The Most Dominant College Football Position Units Heading into 2019 Season
Individual college football players can be remarkable, but it's often the positional units that separate the good teams from the great ones.
Clemson's defensive line, Alabama's passing game, Notre Dame's secondary and Oklahoma's overall offensive onslaught were the biggest reasons those teams reached the College Football Playoff last year.
Most of the teams expected to contend for a spot in this year's CFP boast a particular unit that should rank among the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Potential, while important, was only a small factor in this list because of its subjective nature. This is predominantly rooted in returning production and the preseason All-American types of honors and awards that come with it.
To prevent this from turning into another piece where you all get annoyed with us for drooling over Alabama and Clemson, we've imposed a maximum of one position unit per team.
That said, we do still have the Tigers and the Crimson Tide in the top two spots. Get over it.
For more college football and NFL draft talk, check out the Stick to Football podcast with B/R's lead draft expert Matt Miller.
Auburn's Defensive Line
Despite losing a four-year starter in Dontavius Russell, Auburn might have the best first line of defense in the SEC. The trio of Derrick Brown, Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson will be a disruptive force. We'll see if they can hold their own against arguably the toughest schedule in the country, though.
Iowa State's Linebackers
The Cyclones had the best front seven in the Big 12 last season, and it wasn't all that close. If all the starting linebackers were back for another year, it would've been tempting to rank this unit top-five overall. But replacing fifth-year senior Willie Harvey won't be easy. Iowa State should still have the best defense in the conference.
Depth is a big question mark in this unit, but the starters figure to be special. Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud have combined for nearly 600 total tackles in the past three seasons, and striker Romeo Finley is a senior who played well last year when finally given a bigger role. Miami has held the opposition to 21 or fewer points per game in three straight seasons and will make it a fourth if this group stays healthy.
Michigan's Offensive Line
The offensive line has been perhaps Michigan's biggest weakness over the past several years, but those growing pains are finally going to be worth it now that the Wolverines are loaded with upperclassmen who have a lot of experience. If they can keep Shea Patterson clean and open up holes for young running backs Christian Turner and Zach Charbonnet, Michigan should win the Big Ten.
Syracuse's Defensive Line
In Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, the Orange have not one but two returning linemen who recorded 10 sacks in 2018. Syracuse's rush defense was also significantly better than it had been from 2015-17, albeit still worse than most Power Five teams in both yards per carry and yards per game. Look for this front four to take another step forward as Syracuse tries to give Clemson a run for its money in the ACC.
USC's Wide Receivers
With Graham Harrell taking over as USC's offensive coordinator, you better believe the Trojans will be dialing up more passing plays in 2019. Already, their top three receivers from last season—Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns—each had at least 674 receiving yards last season. Add in Devon Williams and/or top 2019 recruit Kyle Ford for four-wide and five-wide sets, and USC has the potential to put up remarkable numbers through the air.
10. California's Secondary
Projected Starters: Jaylinn Hawkins, Ashtyn Davis, Camryn Bynum, Traveon Beck
Key Reserves: Josh Drayden, Trey Turner III, Elijah Hicks, Daniel Scott
Justin Wilcox deserves some sort of medal for the work he has done with this California defense.
The year before he became head coach (2016), the Golden Bears allowed 42.6 points per game.
Now, they might have the best secondary in the nation.
Only one opponent (the always pass-heavy Washington State) threw for at least 240 yards against California last season. Ten of 13 opponents were held below 200 yards, including TCU's atrocious 28 yards on 21 pass attempts in the Cheez-It Bowl.
The Golden Bears had 21 interceptions while allowing just 13 passing touchdowns. Only Appalachian State (17 picks, eight TDs) had a better differential in its TD-INT ratio, and only Utah State (22 interceptions) had more picks.
And while Appalachian State and Utah State each lost several key members of those defensive units, Cal gets back everyone except for scarcely used Quentin Tartabull and Chibuzo Nwokocha.
Jaylinn Hawkins, Ashtyn Davis, Camryn Bynum and Traveon Beck each had at least seven passes defended in 2018, combining for 15 interceptions and 22 breakups. There were only 18 entire teams that had more interceptions than Cal's projected starters.
9. Penn State's Linebackers
Projected Starters: Micah Parsons, Jan Johnson, Cam Brown
Key Reserves: Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, Lance Dixon
For the second consecutive year, Penn State is adding one of the best high school athletes to its linebacker corps. And if 5-star recruit Brandon Smith makes even half as much of an impact as Micah Parsons did as a true freshman in 2018, the Nittany Lions could be on the prowl for the Big Ten East Division title.
Smith and fellow true freshman Lance Dixon will need to battle with a bunch of established weapons for playing time, though.
