Ranking the Top 10 Sophomores Heading into the 2021 College Football Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2021

Ranking the Top 10 Sophomores Heading into the 2021 College Football Season

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Every year in college football, the field is loaded with youngsters who are making an instant impact. There's so much talent it's impossible to keep them all off the field.

    Even with COVID-19 robbing most programs of spring practice (and swaths of the season) in 2020, that held true once again. Plenty of freshmen became household names, and those guys are going to be superstar sophomores in 2021. 

    There are just too many elite players to include everybody in a top-10 list.

    Your top group may include players such as Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, receivers Kayshon Boutte (LSU), Marvin Mims (Oklahoma) and Bru McCoy (USC), tight end Michael Mayer (Notre Dame), running backs Tank Bigsby (Auburn), Deuce Vaughn (Kansas State) and Zach Evans (TCU) or offensive tackle Peter Skoronski (Northwestern).

    Budding defensive studs like TCU's Khari Coleman, LSU's BJ Ojulari, Louisiana Tech linebacker Tyler Grubbs, Alabama defensive back Malachi Moore and North Carolina rising cornerback Tony Grimes have a major argument, too.

    But there can only be 10. Those guys narrowly missed, but using production, projection and mega-star mentality as the gauge, let's take a look at the top sophomores (true or redshirt) heading into this season.

10. Eli Ricks, LSU Cornerback

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Another year, another impressive LSU cornerback. Rinse, repeat.

    It's becoming status quo for self-professed "DBU" in Baton Rouge, and the football program certainly has earned that moniker over the years. It's been no different during the Ed Orgeron regime with Derek Stingley Jr.'s breakout 2019 campaign, followed by Eli Ricks in 2020.

    Yes, he had some growing pains like most freshmen, but the former 5-star cornerback narrowly edges 11th-place finisher Tony Grimes of North Carolina because of his premier production. Both players have bright futures, but there were glimmers of brilliance for Ricks in the presence.

    The Bayou Bengals won a cross-country recruiting battle, bringing him in from California, and he made an impact right away, tying for second in the SEC with four interceptions. He added 20 tackles and five pass deflections, but his overall value can't be determined by numbers.

    He was named third-team All-American by the Associated Press and was a lockdown stalwart at times. Oh, and he has game-breaking potential as well, proving it by returning two of his interceptions for touchdowns.

    Ricks is going to be a star if he stays healthy, and he already showed plenty of promise in 2020. This year, he could wind up a first-team All-American if Stingley is healthy. It's going to be a pick-your-poison situation in Death Valley.

9. Noah Sewell, Oregon Linebacker

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    It's extremely difficult to place a linebacker on this list after such a small sample size with all of the great talent in his class, but if anybody belongs, it's Oregon's Noah Sewell.

    If the name sounds familiar, there's a reason for that; he's the brother of 2019 Outland Trophy winner (and future first-round draft pick) Penei Sewell. The younger Sewell was a 5-star recruit lived up to massive expectations in 2020, immediately getting on the field for coach Mario Cristobal.

    He was one of the most productive defenders in the country when he did.

    The Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year is a 6'3", 250-pound force of nature who is the size of a down lineman but runs all over the field like he belongs on the second level. He was one of two FBS true freshmen to lead his team in tackles with 45.

    Sewell also registered two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. With the way Cristobal has recruited to Eugene, it's really saying something to be so good as a first-year player that it's impossible to keep you off the field.

    He is only going to get better, and with another offseason in the weight room and after learning on the job in 2020, he should be one of the biggest defensive playmakers in all of college football. He's a can't-miss talent who deserves every bit as much hype as teammate Kayvon Thibodeaux.

8. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina Quarterback

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    Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    You may think Grayson McCall has limitations considering he was overlooked by the majority of FBS programs in the country, didn't get a sniff at a Power Five program and wound up at Coastal Carolina.

    But watch him play, and you'll realize he's one of the biggest playmakers in all of college football, regardless of conference. His game would translate anywhere.

    At 6'3", 200 pounds, he possesses good size, features a strong arm and has the type of athleticism that is necessary to play the position at a high level. A year ago, he was the catalyst for the biggest feel-good story of the 2020 season.

    Coach Jamey Chadwell's Chanticleers finished the year 11-1, with the only loss coming 37-34 to Liberty in overtime in the Cure Bowl. Perhaps the biggest asset McCall has is he's a gamer who shows up best with matchups on the line, as he did in a comeback victory over Troy.

