Top 15 CFB Players You'll Fall in Love with in 2021
College football waves goodbye to stars such as Trevor Lawrence, DeVonta Smith, Justin Fields, Kyle Trask, Najee Harris and other faces of the sport as we head into the 2021 season.
Luckily, plenty of emerging stars are waiting in the pipeline.
Ahead we've highlighted 15 players who are ready to stake their claim to the spotlight in 2021, including a mix of incoming freshmen, rising sophomores primed for an expanded role and established players capable of evolving.
Some of these names will be familiar as high-profile recruits at major colleges, while others may be a bit further under the radar.
Expect all 15 to make their mark on the upcoming year.
RB Devon Achane, Texas A&M
The Texas A&M running back room will be crowded next year.
Leading rusher Isaiah Spiller (188 carries, 1,036 yards, 9 TD) and Ainias Smith (49 carries, 293 yards, 4 TD) are both returning, and 4-star recruit and No. 4 running back in the 2021 class LJ Johnson chose Texas A&M over Texas on national signing day.
That leaves Devon Achane as an afterthought at first glance, but he shouldn't be.
He's undersized at 5'9", 185 pounds and will likely never be an every-down back, but he was dynamic when called upon as a freshman, racking up 364 yards on just 43 carries for an 8.5-yard-per-carry average.
He rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries against North Carolina in the Orange Bowl after Spiller left with a toe injury, and that should be the jumping off point for a more prominent role.
DT Jordan Davis, Georgia
The stats don't tell the story with Georgia's Jordan Davis.
He finished his junior season with 16 tackles and one sack, but his biggest contributions came via his ability to chew up blockers with his massive 6'6", 330-pound frame.
With five career sacks, he can get to the quarterback, and he can stuff a running back who tries to bust it up the middle. But it's his ability to make everyone around him better that makes him such an interesting player to watch.
His decision to forgo the NFL draft and return for his senior season instantly made Georgia a better football team in 2021, and he'll be a game-changing nose tackle for a squad with CFP aspirations.
RB Jerome Ford, Cincinnati
A 4-star recruit who spent his first two years of college with Alabama, Jerome Ford rushed for 114 yards and three touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2019 before transferring to Cincinnati.
Serving as the backup to Gerrid Doaks this past season, he had 483 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, finding the end zone one more time than Doaks despite seeing 71 fewer carries.
With Doaks declaring for the NFL draft, Ford sits atop the depth chart for a Cincinnati team that will begin the 2021 season with lofty expectations.
The Bearcats have a chance to make serious noise nationally, and Ford will be at the center of their attack alongside returning quarterback Desmond Ridder.
TE Arik Gilbert, Florida
Arik Gilbert arrived at LSU as a 5-star recruit and the No. 5 player in the 2020 recruiting class.
Barton Simmons of 247Sports dubbed Gilbert—an elite athlete with a 6'5", 249-pound frame—"one of the most unique tight end prospects in years" after many preferred him as a defensive end early in the recruiting process.
He saw the field frequently as a true freshman, recording 35 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns as one of the bright spots for a disappointing 5-5 LSU.
After entering the transfer portal in early January, he transferred to Florida later that month. He'll be joined in Gainesville by fellow 2020 5-star Demarkcus Bowman, who transferred from Clemson and will compete for the starting running back job.
All-American tight end Kyle Pitts thrived in the Gators offense, and Gilbert could fill a similar role.
DE Zach Harrison, Ohio State
Ohio State has assembled an impressive recent run of game-changing pass-rushers, from Joey Bosa to Nick Bosa to Chase Young, who just wrapped up the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Zach Harrison is next.
A 5-star recruit in the 2019 class, he tallied 24 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as a true freshman, and he added 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks during the shortened 2020 season.
Simmons called him a "potential No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and definite impact Power Five defender" coming out of high school, and that's the sort of thing he can do in 2021.
With an athletic 6'6" frame and 4.47 40-yard speed, he has all the raw tools. It's just a matter of refining his game.
DT Tywone Malone, Ole Miss
The 6'4", 305-pound defensive tackle is a 4-star recruit and the No. 62 overall prospect in this year's recruiting cycle, and he should contribute immediately for an Ole Miss defense that was helpless against the run last season.
The Rebels allowed 206.9 rushing yards per game (No. 101 in FBS) and 5.3 yards per carry (111th in FBS) in 2020.
Aside from his ability to stuff the run, Malone is also a high-level baseball prospect who intends to play both sports in college.
That should make him one of the more compelling players to follow in the years to come.
WR Bru McCoy, USC
If you're not familiar with the Bru McCoy story, this excellent article from Mirin Fader is worth a read.
The abridged version is that he was a 2019 5-star recruit who graduated early and enrolled at USC, then left 17 days later and transferred to Texas, participating in spring practice with the Longhorns before returning to USC.
He then missed several months with an illness that was never diagnosed and ended up redshirting his freshman season.
Finally healthy, he snagged 21 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns in six games in 2020. Those numbers don't jump off the page, but a bigger piece of the pie is coming his way.
With Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns both moving on to the NFL, he could emerge as the go-to target for Kedon Slovis in what should be a high-powered Trojans offense.
QB Sawyer Robertson, Mississippi State
Who doesn't love a true freshman quarterback starting for a Power Five team?
Sawyer Robertson has a great chance to be one for Mississippi State.
