Biggest Surprises to Spurn the NFL for Another Year in CFB

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2020

Biggest Surprises to Spurn the NFL for Another Year in CFB

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    College players have until Jan. 20 to officially enter the 2020 NFL draft or decide to return to school, and a number of them have shocked the sport by choosing the latter.

    Some left a pile of money on the table, while others may be taking a risk to improve their stock. 

    Oklahoma State receiver Tylan Wallace, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger and Notre Dame signal-caller Ian Book are among the brightest stars in college, but it's no surprise that those guys are returning. None of the three were expected to be particularly high draft selections, after all.

    Others made decisions that were genuinely surprising. A few may wind up winning big individual awards. All of them hope that they have come back for a shot at a national title.

    Let's take a look at some of the biggest surprises to eschew the NFL and head back to college in 2020.

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

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    It appears all the pieces are in place for Clemson to finish what it couldn't accomplish against LSU this season: winning another national title.

    The 2018 national champions couldn't quite hang with Joe Burrow and Co. in Monday night's championship, but with so many returning weapons next year, coach Dabo Swinney's team looks poised for another run.

    They got huge news toward that goal Friday when running back Travis Etienne announced he'd stay for his final season rather than head to the NFL.

    The 5'10", 210-pound runner was ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s fourth-rated running back in a loaded class of runners that includes Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Georgia's D'Andre Swift, Florida State's Cam Akers and others. Like Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard, Etienne wants another shot at college stardom.

    He rushed for at least 1,600 yards in each of the past two seasons and was a workhorse for Swinney's Tigers, who are the hottest dynasty in college football. Though receiver Tee Higgins is off to the NFL, Clemson returns quarterback Trevor Lawrence, receivers Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers, and others.

    Now, Etienne is coming back for his swan song, and he could go down as one of the top running backs in the history of college football.

    He was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top runner, in 2018 and a semifinalist for the Doak Walker and the Maxwell Award as national player of the year in 2019. He is a dynamic force who has game-breaking speed and can carry the load as an every-down back.

    Lawrence will get the headlines, but Etienne is the leader of this offense, and Clemson just got a whole lot better next season with the Louisiana product's decision. Maybe he can parlay his final year into becoming a first- or second-round pick in the 2021 draft.

Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State

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    This year's tight end class is one of the weakest in recent memory, and Penn State sophomore Pat Freiermuth could have cashed in by declaring for the draft. Instead, he elected to return to the Nittany Lions to be one of Sean Clifford's top targets on a team that could compete for the Big Ten title in 2020.

    Penn State coach James Franklin has to be thrilled, particularly given his reaction to Freiermuth being left off the list of John Mackey Award semifinalists (via the Philadelphia Inquirer's Tyler King). The award goes to the nation's top tight end.

    "I can't imagine there's eight tight ends in the country that people would choose ahead of Pat Freiermuth. Could there be a couple? Okay, I can live with that. But eight? No, no. I love our guys. I want them to get all the attention that they deserve. Obviously our focus is on the team, Penn State football. But we are big believers that with team's success comes individual recognition."

    Despite the award snub, Freiermuth finished his sophomore season with 43 catches for 507 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Freiermuth is a true sophomore who was eligible to go to the NFL thanks to a postgraduate year he did in Massachusetts following high school. But with only two years of college football under his belt, he instead decided to get more seasoning.

    He wouldn't have been the top tight end taken, but he has huge upside. In 2020, he can keep showing how good he is, post big numbers for an explosive offense and parlay that into a higher pick.

    Freiermuth is the total package at the position. He has plenty of time to develop and two more years to stay in Happy Valley if he wants.

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

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    Alabama junior running back Najee Harris' decision to return to Tuscaloosa was a genuine surprise. With quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and others leaving Alabama, Harris' choice was massive for the Tide's 2020 offense.

    The Crimson Tide will now have a centerpiece for a backfield that also includes Trey Sanders and Brian Robinson, which is especially important since it has to break in a new quarterback.

    This year's draft is loaded with running backs, including Clemson's Travis Etienne (still undeclared, though expected to be leaning to the NFL), Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Utah's Zack Moss, Georgia's D'Andre Swift, Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins, Florida State's Cam Akers and others. But Harris is an all-around force who could have been an NFL combine star and surged up draft boards.

    Harris was a 5-star recruit and the top-ranked player at his position, according to 247Sports. Even on an Alabama team that threw the ball all over the field, Harris finished with 1,224 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns and averaged nearly six yards per carry.