    He finished his redshirt freshman campaign completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,488 yards, 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He added 569 rushing yards and seven scoring runs, and he was must-see TV every time the Chanticleers were on.

    Perhaps the best thing is he has three more seasons of eligibility and could leave college as one of the most decorated players in a long while. He is good enough to get even better and wind up in the NFL someday.

7. Kyren Williams, Notre Dame Running Back

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    It's asking a lot of a player getting his first real collegiate action to step into the spotlight for one of the most storied programs and take on a feature role, but Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams did just that in 2020.

    He was just as critical to the Fighting Irish getting into the College Football Playoff as veteran signal-caller Ian Book. Completing the two-headed offensive monster for coach Brian Kelly, the former 4-star running back from St. Louis emerged as a superstar.

    The ACC Rookie of the Year finished the season with 1,125 rushing yards on a 5.3 average and scored 13 touchdowns. He also caught 35 passes for 313 yards and another score, proving he can do it all, and his ceiling for the future is high.

    Teaming with Chris Tyree for the next few years, Williams should be a steady star for Kelly, who is going to need the running game to carry the team as the Irish break in Book's replacement. In all likelihood, that will be Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, who is used to having a stellar back behind him.

    Williams produces big numbers despite coming in a small package (5'9" 195 pounds), and he should be the next great Irish back. Look for him to flirt with 1,000 rushing yards every season he's in South Bend.

    Production on a high-profile team is what sets him apart from other runners like Tank Bigsby, who didn't make the list.

6. Brandon Joseph, Northwestern Defensive Back

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    There was no more productive freshman in the nation in 2020 than Northwestern defensive back Brandon Joseph.

    Despite not being known for exciting youngsters, the Wildcats featured redshirt freshman Joseph and true freshman offensive tackle Peter Skoronski, who were two of the best players at their position in college football, regardless of class.

    Joseph was named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press and American Football Coaches Association, and he was even more decorated than that, as his Northwestern profile shows. How did a 6'1", 192-pound defensive back from College Station, Texas, who is that talented slip away from Jimbo Fisher's Aggies?

    They've got to be kicking themselves after a year where Joseph accumulated 52 tackles, snagged six interceptions and had eight passes defended. He was named the Big Ten's Newcomer of the Year by the Associated Press, for good reason.

    Pro Football Focus rated him the No. 1 safety in the nation, a far cry from the 3-star prospect and 130th-ranked player in the state of Texas he was coming out of high school. Joseph told KAGS TV's Mike Lucas that as the season went on, he gained more confidence.

    "I knew I was a performer, knew I was a ballhawk and a good safety. I knew if I trusted myself, I could do what anyone else can," Joseph said. "I didn't expect this from myself, but when I went out there and played a few games, got in a rhythm, it was just me being me."

5. Bryan Bresee, Clemson Defensive Tackle

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    It only gets tougher to rank the biggest of the superstars from here through the rest of the story, because everybody else is already among the most dominant players at his respective position.

    At no point of the 2020 season did Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee look like a true freshman.

    The nation's former top-ranked prospect of the 2020 recruiting class lived up to the hype, wreaking havoc on quarterbacks almost from the outset. Not only was he a force stopping the run, but his ability to apply pressure from the interior is almost unnatural.

    Bresee can do it all, and there was almost no learning curve at all for the 6'5", 290-pound Damascus, Maryland product. The ridiculous thing is he might not even be the best defensive lineman on his own team, but that does nothing to diminish his impact.

    The ACC certainly thought Bresee was the best out of all first-year defenders. He was named the league's  Defensive Rookie of the Year with 33 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss, four sacks, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a safety. He started 10 games for the Tigers.

    Perhaps the scariest thing is Bresee is only just scratching the surface of his potential. This spring, he has terrorized teammates, leading coach Dabo Swinney to tell TigerNet's David Hood that Bresee was "a problem." And that's a good problem for Clemson to have over the next few years.

4. Bijan Robinson, Texas Running Back

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Don't just look at Bijan Robinson's 2020 stats and think he's going to be a so-so player. Yes, the numbers are a bit pedestrian, but coach Tom Herman didn't even really lean on him until the latter half of the season.

    Once he did, the former 5-star from Arizona was one of the biggest playmakers in all of college football.

    Consider this: During his first five games, he had just 39 carries for 181 yards and zero touchdowns. Herman had a brand new Porsche just parked in the garage.

    Once Robinson got revved up, he left everybody in the dust.

