College Football's Best Returning Players for 2021

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2020

College Football's Best Returning Players for 2021

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    UNC QB Sam Howell
    UNC QB Sam HowellJulio Cortez/Associated Press

    Even if part of the Football Bowl Subdivision takes the field in the fall, it won't be the same. Nearly half of the country is already looking ahead to the 2021 season.

    As we await news on the ACC, Big 12, SEC and more, however, we can't help but think about next fall as well.

    Right or wrong, we're not assuming any particular draft-eligible player returns in 2021. This list is entirely focused on those who would've been true sophomores in 2020 because, barring an unexpected change, they aren't yet allowed to pursue the NFL.

Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF

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    Darriel Mack Jr. replaced McKenzie Milton after his horrific injury in 2018. The following offseason, former Notre Dame starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush transferred to UCF.

    So, naturally, a true freshman became the starter.

    Dillon Gabriel completed 59.3 percent of his passes, racking up 3,653 yards at an impressive 9.2 per attempt. The left-hander tossed 29 touchdowns to seven interceptions, adding four rushing scores while leading the Knights to a 10-3 record.

    Milton's recovery is ongoing and creates a possible dilemma in UCF's future, but Gabriel has proved he's a top quarterback.

Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame

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    Tony Tribble/Associated Press

    Notre Dame brought back most of the secondary in 2020, but Kyle Hamilton bolstered the unit immensely anyway.

    The 6'4", 210-pounder showed off his range with 41 tackles, four interceptions and six pass breakups. According to Pro Football Focus, he surrendered a 1.3 passer rating in 250 coverage snaps.

    "He's a really good player that has showed up every day in some fashion. He has a unique skill set," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, per Tim O'Malley of Irish Illustrated.

Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis

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    How could Memphis possibly replace Darrell Henderson, a player who combined for nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards in 2017 and 2018?

    Kenneth Gainwell answered that question swiftly.

    The versatile running back topped 100 all-purpose yards in 13 of the team's 14 games, highlighted by a 307-yard explosion against Tulane. Gainwell ended the season with 1,459 rushing yards and 51 receptions for 610 yards, totaling 16 touchdowns.

    No matter if Brady White is back under center for the Tigers next season, they'll have a superstar in Gainwell.

Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

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    Orlando Ramirez/Associated Press

    USC fans hoped JT Daniels would lead the Trojans back to national glory, but a torn ACL in the 2019 opener ended his campaign as it began. Though the year didn't go as planned, they still uncovered a gem in freshman Kedon Slovis.

    "Kedon is a special talent. I think talent-wise, he's as good as I've ever seen," offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said before the season, per Ryan Young of Rivals.

    And it sure looked true.

    Slovis notched a 71.9 completion percentage and averaged 8.9 yards per attempt. He threw for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns with only nine interceptions in 392 attempts.

    The main storyline for Slovis is whether Amon-Ra St. Brown or Tyler Vaughns will return in 2021. Even if they go pro, USC has talented receivers in Drake London, Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy.

Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Immediate concession: Garrett Wilson didn't put up huge numbers in 2019. Nobody is looking at a stat sheet, seeing 30 catches for 432 yards and five touchdowns and then labeling that player a star.

    But, uh, you seeing that picture up there? And his career-best 118-yard showing against a terrific Michigan defense? 

    Wilson has incredible talent, and it was supposed to become evident this fall. Ohio State graduated KJ Hill Jr., Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack, setting up a breakout season for Wilsonnext to Chris Olave and catching passes from Justin Fields.

    Instead, it's possible Wilson returns in 2021 as the featured player of the Buckeyes scoring attack.

George Pickens, WR, Georgia

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    George Pickens emerged as the target Georgia's offense desperately needed in 2019.

    After losing Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley and Terry Godwin to the NFL and dismissing Jeremiah Holloman, the Bulldogs had Miami transfer Lawrence Cager and a bunch of unproven players. Cager missed time with injuries, and Pickens became Jake Fromm's top option.

    Pickens posted team-high marks of 49 catches, 727 yards and eight touchdowns, scoring six times in UGA's final six games.

    Whether it's Jamie Newman, JT Daniels or 5-star commit Brock Vandagriff throwing the ball in 2021, there's no doubt Georgia's quarterback will be constantly looking Pickens' way.

George Karlaftis, DL, Purdue

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Although the Boilermakers struggled on defense in 2019, the local kid backed up his lofty billing.

    George Karlaftis attended high school in West Lafayette, stayed home and became the third-highest-rated commit in program history. He immediately earned a starting role at Purdue, totaling 54 stops with 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.

    Since the Big Ten lost Chase Young, Zack Baun, Yetur Gross-Matos, Kenny Willekes and more to the NFL, 2020 would've been Karlaftis' time to establish himself as the league's top lineman.

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

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    Along with Kedon Slovis, Sam Howell is one of the leading contenders for top draft-eligible quarterback in the 2022 cycle.

    Last season, he threw at least two touchdowns in every game. Howell finished the year with a 61.4 completion percentage, 3,641 yards and 38 scores to seven interceptions. UNC, which had consecutive nine-loss records, improved to 7-6 in 2019.

    If the 2020 season happens, the Heels have a stacked offense that features wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.

    But no matter what happens in the fall, Howell will return to Chapel Hill next season with huge expectations.

Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Rated the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2019 class, Kayvon Thibodeaux headed to Oregon with massive expectations.

    He didn't disappoint.

    In the Pac-12 Championship Game alone, Thibodeaux set a record with 2.5 sacks against Utah and blocked a punt—the first in Pac-12 championship history. That performance capped a season with 35 tackles, 14 stops for loss and nine sacks. He added four hurries, three pass breakups and a forced fumble.

    Between his production, a 6'5", 250-pound frame and elite athleticism, Thibodeaux will likely be one of the highest-rated prospects in 2022 NFL draft conversations.

Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    According to Scott Rabalais of The Advocate, LSU coach Ed Orgeron called Derek Stingley Jr. the best corner in the country.

    High praise, yet totally accurate.

    Stingley was not perfect in 2019; Alabama's DeVonta Smith had a massive day against him. One bad performance doesn't define a player, though.

    A first-team AP All-America choice, Stingley ceded just 29 receptions on 69 targets, per Cam Mellor of Pro Football Focus. He grabbed six interceptions and broke up 15 passes, chipping in 38 tackles.

    It's safe to expect Stingley to accompany Thibodeaux near the top of 2022 prospect rankings.


    All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from, or B/R research. Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.