    Any NFL general manager would love to pencil those numbers into their backfield, and there aren't a ton of miles on Harris' tank thanks to the running back depth in Tuscaloosa.

    But Harris decided the NFL can wait, and he is going to be a huge part of Alabama trying to get back to the College Football Playoff next year. He shouldn't hurt his stock at all, and the Tide will have plenty of workhorses around him to help shoulder the rushing load.

Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

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    Oklahoma State redshirt sophomore running back Chuba Hubbard spent much of the season on the cusp of the Heisman Trophy conversation despite getting overshadowed by LSU's Joe Burrow, Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts and the Ohio State tandem of Chase Young and Justin Fields.

    Had Hubbard played for a national title (or even conference title) contender, he would have gotten more publicity. Regardless, he led the nation with 2,094 rushing yards, averaged 6.4 yards per carry and had 21 rushing touchdowns.

    While the Cowboys have been known as a pass-first program under Mike Gundy, they've had plenty of dynamic running backs, and Hubbard is the best of them all. Now, he's going to return for a chance to perhaps win the nation's top individual award during his redshirt junior year.

    Not only does Hubbard have the size to be an every-down back, but he also seemed to make a highlight reel every week with a big run or more. He averaged more than 160 rushing yards per game and was certain to be one of the top runners taken in a loaded draft.

    Instead, he is coming back to perhaps turn into a first-rounder after a massive final season.

Creed Humphrey, C, Oklahoma

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    Few college football offensive linemen get much attention, but Oklahoma has a superstar snapping the ball in Creed Humphrey.

    The redshirt sophomore is one of the best, most consistent linemen in the nation, and he was named the Big 12's Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year this past season. He was also one of the three finalists for the Rimington Award, which goes to the nation's top center.

    Humphrey has started 26 games and is a big reason why the Sooners have produced such explosive numbers over the past two years. At 6'5" and 315 pounds, Humphrey is big, powerful and athletic, and he's a team captain and a vocal leader, too. 

    Just because you don't see his name in the box score doesn't mean he isn't a big part of it.

    Humphrey also plays a position that isn't very deep around the country, and when you stand out at a spot like center, you're going to get drafted. With another big year, it wouldn't be out of the question for him to surge into the first round in 2021.

Richard Lecounte III, S, Georgia

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    LSU safety Grant Delpit will likely be the top player taken at his position in the 2020 NFL draft.

    But Georgia's Richard Lecounte III had a better season and may just be the best safety in the SEC.

    Lecounte (5'11", 190 pounds) doesn't have Delpit's 6'3", 203-pound size or his athleticism, but the Georgia junior was the heartbeat of the SEC's top defense this year. He's a heat-seeking missile who has the ball skills to play center field or creep up in the box and deliver a punch.

    Lecounte started all 14 games at safety, finished third on the Bulldogs with 61 tackles, led the SEC with three fumble recoveries and finished second with four interceptions. He grabbed a pair of picks against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl, finishing his season with a flurry.

    That could have been Lecounte's collegiate swan song, but he elected to come back and try to help the Bulldogs win a national title next year. If they do, they'll be carried by their defense, and Lecounte is the top returning playmaker on that side of the ball.

    With another strong season, he could leap into the first round of the 2021 draft.

Walker Little, OT, Stanford

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    Stanford suffered a major blow when elite offensive tackle Walker Little went down with a dislocated knee in the season opener against Northwestern and was lost for the year. Instead of a showcase final season in Palo Alto before heading to the NFL, Little could only watch from the sideline.

    He's going to get another chance at a final season for the Cardinal, as he spurned the opportunity to be a first-round pick to instead finish his college career on his own terms.

    In 2017, Little became Stanford's first true freshman since 2000 to start at left tackle. In 2018, he was a first-team All-Pac 12 honoree and was a mauler at left tackle, making him one of the marquee draft targets. 

    It seemed like a foregone conclusion that he'd be taken in the first round in 2020 and be an NFL blindside protector for years to come. That still may be the case, but it's going to be delayed until 2021.

    Stanford head coach David Shaw gets both Little and elite cornerback Paulson Adebo back for another season even though both were locks to be selected. If Little comes back and proves he's 100 percent healthy, he has a legitimate chance to be the top offensive lineman selected in the 2021 draft.

Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama

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    As a high school underclassman, Dylan Moses had offers from some of the nation's top programs several years before he graduated. He wound up living up to the hype, becoming a 5-star prospect and choosing Nick Saban's Crimson Tide over the home-state LSU Tigers.