    During the final two games of the season, he was flat-out absurd. He ran for 172 yards on nine carries and scored three times against Kansas State and added three catches for 51 yards to set up his grand finale in the Alamo Bowl dismantling of Colorado.

    In that game, Robinson torched a quality defense for 183 yards on 10 carries, scoring once on the ground and two more times through the air while posting 220 total yards in the win. Robinson finished the year with 899 total yards and six touchdowns, but he averaged 8.2 yards per carry.

    The Houston Chronicle's Nick Moyle wrote back in early November that in Robinson's breakout game against West Virginia, some were already comparing him to Longhorns legend Ricky Williams.

    Few head coaches know offense as well as new Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, so look for Robinson to realize his full potential in this system. 

3. Myles Murphy, Clemson Defensive End

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    Matt Gentry/Associated Press

    As terrific as Bryan Bresee was during his true freshman season, classmate Myles Murphy may have been even better. 

    If you ask 100 Clemson fans, they would probably be split down middle with regard to which player was better in 2020 and who has the highest ceiling. They're both absolute superstars already, and the Tigers are going to be a force along the front of the defensive line for at least the next two years.

    Then the NFL is going to get two early first-round phenoms.

    In early December, Murphy was Pro Football Focushighest-graded run defender in the nation, and the 6'5", 275-pound lineman from Marietta, Georgia, was also a dominant edge-rusher. He's big, fast and does everything well. It's incredible what his football acumen is already.

    According to his Clemson profile, Murphy finished the year with 51 tackles, including 12 for a loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles and a pass breakup. He was named ACC Co-Newcomer of the year by the Associated Press, and he was a catalyst for coordinator Brent Venables.

    Murphy believes he's going to be even better this season and beyond. He told SI.com's Zach Lentz he is just now realizing what he can do from a physical standpoint.

    "Last year physically I came in at 6'5", 265 and I was building into my college body," Murphy said. "Now that I'm in my college body, I'm way far ahead of where I need to be endurance-wise, and pretty much everything because I'm moving very well right now with my weight, and I'm looking good right now."

    That's not good news for the rest of college football.

2. Will Anderson Jr., Alabama Linebacker

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    The Alabama defense was nowhere near as decorated as its offense a season ago, but the national champions improved all over the field on that side of the ball, too. A major reason for that was because of elite true freshman edge-rusher Will Anderson Jr.

    The "Jack" linebacker was just too talented to keep off the field in his first season. The 6'4", 235-pound defensive star from Hampton, Georgia, exploded onto the scene and wound up the best first-year defensive player in the country.

    Anderson finished third in the SEC with seven sacks and started every home game for the Crimson Tide. He wound up with 52 tackles, a forced fumble and eight quarterback pressures. He also blocked a field goal against Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

    Nobody recruits like coach Nick Saban. He identifies talent early and makes them even better through development, so Anderson could wind up an even bigger name than a guy like Kayvon Thibodeaux before his career is over.

    Anderson boasts tremendous athleticism and one of the quickest first steps off the edge in college football. It doesn't hurt that he has one of the coolest nicknames in all of college football: He's been dubbed "The Terminator," according to Roll Bama Roll.

    During Saban's tenure, Courtney Upshaw, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Terrell Lewis were all standout edge-rushers, but Anderson should wind up topping them all.

1. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma Quarterback

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Tremendous sophomores speckle college football's landscape in 2021, but there is nobody with higher expectations or upside than Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler.

    It's unreal how far he came in the second two-thirds of the 2020 season, and he has positioned himself as the Heisman Trophy front-runner entering his redshirt sophomore season in Norman.

    Despite not possessing prototypical quarterback size or speed at 6'1" and 205 pounds, the Phoenix product can do a little bit of everything and a lot of the best things, which are winning and churning out big numbers.

    He's the perfect maestro for coach Lincoln Riley's system, and though he was benched at one point early in '20, he rebounded and proved there was no reason for OU to go out looking for a transfer quarterback to fill the cleats of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts before him.

    Rattler is living up to his former 5-star billing as the nation's top-ranked quarterback in the 2019 class coming out of high school. A season ago, Rattler completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ran for six more scores, though that isn't his game.

    With a ton of returning weapons at receiver and Oklahoma loaded virtually everywhere, Rattler should produce even bigger numbers this year, and it wouldn't be out of the question for him to leap to the NFL after this season.

    Rattler is that good, and he's worthy of the top ranking on this list because he's a leader, he responded to tough love from his coach, and he led the Sooners to a Big 12 title in 2020. Could a national title be next?


    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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