Graduate senior Jan Johnson is a mortal lock to start at middle linebacker following his breakout campaign of 72 tackles. Cam Brown is also pretty much a guarantee to start opposite Parsons in the 4-3 scheme, considering he did so for all but one game last season. Ellis Brooks should also have an early leg up on the incoming linebackers after recording 30 tackles in his redshirt freshman season.
But that all just means this unit will be both experienced and deep, and it could be special if and when Parsons becomes even more of a wrecking ball as a sophomore.
This linebacker corps won't be nearly as dominant as it was in the days of Paul Posluszny or LaVar Arrington, but Penn State already had one of the best front sevens in the Big Ten prior to gaining more talent than it lost. There are plenty of reasons to doubt that this will remain a top-20 team for a fourth consecutive year, but this group is not one of those reasons.
8. Oklahoma's Wide Receivers
Projected Starters: CeeDee Lamb, Grant Calcaterra, Lee Morris
Key Reserves: Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease, Charleston Rambo, Mykel Jones, Nick Basquine, Trejan Bridges, Jaquayln Crawford
It's hard to believe that Oklahoma lost Kyler Murray and Marquise "Hollywood" Brown yet likely won't even miss a beat as one of the best passing units in 2019.
CeeDee Lamb has racked up 111 receptions for 1,965 yards and 18 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He's probably the best wide receiver in the Big 12 and maybe the best wide receiver in the country. Both Brown and Mark Andrews overshadowed him during his freshman campaign, but he should shine as the main man in this year's offense.
Both Grant Calcaterra and Lee Morris figure to take a significant step forward in Brown's absence. The duo combined for 47 receptions, 853 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, which is rather ridiculous when you consider the Sooners already had two other 1,000-yard receivers and three players who rushed for at least 900 yards. If they were able to put up those numbers as afterthoughts in the offense, they could really blossom this year.
The wild cards that could make this the No. 1 overall unit by the end of the year are the highly touted freshmen, Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges. Rated by the 247Sports composite as the respective No. 1, No. 3 and No. 11 wide receivers in this year's class, all three have the talent to make an immediate impact.
Even if all three were to redshirt, though, Oklahoma still has breakout candidates like Charleston Rambo and Jaquayln Crawford, who are more than capable of holding down the fort as the backups. The sheer amount of depth for this group is astounding.
7. Georgia's Offensive Line
Projected Starters: Andrew Thomas, Solomon Kindley, Tray Hill, Ben Cleveland, Isaiah Wilson
Key Reserves: Cade Mays, Jamaree Salyer, Owen Condon
Nick Chubb. Sony Michel. Elijah Holyfield. D'Andre Swift.
Over the past two seasons, Georgia has produced four 1,000-yard rushers who each averaged at least 6.0 yards per carry. Last year, the Bulldogs also had Brian Herrien (50 carries for 295 yards) and James Cook (41 carries for 284 yards) putting up impressive numbers in tertiary roles.
Much of that success is the runners themselves, but an even bigger part—both figuratively and literally—is the offensive line opening up lanes for whichever back has the ball. Those giants in the trenches have also been a big part of Jake Fromm's upper-echelon passer efficiency marks.
Each of Georgia's five projected starters is listed as at least 6'4" and 320 pounds. Right tackle Isaiah Wilson is three inches and 20 pounds clear of both minimums, and he and soon-to-be first-round pick Andrew Thomas make it next to impossible for edge-rushers to get into Georgia's backfield.
Penetrating up the gut isn't much easier with Solomon Kindley and Ben Cleveland holding down the guard spots. According to Pro Football Focus, Kindley was the SEC's best pass-protecting interior lineman among returning players.
Center could be perceived as a slight weakness after the Bulldogs lost Lamont Gaillard to the NFL, but both Tray Hill and Jamaree Salyer were highly touted recruits who saw a lot of action last season as freshmen. Either one could fill that void and keep this well-oiled machine churning.
The scary thing about Georgia's offensive line ranking this well for 2019 is that the entire unit could return in 2020. The only senior in the bunch is D'Marcus Hayes, and he has played sparingly to this point and has another year of eligibility remaining anyway. There's a good chance that at least Thomas will declare for the 2020 draft, but don't be surprised if the Dawgs are even higher on this list next year.
6. Wisconsin's Backfield
Projected Starter: Jonathan Taylor
Key Reserves: Garrett Groshek, Nakia Watson, Mason Stokke, (Bradrick Shaw?)
Jonathan Taylor has had a sensational two-year run as Wisconsin's primary running back, accumulating well over 4,000 yards with 29 touchdowns.
He is on pace to obliterate rushing records if he sticks around for four years. Heck, barring injury, he should finish his junior season ranked in the top seven on the FBS career rushing leaderboard. Project him for a fourth season and he could end up with at least 1,000 more yards than current record-holder Ron Dayne (7,125).
