The Most Irreplaceable Leaders in College Football Since 2010
The best college football teams are all characterized by terrific head coaching jobs and remarkable individual and collective performances. But behind every great team is a leader who makes everything tick.
In some cases, it's an emotional fire plug who keeps everybody at ready. Other times, it's the calming, stoic demeanor that permeates the program. Without them, it's difficult to envision the outcomes being quite so great.
These players are key cogs. In some cases, they're superduper stars, but by no means is that a given. They fill up stat sheets or serve as the heartbeat of a team. They've got dynamic, relatable personalities and become the program's face, often lending their voice through the media.
In all cases, a similar quality they all have is they're irreplaceable leaders.
College football has seen its share of them over the past decade, and while you may not remember all the names, their legacies live—and in the best cases, in the form of national championship hardware.
Ian Book, Notre Dame Quarterback
There may be a lot of offseason buzz surrounding Notre Dame transfer quarterback Jack Coan, who went to South Bend from Wisconsin, but he'll need all the luck he can get.
Replacing a legend isn't easy.
Say what you want about Ian Book's non-traditional game, but the Fighting Irish signal-caller started the past three seasons, accounting for 85 total touchdowns and 9,803 combined passing and rushing yards.
When the Irish needed a play, they often called on Book, whose passing progressed each year. He was an effective runner who routinely sacrificed his body to make the yard marker or goal line. There were more talented quarterbacks, sure, but few had Book's grit.
He defined "leader" for coach Brian Kelly, and it will be tough to replace that type of glue that bonded a national-title contender.
Book's most impressive stat, though, is he became the all-time winningest starting quarterback in Notre Dame history last season, surpassing Tom Clements, Ron Powlus and Brady Quinn.
"Pretty good. I'd like that on my resume," Kelly told WNDU's Mark Skol Jr. "... Again, to achieve at that level at Notre Dame, it's an amazing feat."
Joe Burrow, LSU Quarterback
Joe Burrow may wind up being looked at as one of the top college football quarterbacks of all time.
But on top of his eye-popping numbers, Burrow was the steadying force who was injected into a talent-filled LSU program and made everything mesh for one of the best teams ever, the 2019 national champion Tigers.
He went on to become the first pick in the NFL draft, but that was almost in spite of a skill set many scouts hardly took notice of until his incredible senior season. Once he proved he could do everything on the field, the rest of the package put him over the top.
He's a coach's son "gym rat" who knows more X's and O's than many coaches, and his savvy behind the scenes lent balance and a calming force to head coach Ed Orgeron's excited demeanor. He was poised and produced at an incredible level, winning the Heisman Trophy in a season during which he threw for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns.
When being a glue guy goes hand-in-hand with being the best guy on the field, it can lead to special results, and that's what happened in Baton Rouge in '19. Burrow will always be looked upon as an LSU hero, which is incredible since he was essentially tossed aside by Ohio State.
It wound up being an ideal match for both parties.
Josh Bynes, Auburn Linebacker
The first real unsung player in the group may get overlooked by history, but nobody on the Plains will forget the kind of season linebacker Josh Bynes had for the national champion Auburn Tigers in 2010.
Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and deservedly got all the attention, and powerhouse defensive tackle Nick Fairley received a chunk of the headlines too. But arguably the biggest leader on coach Gene Chizik's Tigers went on to have a solid NFL career, during which his personality continued to blossom.
Bynes led the team in tackles that season with 73 and had 5.5 tackles for loss. He added a sack and three interceptions and was a key cog for a team that came out of nowhere to win a national title.
During that magical season, Bynes made play after play, and he was an insightful, go-to quote for the media during that huge run. He also was a veteran force who'd been at the program and helped incorporate new faces with some holdovers while Chizik rebuilt, and ESPN.com's Chris Low said he was the team's "rock".
"We knew back in the spring that we had the makings of something special. Really, you got that feeling back in the offseason with how committed everybody was to this team," Bynes told Low. "My role was to make sure all the pieces came together."
