Ranking College Football's Top Big-Play Threats

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2021

Ranking College Football's Top Big-Play Threats

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    Matt Cashore/Associated Press

    They are a threat to make a house call every time they touch the ball. 

    Whether hauling in passes, taking a handoff and sprinting toward the pylon or flinging darts to the playmakers around them, college football's top big-play guys are going to be showcased in full effect in 2021.

    Yes, the sport lost several big-time game-breakers to the NFL, and it's going to be tough to replace home run hitters like Chuba Hubbard, Travis Etienne, DeVonta Smith, Kyle Pitts and Justin Fields, but it can be done.

    There is a youth movement on the way, as evidenced by the abundance of underclassmen on this list. Several players here already have proved themselves in key situations. One of them is an incoming freshman who steps into a golden opportunity.

    A few guys are going to see their star shine even brighter with an increased workload, and then there are a few wily veterans who already have showcased their abilities and are going to take yet another step forward in '21.

    The rankings factored in big-play potential and gave extra weight to those who already have shown they can produce chunk plays with the best of them. Quarterbacks on the list didn't necessarily have to be a threat to run, but they needed to be able to buy time in the pocket to make plays downfield.

    When you want somebody to break a game wide-open, these are the best in the business.

12. TreVeyon Henderson, Running Back, Ohio State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Several incoming freshmen possess the ability to take it to the house on every play and have bright futures for their respective programs.

    Guys like Michigan's Xavier Worthy, Alabama's JoJo Earle, Oregon's Troy Franklin and Oklahoma's Mario Williams come to mind when considering 2021 prospects who could be lights-out right away for some top-level programs.

    But perhaps no incoming player's potential will meet opportunity quite like Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson.

    With Trey Sermon off to the NFL, the Buckeyes are left with every-down back Master Teague III, but you can bet coach Ryan Day is going to need some stars to emerge as the national runners-up break in a new quarterback.

    247Sports' Trey Scott and Chris Hummer said Henderson is the "biggest slam dunk" of impact freshmen and has a "much higher ceiling" than former OSU running back J.K. Dobbins, who was a big-play machine. They referenced Henderson's sub-11-second 100-meter dash and the fact that he's "dynamic with the ball in his hands."

    Henderson is just that guy, and though Ohio State has several other capable options in the backfield, the 5-star running back from Hopewell, Virginia, is too talented to keep off the field. He can blaze past defenders and scamper to the end zone, and he's a threat catching the ball out of the backfield, too.

    This is a team that's going to boast offensive star power like Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, but Henderson may wind up on that level and even get his hands on the ball more. Expect big things to happen when he touches it. He has instant impact written all over him.

11. Romeo Doubs, Wide Receiver, Nevada

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    You have to get deep into the college football television schedule to catch any Nevada Wolf Pack games, but they're worth watching.

    Coach Jay Norvell was a second-half collapse against San Jose State away from playing for the Mountain West Conference title a year ago, and he has offensive playmakers all over the place.

    Big-armed quarterback Carson Strong leads the way, but the Wolf Pack's top playmaker is downfield receiving threat Romeo Doubs. A year ago, Doubs wound up with 58 catches for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns and averaged more than 17 yards per catch.

    In an era when receivers like to jaw and mug for the cameras, Doubs' facial expressions rarely change. He is an all-business playmaker, and at 6'2", 200 pounds, he possesses NFL size and speed. Most importantly, there's no drama to go along with his immense talent.

    "He has all the ability of any superstar wide receiver without any of the diva-ness," Nevada wide receivers coach Eric Scott told Nevada Sports Net's Chris Murray.

    Most of the time, Doubs is asked to streak toward the end zone on post patterns and catch downfield darts from Strong, but he is big enough to go across the middle and fast enough to take screen passes to the house.

    NFL teams are going to come calling for the guy who is the complete package.

10. Zach Evans, Running Back, TCU

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    Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    No player in the 2020 recruiting class had more twists and turns in his recruitment than 5-star running back Zach Evans.

