10 Players Set to Shock the College Football World in 2021

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2021

10 Players Set to Shock the College Football World in 2021

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The hype train is filling up and set to leave the station in preparation for the 2021 college football season, but some players aren't generating as much buzz as others.

    In the Big 12, Spencer Rattler and Bijan Robinson are getting plenty of offseason headlines, so nobody would be surprised if they posted monster seasons. The same goes in the SEC for JT Daniels, in the Pac-12 for Jayden Daniels and Kayvon Thibodeaux, and for others. 

    To truly shock everybody, you have to do your best work when the brightest lights are on, fill up the stat sheets and go from quietly consistent to superstardom.

    In some cases, that happens for players getting a bigger workload now that a teammate blocking them has moved on. In others, it's about a youngster getting the opportunity to shine or things clicking into place after a short time in the system.

    Players can truly shake the sport's foundations by out-performing preseason expectations.

    Here are some players who need to be on your radar in '21.

Jalen Berger, Wisconsin Running Back

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Some huge news quietly happened this week in the Big Ten when longtime Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle elected to leave Camp Randall for Kentucky.

    The Badgers tried to keep him, according to the Wisconsin State Journal's Colten Bartholomew, but he's heading to the SEC and leaving behind a potential breakout star in Jalen Berger.

    In his first year replacing Jonathan Taylor, who starred for the Indianapolis Colts in his rookie year, Berger had 301 yards on 60 carries and scored two touchdowns. Like Taylor, the 6'0", 210-pound runner is big, strong and athletic.

    Losing Settle is no small deal because of his pedigree of developing elite runners, but it shouldn't stunt Berger's growth.

    Now that he has a year in the system, it's time for Badgers coach Paul Chryst to trust him a little more. A year ago, despite the team's offensive struggles, Berger never had more than 15 carries in a game.

    The second-year player is poised to become the next great Wisconsin running back if they just let him. The safe bet is he will shoulder much of the load in the running game this year, and stat-packing games will follow as the Badgers offense improves.

Dontario Drummond, Ole Miss Wide Receiver

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    There's no denying Lane Kiffin's impact on the Ole Miss Rebels in every facet of the program during his first season as the head coach in 2020. The offense was must-see TV any time they were on.

    Entering year two of the Kiffin era, key pieces left Oxford such as elite receiver Elijah Moore and flex tight end Kenny Yeboah. That's 113 catches and 14 touchdowns up for grabs that the offensive-minded play-caller needs to replace this year.

    With gunslinging quarterback Matt Corral and other offensive weapons returning, somebody is primed to step into the spotlight on the perimeter and make big plays for the SEC's most exciting, emerging program.

    Look for Dontario Drummond to be that guy.

    The 6'0", 215-pound senior hasn't enjoyed an explosive career, but he quietly put up some excellent production a year ago in the shadow of Moore and Yeboah. Drummond finished with 25 catches for 417 yards and seven touchdowns.

    He was a big-play possibility every time he touched the ball, averaging 16.7 yards per catch, and in a bigger role this year, those numbers could be huge. Remember a season ago, Moore pulled down 86 catches for 1,193 yards and eight scores, padding his NFL resume.

    Drummond could have a similar impact this season.

Will McDonald IV, Iowa State Edge

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    Matthew Putney/Associated Press

    Have you ever heard of Will McDonald IV? 

    If you don't follow the Big 12 closely, you probably haven't. But you'd better get to know his name.

    The Iowa State defensive end tied for the national lead a season ago with 10.5 sacks for a Cyclones team that enjoyed its best season yet under coach Matt Campbell and returns enough talent on both sides of the ball to be considered a fringe national title contender.

    It's time McDonald got the respect he deserves. A season ago, much of that hype on the defensive side of the ball belonged to JaQuan Bailey, who had a quality year with 38 tackles, including 13 for loss, and seven sacks before declaring for the NFL draft.

    But McDonald actually had the more productive season getting after quarterbacks. Was it because opponents were paying a lot of attention to Bailey? Perhaps, but McDonald is a terrific playmaker in his own right. He wound up getting deserved first-team All-Big 12 recognition, and that's just the tip.