Bynes rarely came off the field on defense during his final three years at Auburn and was a stabilizing force through good and hard times. In the years since, he's done the same in the NFL as a 10-year veteran, most recently with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"He's like a walking football library," Cincinnati linebacker Logan Wilson told AL.com's Mark Inabinett of Bynes. "He's so smart. He's the smartest player I've ever been around personally. He knows so much football. He knows why the offense does things this way or how we should respond to playing it."
Landon Dickerson, Alabama
With seven Alabama national championship teams in the Nick Saban era, a lot of Crimson Tide players qualify for this list.
AJ McCarron, Greg McElroy, O.J. Howard, Barrett Jones and Javier Arenas come to mind. But UA gets only one player here, and Landon Dickerson deserves respect.
He wasn't the flashiest player for the '20 national-title Tide, which may wind up being viewed as Saban's best team, but Dickerson was its heart and soul.
He possessed an infectious personality and was good for a quick quip with the media.
Dickerson suffered what looked to be a season-ending knee injury late in the SEC Championship Game, but when he got onto the field for the final play of the national-title win, it was one of the year's best moments.
The Tide's emotional leader won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center, and he came a long way after transferring from Florida State and winding up a Tide legend in just two years. After winning the title, he picked up Saban while walking off the field.
"He wasn't supposed to play in the game," Saban said, according to AL.com's Mike Rodak. "He just came off of surgery. But he wanted to go in and snap the ball, so we let him do that, and I guess he was pretty happy for me. But I enjoyed the ride."
Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State Tight End
Jeff Heuerman never put up the gaudiest stats at Ohio State.
He played on a team that had incredible playmakers like Ezekiel Elliott, JT Barrett, Vonn Bell and Michael Thomas. They won a national title in 2014, and coach Urban Meyer's team was talented enough to win even more.
Meyer referred to Heuerman as the "heart and soul" of the Buckeyes during that run, and the team captain had a strong final season in Columbus, highlighting a career that didn't do a lot of damage to box scores but was prolific nonetheless.
"Jeff Heuerman is a guy who's got that kind of work ethic and leadership," Meyer said, according to B/R's Ben Axelrod.
The 6'5", 255-pounder was a big-bodied, blocking-first tight end who did it better than anybody, paving the way for Meyer's spread offense. He also finished the title year with 17 catches for 207 yards and two touchdowns. But it was those unseen things at which he excelled.
He was a constant voice of that title run, and he was such an important piece who gets forgotten about some because of just how many stars were on that team. But he was a captain, a leader and a stabilizing force.
He was also good for a great quote. After Meyer promised his team he'd get a tattoo if it won the title (it hasn't been verified if he followed through), Heuerman told ESPN.com: "I'll supervise it. Trust me. I'm going to be right next to him. The first thing that went through my head is, 'Coach Meyer's getting a tattoo.'"
Byron Marshall, Oregon Running Back/Wide Receiver
Marcus Mariota never won a national championship, but he did pick up the 2014 Heisman Trophy, leading Chip Kelly's Ducks to the first College Football Playoff.
Freshman running back Royce Freeman played a massive role in his first season in Eugene too. But an unsung star was do-it-off offensive dynamo Byron Marshall.
When plays broke down for Mariota, he could look to Marshall, who consistently produced. That year, he finished the season fourth on the team in rushing behind Freeman, Mariota and Thomas Tyner, with 392 rushing yards. But Oregon split him out, too, and that's where Marshall really shined.
He led the team with 74 catches for 1,003 yards and six more touchdowns. A year after leading the Ducks in carries, he led them in catches. Marshall was the definition of selflessness during that playoff run too.
"The team needed me in a different spot," Marshall said, according to the Statesman Journal's Pete Martini. "We took a couple injuries earlier, so I had to step up and play a position I wasn't really planning on, but that's fine. It's for the betterment of the team. I had to put in a lot of extra work to get to where I'm at right now, but it's worth it."
