Predicting College Football's Biggest Impact Players in 2021

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2021

Predicting College Football's Biggest Impact Players in 2021

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Though we somehow made it to the College Football Playoff National Championship last season, setbacks and disappointments littered the path as COVID-19 interrupted the schedule. Looking ahead to the 2021 campaign, we have reason to be hopeful for a full slate and healthy players. 

    What's more, we have reason to be hyped about the sport's returning talent, especially for the top expected impact players. 

    This means guys who have the most potential to break open a game. They're the ones who can change a contest's momentum on a dime with a quick-strike touchdown. 

    However, it's not just about the skill positions. Defenders deserve love too.

    Let's see who made the cut. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
    • Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
    • Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma
    • D'Eriq King, QB, Miami
    • Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon
    • Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati 
    • Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF
    • Brian Robinson Jr., RB, Alabama
    • George Pickens, WR, Georgia
    • Eli Ricks, CB, LSU
    • Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
    • Thayer Munford, LT, Ohio State

Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    One of the joys of watching college football is that, on any given passing attempt, a rangy ballhawk can pluck the ball out of the air, stopping a drive dead in its tracks. LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. is just such a player. 

    A 2019 5-star recruit, Stingley burst onto the scene as a freshman with 15 passes defensed and six interceptions. He allowed a catch rate of only 38 percent on 94 targets, according to Pro Football Focus

    Stingley's stat sheet wasn't as gaudy in 2020, with five passes defensed, a forced fumble and no picks, but to be fair, he wasn't given nearly as much opportunity. His games played dropped by eight, and opposing coordinators saw what he had done to wreak havoc on their schemes in 2019 and focused their attacks elsewhere.

    Still, Stingley allowed just seven first downs and forced five incompletions, making life miserable for the quarterbacks who had to face him.

Deuce Vaughn, RB, Kansas State

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Deuce Vaughn thrives in a variety of situations for Kansas State. 

    In 2020, the true freshman led the Wildcats with 123 carries for 642 yards and seven touchdowns and with 25 receptions for 434 receiving yards (his two receiving scores placed second). In three games, including the last two of the year, he posted 100-plus yards on the ground. He also had three outings with 80-plus yards receiving. That versatility was aided by his vision and speed. 

    Vaughn was named Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year after his breakout season; this year, his name could be included among potential Heisman Trophy candidates.

Nik Bonitto, EDGE, Oklahoma

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Quarterbacks hold the most power to break a game wide open, but the players who can hold almost as much influence line up across the line of scrimmage. 

    That's the role Oklahoma's Nik Bonitto has as one of the nation's best edge-rushers. He played only 10 games last season but posted nine sacks nonetheless.

    The sophomore led the Sooners in quarterback hurries with 10; his 11 tackles for loss ranked second. Opposing offensive coordinators had no answer for his explosiveness, as he proved near-impossible to block. 

    There's another crucial Oklahoma player who appears later on this list. Together with Bonitto, they'll look to give the Sooners their first College Football Playoff championship and their eighth national title overall.

Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    One half of what could be the nation's best wide receiver duo, Garrett Wilson shouldn't suffer too much from the loss of Justin Fields. Even though Wilson had a stellar season in 2020 with Fields lining up under center, amassing 43 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns, the wideout is poised to find more success in his junior season. 

    Just think: Wilson started last season with four consecutive 100-yard receiving games before his production dipped in the second half. If he can start hot and stay hot in 2021, his numbers will be even gaudier.

    Wilson is a big-play machine, averaging 17.3 yards per catch before the national title game. He also showed he can be a chesspiece for the Buckeyes, transitioning from the outside to the slot during the season. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the eighth-highest separation rate in college football last year.

    A 2019 5-star recruit out of Texas, Wilson was the 20th-best recruit in the nation and the No. 2 receiver. He has not disappointed the Buckeyes.

Tank Bigsby, RB, Auburn

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Auburn rusher Tank Bigsby might be sick of remarks about his nickname...but when you're a running back who goes by Tank, people will be delighted when you live up to it. 

