Ranking the Top 10 Sophomores Heading into the 2020 College Football Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2020

Ranking the Top 10 Sophomores Heading into the 2020 College Football Season

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    It's easy to find elite talent from the 2019 crop of college football talent, but it's much tougher to rank them.

    Take into the consideration the guys who didn't make this list, such as Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels and UCF signal-caller Dillon Gabriel. They are exciting players who'd start for most teams.

    Standout defenders such as Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton, Tennessee's Henry To'oto'o, Purdue's George Karlaftis, USC's Drake Jackson, Alabama's DJ Dale and Christian Harris, Oregon State's Omar Speights, Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly and Texas A&M's Demani Richardson fell just short.

    So did Nebraska all-purpose playmaker Wan'Dale Robinson, Texas A&M tight end Jalen Wydermyer, star SEC offensive linemen Evan Neal (Alabama) and Nick Broeker (Ole Miss) and Tennessee running back Eric Gray. 

    That's an impressive amount of talent on the cutting room floor, and it speaks volumes about the guys who made the list.

    Using on-field production, individual ceiling and ability to be a game-breaking talent—which can elevate their team's ceilings—let's take a look at the top 10 rising sophomores.

    These players match production with projection, and even though a couple of redshirts made the list, each has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

10. Breece Hall, Iowa State Running Back

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    Head coach Matt Campbell has turned around the Iowa State Cyclones over the past three years, and he has quality offensive players who can help the team become a Big 12 contender.

    A lot hinges on quarterback Brock Purdy, but the Cyclones need to ride the capable legs of running back Breece Hall too.

    The 6'1", 205-pound runner from Wichita, Kansas, proved right away he was a capable replacement for NFL back David Montgomery, and though the Cyclones still aren't a good running team, they improved last year, going from No. 111 nationally to No. 102.

    Hall did more than his part, earning first-team freshman All-American honors from 247Sports and Pro Football Focus. He finished with 897 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns and looks like a future force.

    He gets the nod over Daniels (barely), Hamilton and To'oto'o for the final top-10 spot.

    Why? Daniels could take a small step back with several offensive weapons gone (though his talent level is as high as any quarterback on the list), and the two defenders won't have the opportunity to impact the game as much as Hall because of his many touches. 

    Iowa State will improve after a minor step back to 7-6 following consecutive 8-5 seasons, and Hall could be an all-conference runner in 2020.

9. George Pickens, Georgia Wide Receiver

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    Despite being a steady target all year for a Georgia passing game that struggled under quarterback Jake Fromm, true freshman George Pickens came on late.

    The receiver scored in each of the team's final four contests, as he emerged in the SEC Championship Game with four grabs for 54 yards and a score before he torched Baylor in the Sugar Bowl for 12 catches, 175 yards and a touchdown, earning MVP honors.

    That boosted his numbers to 49 catches, 727 yards and eight touchdowns. The 6'3", 190-pound former Auburn commit flipped to the rival Dawgs during his recruitment and looks like a future All-American—maybe as early as this season.

    Other first-year receivers may have put up better numbers, but Pickens arguably has the highest ceiling of them all. With Wake Forest transfer quarterback Jamie Newman heading to Athens to run new coordinator Todd Monken's offense, things are looking up for the UGA offense.

    Pickens will be a big part of it. He's tough to guard, can make all the plays, run past receivers and high-point jump balls. He's the complete package for a championship contender.

    UGA needs him to transform the passing game in 2020.

8. Tyler Davis, Clemson Defensive Tackle

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    Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables worked miracles along the line after losing Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and others to the NFL last year. 

    Even with a disappointing season from Xavier Thomas off the edge, the Tigers finished 19th nationally against the run and sixth in sacks. A large part of that success came because of freshman defensive tackle Tyler Davis' interior pressure.

    Though he wasn't the space-eater Lawrence or Wilkins was, Davis had a phenomenal campaign, finishing with 45 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery. He was also constantly double-teamed.

    Davis' season was good enough to earn him a first-team freshman All-American nod from 247Sports, and he was a second-team All-ACC performer.

    Despite being just 6'2", 295 pounds, he was probably the best interior run defender in the ACC. With so many elite freshmen coming in, an expected bounce-back season from Thomas and possible big years from guys such as Justin Foster and K.J. Henry, the D-line should be a strength again.

    The Apopka, Florida, native is yet another recruiting steal for coach Dabo Swinney who Venables has squeezed the potential from right away. Davis looks like a three-and-out player for the perennial championship contenders.

7. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis Running Back

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    On one hand, Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell's Cotton Bowl performance against Penn State is equally responsible for why he isn't higher on this list and why he belongs among the nation's top sophomores.

    Let's explain.

    At 5'11", 191 pounds, the Mississippi native is a tad undersized, and he couldn't gain a lot of traction on the ground against the Nittany Lions' vaunted defense, finishing with just 34 yards on nine carries—both season lows.

    So even though he may be the nation's top sophomore running back, he still has weight-room work to put in to prove he can succeed when the Tigers venture out of the AAC, which is sure to happen in 2020 with the program expecting big things again.

    But Gainwell did finish with seven catches for 78 yards as Memphis hung tough with coach James Franklin's team for a long time before an eventual 53-39 loss. He also got in the end zone on the ground and showed he can succeed in different ways.

    Whatever role he plays in new head coach Ryan Silverfield's offense, it'll be a huge one. Silverfield was the team's offensive line coach under former head man Mike Norvell, so Gainwell's role shouldn't shift much.

    He is a game-breaker and the best mid-major player in the nation. He'll be one of the top offensive players overall if he remains healthy.

6. David Bell, Purdue Wide Receiver

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    Purdue's David Bell may not quite have Pickens' upside, but don't sell the rising sophomore pass-catcher short; he wasn't just a mid-tier recruit whom coach Jeff Brohm manufactured into being a stat hog.

    Bell has legit talent, and though his numbers may fall off a bit in 2020 with the return of elite receiver Rondale Moore, Bell won't be any less of a threat.

    The 6'2", 210-pound target was the nation's No. 113 prospect last offseason and was a major recruiting victory for the Boilermakers. When a hamstring injury shut down Moore after just four games, Bell became an immediate star. The second-team All-Big Ten selection probably should have been rated more highly, but he was named the conference's Freshman of the Year.

    Bell finished with 86 catches for 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns, even though Purdue played musical chairs at quarterback. Brohm's offense will always be pass-heavy, however, and the Boilermakers still finished 12th nationally in passing offense despite Moore's absence.

    Much of that was because of Bell. His ability to make a difference right away helped Brycen Hopkins emerge as one of the nation's top tight ends and an NFL prospect.

    Moore should be full-go, and Purdue fans should be excited about him and Bell being on the field at the same time while Jack Plummer throws them the ball. This could be a terrific trio in West Lafayette for years.

5. Kedon Slovis, USC Quarterback

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    When JT Daniels went down with a season-ending injury in the second half of the opener against Fresno State, USC's campaign flashed before its eyes.

    It didn't take long for that vision to turn positive.

    Freshman signal-caller Kedon Slovis took over immediately showed an impressive skill set and the leadership moxie that you can't teach. A year later, former blue-chip prospect Daniels is on the outside looking in at the quarterback job.

    Slovis looks tailor-made for offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's system, and entering a pivotal year for the Trojans after an embarrassing bowl loss to Iowa and a pitiful recruiting class, he has more pressure than anybody on this list.

    The 6'2", 200-pound Arizona native can shoulder it.

    Slovis burst onto the scene, completing 71.9 percent of his passes for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He consistently made great decisions, played with a gunslinger's mentality and displayed the confidence needed to lead a blue-blood program.

    Despite losing Michael Pittman Jr. from the receiving corps, the Trojans bring back a bevy of weapons, including Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London. When you throw talented redshirt freshmen Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford into the mix, there are a lot of reasons to like USC's offense in 2020.

    All of that centers on Slovis, who has a firm grip on the job, despite Daniels' talent. Anything less than his winning the gig would be a shocker, and he should be the best USC quarterback in a long time.

4. Sam Howell, North Carolina Quarterback

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    When you think of Florida State's recent quarterback woes and remember Sam Howell was committed to the Seminoles before he flipped to North Carolina, that's enough to make any FSU fan cry.

    Instead, Howell stayed home to help coach Mack Brown resurrect a proud, dormant Tar Heels program. His freshman year proved he's more than capable of doing that.

    If it weren't for Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Howell had a case to be the ACC's top QB—though he finished as a third-team All-Conference selection, behind Lawrence and Virginia's Bryce Perkins.

    But just because you don't hear about him as much as Lawrence doesn't mean he's a second-tier player.

    The 6'2", 225-pound signal-caller from Indian Trail, North Carolina, is a star in the making. The way Brown has recruited around him should excite Heels fans, as they look like a future challenger to Clemson.

    And that could happen as soon as this year. Remember, UNC was a failed two-point conversion away from the upset of the season against the Tigers a year ago, and Howell will have a swagger going into that—and every—game. 

