Ranking the Top 10 Juniors for the 2020 College Football Season
Juniors are typically the most intriguing class in college football, as they are the ones who will be newly eligible for the next NFL draft.
But this year's balance of star power seems to be even more heavily weighted toward the third-year players than usual.
In early March, Athlon published a ranking of the top 50 players for 2020, and seven of the top nine guys were juniors. Granted, it doesn't appear that the author even considered freshmen as candidates for the top 50, but still, one senior (Travis Etienne), one sophomore (Derek Stingley Jr.) and seven juniors up top speaks volumes to how strong this year's crop is.
Our ranking is based on a combination of production from the past two seasons and projections for 2020, though it should go without saying that the former is more important since it helps shape the latter.
Honorable mentions: Mac Jones, Alabama; Jaret Patterson, Buffalo; Justyn Ross, Clemson; Xavier Thomas, Clemson; Tanner Morgan, Minnesota; Shaun Wade, Ohio State; Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC.
10. Brock Purdy, Iowa State QB
Brock Purdy was a 3-star recruit who plays for a program that has never won 10 or more games in a season, so there's a good chance that a lot of people don't realize how well he has played for the Cyclones.
Purdy ranked fourth overall (first among non-seniors) in passing yards per game last year with a mark of 306.3—this coming after he averaged better than 10 yards per attempt as a true freshman who was unexpectedly thrust into a starting job in Week 5.
He wasn't as efficient in 2019 as the Heisman finalists (Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields) or Tua Tagovailoa, but Purdy completed 65.7 percent of his passes and averaged 3.0 touchdowns per interception. Those stats are even more impressive when you consider the Cyclones had a subpar running game that opposing defenses didn't much need to respect.
In Iowa State's near-upset of Oklahoma, Purdy threw for five touchdowns and rushed in a sixth. He was unable to seal the deal on the two-point conversion attempt with 24 seconds remaining, but that was just about the only mistake he made against the eventual CFP semifinalists.
The Cyclones lost two of their best receivers (Deshaunte Jones and La'Michael Pettway), but Purdy did pretty well after losing Hakeem Butler and David Montgomery (combined 2,691 yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns) from the 2018 roster. Look for him to remain one of the best and most unheralded quarterbacks in the country.
9. Rondale Moore, Purdue WR
Rondale Moore only played in four games last year before suffering what proved to be a season-ending leg injury. So, technically, he could be considered a redshirt sophomore instead of a junior. Doesn't really matter, though, because it's impossible to imagine this star spending another three years playing college football.
As a true freshman, Moore ranked third in the nation with 2,215 all-purpose yards, trailing only running backs Darrell Henderson and Jonathan Taylor in that category. No other non-RB had more than 1,832 yards that year, so it was quite the special debut year. And he wasted no time in making his presence known, going for 109 receiving yards, 79 rushing yards, 125 kick-return yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Northwestern.
He was equally sensational in the first two games of the 2019 season, making 24 catches for 344 yards and two touchdowns while accounting for another 115 yards in the run and return games. At that point, he was on a 12-game pace for 2,754 all-purpose yards.
But quarterback Elijah Sindelar missed Week 3 with a concussion, which made it harder for Moore to get touches. And Sindelar suffered a season-ending injury of his own (broken clavicle) in Purdue's next game, so the offense went downhill in a hurry.
A healthy Moore should be good for around 200 total yards per game, and a healthy Moore could be the catalyst that gets Purdue back into a bowl game after last year's 4-8 season.
8. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama WR
Jaylen Waddle is one of the most explosive players in the country.
Remember, this is the dude who scored four touchdowns on seven touches in last year's Iron Bowl.
Factoring in punt and kickoff returns, he had more than 1,000 all-purpose yards in each of his first two seasons at Alabama, despite being buried in fourth place on the wide receiver depth chart. Just last season, he had 20 punt returns for 487 yards. That's an average of 24.4 yards per return, making him the first player in the past two decades to average at least 23 yards while returning at least 16 punts.
And now that Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III are out of the picture, it's Waddle's time to shine in the passing game.
