10 College Football Players a Season Cancellation Could/Will Impact Most
Contrary to what a lot of folks have bemoaned in the past few days, the college football season isn't dead yet. Oh, the season is quite ill and things may change at a moment's notice, but the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are still planning on playing this fall, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 have only committed to postponing until the spring.
But if the 2020 football season is eventually completely canceled, that decision would impact some players much more than others.
Some of these players were planning on using the 2020 season to show they've fully recovered from an injury and are worthy of a first-round draft pick in 2021. Others were expected to finally get their chance to shine in 2020 and might be replaced by new stars by next year.
Maybe things will work out just fine, but these are the players whose career trajectories and/or NFL draft stock seem most liable to take a sharp turn during a year without games.
Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Aside from the pair of pick-sixes he threw in the Iron Bowl, Mac Jones performed admirably last year when called upon to replace an injured Tua Tagovailoa.
But 2020 was supposed to be his shot to prove his mettle to the NFL.
It was one thing to pick apart the secondaries of Arkansas, Western Carolina and Michigan in a limited sample size with one of the greatest receiving groups ever assembled. It would be another thing altogether for him to run Alabama's offense from Day 1 straight through to the College Football Playoff. Much like Joe Burrow last year, Jones could have gone from a "way-too-early mock draft" afterthought to a Heisman front-runner with a first-round grade.
Unfortunately, he won't be able to freeze this moment in time and thaw it back out next fall. Superstar 2020 recruit Bryce Young will almost certainly secure the starting job by then, and there's a reasonable expectation that both DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle will enter the 2021 draft, leaving Alabama with no wide receivers with meaningful collegiate experience.
Jones does have two years of eligibility remaining and would presumably be a highly coveted target if he were to enter the transfer portal. There's still a chance things will work out swimmingly for him elsewhere. As far as his Crimson Tide career is concerned, though, it seemed like 2020 or bust since before COVID-19 was even part of our lexicon.
McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF
For the most part, we're focusing on guys who will be negatively impacted by a canceled season, because, well, this whole situation sucks. But let's mix things up temporarily by considering how great it would be if McKenzie Milton were given an extra 12 months to rehab his gruesome leg injury before making his triumphant return in 2021.
In 2017 and 2018, Milton finished top-10 in the Heisman vote while leading UCF to 23 consecutive victories. Both with his arm and his legs, he was capable of shredding opposing defenses. However, that broken leg cost him the final few games of the 2018 season, the entire 2019 season, and it rendered him questionable for 2020.
While there's no guarantee he'll ever be fully healthy again, getting to hit the pause button for six to 12 months at least significantly increases the likelihood of not only playing but regaining his pre-injury form.
Frankly, it would have been a shame if he was out there this fall at 75 percent strength to play 75 percent of a normal season. Milton deserves a better final chapter than that.
Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
There are a handful of guys who opted for one more year of college even though they probably would have been first-round draft picks this past April. But it's a particularly sad story for Dylan Moses.
Alabama's star linebacker missed all of 2019 with a torn ACL suffered just a few days before the season opener. Despite the injury, he was still a tantalizing prospect. Most draft prognosticators had him pegged as a late first-rounder, but he feasibly could have jumped into the top 10 with a good showing at the combine. B/R's Matt Miller had Moses projected to be the No. 9 pick in his way-too-early 2020 mock in April 2019.
Instead, he wanted to prove at the college level that he is back to full strength and prepared to make an immediate impact for whichever NFL team drafts him early in 2021. Thanks to a pandemic, though, he's just going to be one more year removed from action. Teams will have to decide in April 2021 if they want to invest heavily in a guy who hasn't played since January 2019.
In theory, he should still be No. 1 or No. 2 among linebackers on draft boards. It's not like teams are getting fresh tape on other guys. But it's fair to wonder if teams will be more worried about rust with Moses than they will be for those who at least played this past season.
Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State
Perhaps I'm wrong on this one and a canceled season actually helps Jayson Oweh's draft stock. But he strikes me as the type of guy who could have made a ton of noise in advance of his first spring of draft eligibility.
The rising redshirt sophomore hasn't played a ton thus far in his career because Penn State has had a bit of a logjam along the defensive line. In 2018, Yetur Gross-Matos, Shaka Toney, Kevin Givens, Robert Windsor and Shareef Miller each recorded at least 5.0 sacks for the Nittany Lions, and three of the five were still on the roster this past season. Oweh worked his way into the rotation in 2019, but he only made one start.
With Gross-Matos finally out of the picture, though, 2020 was finally going to be Oweh's year to shine.
A top-100 overall recruit in 2018, he has racked up 7.0 career sacks in spite of the limited playing time. Linebacker Micah Parsons was still going to be the star of the PSU defense, but the expectation was that Oweh would emerge as a running mate of sorts.
Pro Football Network's Matthew Valdovinos projected Oweh to be the No. 45 pick in his mock draft published this past weekend, so, yeah, there has been growing excitement about this edge-rusher's potential. It will be intriguing to see if that excitement continues to grow or if it wanes in favor of guys with a more substantial amount of game tape to study.