But last year was proof that he's no one-man unit.
Both Taiwan Deal and Garrett Groshek averaged at least 6.5 yards per carry while occasionally giving Taylor a chance to catch his breath. Those two backups racked up 970 yards and seven touchdowns, with Groshek doing most of the heavy lifting on passing downs (24 receptions, 163 yards).
Groshek will return in a presumed similar capacity in 2019, but Deal's void figures to be filled by redshirt freshman Nakia Watson. Bradrick Shaw could also be in the mix for touches after missing the entire 2018 season while recovering from a torn ACL. He doesn't have nearly the ceiling for potential that Watson does, but the Badgers may opt for the familiarity of a veteran who received nearly 200 touches between the 2016 and 2017 campaigns.
Don't forget about fullback Mason Stokke, either. That position doesn't even exist on most depth charts, but Alec Ingold scored seven touchdowns on 31 touches as Wisconsin's senior fullback last year. Stokke should slide into that role.
5. Michigan State's Defensive Line
Projected Starters: Kenny Willekes, Mike Panasiuk, Raequan Williams, Jacub Panasiuk
Key Reserves: Naquan Jones, Jacob Slade, Drew Beesley, Jack Camper
Michigan State's defensive line is almost always a colossal problem for opposing teams.
The Spartans led the nation in rushing yards allowed per game last season, and it wasn't even close. They held opponents to 77.9 yards while the next-closest teams (Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Clemson) each had marks north of 95. Michigan State also had the best rush defense in 2014 and ranked second in rushing yards allowed per game in 2013 and 2017.
In other words, this is no one-hit wonder, and it might be even more impenetrable with pretty much the whole band back together again.
Michigan State's most noteworthy departure from the defensive line was backup tackle Gerald Owens, and he only had 24 tackles in his college career. That means All-American candidates Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams and brothers Mike and Jacub Panasiuk will each return to starting jobs where they thrived last year.
Aside from Willekes—13.5 sacks in the past two years—it's not much of a pass-rushing unit. But who needs sacks when you're able to hold eight of 13 opponents to 63 or fewer rushing yards and only twice allow better than 3.5 yards per carry in a game?
They might as well start calling this the Great Wall of East Lansing.
4. Oregon's Offensive Line
Projected Starters: Penei Sewell, Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson, Dallas Warmack, Calvin Throckmorton
Key Reserves: Brady Aiello, Alex Forsyth, George Moore
The venerable Phil Steele wrote a blog post in June ranking every FBS team by the number of career starts returning to its offensive line. Oregon was No. 1 on that list by a laughable margin with 153 starts. The next-closest team is Louisiana-Monroe with 132. The next-closest Power Five program is Texas Tech at 115—barely 75 percent of Oregon's staggering mark.
Four of Oregon's five projected starters are fifth-year seniors, as are reserves Brady Aiello and George Moore. The lone exception to the rule is true sophomore Penei Sewell, who was merely the highest-rated recruit in Oregon's 2018 class and a starter for more than half of last season.
To be fair, career starts doesn't necessarily mean anything. It could just be a matter of a team repeatedly throwing the same porous unit out there without any improvement.
In Oregon's case, however, it's an experienced unit that has gotten better with age. After allowing a near-nation-worst 39 sacks in 2015, the Ducks offensive line reduced that mark from 29 to 25 to 22 over the past three seasons.
And while Oregon's rushing attack was nowhere near as dominant in 2018 as it had been for the previous decade, the Ducks still averaged 180 yards and better than two rushing touchdowns per game while a 5'9" redshirt freshman (CJ Verdell) and a 5'8" true freshman (Travis Dye) did the vast majority of the team's rushing.
There aren't many (if any) offensive lines that could have made such a young backfield look so good. Those rushers should be better as sophomores, and this veteran O-line will get even more positive attention if it keeps Justin Herbert clean and in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft.
3. LSU's Secondary
Projected Starters: Grant Delpit, JaCoby Stevens, Kristian Fulton, Derek Stingley Jr.
Key Reserves: Kary Vincent Jr., Todd Harris Jr., Eric Monroe, Mannie Netherly
Despite losing Greedy Williams as a second-round draft pick and 2018 top-50 recruit Kelvin Joseph as a transfer, LSU's cup runneth over with talent in the secondary.
The Tigers were already excellent in this regard last season. They played seven games against ranked opponents—not to mention tough games against capable passing attacks in Texas A&M and Ole Miss—but held opponents to a 49.7 completion percentage and the fourth-lowest passer efficiency rating (103.99). Moving the ball through the air against this defense was anything but easy.
