Notable CFB Players Who Could Help Their Draft Stock in 2020
As the most recent crop of college football talent was just poked, prodded, measured and mulled at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, it's time to examine which players returning to school can help themselves the most for the 2021 draft.
Some on this list are returning from major injuries and need to prove they haven't lost a step. Others didn't get the draft grades they wanted and are betting on themselves to make more money by boosting their on-field resumes.
Still others haven't been draft-eligible until now and need to string together another season's worth of games to add to last year's success.
Guys like Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, LSU's Ja'Marr Chase and Ohio State's Justin Fields seem pretty locked into their elevated spots, and there isn't a ton of wiggle room either way.
That's not the case with plenty of others.
No matter how the players grade in workouts, how fast they are or how many reps on the bench press they do, their on-field bodies of work are vital to where they are ultimately picked.
These particular players are notable because they're draft-eligible and already have performed at a high level on the college football gridiron.
Let's take a look at 10 notable guys who will play Saturdays this year who can improve their NFL stock.
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State Running Back
Perhaps the most laughable NFL draft projection out there was that of Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard, who would've graded out as the No. 5 running back had he left Stillwater after his redshirt sophomore season.
Really? How can a player who was as electrifying as the Cowboys' every-down runner get shrugged off like that?
Well, look at what happened a season ago in college football, and you'll see he isn't a stranger to a lack of headlines.
As SI.com's Zach Lancaster wrote: "With being overlooked for the Doak Walker Award and only listed eighth in the Heisman voting, it kind of felt like Chuba was being shortchanged. Plus, I'm not sure he liked what he saw on his draft grade as he was being projected as the fifth overall running back."
All Hubbard did was run for 2,094 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and breaking off a big run seemingly every Saturday. Much like teammate and wide receiver Tylan Wallace, though, it wasn't enough for the accolades.
In 2018, Wallace was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which went to Alabama's Jerry Jeudy. That year, Wallace grabbed 86 catches for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns. Before he suffered an ACL tear in 2019, he amassed 53 grabs for 903 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games. But at 6'0", 185 pounds, he was never talked about as a top receiver.
Hubbard doesn't have the measurables problem. He's 6'1", 207 pounds and has a second gear once he gets past the line of scrimmage. It's difficult to envision a scenario in which he isn't taken in the first round in next year's draft. That likely wouldn't have been the case in 2020.
Clemson's Travis Etienne and Alabama's Najee Harris also returned to school, so Hubbard is going to have competition to be the top back taken. But after an encore to his '19 campaign, he is going to be tougher to ignore.
Walker Little, Stanford Offensive Tackle
Stanford's 2019 season was a massive disappointment that ended without a bowl appearance for the first time in 11 years. A big part of that is because of injuries.
Head coach David Shaw's Cardinal will get perhaps their biggest piece back in 2020.
Left tackle Walker Little was a 5-star recruit from Texas when he headed to the Pac-12, and he was an instant-impact difference-maker who emerged as a first-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2018. He was a preseason All-American heading into 2019 and appeared to be a near-lock to be a first-round pick.
But Little suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Cardinal's season opener against Northwestern.
The 6'7", 320-pound blindside blocker's athleticism for his size and his power will make him a coveted prospect for virtually every NFL team if he can prove he is 100 percent healthy. Blockers like Little don't come around often, but they have to show they're still what they were pre-injury.
Fellow Pac-12 offensive tackle Trey Adams battled injuries during his Washington career, and the one-time projected first-round pick is expected to go in the second or third round in 2020, according to the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta.
Don't expect Little to tumble. After a year to heal, he is going to knock off the rust quickly and prove he belongs in the top half of the first round.
Jamie Newman, Georgia Quarterback
You may not have heard too much about quarterback Jamie Newman last year, when he played for Wake Forest.
Leading head coach Dave Clawson's Demon Deacons, Newman threw for 2,868 yards, 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and ran for 574 yards and six more scores. He also disappeared at times in big games, like in losses to Clemson and to Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The uneven results are making everybody wonder where Newman's ceiling is.
Now that he's transferred to Georgia, all eyes are going to be on him as he plays for a national title contender. He's also getting to work with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, a noted NFL mind, so there are a lot of positives that should make you believe Newman could squeeze out every morsel of his ability in 2020.
"He's a good player, very athletic, very strong in the pocket," Clemson safety and team captain Tanner Muse told DawgNation's Mike Griffith at the NFL combine. "I think he'll have a lot of success at UGA. I think he will bring a different dynamic, like Justin Fields was going to do, I think he’ll be able to do it."