Jaelan Phillips, DE/LB, Miami
Once upon a time, Jaelan Phillips was going to be the biggest star in football.
He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2017 class, but injuries kept him from ever scratching the surface of that potential with UCLA. An ankle injury limited him to six games as a freshman, a wrist injury necessitated two surgeries during the offseason immediately following, and a concussion forced him to miss all but four games of his sophomore season.
Phillips medically retired after the 2018 season, but he decided to transfer to Miami and give it another go. He was forced to sit out the 2019 season as a non-graduate transfer, although he likely would have taken a medical redshirt regardless while trying to get back to full strength.
If there's no 2020 season, though, he'll end up going almost three full calendar years between regular-season action.
Maybe that's what he needs from a health perspective, but that long away from the field can't possibly be good for his NFL prospects. And playing in 2020 alongside pass-rushers Gregory Rousseau and Quincy Roche seemed like it would have been a great way for Phillips to ease back into things before hopefully making a big splash in 2021.
Alas, we're left with another year of wondering if Phillips will ever even resemble the star we were promised out of high school.
Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma
Spencer Rattler was the highest-rated quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class. Yes, he was even slotted ahead of the likes of Bo Nix, Jayden Daniels, Ryan Hilinski, Sam Howell, Max Duggan and Kedon Slovis—true freshmen who made the vast majority of the starts at their respective Power Five programs.
But instead of handing the reins to Rattler, Lincoln Riley brought in graduate transfer Jalen Hurts to run the offense for one season while the new kid learned from the sideline and preserved a year of eligibility. Once Hurts graduated, though, the obvious expectation was that it would be the Rattler Show in 2020.
Take away the 2020 season and things get extremely tricky in the Oklahoma quarterback room, because Riley has already signed 2021 phenom Caleb Williams—the highest-rated quarterback in that class.
In an ideal world, Rattler would have been the starter this year and next before declaring for the 2022 NFL draft, and Williams would have been content with sitting for one year in preparation for inheriting the offense in 2022.
In this far-from-ideal world, Oklahoma might need to decide whether it wants to start a true freshman at quarterback in 2021 or give the job to a redshirt freshman with 11 live-game pass attempts in the span of roughly 32 months. And if the Sooners go the latter route, it comes with the twofold risk of Williams deciding to transfer elsewhere and Rattler entering the 2022 draft, potentially leaving them up a creek without a paddle two years from now.
That doesn't mean Rattler won't be the starter next fall, but it complicates matters for a talented guy who was going to be the no-brainer starter this season.
Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
Xavier Thomas was supposed to be one of the best edge-rushers in the game by now.
However, when Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins all decided to stay four years at Clemson, Thomas had to settle into the role of "super-talented backup." He did have 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as a true freshman, but he was forced to wait a year to really get an opportunity to excel.
And, well, he didn't.
Across the board, Thomas had slightly worse statistics as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. Part of that is because Clemson shifted from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense—or a 3-3-5, depending on what position you want to say LB/S phenom Isaiah Simmons played—last year. Part of it is also because he suffered a concussion in mid-October and missed three games. But he wasn't making much of an impact prior to that injury.
Nevertheless, heading into the offseason, most everyone had Thomas pegged as a breakout candidate who was going to blossom before riding off into the NFL a year earlier than typically required. Without getting to play in 2020, though, he would be taking a major risk in declaring for the 2021 draft, given what he showed scouts last season. He really needs to prove he can live up to the hype from his high school days if he is going to be a first-round pick.
As it turns out, Thomas probably wasn't going to have that breakout year anyway. He contracted COVID-19 in the spring and later got strep throat. Head coach Dabo Swinney said after Clemson's first night of fall camp, "It's pretty obvious early on that he's nowhere near where he needs to be to play football." It might be a blessing in disguise that he didn't try to play at less than full health and raise further questions about his ability to make an impact on the field.
Travis Etienne, Najee Harris and Chuba Hubbard
It was rather surprising that each of these star running backs decided to come back for another season in the first place. The average "life span" of a running back in the NFL is so short these days that you would think they'd want to go get that contract while they can rather than absorbing another couple hundred hits at the college level.
But we were excited about having them back. Travis Etienne and Najee Harris had at least some Heisman potential as the well-established starting running back for one of the top College Football Playoff contenders. And Chuba Hubbard led the nation in rushing yards last season and would have at least been on the Heisman radar with anything close to a repeat performance.
They knew they were risking injury and/or draft stock damage by putting off the NFL for another year, but they couldn't have possibly foreseen a season wiped out by a pandemic.
At least they might not need to deal with the added mileage that comes with being the bell cow.
Not only are they now waiting another year for nothing, but they'll potentially also need to contend with newly draft-eligible-in-2021 guys like Memphis' Kenny Gainwell, Buffalo's Jaret Patterson, Oklahoma's Kennedy Brooks and Louisville's Javian Hawkins. Etienne, Harris and Hubbard should still be at the head of the next running back draft class, but a canceled season definitely makes it feel like they just wasted a year of their careers.