Ranking the Top 10 Juniors for the 2021 College Football Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2021

Ranking the Top 10 Juniors for the 2021 College Football Season

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    College football's 2021 junior class is straight-up loaded.

    How else can you explain why some legitimate conference Player of the Year candidates didn't make our list of best juniors?  

    You may argue defensive stars such as Oklahoma's Nik Bonitto, Iowa State's Will McDonald IV, Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton and Purdue's George Karlaftis belong, and your beef would be legit.

    Offensive playmakers such as Ole Miss' Matt Corral and Jerrion Ealy, Oklahoma's Eric Gray, Clemson's Justyn Ross, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., USC receiver Drake London, Texas A&M's Jalen Wydermyer and Isaiah Spiller just missed the list. Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal easily could fit here too.

    There are too many elite talents to list who didn't make the cut.

    Still, we whittled down the group using production, projection and potential to be a megastar.

10. David Bell, Purdue Wide Receiver

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    When it comes to flashy players, the Purdue Boilermakers just watched Mr. Pizzazz, receiver Rondale Moore, head to the NFL. Unfortunately for them, he was never fully healthy after an incredible freshman year.

    Purdue still has a more reliable playmaker, though.

    While Moore only played seven games over the last two seasons, the emergence of pass-catcher David Bell reverberated not only in the Big Ten but also across the nation. The 2019 4-star recruit from Indianapolis was the nation's No. 113 player for a reason. He should have been ranked higher in retrospect.

    Bell isn't imposing at 6'2", 205 pounds, but his game speaks for itself. After earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year two seasons ago, he was an all-conference performer in '20.

    In two years (18 games), Bell has 139 catches for 1,660 yards and 15 touchdowns. He isn't just a product of a pass-happy system, either. No matter who coach Jeff Brohm's quarterback is, Bell produces. He runs pristine routes, has terrific hands and is silky smooth.

    This may be his final season in West Lafayette, Indiana, and he will make an NFL team really happy soon.

9. Dillon Gabriel, UCF Quarterback

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Former UCF head coach Josh Heupel's high-octane attack had the ideal weapon to make it all work. With Gus Malzahn coming in, he's inheriting a quarterback who could be the best player in the Group of Five.

    That player, of course, is Knights quarterback Dillon Gabriel.

    The Hawaii native isn't the biggest player at 6'0", 186 pounds, and he doesn't have the strongest arm. But all he's done since arriving on campus is produce massive scoring numbers.

    In two years at the helm after eventually taking over for injured McKenzie Milton, who went down in 2018 with a devastating knee injury, Gabriel has completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 7,223 yards, 61 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. For a team that threw the ball around as much as Heupel's did, that's impressive.

    Malzahn knows what he has.

    "Dillon's had an outstanding spring," the head coach told reporters. "His accuracy really stands out to me. He's got great command of the offense."

    Milton was a major question mark coming back from a two-year injury hiatus, but he was a star when he was healthy. Even so, this became Gabriel's team, and Milton has moved to Florida State. The Knights will go as far as Gabriel's arm and scrambling ability take them.

8. Jayden Daniels, Arizona State Quarterback

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    When you've got such a small sample size as the COVID-19-ravaged Arizona State Sun Devils had a season ago, it's difficult to read too much into a 2-2 record.

    But there are still a bunch of offensive playmakers who should make fans in the desert excited about the 2021 season. 

    The conductor of this potentially fast-moving train is rising junior quarterback Jayden Daniels, who followed a superb freshman year by impressing everybody with limited reps in '20.

    After throwing for 2,943 yards, running for 355 and accounting for 20 total touchdowns in his first year in Tempe, Daniels followed it up by throwing for 701 yards in four games with five touchdowns and just one interception. He also averaged 6.8 rushing yards per carry (223 on the ground) and put up four more scores.

    Now, he's saying the things a leader would and setting lofty team expectations.

    "Personally for me, no matter what, I want to leave a legacy," Daniels told reporters this spring. "Going down the road, I want to win a Rose Bowl. … It's been a very long time here. The fans deserve that, this team deserves it. That's what we've been working for each and every day."

