojans could benefit from an improved running game that doesn’t require 50 passing attempts per game.

19. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU cornerback. He was the Rivals.com top college prospect in the class of 2019 and has maintained his elite standing but still has something to prove in ’21. Stingley was a freshman sensation, starting every game as the Tigers stormed to the national title. Last year LSU floundered under disastrous defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. Stingley’s production dropped from six interceptions and 21 passes defensed in ’19 to zero and five, respectively—but he also missed three of LSU’s 10 games, and opponents were more reluctant to throw in his direction. With a good junior season, he could be the top corner taken in the ’22 draft.

20. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M RB. The Aggies’ formula the past two seasons seemed pretty simple: give Spiller the ball, and good things happen. When Spiller has had 15 or fewer touches from scrimmage, Texas A&M has gone 4–6. When he’s had more than 15, A&M has gone 13–0. With four-year starting quarterback Kellen Moore departed, the junior’s importance within Jimbo Fisher’s offense will only increase.

21. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin QB. For one game last fall, Mertz was a legend in the making—he completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns against Illinois. That produced a gaudy 273.01 efficiency rating, one of the highest ever for a QB making his first college start. Then COVID-19 complicated the Badgers’ season, and Mertz looked like a much more mortal QB thereafter: four touchdown passes, five interceptions and all single-game efficiency ratings less than 150. The 2021 Mertz should benefit from the Jalen Berger–Chez Mellusi running back tandem, but he’ll need some wideouts to step up.

22. Noah Cain, Penn State RB. He was injured on the Nittany Lions’ first offensive possession of 2020 and missed the rest of the season, a blow Penn State’s offense never really recovered from. The previous year, Cain set a freshman school record with eight rushing touchdowns—more than Saquon Barkley, Curt Warner, D.J. Dozier, Evan Royster or anyone else. A healthy and durable Cain (he also missed three games in 2019) could be quarterback Sean Clifford’s best friend.

23. Will Levis, Kentucky QB. The Wildcats’ new starter alarmed the nation with a video showing himself eating a banana with the peel intact. His UK bio says his “dream job is to be stay-at-home dad with a wife who earns six figures.” It also says he prepares for games by “listening to pre-2012 Justin Bieber” and declares himself a very good singer. Next, we’ll see whether Levis is a very good quarterback. Kentucky hasn’t had one in years but has brought in a new coordinator to modernize the passing game. That’s where Levis comes into play—if the Penn State transfer is good enough.

24. Romeo Doubs, Nevada WR. If you want a big-play guy to watch, Doubs is it. He had the most plays in the nation from scrimmage of 50-plus yards last season with seven, and they all came in a four-game rampage from Oct. 31 to Nov. 21. He also had the winning touchdown in overtime in the season opener against Wyoming. Only two returning receivers had more yards than Doubs’s 1,002 in 2020, and he played in two fewer games than they did. Quarterback Carson Strong is understandably the headliner for the Wolf Pack, but Doubs is Strong’s deep threat.

25. Bumper Pool, Arkansas linebacker. Start with the name: James Morris Pool became Bumper James Morris Pool when he turned 16 and legally adopted the nickname his father gave him shortly after birth. It’s a perfect moniker for a linebacker from the state of Texas who likes to hit people. He’s also got the game to back it up, ranking as the Southeastern Conference’s leading returning tackler at 11.22 per game last season.

JUST MISSED THE LIST: Dillon Gabriel, UCF QB; Matt Corral, Mississippi QB; Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa center; Garrett Wilson, Ohio State WR; Isaac Rex, BYU tight end; Aron Cruickshank, Rutgers receiver/returner; Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan, DE; Jarek Broussard, Colorado RB; Jack Coan, Notre Dame QB; Jordan Davis, Georgia defensive tackle; Will McDonald IV, Iowa State DE; Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, Cincinnati CB; Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA QB; Noah Sewell, Oregon LB; Yo’Heinz Tyler, Ball State WR.

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