Though the Ducks' run fell just shy of a championship with a loss to Ohio State, Kelly's best team couldn't have accomplished all it did without Marshall, who led the Ducks with eight catches for 169 yards and a touchdown in that title-game loss.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma Quarterback
Baker Mayfield is the O-G Oklahoma transfer quarterback.
When he went to Norman from Texas Tech and exploded in Lincoln Riley's system, it immediately gave the young head coach plenty of clout throughout college football. Suddenly, Riley wasn't just the inexperienced Bob Stoops replacement; he was a young, knowledgeable offensive guru.
Mayfield was everything you could ask for during his time in Norman. Much like Burrow at LSU, he was a fearless leader who posted meganumbers and won the Heisman Trophy. But Mayfield did it in a slightly different way.
Where Burrow was humble and collected, Mayfield's fiery personality was on display as he played (and sometimes spoke) with a chip on his shoulder. He was more of a runner than Burrow, and he would go all-out for a first down and was a miraculous leader who cameras gravitated toward.
Despite not having ideal size at 6'1" or skill set, he was the top overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2018 and is having a quality NFL career, proving it isn't all in size, arm strength or speed. Mayfield has a lot of all those things, though, and he's a top-notch competitor.
The Sooners' final run with Mayfield at the helm ended in a double-overtime semifinal loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoffs.
But by then, Mayfield had etched his name in the annals of OU history and was an irreplaceable player who helped lay the foundation for Riley's impressive program.
Jabrill Peppers, Michigan Safety
Before there was turmoil surrounding Jim Harbaugh's tenure at Michigan, he was turning around the Wolverines with back-to-back 10-win seasons in his first two years in Ann Arbor in 2015 and '16.
Jabrill Peppers blossomed into a star during that time and was invited to the 2016 Heisman Trophy ceremony, where he finished fifth in the voting.
Though he played a lot as a safety, Peppers lined up all over the place. He also played linebacker and was such a star athlete that Harbaugh got him the ball on offense and special teams too. Peppers simply made things happen. He was the epitome of a glue guy, doing whatever it took to win.
Peppers accumulated 66 tackles, with 13 of those going for a loss, finished fourth nationally in punt return yardage (14.8 yards per punt) and was used on offense in the Wildcat formation and as a tailback, rushing 27 times for 167 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught two passes.
According to the Detroit Free Press, U-M tracked Peppers' activity and had him with 933 snaps through the first 12 games. "He played 15 different positions, on offense (53 plays), defense (726 plays) and special teams (154)," per the Free Press.
Though he was just 6'1", 205 pounds and didn't possess the type of size or speed coveted by NFL teams, there were few more impactful college football players.
Peppers displayed selfless leadership as a young player at Michigan, and it's blossomed in the pros as well.
Hunter Renfrow, Clemson Wide Receiver
One of the running jokes on message boards during Hunter Renfrow's time at Clemson was it seemed like he was there for 20 years.
ESPN.com's David M. Hale wrote a hilarious article about it, saying Renfrow redshirted on Clemson's 1981 national title team.
That's what happens when you are a walk-on but get into a key role early in your career before making some of your program's biggest catches in history, including the one from Deshaun Watson that won the Tigers' 2016 national title.
He was also a big part of the '18 championship.
"Some people say they feel like their college experience has flown by," Renfrow said, according to Hale. "Not me. I feel like I've been here forever."
The 5'10", 185-pound gritty receiver personified everything you'd want in a team leader: a relentless worker who wasn't the fastest or most talented. He more than held his own on some of the nation's most talented teams, though, from the time his redshirt came off in 2015 through the next four years.
He finished with 186 career catches for 2,133 yards and 15 touchdowns, including the last-second memory-maker from Watson. When you think of Clemson stars, Renfrow's name may not be at the top of the list, but few players meant more to more good teams.