    There's exactly nobody worried about Daniels' performance. The dual-threat California native has done nothing but impress since he showed up, and this could be his biggest year yet.

7. Jarek Broussard, Colorado Running Back

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    A year ago, nobody could have predicted running back Jarek Broussard would have made a list like this. He wasn't even a household name in his own program, much less in the Pac-12 or the nation.

    Then came the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, and the third-year sophomore surged. He redshirted in 2018 and missed all of 2019 after a season-ending knee injury. Once he got the opportunity to run the ball while healthy, he was the best player in the Pac-12.

    Last year, he won the conference's Offensive Player of the Year after running for 895 yards and five touchdowns in six games, leading the surprising Buffaloes to the cusp of the Pac-12 South title.

    That didn't take anything away from Broussard's performance. He finished third nationally in rushing yards per game, and that was with restrictions, as he had to wear a knee brace.

    "Personally, looking at film from last year I've noticed that the brace kind of restricted me to a lot of things," Broussard said, according to Stay Alive in Power Five's Lynn Harrington. "So this spring I'm going without the brace, and honestly I'm feeling a lot better and a lot faster."

    That's huge news for a Buffs team that needs the Dallas native to be a superstar once again to continue to make noise in an improving conference.

6. Kedon Slovis, USC Quarterback

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    You may think this ranking is a bit low for USC quarterback Kedon Slovis. The Trojans quarterback is in the perfect system for him, but he needs to capitalize on the team's talent with a conference championship.

    Until then, he'll have to settle for being one of the best players in the junior class. He's got the ability to be the best but was disappointing in a Pac-12 title-game loss to the Ducks last year when he threw three picks.

    For the season, he tallied 17 scoring tosses and seven interceptions. While he had moments of brilliance, he was anything but consistent. With weapons such as Drake London, Bru McCoy and others in tow, he could be in for a big year.

    It's time for him to be what many thought he could be when he took over for an injured JT Daniels in 2019 and became one of the sport's biggest revelations, throwing 30 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and completing 71.9 percent of his passes.

    An injured elbow did not help matters a season ago. But after a bit of a sophomore slump, he's ready to rock.

    "My whole life, I've been confident with my accuracy and me throwing a football," Slovis told Los Angeles Times reporter Ryan Kartje. "Last season, I'd say for the first time was kind of a point where I wasn't there entirely."       

5. Garrett Wilson, Ohio State Wide Receiver

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    NFL teams are biding their time, waiting on Garrett Wilson's pro eligibility. The Ohio State Buckeyes are probably glad they've got him at least another year.

    The 2019 5-star prospect from Austin, Texas, somehow got out of the Longhorns' grasp and headed to Columbus, and he's done nothing but produce since. That was with Justin Fields flinging darts for the Buckeyes. With the QB gone, head coach Ryan Day needs him even more.

    Wilson is part of the nation's top playmaking duo of pass-catchers alongside Chris Olave. He's also posted quality stats the past two years, so there's no reason to think that will end this season. Ohio State will have a talented quarterback throwing to him, no matter who wins the job.

    In two years with the Buckeyes, Wilson has caught 73 passes for 1,155 yards and 11 touchdowns. He can make the hard catches, extend possessions and stretch the field. Wilson does it all, and that's why he has the potential to be the nation's top receiver.

    Letterman Row's Austin Ward reported this spring that Wilson is "finding another gear" in practice, which is scary for the rest of the Big Ten.

    It's that kind of promise that led CBS Sports' Barrett Sallee to write he has "hands like velcro, hops like LeBron, and, in addition to being one of the top receiving prospects in the country, could probably make a run at the NBA if he really wanted."

    Pure skills.

4. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU Tigers

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    After a first-team All-American campaign as a true freshman, 2019 5-star prospect Derek Stingley Jr. never could quite regain that form a season ago. He missed the season's final two games, and an illness-related hospital stay hampered him early in the year.

    Stingley finished with 27 tackles, five pass deflections and zero interceptions. His ineffectiveness wasn't a reason the Bayou Bengals fell to 5-5, but his return to form would be huge for coach Ed Orgeron's team.

    They need to find a way to get such a dynamic player's hands on the ball, too, which is why he may wind up playing on both sides.