DeVonta Smith will still be the main man in the receiving corps—he led the Crimson Tide with 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019—but Waddle should ascend to No. 2 and receive significantly more snaps with the first-team offense. He made 78 catches for 1,408 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two years combined, and he should approach those numbers just in 2020.
7. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama CB
Patrick Surtain II doesn't have gaudy numbers.
In two seasons, he has 79 tackles, three interceptions, 15 passes defended and four forced fumbles. Minkah Fitzpatrick had twice that many interceptions just in 2016, and it only took Levi Wallace one season (2017) to accumulate 15 passes defended.
But a big reason for that is opposing coaches know better than to try to pick on the No. 6 overall recruit from the 2018 class. (Those coaches somehow failed to come to the same conclusion with Derek Stingley Jr., though.)
When he does get tested, Surtain usually passes. Per Pro Football Focus, he has been one of the best deep-ball defenders in the nation over the past two seasons, allowing just five receptions on 24 pass attempts of more than 20 yards. In other words, quarterbacks try to throw over top of him roughly once per game, and they barely succeed 20 percent of the time.
Odds are he'll be challenged even less often in 2020, as Alabama is losing Trevon Diggs, Xavier McKinney, Jared Mayden and Shyheim Carter from last season's secondary. Surtain is now the most experienced defensive back on the roster without a close runner-up, which could result in a "Revis Island" type of scenario where teams only throw in his direction once or twice per game, if at all.
6. Ja'Marr Chase, LSU
Joe Burrow got most of the accolades, but Ja'Marr Chase had one heck of a year on the receiving side of things for the Heisman winner.
After making minimal impact as a true freshman (23 receptions, 313 yards, 3 TD), Chase exploded in all three categories to the tune of 84 catches, 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns for the national champions. He became just the sixth receiver in the past 20 years to rack up at least 1,650 yards and 20 touchdowns, and three of the other five (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Crabtree and Justin Blackmon) were eventually selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft.
Will he still be one of the best receivers in the country sans Burrow, though?
When D'Eriq King entered the transfer portal in the middle of the national championship game, a lot of us thought it meant he would be headed to LSU. If not King, we assumed the Tigers would add some immediately eligible transfer in hopes of winning it all two years in a row. But they didn't.
At this point, it looks like it'll either be thus-far-ineffective junior Myles Brennan or true freshman Max Johnson behind center, and it's plenty fair to wonder how much of an impact that will have on Chase's stats. He had nine receptions that went for at least 50 yards in 2019, and those home run plays probably won't be there as often this year.
Unless he completely tanks back to his freshman-year numbers, though, Chase is going to be one of the most highly coveted receivers in next year's draft class. And if he carries this offense to another huge year, he might go top five overall.
5. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State RB
Four players rushed for at least 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns last season—more than in the previous 10 seasons combined—and Chuba Hubbard led that group with 2,094 yards and 21 scores.
The other three are now hoping to find a spot on an NFL roster, but Hubbard will be back at Oklahoma State for at least one more season, which is quite rare.
In the past two decades, here's the list of players who rushed for at least 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in a single season and then returned for another year of college football:
That's it. That's the list.
Unless I'm mistaken, the only other player in college football history to do it was Ron Dayne, who ran for 2,109 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman at Wisconsin in 1996. And Dayne is still the all-time rushing leader by a wide margin, so you can't ask for a better running back to be chilling with in a two-man club.
One funny factoid about Hubbard's sophomore campaign: The only team he didn't rush for at least 100 yards against was Oklahoma State's FCS opponent, McNeese State. You would think that would've been the game in which he padded his stats—like Clemson's Travis Etienne rushing for a season-high 212 yards on a season-low nine carries against Wofford. Instead, Hubbard rushed just eight times for 44 yards and saved his bigger outings for tougher foes.
4. Micah Parsons, Penn State LB
Micah Parsons led Penn State in tackles as a true freshman in 2018, and he was just getting warmed up.
He upped the ante from 82 to 109 tackles last year, including 14.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. He also forced four fumbles and broke up five pass attempts, displaying great hands and awareness.