Newman can take off and run when things break down in the pocket, but what he does in the early part of the play will separate him from the others. If he can cut back on the turnovers and prove he can be a little more accurate, his stock is going to soar.
The marriage with Monken could be a huge deal and send him surging up the board.
Micah Parsons, Penn State Linebacker
Since linebacker is not one of the draft's premium positions, a player must be extremely talented to be selected in the first round.
In 2019, two linebackers came off the board in the top 10, and B/R colleague Matt Miller has Clemson do-it-all defender Isaiah Simmons, Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray and LSU's Patrick Queen going in Round 1 this year.
If there's someone who could reach Simmons' stratosphere in 2021, it would be Penn State rising junior Micah Parsons. And given his athletic ability, he'll almost certainly be a force in the combine next year.
The resume he puts on the field this fall is going to influence how high his stock can climb.
As a sophomore in 2019, he finished with 109 tackles, including 14 tackles for loss, and five sacks. He's a big hitter, doesn't miss tackles and is athletic enough that quarterbacks don't want to throw his way.
Parsons can do it all, and he's the type of player who is going to jump off the screen at scouts everywhere. With Ohio State's Chase Young gone, Parsons should rule the Big Ten as the elite defensive difference-maker.
The 6'3", 245-pound playmaker is going to transition from elite prospect to all-conference player to high draft selection. Look for him to be a high riser who continues to prove just how electric he can be.
Gregory Rousseau, Miami EDGE
A lot of the offseason headlines about the Miami defense revolve around the Hurricanes winning the Quincy Roche sweepstakes when Roche transferred from Temple.
But potentially the best edge-rusher in the nation was already at Coral Gables.
Gregory Rousseau burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2019, leaving everybody to ask, "Who is this guy?" Rousseau wasn't eligible for the draft, so he has to prove himself again.
That shouldn't be a big deal for somebody as off-the-charts talented as Rousseau, especially with Roche taking pressure off him coming off the other edge. They could be the best pass-rushing tandem in the nation. Throw in UCLA transfer and 2017 top prospect Jaelan Phillips, and the 'Canes could be rolling.
Rousseau is a 6'7", 253-pound player who looks like a wide receiver. As a matter of fact, he played that position and on the back end of the defense in high school before adding more than 30 pounds and becoming a force off the edge.
Rousseau was second nationally with 15.5 sacks last year, just one behind Chase Young. He also tied for seventh in the country with 19.5 tackles for loss. With so much talent around him, Rousseau could have an even bigger season.
He plays hard almost constantly, but since he's so new to the position, his technique is rough. He has another opportunity to refine it and continue to impress scouts.
He could see a meteoric rise into the top five.
Trey Smith, Tennessee Offensive Guard
There was nearly an entire season in which Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith didn't know if he was going to play football again.
Blood clots sidelined him in February 2018, and after he started the first seven games of that year, the same issue put his career in jeopardy.
He wasn't cleared to play in a game until the Wednesday before the season opener against Georgia State in 2019.
All Smith did was prove he was one of the SEC's best linemen, garnering first-team all-conference honors, even if he wasn't the most consistent. When you factor in the fact that the 6'6", 325-pound lineman hadn't played a game in nearly a year and didn't participate in full-contact practice at all, his performance was impressive.
Smith was honored last month as the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year, an award for a Division I football player who "has demonstrated a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field."
All of those accolades are vital for the former 5-star prospect, but there are also red flags. Smith needs to prove he can play a full season. Also, will concerns about him being limited in full-contact practices keep him from being a high draft pick?
It will be interesting to see how Smith and Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt manage his practice load in 2020. If Smith has another big year, there's no question he is a first-round talent. But there are a lot of things he needs to prove health-wise in order to have his draft grade match his ability.
Caden Sterns, Texas Safety
The Texans Longhorns secondary has ridiculous NFL potential. Why has it struggled so much the past two years despite the fact that head coach Tom Herman loaded the defensive backfield with elite talent?
Those struggles are a big reason why Todd Orlando is now the defensive coordinator at USC rather than in Austin.
The Longhorns dealt with their share of injuries in 2019, and Caden Sterns wasn't immune, missing time along with B.J. Foster, DeMarvion Overshown, Chris Brown, Josh Thompson and others. Even so, Sterns was a catalyst for the defense, finishing the year with 44 solo tackles, a sack and a pass deflection.