    With Bailey gone, he'll get his share of double-teams, but the 6'4", 230-pound edge hasn't even played up to his potential yet. He's going to get better, and he will wind up being one of the biggest defensive stars in the nation this year.

Tony Grimes, North Carolina Cornerback

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    After reclassifying to 2020 rather than enjoying his final prep campaign as the best player on the field, elite defensive back Tony Grimes spent last year paying his dues and learning through the rigors of the ACC schedule under the tutelage of Tar Heels DBs coach Dre Bly.

    Right away, Grimes proved he belonged and was every bit the 5-star prospect, and the 6'1", 170-pound corner eventually became a player opponents tried to avoid in the passing game.

    Grimes finished the year with 14 tackles, an interception, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, three pass breakups and made his share of terrific plays alongside the expected gaffes for any first-year player. He allowed just eight completions on 23 targets, according to 247Sports' Ross Martin, and the impact numbers will follow.

    It's not out of the realm of possibility Grimes blossoms into one of the nation's top two cornerbacks, joining LSU's Derek Stingley Jr.

Jadon Haselwood, Oklahoma Wide Receiver

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    Ray Carlin/Associated Press

    Forgetting players who spend essentially an entire season outside the national eye is easy to do, but just because somebody experienced a down year or battled injuries doesn't mean they won't rebound.

    One player who falls into the latter category is Oklahoma receiver Jadon Haselwood, a former elite high school prospect who had a nice first year in Norman with 19 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown.

    Expected to do big things in '20, Haselwood instead suffered a non-football-related injury and dealt with other nagging injuries in what essentially was a lost year on the gridiron. 

    Look out for the 6'2", 200-pound pass-catcher to re-announce himself in a huge way with Spencer Rattler showing out behind center. Rising sophomore Marvin Mims returns, but with Charleston Rambo leaving for Miami, there are plenty of catches to go around.

    Haselwood is too talented to keep off the field, and he, along with classmates Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges, should all factor into the OU passing game. Incoming freshmen Billy Bowman and Mario Williams are players to watch, too.

    While Haselwood may be the biggest long shot on this list to shock the college football world, it's just a matter of time before he proves why he was the nation's No. 1-ranked receiver in the 2019 class.

TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    If you're looking for instant-impact offensive playmakers from the 2021 recruiting class, Alabama's JoJo Earle, Michigan's Xavier Worthy and Clemson's Will Shipley come to mind.

    But no player in the class has the talent, complete playmaking ability and opportunity on a massive stage quite like Ohio State 5-star running back TreVeyon Henderson.

    With Master Teague III blocking his path early on, the Virginia product probably won't begin the season as a starter for the Buckeyes, especially with them breaking in a new quarterback. But the most complete offensive player in the '21 class is too good to keep off the field.

    He may even deserve sleeper Heisman whispers. Yes, he is that good, and if coach Ryan Day gives him the touches, Henderson will produce at a level few freshman runners at marquee programs do.

    How good is he? Charles Power of 247Sports gushed over him, throwing out terms like "generational running back," "most complete running back prospect … in several recruiting cycles" and even compared his high school film to Tavon Austin's.

    That's high praise. And though Teague is blocking his path, that didn't keep Trey Sermon from surpassing him in 2020, and the incoming freshman could do the same this year.

    Day needs playmakers at quarterback and running back to complement the best receiving corps in the nation. Henderson is a guy everybody should be excited about.

Emory Jones, Florida Quarterback

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    It's difficult to understand why few people are talking about Florida quarterback Emory Jones this offseason.

    After the success coach Dan Mullen had with Kyle Trask the past couple of seasons, he won't get the luxury of leaning on one of the nation's top passers in '21. But Jones is more like the quarterbacks Mullen has molded in the past.

    There are some around Gainesville excited about the change of direction.

    "Not to take anything away from Kyle [Trask]—he's a great, great player for us. I love Kyle," defensive end Zachary Carter told Swamp247's Thomas Goldkamp. "But Emory, he brings a different flavor to the offense. Athletic guy; he makes you miss. Basically, he keeps you on your toes; you never know what the offense is going to do. I'm excited with our offense, with the ball in Emory’s hands. I'm excited for him."