2020 3-star recruit Will Rogers completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions after K.J. Costello got the hook last year in late October, but his grasp on the starting job is tenuous.
Meanwhile, Robertson is a 4-star recruit and the No. 10 pro-style quarterback in the 2021 class, making him one of the best QB recruits the Bulldogs have landed in some time.
He played in a pass-heavy spread offense at Coronado High School in Lubbock, Texas, which should make for a smooth transition into Mike Leach's system.
Mississippi State has a ways to go after a 4-7 season, but Robertson should be fun to watch from day one.
RB Bijan Robinson, Texas
Bijan Robinson was massively underutilized by Tom Herman as a true freshman.
Despite setting the Texas Longhorns school record with 8.2 yards per carry, he carried the ball more than 15 times just once all season, finishing with 703 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Also a weapon in the passing game, he tallied 15 receptions for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
It all came together in the Alamo Bowl against Colorado when he rushed for 183 yards and a touchdown, scored two more times on receiving touchdowns and even returned a kick 16 yards.
With Steve Sarkisian now in the head coach's seat, Robinson should be one of the breakout stars of 2021, especially with the Longhorns likely to focus more on the run following quarterback Sam Ehlinger's graduation.
If you're seeking a Heisman Trophy dark horse, look no further.
LB Noah Sewell, Oregon
The younger brother of presumptive 2021 first-round pick and standout left tackle Penei Sewell, linebacker Noah Sewell did not follow his brother's lead in opting out of the 2020 season.
Instead, he took the field and won Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, tallying 48 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble.
A 5-star recruit and the No. 13 overall player in the 2020 recruiting class, Sewell lived up to the hype and finished on a high note with 11 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss against Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Simmons compared him to Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Devin White and called him a future first-round talent.
If the Ducks finish ahead of USC and claim Pac-12 supremacy in 2021, a rising superstar at linebacker in Sewell will have a lot to do with it.
QB Carson Strong, Nevada
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson was one of the breakout stars of the 2020 season, and most years at least one non-Power Five quarterback steals his share of the spotlight.
Nevada's Carson Strong is a great candidate to be that guy.
After playing 10 games as a redshirt freshman in 2019, he took the reins this past season and quietly emerged as one of the nation's best quarterbacks.
- 2019: 63.4% completion, 2,335 passing yards, 11 TD, 7 INT
- 2020: 70.1% completion, 2,858 passing yards, 27 TD, 4 INT
His draft stock was clearly on the rise after he threw five touchdown passes against Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, but he will return for the upcoming season.
The Wolf Pack have not been ranked in the AP poll since 2010 when Colin Kaepernick led the team to a 13-1 record, but that could change in 2021.
QB D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
Replacing a player like Lawrence is a tall order.
Luckily, Dabo Swinney can recruit like few others, and the Clemson Tigers already have their heir apparent in D.J. Uiagalelei.
The top pro-style quarterback and No. 10 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, Uiagalelei was forced into action as a true freshman when Lawrence was sidelined with a positive COVID test.
The Tigers lost to Notre Dame during one of his two starts, but Uiagalelei more than held his own:
- vs. Boston College: 30/41, 342 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 1 rush TD
- vs. Notre Dame: 29/44, 439 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 1 rush TD
With a strong 6'5", 250-pound frame, a rocket arm and the leadership intangibles to handle the pressure of leading a high-profile program, he checks all the boxes to be the next big thing at Clemson.
RB Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State
Meet the 2021 version of Darren Sproles.
Despite his 5'5" frame, Deuce Vaughn saw significant playing time as a true freshman for Sproles' alma mater, Kansas State.
To say he filled up the stat sheet is an understatement.
The 2020 3-star recruit led the team in rushing (123 carries, 642 yards, 7 TD) and receiving (25 receptions, 434 yards, 2 TD), and he averaged 20.7 yards on seven kickoff returns.
He closed out the 2020 campaign with back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, tallying a season-high 125 yards on 10 carries against Texas in the regular-season finale.
There might not be a more exciting multi-purpose back in the country.
QB Malik Willis, Liberty
Malik Willis should already be a familiar name as the driving force behind an upstart Liberty Flames team that finished 10-1 under Hugh Freeze last year.
However, he's capable of more, and he'll have a bigger stage to perform on in 2021.
The former Auburn Tiger threw for 2,250 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 944 yards and 14 scores last year, capping his impressive season by leading the Flames to a victory over previously undefeated Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl.
A program on the rise, Liberty will face a tougher schedule during the upcoming season with games against Syracuse, UAB, Louisiana and a marquee matchup with Ole Miss in Oxford on Nov. 6.
That additional exposure should help make Willis more of a household name.
QB Bryce Young, Alabama
The future is now for 2020 5-star quarterback Bryce Young.
After Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns, Young has big shoes to fill, and he won't have the luxury of throwing to DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle or handing the ball to Najee Harris in the backfield.
Still, expectations are sky high for a player who was the top quarterback in the 2020 recruiting class and the No. 2 prospect overall behind Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee.
He completed 13 of 22 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown in mop-up duty last season, though he didn't have much of a chance to show his dual-threat abilities.
Greg Biggins of 247Sports called him: "A natural leader, a winner and the guy you want leading your team on a last-minute drive."
He'll be the key for Alabama to avoid a step backward amid the latest mass exodus of NFL talent.