    Orgeron told reporters:

    "Here's the deal: I talked to his dad, I talked to him. We have a new defense coming in. I want him to be able to learn the defense this spring. Obviously, it's a lot of the same things for the corners. You're either in press-man or you're in zone, but he wanted to be able to master the defense before we even think about moving him to offense. That's something we're going to discuss this summer before camp."

    If there's a junior who could thrive in a Comeback Player of the Year situation, it's Stingley. His skill set didn't go away, and there's nobody in the nation more talented than him, regardless of position. Look for him to show out and return to his 2019 form.

3. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon Edge-Rusher

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Kayvon Thibodeaux didn't receive as much fanfare in 2020, but he had a strong follow-up campaign after a freshman year that had everybody talking. He made several second- and third-team All-American lists in 2020.

    With another year in the weight room and a full season ahead of him, though, Thibodeaux is ready to realize his massive potential. This likely could be his last year in Eugene, so there's no question the Oregon Ducks edge-rusher wants to show NFL scouts what he can do.

    It's going to be plenty.

    According to his Oregon profile, the 6'5", 250-pound star "has a combined 18 quarterback pressures, 10 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in two career Pac-12 championship games." When the lights are the brightest, the California native is at his best.

    He's led Oregon in sacks and tackles for loss in back-to-back seasons, and he is one of the most explosive players in college football. Even enduring double-teams like he did all season, Thibodeaux still produced in a big way, and he'll continue to do it throughout his days as a Duck.

    With talent all around him, opponents can't focus too much on him, and that will lead to sacks, hurries and headlines. He's going to have one of the biggest years of any player in the sport.

2. Breece Hall, Iowa State Running Back

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    There's nothing flashy about Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell's program. It just wins. That's mostly because of the Cyclones' spectacular star running back, Breece Hall, who is the definition of dependable despite never being the back with the most hype.

    All Hall does is produce.

    Last year, the first-team All-American and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year showed the nation what he was capable of, finishing just behind Alabama's Najee Harris for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back, and finishing in the top six of the Heisman Trophy voting.

    This may be Hall's year to get the headlines and the hardware. The 6'1", 215-pound Wichita, Kansas, native led the nation with 1,572 rushing yards and caught 23 balls for 180 yards. He also scored 23 total touchdowns and torched Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.

    Campbell told the Des Moines Register this spring he thinks Hall is the perfect running back, and there's no reason he shouldn't. Hall has been a mass producer since he stepped onto campus in Ames, and he's gotten better each year.

    With such a huge season expected from the Cyclones, Hall will have the spotlight focused firmly on him, and when he posts the same type of steady, stellar numbers he always does, he'll keep showing the nation why he's college football's best running back in 2021 and the second-best player in his class.

1. Sam Howell, North Carolina Quarterback

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Sam Howell is first on this list because of his explosive ability and elite potential, not only for this level but also the next one. There's no rising junior with a higher offensive ceiling than the North Carolina quarterback.

    When he's got weapons around him, he's the battery who makes the clock tick.

    When Howell flipped from Florida State to his home-state Tar Heels three recruiting classes ago, it set the wheels in motion for coach Mack Brown to rebuild the program. It's nowhere near a finished product, but Howell led the Heels to the Orange Bowl a season ago.

    Plenty of weapons bolted for the NFL, but it's up to Howell to prove he can still terrorize defenses with a flick of the wrist. It's not like the cupboard is bare, either. 

    Receivers Khafre Brown and Josh Downs are budding playmakers, and with a confident, talented veteran signal-caller like Howell throwing them the ball, this North Carolina offense should thrive. Tennessee running back transfer Ty Chandler will help matters too.

    But the player who does it all and is an irreplaceable star for Brown is Howell, who has completed more than 64.4 percent of his collegiate passes in two years for an astounding 7,227 yards, 68 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions.

    ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. mentioned Howell on the First Draft podcast as being a player NFL teams can't wait to acquire, and a recent '22 mock draft on Pro Football Network had Howell going first overall.

    He is the nation's best returning quarterback in 2021.

                     

    Recruit rankings via 247Sports. Stats via CFBStats and Sports Reference unless otherwise noted. 

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