    He also has receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown returning; completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 3,641 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions; and was at his best in clutch times. 

    The wins will follow in droves for a team that is upgrading its talent on both sides of the ball, and Howell is leading it all.

3. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon Edge-Rusher

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    It's stunning for Kayvon Thibodeaux to be this low, because he has dynamic ability and potential to be college football's top defensive playmaker, but the body of work isn't there.

    At least not yet.

    Projection-wise, Oregon likely wouldn't take anybody over the edge-rusher, who, like Pickens, came on late in the season and proved he was more than worthy of his recruit ranking.

    Thibodeaux was a 5-star prospect from California with offers from everywhere when he joined head coach Mario Cristobal's Ducks, and he's the cornerstone of a defense that should be among the nation's best in 2020.

    Thibodeaux's last quarter of the '19 season was a sign of things to come.

    Against Utah, he was unblockable for Utes offensive linemen. He finished with 2.5 sacks and a punt block in the Pac-12 title game, serving as a one-man wrecking crew for a Ducks defense that suffocated Utah in an easy 37-15 win.

    CBS Sports writer Barrett Sallee called Thibodeaux "the next Chase Young" during the game. Plenty of other media members heaped praise on Thibodeaux, via 247Sports' Chance Linton. It was a major coming-out party for the freshman.

    The 6'5", 250-pound edge-rusher finished the year with 35 tackles, including 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks.

    Could he be the top overall sophomore on this list? Absolutely. Could he be college football's top overall player? Certainly. That's what kind of talent he has. It's also a testament to just how good this sophomore class is that he's third on the list.

2. Gregory Rousseau, Miami Defensive End

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    If you hadn't heard of Gregory Rousseau before last season, don't worry; you were in the vast majority.

    After a high school career in Hialeah, Florida, where he played receiver and defensive back, he was undervalued as a prospect, heading to Miami as a 3-star player who redshirted a season.

    Once he got on the field in 2019, it didn't take him long to emerge as one of college football's best players and its second-best pass-rusher behind Ohio State's Chase Young. NFL teams have to be salivating at the chance to draft the twitchy, 6'7", 253-pound playmaker next year.

    So, enjoy the redshirt sophomore in 2020 for The U because it'll likely be your last chance to watch him.

    After packing on some 30 pounds of muscle during his first year in Coral Gables, Rousseau finished second nationally in sacks last season with 15.5 and piled up 19.5 tackles for loss. If you think he's a one-trick pony, consider he also had 54 total tackles and 34 solo.

    Rousseau will be teamed with the nation's best defensive graduate transfer, Quincy Roche (formerly of Temple), and a 5-star defensive end from the 2017 class, Jaelan Phillips, who is trying to resurrect his career after an injury-riddled couple of seasons at UCLA.

    It's an embarrassment of riches for Hurricanes head coach Manny Diaz, and the former defensive coordinator knows how to get the most out of his players on that side of the ball. Rousseau should be one of the nation's top players.

    No, he isn't a second-year player, but he's still a sophomore, and opposing ACC coaches hope he leaves for the NFL soon.

1. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU Cornerback

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    To cast a shadow as a true freshman is a remarkable thing. To cast a shadow as perhaps the nation's top cornerback as a true freshman in a national champion's loaded defensive backfield should tell you all you need to know.

    LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. is a generational playmaker.

    Even on a unit that had projected NFL first-round picks in safety Grant Delpit and cornerback Kristian Fulton, Stingley stole the spotlight. Yes, he struggled against Alabama's DeVonta Smith in the Bayou Bengals' win over Alabama, but he was elite in every other game.

    When asked if Stingley could be the best defensive back in DB University's history, coach Ed Orgeron told USA Today's Paul Myerberg: "We want that. We want that for him. I think he has a ways to go before he proves that. Can he get there? Sure. Can he surpass it? Sure."

    According to Pewter Report's Jon Ledyard, former Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb told reporters at the combine that Stingley was the best college cornerback he faced. Other people realize it too.

    The 6'1", 190-pound defensive back is the grandson of the late Darryl Stingley, a former New England wide receiver who a first-round draft pick out of Purdue and was paralyzed at 26 years old after a hit by Jack Tatum in 1978.

    The younger Stingley will soon follow in those footsteps as a pro prospect. As a first-year player, he finished with 38 tackles, six interceptions and 15 pass deflections. He was a first-team All-American, and his upside is limitless.

    We'll all enjoy him a few more seasons.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com and Sports Reference, and recruiting rankings per 247Sports' composite unless otherwise noted.