    After a whirlwind recruiting cycle, he signed with Georgia in the early period, only to ask for and be granted a release from his letter of intent. Though some of the nation's top programs came calling, and he once flirted with programs like LSU, Texas, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Ole Miss, Evans quietly wound up at TCU.

    In a year under coach Gary Patterson, there haven't been any bumpy roads. He's doing his job, and it's about time for him to break out.

    The Horned Frogs are led by a run-first quarterback in Max Duggan, who led the team with 526 rushing yards a season ago. But there are other capable runners in that backfield like Darwin Barlow and Kendre Miller, so it may be tough for Evans to find the carries to have a truly monstrous year.

    But when he gets the opportunity, he's making the most of it. In 2020, Evans highlighted his freshman year with 415 yards on 54 carries, an average of 7.7 yards per carry. He also scored four touchdowns, and gave a glimpse of the big things to come.

    Was he the most headline-making freshman running back in the state of Texas? No. That distinction belongs to somebody later on this list. But Evans is going to have a big career in Fort Worth, and he is one of college football's most explosive players.

9. Kayshon Boutte, Wide Receiver, LSU

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    There were times during the 2020 season when the LSU Tigers were a mess on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they struggled to stop anybody, and offensively, they rotated quarterbacks and searched for consistency in youth.

    Along the way, though, coach Ed Orgeron found some massive future pieces as the program tries to build back to its 2019 national championship form.

    Perhaps the biggest star still around is rising sophomore Kayshon Boutte, who proved he isn't just some track star. That speed translates, and Boutte is the next in a long line of star pass-catchers that includes Terrace Marshall Jr., Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson.

    The New Iberia, Louisiana, native finished the year with 45 catches for 735 yards and five touchdowns and averaged 16.3 yards per catch. Those numbers are only going to grow once the Bayou Bengals find a consistent quarterback between Myles Brennan, Max Johnson and TJ Finley.

    Yes, the speed is a major attribute, as Boutte can fly with the best of them, but he's also a good route-runner and looks like he's got NFL written all over him. When it comes to SEC guys who are budding stars bound for terrific careers, Boutte has to be at the top of the list.

    His big-play acumen is going to blossom the more familiar he gets with the game and the better the Tigers' supporting cast gets around him.

8. Spencer Rattler, Quarterback, Oklahoma

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    This is another "potential" pick for the list, but everybody in the nation knew who Spencer Rattler was by the end of the season, and while the heap of expectations and the lull near the start of the season made for an up-and-down campaign, the Sooners signal-caller is on track now.

    Stardom awaits.

    The past few years, coach Lincoln Riley has relied on quarterbacks who transferred to Norman to develop into elite players. Rattler is homegrown, and he has at least one more year and probably more to be the kind of player everybody knows he can.

    With so many weapons around him and new additions to that group like incoming freshmen Mario Williams, Cody Jackson and Billy Bowman joining established playmakers like Marvin Mims—and with Jadon Haselwood back from injury—it's silly what OU can trot out there.

    Rattler can evade pressure, flash his wizardry with the football and deliver howitzers.

    A year ago, he threw for 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions and had some bad moments early. Once he got going, he looked like one of the best signal-callers in the country. He torched Florida for three scores in the Cotton Bowl.

    Though he added just 160 rushing yards, that is an element of Rattler's game that is there if needed. He can do it all, and it's just a matter of time before he's recognized as one of the biggest big-play threats in college football.

7. Chris Tyree, Running Back, Notre Dame

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    Matt Cashore/Associated Press

    This year, the superstar running back heading to a College Football Playoff program from the state of Virginia is TreVeyon Henderson, who was discussed earlier in this story. Last season, that Commonwealth burner was Chris Tyree.

    He made the Notre Dame Fighting Irish extremely happy when he elected to play for coach Brian Kelly, and though the playoff-bound Irish had a bunch of capable players on offense, they couldn't keep the true freshman off the field.

