College Football's Best Returning Players for 2022
Whenever your favorite college football team isn't playing, tracking down the best players in the nation can be the best way to spend a Saturday.
Perhaps the early window features your program. After that, you could use the mid-afternoon window to watch Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn, the prime-time slot to see Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and late-night hours to follow USC quarterback Caleb Williams.
Progression happens at different speeds. There are a number of players outside of this list who will dominate in 2022, and they'll be rewarded with a spot on year-end pieces of this nature.
Heading into the 2022 campaign, though, these standouts are among the most proven contributors in the country. As a result, true freshmen are not included.
Ask for someone's top three quarterbacks, and you'll probably get Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Caleb Williams in some order.
Young propelled Alabama to an SEC title and national runner-up finish in 2021. He won the Heisman Trophy, closing the season with 4,872 passing yards and 47 touchdowns to only seven interceptions in 547 attempts.
Stroud joined Young as a Heisman finalist after a terrific campaign for Ohio State, which finished 11-2. He completed 71.9 percent of his 441 passing attempts for 4,435 yards, 44 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
Williams jumpstarted a reeling Oklahoma offense after replacing Spencer Rattler. In basically eight games, the dual-threat threw for 1,912 yards, ran for 435 and totaled 27 touchdowns.
More to Know: Jaren Hall (BYU), Sam Hartman (Wake Forest), Devin Leary (NC State), Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina), Spencer Rattler (South Carolina), Clayton Tune (Houston), Tyler Van Dyke (Miami)
We could hit a dozen running backs without breaking a sweat, but let's settle for eight.
The biggest names are the exceptionally versatile Deuce Vaughn (Kansas State) and dynamic Bijan Robinson (Texas). Vaughn ranked fifth nationally in yards from scrimmage per game last season, while Robinson landed seventh.
Jahmyr Gibbs (Alabama) and Zach Evans (Ole Miss) are high-end transfers. TreVeyon Henderson (Ohio State) and Braelon Allen (Wisconsin) both had prolific seasons as true freshmen in 2021, as did draft-eligible rising sophomores Lew Nichols III (Central Michigan) and Sean Tucker (Syracuse).
This is an incredibly deep season at the position.
More to Know: Devon Achane (Texas A&M), Rasheen Ali (Marshall), Tank Bigsby (Auburn), Zach Charbonnet (UCLA), Blake Corum (Michigan), Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota), Tavion Thomas (Utah)
Receivers and Tight Ends
An established 1-2 leads the rankings at both receiver and tight end.
Jordan Addison (USC) won the Biletnikoff Award—given to the nation's top receiver—last season after racking up 100 catches for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns. Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Ohio State) shared targets with first-round NFL draft picks Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, yet he still hauled in 95 receptions for 1,606 yards and nine scores.
Kayshon Boutte (LSU), Josh Downs (North Carolina), Marvin Mims (Oklahoma) and Xavier Worthy (Texas) are a strong Tier 2.
Brock Bowers (Georgia) and Michael Mayer (Notre Dame) headline the list of tight ends. Bowers grabbed 56 passes for 882 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, while Mayer had 71 receptions for 840 yards and seven trips to the end zone.
More WRs to Know: Nathaniel Dell (Houston), A.T. Perry (Wake Forest), Cedric Tillman (Tennessee)
More TEs to Know: Brant Kuithe (Utah), Zack Kuntz (Old Dominion), Cameron Latu (Alabama)
Tackle, guard, center—let's separate 'em properly.
Peter Skoronski (Northwestern) is perhaps the nation's best left tackle, though Blake Freeland (BYU) and Connor Galvin (Baylor) wouldn't be far behind. Dawand Jones (Ohio State) anchors the list of right tackles.
Andrew Vorhees (USC) played left tackle to close 2021 but should shift back inside this season. He's soundly a top guard alongside Louisiana transfer O'Cyrus Torrence (Florida).
Center is probably the strongest unit of the linemen. The star is Jarrett Patterson (Notre Dame), with Virginia transfer Olu Oluwatimi (Michigan) and John Michael Schmitz (Minnesota) up next.
More OTs to Know: Broderick Jones (Georgia), Jordan McFadden (Clemson), Zion Nelson (Miami)
More OGs to Know: T.J. Bass (Oregon), Caleb Chandler (Louisville), Josh Lugg (Notre Dame)
More OCs to Know: Bryce Foster (Texas A&M), Jacob Gall (Baylor), Luke Wypler (Ohio State)
Edge-rushers are mentioned here, although some may be better classified as linebacker-leaning hybrids. There's no single archetype.
Either way, Alabama boasts the nation's scariest combination of edge-rushers by far. Will Anderson Jr. was a unanimous All-American who amassed 33.5 tackles for loss, and Dallas Turner put together a brilliant late-season run as a true freshman.
Andre Carter II (Army), Nick Herbig (Wisconsin) and Nolan Smith (Georgia) are elite edge-rushers as well. Each one posted 10-plus tackles for loss in 2021.
The interior group has a pair of featured players: Bryan Bresee (Clemson) and Jalen Carter (Georgia). Bresee is returning from an ACL injury but shined in his first 16 college games, while Carter was absurdly efficient in his rotational snaps behind Jordan Davis.
More DEs/Edges to Know: Felix Anudike-Uzomah (Kansas State), Isaiah Foskey (Notre Dame), Will McDonald (Iowa State), Myles Murphy (Clemson), Zion Tupuola-Fetui (Washington)
More DTs to Know: Gervon Dexter (Florida), Calijah Kancey (Pitt), Jalen Redmond (Oklahoma), Dante Stills (West Virginia)
Three seasons ago, Penei Sewell became a well-recognized name as Oregon's near-perfect left tackle. His brother, Noah Sewell, is now leading the Ducks on defense. He posted 114 tackles with 8.5 for loss in 2021.
Trenton Simpson (Clemson) had a decent freshman year but broke out with 64 stops—including 12 behind the line—last season.
Few players have more production than Carlton Martial (Troy), a fifth-year standout. He's recorded three 100-tackle seasons and amassed 442 total stops in his college career.
Bumper Pool (Arkansas) fits a similar mold with consecutive 100-tackle years, which followed a 94-stop season in 2019. He also has 23 career TFLs.
More to Know: Jack Campbell (Iowa), Ivan Pace Jr. (Cincinnati), Drake Thomas (NC State), Henry To'oTo'o (Alabama), Edefuan Ulofoshio (Washington)
In the secondary, go straight to the SEC.
LSU transfer Eli Ricks (Alabama), Kelee Ringo (Georgia) and Cam Smith (South Carolina) are all fantastic corners. The conference is also stacked at safety with Jordan Battle (Alabama), Jalen Catalon (Arkansas) and Georgia duo Christopher Smith and Tykee Smith.
As if that isn't enough, Antonio Johnson (Texas A&M) is the country's best nickelback. The versatile defender had 79 tackles with 8.5 for loss, six pass defenses and one forced fumble last season.
Otherwise, the best cornerbacks are Riley Moss (Iowa) and Clark Phillips III (Utah). Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph (Notre Dame), a first-team All-American in 2020, rounds out the top tier of safeties.
More CBs to Know: Emmanuel Forbes (Mississippi State), Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (TCU), Steven Jones Jr. (Appalachian State), DJ Turner (Michigan)
More Safeties to Know: Andrew Mukuba (Clemson), Jammie Robinson (Florida State), James Williams (Miami)