1 Hidden Gem on Each Top 10 College Football Team in 2021
While star players are the headliners of winning teams, the core of a roster provides the foundation for a successful year.
In most cases, a quarterback, running back or wide receiver draws the most attention. Once in a while, an edge-rusher or other defensive star might be in the spotlight. However, there is always an under-the-radar player who is a vital contributor.
Perhaps it's fitting we're highlighting these players at an offseason moment when many football fans are recovering from the NFL draft. But it still doesn't change their value on fall Saturdays.
The order is based on B/R's post-signing-day Top 25.
10. Oregon Ducks
When you mention Oregon in 2021, the first player discussed will be Kayvon Thibodeaux. He's an explosive edge-rusher who could be a top-five pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
On the back end of the defense, though, the defending Pac-12 champions have a standout in coverage.
Jamal Hill held a small role as a freshman but capitalized on his opportunity in 2020. Three starters―corner Thomas Graham, nickel Jevon Holland and safety Brady Breeze―in the secondary opted out.
Hill replaced Holland at nickelback and thrived, collecting 20 tackles with two interceptions and four pass breakups.
"I can't say enough great things about him," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said of Hill, per Erik Skopil of 247Sports. "A huge year coming up for him. A huge future for Jamal Hill."
9. Texas A&M Aggies
In a cruel twist of fate, Caleb Chapman's 2020 season ended with his 51-yard touchdown catch against Florida. The 6'5" wideout landed awkwardly and tore the ACL in his right knee on the play.
But the setback likely only delayed his breakout year.
During his three appearances, Chapman pulled in 14 passes for 197 yards and three scores. Most of that production came on that bittersweet day when Texas A&M upset Florida.
While the Aggies need to replace longtime quarterback Kellen Mond, Chapman will play a key role in easing the transition.
8. Cincinnati Bearcats
Led by quarterback Desmond Ridder, the Bearcats put together a perfect regular season in 2020. The defense featured a quartet of first-team All-AAC choices in edge-rusher Myjai Sanders and defensive backs Ahmad Gardner, Coby Bryant and James Wiggins.
It's safe to say Arquon Bush found himself overshadowed in 2020.
Nevertheless, he completed a relentless trio alongside Gardner and Bryant. Bush spent a heavy majority of his snaps at nickelback, posting 21 tackles with two interceptions.
Last season, Cincinnati ranked fifth nationally with 6.0 yards allowed per pass attempt, allowed just seven touchdowns and intercepted 16 passes. Wiggins is now in the NFL, but the other four players all return for Cincinnati in 2021.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina leaned on inside linebackers Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel, who finished first and second on the team in tackles last season. Yet quietly, Eugene Asante had a promising year.
Asante held a regular role on special teams and factored into the rotation at linebacker. He notched seven tackles in a win over Virginia Tech but otherwise didn't have noteworthy stats. That all changed in the Orange Bowl when Surratt opted out of the game.
Despite the loss to Texas A&M, Asante showed off his excellent range while recording a team-high 10 tackles.
Now that Surratt―a third-round selection of the Minnesota Vikings―is gone, Asante is expected to start next to Gemmel.
6. Iowa State Cyclones
Offensive linemen have a huge level of responsibility and typically receive zero attention. It's even unusual to know the name of a starter who doesn't play for your favorite team.
But remember this one: Trevor Downing.
Iowa State is considered a second-tier championship contender thanks to an offense that returns quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall and tight end Charlie Kolar. Downing, meanwhile, will be a cornerstone of a veteran offensive line.
Last season, Downing only played in the opener. He missed the rest of the campaign with a lower body injury.
But after a standout year as a freshman in 2019, Downing will reclaim his spot at left guard in 2021. And if the Cyclones win the Big 12, it's fair to assume Downing and the blocking unit excelled.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
After a stretch with Joey Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa and Chase Young, Ohio State lacked a superstar edge-rusher in 2020. Instead, the Buckeyes were strongest on the inside.
That may remain true in 2021, but Ohio State must replace defensive tackle Tommy Togiai. He entered the NFL draft and went to the Cleveland Browns as a fourth-round pick. As a result, the Buckeyes will rely more on Haskell Garrett in the middle.
And it's a downright miracle that's even possible.
In late August 2020, Garrett tried to break up a fight between a man and a woman, per Columbus Police. The man reportedly shot Garrett in the face; the bullet entered one cheek and exited the other.
Garrett still made eight appearances last season, notching 20 tackles with four stops for loss and two sacks.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
Jake Camarda only meanders onto the field for kickoffs and punts, so Georgia doesn't see him often.
No matter the reason, though, he's consistently excellent.
Last year, Camarda posted the second-highest touchback rate on kickoffs in the country. And when he didn't reach the end zone, opponents still didn't do much. Georgia finished eighth nationally with just 16.8 yards allowed per kick return.
Respect your specialists.
3. Clemson Tigers
It's finally Lyn-J Dixon's time to shine.
After arriving at Clemson in 2018, he served as the backup to Travis Etienne. Dixon, understandably, received only scattered snaps as Etienne sprinted his way to program records of 4,952 yards and 70 rushing touchdowns in his career.
Dixon still averaged 6.6 yards per carry in three seasons, totaling 500-plus rushing yards in both his freshman and sophomore years.
Clemson also has Kobe Pace, Chez Mellusi and 2021 5-star addition Will Shipley, but Dixon will headline the backfield in 2021.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
Blocking backs won't make or break an offense, but Oklahoma's scoring attack is most effective with a player like Jeremiah Hall.
For simplicity, think of him as a cross between a fullback and tight end. Most often, the 6'2", 244-pounder is used as a blocker―which he does quite well. However, the Sooners also utilize his versatility and target him as a receiver.
While his 18 catches ranked fifth on the offense last season, Hall finished second with five touchdowns. Head coach Lincoln Riley has a knack for sneaking Hall out of the backfield at the perfect time.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler is a Heisman Trophy front-runner. Kennedy Brooks should be among the nation's top running backs. The receiving corps is stacked with highly recruited talent. Hall adds an extra dimension to that powerful offense.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Late in the season, Alabama's Jahleel Billingsley began producing at a much higher rate. His recognition slowly started to grow while he caught touchdowns against Auburn, LSU and in the College Football Playoff semifinal opposite Notre Dame.
Oh, and he's a tight end who returns kickoffs. How's that for a gem?
Since the Crimson Tide must replace DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Jaylen Waddle in 2021, Billingsley's profile may be primed to soar. John Metchie III should be Alabama's top receiver, but Billingsley offers an explosive target in the middle of the field.
He ended the 2020 season with 18 catches for 287 yards and has an excellent shot at tripling that output in 2021.