Grant Delpit is the name most everyone knows heading into the 2019 season. Good luck finding a 2020 mock draft that has anyone other than Delpit listed as the first defensive back off the board. The safety was lights-out as a sophomore, leading LSU in both sacks and interceptions with five of each.
The irony of Delpit being the biggest star of the group is that he is the only projected starter who wasn't a 5-star recruit. Kristian Fulton was ranked in the top 25 overall in 2016, JaCoby Stevens was in the top 20 the following year, and Derek Stingley Jr. is rated No. 3 overall in the current freshman class.
Of course, Delpit was hardly an unknown commodity in high school. He, Todd Harris Jr. and Kary Vincent Jr. were each ranked in the top 100 overall in the 2017 class. Same goes for Eric Monroe in 2016. In all, that's seven defensive backs who were viewed as some of the best in the nation coming out of high school.
It's no wonder Joseph was unable to get the playing time he thought he deserved as a true freshman and was concerned it wouldn't get any better this season. There's just too much talent in this secondary. But it's hard to fault Ed Orgeron for stockpiling defensive backs with quarterbacks like Sam Ehlinger, Feleipe Franks, Tua Tagovailoa and Kellen Mond on the schedule this season.
2. Clemson's Backfield
Projected Starter: Travis Etienne
Key Reserves: Lyn-J Dixon, TBD Freshman
After losing Adam Choice as a graduate and Tavien Feaster as a transfer, Clemson doesn't have much established depth in its backfield. At any rate, it's nothing like what Georgia is bringing to the table, where the No. 9 overall recruit in the 2018 class (Zamir White) is either the fourth- or fifth-best option for carries.
What the Tigers do have, though, is a pair of running backs who ranked among the most efficient in the nation last season. Only seven players rushed for at least 500 yards while averaging better than eight yards per carry, and the reigning national champions have two of them in Travis Etienne (1,658 yards, 8.1 YPC) and Lyn-J Dixon (547 yards, 8.8 YPC).
Etienne is the obvious star, the candidate for the Heisman and the back who is already being projected by many as a late first-round draft pick in April 2020. Were it not for his heroics in the game against Syracuse (203 yards, 3 TD) after Trevor Lawrence suffered a first-half injury, Clemson possibly would not have gotten the chance to play for a title.
However, he's not a bell cow. Etienne tallied 16 or fewer carries in 13 of 15 games last season, this after only twice recording 10 or more carries in a game as a freshman. Thus, Clemson will need to rely on the backup who entered last year's ACC championship averaging better than 10 yards per carry.
More than one-fourth of Dixon's carries (16 of 62) went for a gain of at least 10 yards, and he had four rushes of at least 50 yards. Opposing defenses aren't exactly catching a break when he replaces Etienne for a series.
And at some point, at least one of Clemson's freshmen—Michel Dukes, Chez Mellusi or redshirt freshman Ty Lucas—is going to get ample opportunity to show what he can do. It's unclear at this time which one(s) it will be, but the Tigers do have options beyond their top two.
1. Alabama's Wide Receivers
Projected Starters: Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith
Key Reserves: Jaylen Waddle, Xavier Williams, Tyrell Shavers, John Metchie
"Embarrassment of riches" doesn't even begin to do justice to Alabama's receiving corps.
The biggest star of the bunch is Jerry Jeudy. The rising junior finished last season with 68 receptions for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns, leading the team in all three categories. It has been more than 23 years since Keyshawn Johnson became the most recent wide receiver selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft, but there are already rumblings that Jeudy could snap that drought next year.
There are a few teams—Clemson, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas—that have one wide receiver worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Jeudy. What makes Alabama's wide receivers our No. 1 position group for 2019 is how great the unit is from top to bottom.
As we've pointed out probably a few dozen times this offseason, the Crimson Tide have four returning wide receivers who each had a 2018 minimum of 42 receptions, 693 yards, 16.1 yards per catch and six touchdowns. The rest of the country has a combined total of 10 returning players who reached all four of those marks last season, and no other school has more than one such wide receiver.
In other words, Alabama will have a receiver coming off the bench—presumably Jaylen Waddle—who did more last season than every other No. 2 receiver and the vast majority of No. 1 guys.
And it's not like the depth chart stops there. Tyrell Shavers has yet to record any collegiate stats, but he was a top-100 recruit in 2017. Xavier Williams is a redshirt freshman who was rated as a top-25 wide receiver in last year's class. True freshman John Metchie was the MVP of Alabama's A-Day Game and will provide Nick Saban with one hell of a "break in case of emergency" option should an injury bug ravage this group.
Alabama's offense was almost unstoppable last year, averaging 45.6 points per game. With Tua Tagovailoa and this cornucopia of pass catchers back for another season, it wouldn't be surprising if the Crimson Tide push that scoring rate above 50 points per game.