    The 5'9", 179-pound Chester product finished the season with 496 rushing yards as Kyren Williams' primary backup and big-play machine. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry and was a threat to find paydirt every time he touched the ball.

    Though he wasn't as effective in the passing game as he could have been with just eight catches for 65 yards, that's a polished part of his game that will improve with time. Kelly is going to maximize his touches this season, and Tyree will respond.

    Tyree showed the world what kind talent he has when he took a handoff against Syracuse and raced 94 yards for a touchdown. It's that sort of ability that makes him a guy who has to get more looks.

    Yes, Williams is back and will be the workhorse, but with Ian Book gone, this could be a vastly different offense with a sophomore fellow centerpiece.

6. John Metchie III, Wide Receiver, Alabama

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    When the nation's largest stable of offensive star power lost one of its marquee names last year, what did the Alabama Crimson Tide do? They plugged in another stud who wound up having an amazing season for the national champions.

    Jaylen Waddle made a cameo in the national championship game, but he effectively was lost for the year against Tennessee. The Tide elevated No. 3 receiver John Metchie III into that role, and all the sophomore did was catch 55 passes for 916 yards and six touchdowns.

    No, those aren't DeVonta Smith-caliber numbers, but it still would have been good enough to lead the vast majority of teams in the nation in receiving.

    Without Smith, Waddle or quarterback Mac Jones in '21, the Tide are going to need playmakers. Metchie is the first one who comes to mind, and he may have to help bring along some young star talent behind him.

    Metchie is physical enough to battle for balls, but he stretches the field with the best of them. He doesn't run routes quite as effectively as Smith or Jerry Jeudy before him, but the 6'0", 195-pound Canadian does plenty well enough to give whoever wins Bama's quarterback battle a top target.

    Look for Metchie to improve on his 16.7 average and be a major weapon at the top of a lot of receiver awards lists thihs year.

5. Dillon Gabriel, Quarterback, UCF

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    If Dillon Gabriel had better rushing stats, he'd be college football's top big-play threat. As it is, he will have to settle for being in the top five because of his PlayStation passing stats.

    The junior from Hawaii led a wildly successful offensive attack for UCF the past two years under Josh Heupel, and he led the nation, averaging 357 yards per game through the air in 2020. The Knights didn't have the type of season they wanted, but it wasn't because of Gabriel.

    At times, if anything, he did too much, running away from pressure, extending plays with his feet and throwing for 3,570 yards, 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

    You can think of the Knights offense as the football version of those old Arkansas 40-minutes-of-hell teams under Nolan Richardson. They maximized plays and churned out yards and points.

    With Heupel gone to Tennessee, Gabriel now gets to play under new coach Gus Malzahn, who had difficulty the past few years developing quarterbacks at Auburn. Malzahn is still a good, veteran, offensive-minded coach, and it's going to be difficult to mess up a sure thing.

    Gabriel is as close to that as you can get. He doesn't have the biggest arm, nor is he the tallest quarterback in the country, but he just makes things happen. He's a gamer, and he can produce big plays with the best of them.

4. Lavel Davis Jr., Wide Receiver, Virginia

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    Credit: 247Sports

    If you're looking for an out-of-nowhere player who made this list based on a ridiculous showing in an abbreviated sample set, allow me to introduce you to Lavel Davis Jr.

    Remember his name.

    If you ever turn on a Virginia Cavaliers football game, you can't miss him. The 6'7", 210-pound pass-catcher was a 3-star prospect from Dorchester, South Carolina, who wasn't among the top 1,000 players in the 2020 class.

    But he finished his first year in Charlottesville with 20 catches for 515 yards and five touchdowns, averaging a stunning 25.8 yards per catch. That number was good enough for second nationally and the best of any Power Five pass-catcher.

    He is going to be back for at least two more seasons and ready to shine again.

    "It was one of our best-kept secrets," Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall told the Greenville News' Todd Shanesy before the Hoos' game against Clemson. "It's hard to hide 6'7" for about 12 weeks in practice."