Two of those fumbles and two of those passes defended came in the Cotton Bowl win over Memphis. It wasn't the type of game in which you would think a defensive player had a big day—Penn State won 53-39—but Parsons matched a career high with 14 tackles and set new career highs in both tackles for loss (three) and sacks (two).
It was quite the culmination of a season in which he had at least 10 tackles in six of his final seven games. He was everywhere for the Nittany Lions, serving as the undisputed MVP of a defense that had allowed 14.1 points per game prior to that high-scoring postseason affair.
Aside from maybe LSU sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., Parsons should enter the 2020 season atop any and every ranking of the most noteworthy defensive players. The 2018 No. 5 overall recruit in the 247Sports composite has lived up to the hype and then some.
3. Penei Sewell, Oregon LT
Oregon had the most experienced offensive line in the nation last season. Calvin Throckmorton and Shane Lemieux each ended up making 52 starts in their college careers. Jake Hanson wasn't far behind with 49 starts. Former Alabama transfer and fifth-year senior Dallas Warmack made 24 starts between 2018 and '19, and Brady Aiello got a ton of playing time throughout his time in Eugene.
However, all five are gone, so aside from Penei Sewell, the Ducks are now going to have one of the least experienced O-lines.
If you have to build around just one big man in the trenches, though, this is the one you want.
The 2019 Outland Trophy Winner (best offensive lineman) had one of the most dominant seasons ever. He didn't allow a single sack in more than 900 snaps and only allowed one pressure on the quarterback for every two games played. Per Pro Football Focus, Sewell was the highest-rated offensive tackle evaluated since it started grading college players in 2014.
Most everyone believes the top two picks in the 2021 draft will be potential franchise quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, but that means someone is going to get a steal by taking Sewell at No. 3. His prowess as a blocker in both rush and pass situations could be a decade-long game-changer for one lucky team.
2. Justin Fields, Ohio State QB
For a guy who didn't start a single game in 2018 before transferring to a team breaking in a new head coach, Justin Fields had a preposterously great sophomore season.
After years of seeing the various recruiting services debating whether Fields or Trevor Lawrence was the best high school quarterback they had seen in at least a decade, we knew he had that potential. But it was still ridiculous how efficiently he dominated for Ohio State.
Prior to the CFP semifinal against Clemson, Fields had 40 passing touchdowns, 10 rushing touchdowns and just one interception. And he racked up those numbers while only averaging 23.7 pass attempts, because Ohio State typically had games won well before the end of the third quarter.
It's worth noting his supporting cast will look much different in 2020.
K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack and J.K. Dobbins had a combined 142 receptions for 1,817 yards and 21 touchdowns last year, but they're all gone now.
The Buckeyes aren't hurting for options, though. They still have Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson as starting wide receivers, and Jaelen Gill should thrive in that H-Back position Ohio State uses so well. They also still have one heck of a tight end tandem in Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell. Five-star freshman wide receivers Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba could also feature prominently in an offense that should remain as potent as it was this past season.
1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson QB
Remember early in the 2019 season when we were worried about Trevor Lawrence's uptick in interceptions? He threw just one in his senior year of high school and four while leading Clemson to the CFP championship as a freshman, but he was picked off five times in his first three games last year.
Was it a sophomore slump? Did the pressure of the preseason Heisman hype catch up to him?? Was he losing his grip on the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft???
Well, he threw for 25 touchdowns and no interceptions in his final 239 pass attempts of the season, so we may have overreacted a bit. And because of that strong finish, Lawrence is still expected to go No. 1 overall in April 2021 and should open the season as either the sole favorite or co-favorite with Justin Fields for the Heisman.
Losing Tee Higgins (59 receptions, 1,167 yards, 13 TD) may hurt Lawrence a bit, though at least the Tigers—who started spring practices on Feb. 26—got a decent amount of work in before COVID-19 shut everything down. Rising sophomores Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. will pick up most of the slack that Higgins leaves behind, and getting Travis Etienne back at running back as a senior is a huge help for the offense as a whole.
This Tiger king should reign supreme in 2020.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.