    Jones is a 6'2", 210-pound, dual-threat QB entering his fourth year in the program, and it's time for him to take a major step forward. The Gators are having to replace proven playmakers all around him, but that's even more reason for Mullen to lean on him.

    Jones can carry the load with his feet, having rushed for 514 yards (5.6 YPC) in spot action over his first three seasons and six touchdowns. Though he was a developmental project passing the ball, he hasn't struggled when given the chance.

    Jones has completed 64 percent of his 86 passes for 613 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception. He has the athletic ability to change the tenor of UF's offense but still make things happen through the air.

Bru McCoy, USC Wide Receiver

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    When it comes to USC's offense under coordinator Graham Harrell, one thing is certain: The Trojans are going to fling the football all over the place. When you factor in seasoned third-year starter Kedon Slovis returning, there's no question what they want to do on that side of the ball.

    Establishing more balance is important to the success of 2021, but the wide receivers are going to have plenty of opportunities to shine.

    A player who stands to capitalize on more opportunities is sophomore Bru McCoy, who should live up to the massive expectations he carried with him as a 5-star athlete coming out of high school.

    McCoy's college career got off to a rocky start when he transferred from the Trojans to Texas after just two weeks on campus, only to eventually move back to USC for his college career. After redshirting in 2019, he caught 21 passes for 236 yards and a pair of scores in limited action a season ago.

    In 2021, he will likely be the Trojans' starting outside Z receiver alongside Drake London, Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon and other quality players like Gray Bryant Jr. and Kyle Ford. The Trojans are loaded at receiver, even after Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown left for the NFL.

    McCoy is slick, big-bodied (6'3", 220 lbs) and has shown the propensity for making plays, evidenced by his touchdown grab off a tipped pass by St. Brown in an eventual comeback win over Arizona State to start the season. More plays like that are on the horizon for the potential All-Pac-12 performer. 

Bryan Bresee, Clemson Defensive Tackle

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Let's face it: Defensive tackles don't get a whole lot of love when it comes to the discussion of college football's biggest playmakers.

    That may change as Clemson's Bryan Bresee continues to develop in Dabo Swinney's program and coordinator Brent Venables' system.

    It wouldn't be a surprise for the nation's No. 1-ranked player in the 2020 class to have a terrific season, but Bresee may just shock the college football world by how much of an impact he has from his spot on the interior of the defensive line. He could be the best defensive player in the nation.

    When defensive tackles are as good as the 6'5", 300-pound rising sophomore, they change the game in so many ways. Venables has developed several of them, such as Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, over the years, and Bresee can be better than any of them.

    He was a first-team All-ACC performer as a true freshman, finishing with 33 tackles (6.5 for loss), four sacks, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a safety in 432 snaps over 12 games, according to his Clemson profile.

    Bresee got better as the year progressed and was impossible to block by the end of the year. His potential is through the roof, and he could be college football's best DT in a decade in just his second full season.

    He has that kind of ceiling.

Rachaad White, Arizona State Running Back

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    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    The abbreviated 2020 season was a major disappointment for coach Herm Edwards' Arizona State Sun Devils, but when you play so few games in the midst of a pandemic, it's difficult to get into any kind of groove.

    That didn't do anything to dampen the future projections for the program.

    Entering '21, the Sun Devils should be considered USC's biggest competition in the Pac-12 South, and while quarterback Jayden Daniels is going to get his share of (deserved) publicity, it's a stable of exceptional running backs that did much of the damage in '20 and are exciting building blocks.

    Freshman DeaMonte Trayanum led the team in carries with 49 carries and also had 290 rushing yards, and fellow first-year player Daniyel Ngata was effective, too. But the team's leading rusher and biggest playmaker was JUCO transfer Rachaad White, who posted 420 yards on 42 carries and led the nation with a 10-yard average.

    The trio of running backs are going by the "Rush Hour" moniker, and they should take a lot of the pressure off Daniels and let him do his thing.

    White scored five touchdowns and, at 6'2", 195 pounds, is a big-bodied, exciting player who can run away from defenders when he gets to the second level. 

    With the balanced attack, he may not get enough touches to lead the nation in rushing yards or anything, but White has the ability to be the Pac-12's best running back and one of the top players in the nation. You should get to know his name, because he may be the leader on the West's sleeper program.


    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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