5-Star College Football Players Stepping into Much Larger Roles in 2021

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2021

5-Star College Football Players Stepping into Much Larger Roles in 2021

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    Matt Cashore/Associated Press

    Whenever a program signs a 5-star prospect, fans immediately begin dreaming of a rapid impact from the standout recruit.

    That's for good reason, of course! While not every top-rated player ends up a superstar, 5-stars "hit" as major contributors at a steady rate. Many of them are eventually drafted.

    But that possibility starts with the first productive college season.

    Alabama's Bryce Young and Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei will be the most recognizable former 5-stars in 2021, given they'll be quarterbacks of national championship contenders. Several other top schools have once-prized recruits from the 2017-20 cycles headed for a starting job or key rotational role too.

Justin Shorter, WR, Florida

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    When top targets Kadarius Toney, Kyle Pitts and Trevon Grimes opted out of the Cotton Bowl, Florida had an early look at the future of its receiving corps.

    The most notable player was Justin Shorter, who signed with Penn State in the 2018 class. He ranked No. 8 nationally. Shorter spent two seasons at the Big Ten school, transferred to Florida and caught 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns in 2020.

    Along with Jacob Copeland, Shorter will be an essential target for new starting quarterback Emory Jones.

Adam Anderson and Nolan Smith, EDGE, Georgia

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    Azeez Ojulari piled up a team-best 11.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, but he's headed to the NFL. Jermaine Johnson (5.0 and 4.0) ranked third in both categories but is transferring to Florida State. Georgia has a bunch of pass-rushing production to replace.

    Fortunately for the Dawgs, however, they're likely to lean on a couple of outstanding talents as replacements.

    Nolan Smith is likely to earn an every-down spot; he posted 2.5 sacks among 22 tackles as a backup this past season. Adam Anderson thrived as a low-volume pass-rushing specialist and tallied 6.5 sacks. Even if he's not a first-down player, Anderson will have an expanded role in Ojulari and Johnson's wake.

    Smith ranked No. 1 overall in 2019, and Anderson was No. 18 in 2018.

Justin Flowe, LB, and Dontae Manning, CB, Oregon

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    Good things come to those who wait, right?

    Oregon signed three 5-stars in the 2020 class, but only linebacker Noah Sewell held a key role during the fall. Meniscus and hamstring injuries, respectively, limited linebacker Justin Flowe and cornerback Dontae Manning to one combined appearance.

    Both players have an excellent shot at earning a starting job next season. At worst, they'll be regular pieces of the rotation for an Oregon defense that should be one of the nation's best units.

Gervon Dexter, DT, Florida

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    Gervon Dexter worked into a regular role as the 2020 season progressed, but he should be a featured player in 2021.

    Yes, how exactly Florida plans to replace Tedarrell Slaton and Kyree Campbell will be determined this offseason. The Gators recently added Penn State transfer Antonio Shelton and Auburn transfer DaQuan Newkirk. Still, they clearly became comfortable with Dexter, who has at least two years remaining in Gainesville.

    In 12 appearances, the 12th-best prospect of 2020 collected 20 tackles with two for loss and an interception.

Ohio State's Trifecta (or More?)

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    Paris Johnson Jr.
    Paris Johnson Jr.Getty Images (Ken Murray)

    The phrase "embarrassment of riches" certainly applies to Ohio State in 2021. Led by offensive lineman Paris Johnson Jr., a handful of 5-stars could be new full-time starters.

    Johnson played sparingly in 2020 but is a prime candidate to join the lineup. Though he might play left tackle in the future, Johnson will likely be a guard next season because Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere are both returning.

    Along with Johnson (No. 9 overall), the 2020 class also brought Julian Fleming (No. 3) and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (No. 29). Chris Olave's surprise return means both Fleming and Smith-Njigba won't start, but one might surpass Jameson Williams on the depth chart. Either way, they'll be regular contributors.

    On the other side of the ball, both defensive tackle Taron Vincent and cornerback Tyreke Johnson could be starters. They ranked 20th and 21st, respectively, in the 2018 class.

Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    While leading Alabama to a national title, Mac Jones posted a 77.4 completion rate with 4,500 yards at 11.2 per attempt, 42 total touchdowns and only four interceptions.

    Bryce Young has enormous shoes to fill.

    Ranked No. 2 overall in the 2020 cycle, he quickly became the backup in Tuscaloosa. Young played some garbage-time snaps throughout the year, completing 13 of his 22 passes for 156 yards and a score. He's known as a dual-threat quarterback but didn't really have a chance to show that mobility in 2020.

    John Metchie III should be Young's top target, but Alabama is otherwise rebuilding the skill positions in 2021.

    Another 5-star to know is running back Trey Sanders, who missed 2019 with a broken left foot and most of 2020 because of injuries from a car crash.

D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson

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    Josh Morgan/Associated Press

    Clemson had an unexpected preview of the D.J. Uiagalelei era after Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 in late October. And there's no question the Tigers were encouraged by his performance.

    Uiagalelei opened two games, leading Clemson to a win over Boston College and putting the Tigers in position to win at Notre Dame. They fell to the Irish in double overtime, but Uiagaleleithe No. 10 overall prospect in 2020totaled 367-plus yards and three touchdowns in both starts.

    While he's more a pass-first player, Uiagalelei will be a mobile threatespecially in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

    The offensive skill positions must be retooled, but Uiagalelei and returning wideout Justyn Ross give the unit a sturdy foundation. And since the defense returns all 11 starters, a reliable offense would make Clemson a worthy title contender.


    Recruit rankings via 247Sports