    For a guy as tall as Davis, he certainly stayed hidden through recruiting. Neither Clemson nor South Carolina offered him a scholarship, and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney told Shanesy he didn't remember Davis at all during the recruiting process.

    Before long, all of college football will know his name if he continues at the pace he set in 2020.

3. Grayson McCall, Quarterback, Coastal Carolina

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    Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    Everything about Grayson McCall screams college football character. From his Ultimate Warrior-like eye black painted down his cheeks to his immaculate mullet, the Coastal Carolina quarterback was the breakout star of the sport for the Cinderella Chanticleers in 2020.

    While he may make noise with his image, he makes plays, and that speaks the loudest. 

    Nobody expected the redshirt freshman, who didn't win the starting job until the preseason, to have the kind of year he did for coach Jamey Chadwell, but he was a perfect fit for the read-option offensive scheme.

    Playing in Indian Trail, North Carolina, the 6'3", 200-pound former 2-star prospect didn't generate the headlines Sam Howell did right down the road in Monroe, but he is sharing in that praise now. 

    "He makes plays and just the will to win every single game and knowing what he has to do as a quarterback is something that just really amazes the whole team," CCU center Sam Thompson told the Myrtle Beach Sun News' Alan Blondin during the season.

    McCall finished the year completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,488 yards, 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He averaged 10 yards per attempt, which was good enough for the top six among returning quarterbacks.

    When you throw in 569 rushing yards and seven additional touchdowns on a 5.1-yard average, it's obvious McCall can do everything. He's only going to get better, too. Remember, he was just a second-year freshman.

2. Bijan Robinson, Running Back, Texas

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Look at the way Lane Kiffin took talented players at Ole Miss like Elijah Moore and Jerrion Ealy and kicked their production up a notch. Now, extrapolate that across a better, more ready-to-win program like Texas, and you've got the kind of offensive development Longhorns fans should expect from Steve Sarkisian in '21.

    Perhaps nobody will benefit more than a kid who already has all the trappings of being one of college football's rising stars.

    That would be sophomore running back Bijan Robinson, who looks like an All-American waiting to happen. The 5-star Arizona product was brought along slow early but finished with a bang.

    After five plodding games to start the year, the 6'0", 222-pound blazer who doubles as a wrecking ball broke out with 113 yards on just 12 carries in a rugged 17-13 win over West Virginia. Iowa State held him in check the next week, but that was the end of that.

    Robinson torched Kansas State for 172 yards on nine carries and scored three touchdowns, including a 75-yard scamper in a 69-31 win. He averaged 19.1 yards per carry in the regular-season finale.

    Then, against Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, he followed up the performance with 183 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown. He added two catches for 37 yards and another pair of touchdowns.

    Of all the weapons Sarkisian inherits, Robinson is the biggest. He may wind up being the most explosive player in college football.

1. Rachaad White, Running Back, Arizona State

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    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    Rachaad White wasn't one of the highest-rated players in the nation in the 2020 recruiting class. As a matter of fact, he wasn't even among the top 50 JUCO players out of Mt. San Antonio College.

    But the Kansas City native proved everybody wrong in limited action in his first year with the Arizona State Sun Devils.

    Simply put, White was the most explosive running back in the nation, and you can expect more of the same this year. He finished the four-game season with 42 carries for 420 yards and 10 touchdowns. That's 10 yards per carry, which is impressive even over a smallish sample size.

    Stadium's Brett McMurphy called White "The Human First Down."

    Much like the situation at TCU, White has to share the backfield with other extremely talented players, which means he will be fresher for the NFL, but his numbers may not be as ridiculous as some. Coach Herm Edwards also boasts Chip Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata at running back.

    Just how great was White once he got to the edge and turned the corner? According to CFB Film Room, the junior got outside the tackles on 28 of his runs. They went for 255 yards, a 12.7 average and included five broken tackles.

    The 6'2", 195-pound playmaker is going to be fun to watch for a full season of action, and he's a big reason why nobody should sleep on Arizona State in the Pac-12 South.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.


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