College Football Players Poised for Bounce-Back Years in 2021

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2021

College Football Players Poised for Bounce-Back Years in 2021

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    Penn State QB Sean Clifford
    Penn State QB Sean CliffordBarry Reeger/Associated Press

    Although we like to think progress is linear, players who thrive early in their college football careers don't always have a consistently upward trajectory.

    Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's no surprise some standouts had an underwhelming 2020 season. But after a more typical offseason of workouts, practices and development, this group of players has a great opportunity to rebound in 2021.

    The list is focused on previous high-production players who either dealt with injuries or didn't meet expectations last season while on the field.

    Players who opted out of the 2020 campaign, such as Oklahoma running back Kennedy Brooks, are not considered.

Injury Bounce-Back Candidates to Know

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
    • Clemson WR Justyn Ross
    • Florida State QB McKenzie Milton
    • Georgia WR George Pickens
    • Kansas State QB Skylar Thompson
    • LSU QB Myles Brennan
    • Michigan Edge Aidan Hutchinson
    • North Carolina CB Storm Duck
    • Purdue DE George Karlaftis
    • SMU WR Reggie Roberson Jr.
    • Wisconsin QB Jack Coan

Sean Clifford, QB, Penn State

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    As a whole, Penn State is eyeing a bounce-back year. After an 11-2 season in 2019, the Nittany Lions started 2020 with five straight losses before managing a 4-5 final record.

    Sean Clifford is a perfect example of that struggle.

    The dual-threat quarterback had a superb year in 2019 but ended up benched at various points last season. Will Levis attempted 55 passes and held a regular role as a runner.

    However, Levis has since transferred to Kentucky, leaving Clifford as the clear starter. Plus, Penn State brought in a new offensive coordinator (Mike Yurcich) and returns star wideout Jahan Dotson along with running back Noah Cain and four offensive linemen.

    Clifford has a much-improved outlook in 2021.

Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    In fairness to Jayden Daniels, the Sun Devils had a nightmare of a 2020 season.

    Arizona State lost a heartbreaker to USC in the opener, didn't play for a month because of COVID-19 protocols and returned with a loss to UCLA. By any metric, 2020 stunk.

    Well, except for beating Arizona. At least the Sun Devils can cling to that rivalry win.

    However, Daniels went 11-of-23 for only 134 yards against USC and mustered only 6.4 yards per throw against UCLA. Arizona State looked like a strong Pac-12 South contender but quickly faded from that conversation.

    Thanks to eight returning starters beyond Daniels, the Sun Devils should return to being a respected threat in the division.

Peyton Hendershot, TE, Indiana

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    In 2019, Indiana recorded its first eight-win season in 26 years. Tight end Peyton Hendershot played a key role, finishing second on the team in both catches (52) and yards (622).

    Although the Hoosiers' success continued with a 6-2 record last season, Hendershot's production dropped sharply. He never topped 40 yards in a game—something he accomplished 10 times in 2019—and managed only 23 receptions for 151 yards.

    Ty Fryfogle is back to lead Indiana's receiving corps for signal-caller Michael Penix Jr., but Hendershot needs to help replace the impact of key target Whop Philyor.

Tanner Morgan, QB, Minnesota

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    When the Golden Gophers ripped off a 9-0 start in 2019 and totaled 11 wins, Tanner Morgan became a national name.

    That season, he posted a 66.0 completion percentage with 30 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. Morgan ranked fourth in the country with 10.2 yards per attempt.

    Between his success and the return of star wideout Rashod Bateman, expectations were high in 2020. However, Morgan never came close to matching them. He trudged to a 57.9 completion rate, only 7.5 yards per throw and seven touchdowns to five picks.

    Bateman is off to the NFL, but Chris Autman-Bell returns and gives Morgan an excellent No. 1 target.

Charleston Rambo, WR, Miami

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    CeeDee Lamb highlighted Oklahoma's pass-catching group in 2019, but Charleston Rambo had a tremendous year, too. He collected 43 receptions for 743 yards and five touchdowns.

    Though the Sooners hoped for Rambo to become the leading target in 2020, it didn't happen. His 4-80-2 line in the opener against Southwest Missouri State was the high point. In six appearances from mid-October through the end of the regular season, he tallied only 10 catches for 96 yards and didn't score.

    Rambo decided to transfer and landed at Miami, which returns Mike Harley but lacked a consistent No. 2 wideout in 2020.

    As long as quarterback D'Eriq King recovers from his ACL injury, the 'Canes could have a much stronger receiving corps this season led by Harley and Rambo.

Tyquan Thornton, WR, Baylor

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Tyquan Thornton broke into Baylor's rotation in 2018, snaring 20 passes for 354 yards and three scores. He became a key player as a sophomore, ranking second in receptions (45), yards (782) and touchdowns (five) for the 11-win Bears.

    However, he had a quiet season last year.

    Thornton dealt with undisclosed injuries but hauled in only 16 catches for 158 yards and one touchdown in six starts. After making 13 receptions of 25-plus yards in 2019, he managed only one in 2020.

    While the Bears are a work in progress offensively—especially at quarterback and on the offensive line—Thornton recapturing his form as a big-play threat would be an immense help.

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