    The 6'3", 235-pound inside linebacker became an instant rotational player on Alabama's defense and grew into a Butkus Award finalist as a sophomore in 2018, exploding onto the scene with a dynamic season.

    Unfortunately, Moses tore his ACL in a preseason practice and never saw the field this year. But head coach Nick Saban will have his defensive leader back in the mix in 2020, as Moses announced he's returning for another year in Tuscaloosa, giving him an opportunity to prove to NFL scouts he's completely healed.

    Even with the injury, it's surprising that Moses decided to return to college. He almost certainly would have been a first- or second-round draft pick since it's difficult to find players his size who can run as fast as he can and make plays like him.

    Instead, the Tide will get to insert a player into the center of their defense who had 86 tackles, including 10 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in 2018. That's massive for a unit that needs leadership and production.

    Moses brings both, along with the kind of upside that could make him a 10-year star in the NFL.

Trey Smith, OG, Tennessee

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    Trey Smith is a 6'6", 325-pound mauler who has been one of the better offensive linemen in the SEC ever since Tennessee moved him back to guard.

    The former top-ranked high school prospect (according to ESPN) has always been ticketed for the NFL if healthy. However, he had to miss much of the 2018 season after blood clots in his lungs threatened his football career.

    While Smith consulted with doctors, coaches and others, it was unclear whether he'd ever play again, per ESPN's Chris Low. But once he worked out a maintenance schedule with doctors, drastically limited contact practicing and proved he could manage playing without the blood clots returning, Smith enjoyed a huge rebound season.

    Even though Smith may need to prove to NFL scouts that he can maintain this regimen for another college season, stay healthy and continue improving, it's surprising that he didn't take the money and run. Given his size and athleticism, an NFL team almost certainly would have selected him.

    Instead, Smith is gambling on himself and his health by returning to Tennessee, which gives the Vols a centerpiece on the offensive front. He can't wait to "maul the hell out of people" with Georgia transfer Cade Mays in 2020, according to GoVols247's Patrick Brown.

Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State

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    Shaun Wade was one of Urban Meyer's many 5-star recruiting victories. Next season, he'll be one of the centerpieces on coach Ryan Day's defense.

    Although backfield mate Jeffrey Okudah declared for the NFL draft, Wade is back, and the big, versatile defender can play a lot of spots in the secondary. He's primed to have the type of final season in Columbus that can help him surge up draft boards.

    Despite a constant level of production during his first two seasons on the field, Wade can get even better during his redshirt junior year. He has the skill set and all-around game that can help him be the top overall cornerback taken in the 2021 draft, which likely wasn't going to happen this year.

    Moving from slot cornerback to his natural position as an outside corner will be a big deal for Wade, and he may even be showcased even more.

    Between him and linebacker Baron Browning, the Buckeyes have a few returning players who were talented enough to be taken in the first two rounds. If Wade had graded out at the combine as well as some project, he might have even gone in the first round.

    "I just felt this was the best decision no matter what, even if it was first round," Wade told Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch. "This is what I wanted."

    It's huge news for the Buckeyes, who have a legitimate star on the back end.

Marvin Wilson, DT, Florida State

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    When Marvin Wilson elected to have hand surgery and missed the final four games of the 2019 season, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he had played his final game at Florida State.

    Instead, the potential first- or second-round pick shocked everybody when he announced he was coming back to Tallahassee to be a cornerstone on head coach Mike Norvell's first FSU team. He will now team with Cory Durden to give the Seminoles arguably the best interior defensive line pairing in college football.

    Wilson is an elite force who routinely pressures opposing quarterbacks from his spot in the center of the defensive line. In nine games last season, he finished with 44 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.

    With Auburn's Derrick Brown off to the NFL and with Odell Haggins tutoring him for another season, Wilson has the potential to be the best player at his position. He also possesses the power, hands and first step to be elite.

    The 6'5", 311-pound former 5-star prospect has lived up to the hype as a college player, and his decision to return was the biggest commitment Norvell will receive this year.

    "I am thankful for (defensive line coach Odell Haggins') commitment to perfection every day on and off the field," Wilson said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat's Curt Weiler. "But my pursuit of perfection is not over yet. I'm still committed to Florida State, I'm committed to (new head coach Mike) Norvell and I'm committed to turning this thing around. See you in 2020."

    That's big news for the 'Noles.