Still, that was a disappointing season for the second-year player who broke out as a freshman with 46 tackles and four interceptions. It's time to see if he can be a three-and-out defender in his junior campaign, or if he'll need all four years to become the player many expected.
Sterns is a former 5-star prospect who is 6'1", 205 pounds, and he is a big hitter on the back end and can be a ball-hawking playmaker. But, like a lot of other Longhorns defenders in the secondary, he has to consistently produce, stay healthy and live up to the big expectations.
At one point in late September of Sterns' first season, 247Sports' Sam Hellman asked if he was college football's best freshman. Where has that dude gone?
If Sterns can stay on the field all year, blossom under new defensive coordinator Chris Ash and turn around Texas' pass-defense woes—last year, the unit ranked 127th out of 130 FBS teams—he has the skill set and the talent to skyrocket into the first round.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC Wide Receiver
Is Amon-Ra St. Brown a possession receiver, or is he going to have the type of breakout season that will make NFL teams salivate over his immense potential?
The bet here is choice B.
This slide just as easily could have gone to USC senior Tyler Vaughns, who flirted with the NFL before looking at the deep talent pool and electing to return after catching 74 passes for 912 yards and six touchdowns. He also led the Trojans in first-down catches a season ago.
But you know who put up better numbers than Vaughns? That would be St. Brown, who was a year younger and still a bit unpolished. Even though he dealt with some drops at crucial times, the former Mater Dei High School standout and teammate of JT Daniels had a monster season.
Though Daniels—who also joined USC—went down in the season opener with a knee injury, St. Brown meshed quickly with new quarterback Kedon Slovis, who realized he could rely on the sophomore. St. Brown finished the year with 77 catches for 1,042 yards and six scores.
He may only be 6'1", 195 pounds, but he plays much bigger than that, ripping off chunk gains after the catch and showing silky-smooth skills to run pristine routes and get open. In that regard, he's a lot like former Alabama pass-catcher and current Dallas Cowboy Amari Cooper.
This is a huge season for St. Brown, who must continue to find ways to stand out in a deep, loaded receiving corps. If he gets the first-round grade he'll likely deserve, it's going to be tough to say no to an early departure to the NFL. But this year is shaping up to be another strong receiver class.
Kyle Trask, Florida Quarterback
There were few better stories in college football last year than Kyle Trask.
By now, you know the story of the Florida signal-caller who never even started in high school as he backed up Miami transfer quarterback D'Eriq King. Then as a Gator, he watched as Feleipe Franks did just enough to keep his gig for the past two years.
Once Franks went down with a season-ending injury in 2019, though, Trask led the Gators through the rest of their 11-win season, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes for 2,941 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ran for four scores.
Even so, head coach Dan Mullen isn't handing him the keys to the offense just yet.
"I know he's got a couple of other guys in the room that expect to start next year," Mullen said, according to Saturday Down South's Michael Wayne Bratton. "He better push himself and continue to work every day and compete at the highest of levels so he can remain in that position."
If Trask wins the job over Emory Jones and others, he'll have an opportunity to prove he isn't just a one-hit wonder.
At 6'5", 239 pounds, Trask has the size to be a pro quarterback, and he possesses sneaky athleticism. He is deadly accurate in the short and intermediate passing game, but he'll need to showcase his arm in the deep-passing game to climb in the rankings.
With big things expected out of the Gators, everybody is going to be watching Trask. He has the chance to make a name for himself with scouts once again.
Shaun Wade, Ohio State Cornerback
Had Shaun Wade headed to the NFL this year, he wouldn't have been the first cornerback taken. He wouldn't even have been the first Ohio State cornerback drafted.
The distinction of top corner almost certainly would go to Jeff Okudah, who is expected to be a top-five pick and the first player off the board at his position.
Instead, the Jacksonville, Florida, native decided to return to Columbus, where massive things are expected in 2020. Wade should be the centerpiece of it all as he slides over into Okudah's spot, and NFL scouts are going to be watching.
If he has another big season, it will only show his versatility, and Wade would be a first-round lock—if not next year's first defensive back to come off the board.
"I want to do it to show I can play outside corner. I want to do it for the team, and I want to win a national championship," Wade told Lettermen Row's Austin Ward. "I feel like we're going to have a great team next year, and I feel like we're going to be elite. I want to be part of it. It was tough, but at the end of the day I feel like I made the right decision for me."
Talent abounds in the Ohio State secondary, but the Buckeyes are going to have a difficult time replacing Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller. Proving he's a lockdown cornerback will go a long way in Wade securing a top-of-the-first-round grade.