    That's exactly what Bigsby did in 2020. The freshman 4-star recruit had 834 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 10 games, adding 84 yards through the air.

    He proved near-impossible to bring down, breaking tackles left and right. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, he had the fifth-most broken tackles per attempt (0.34) among FBS runners.

    Bigsby's efforts earned him SEC Co-Freshman of the Year, and his name has even been floated for the 2021 Heisman Trophy discussion. 

    Though he struggled with a lower-body injury toward the end of the season, he more than proved himself, topping 100 yards in four games, including 192 in the regular-season finale against Mississippi State, a career high. Look for him to be "the guy" in Auburn's offense this season.    

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    We mentioned Wilson projects to be one half of one of the best, if not the best, wide receiver duos in the country in 2021. Chris Olave is the other. (If you're upset that the two wideouts on this list are both from Ohio State, surely you've learned by now that it's the Buckeyes' world, and we're just living in it.)

    If Olave, who would've been in the first-round conversation had he entered the draft fray, thought he could improve his stock by returning to the Buckeyes for his senior season, we're not betting against him. 

    In a COVID-19-shortened season, Olave posted 50 receptions for 729 yards and seven touchdowns, emerging as a go-to weapon for Fields. In 2021, he'll look to demonstrate the same rapport with Fields' successor, whether it be C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller or incoming 5-star freshman Kyle McCord.

    In his career, Olave has amassed 110 receptions for 1,766 yards and 22 touchdowns. The Buckeyes missed him in the Big Ten Championship Game victory over Northwestern; on the flip side, he gave Ohio State its best chance against Alabama in the national title game, leading the team with eight catches for 69 yards.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Olave "has generated a step or more of separation on more than 87 percent of his targets since 2019, the highest rate in the country."

    That kind of playmaking ability is sure to be a boon to whichever quarterback Ohio State starts in 2021. It's also part of the reason he lands a little higher on this list than his Buckeyes teammate.

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    College football may have lost two of its biggest stars at signal-caller when Trevor Lawrence and Fields declared for the draft. But fear not; plenty of quarterback talent remains to light up our screens this fall, and North Carolina's Sam Howell is among them. 

    Howell's game could use some work before he moves to the pros, namely, his decision-making when under pressure. However, there's no denying he has a cannon of an arm.

    Over the last two seasons, Howell was No. 1 in the Power Five in "20-plus-yard completions (66), passing yards (2,654) and touchdowns (32)," per PFF. In 2019, he threw for 38 touchdowns, which set a program and freshman FBS record. He also earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors.

    Last year, the Tar Heels had their highest-profile appearance in a postseason game since 1950 when they played Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl. In 2021, Howell and coach Mack Brown will look to continue the team's upward trajectory. North Carolina led the ACC in total offense (537.3 yards per game) last season, and their 41.7 points per game were second only to Clemson.

    Howell will look to enter both the Heisman Trophy and the 2022 NFL draft No. 1 overall pick conversations.    

Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

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    Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

    Howell won't be the only quarterback looking to enter his name into consideration for the Heisman and the No. 1 pick. Oklahoma signal-caller Spencer Rattler is similarly poised to have an incredible campaign. 

    In his first season as a starter, all Rattler did was throw for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns with a 67.5 percent completion rate, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt. Rattler capped his debut by leading the Sooners to their sixth consecutive Big 12 championship and a blowout win over Florida in the Cotton Bowl. 

    Marvin Mims and Jadon Haselwood will be there every step of the way as Rattler leads one of the country's most explosive offenses.

    It might be early for 2022 NFL draft big boards, but Chris Hummer at 247Sports had Rattler at the top of his list.

    As Hummer pointed out, two of Lincoln Riley's last three quarterbacks went No. 1 overall, and there's no reason to expect Rattler will be different.


    Recruit ratings via 247Sports. Statistics via CFBStats unless otherwise noted.