College Football's Best Returning Players for 2021

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 18, 2021

College Football's Best Returning Players for 2021

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    Chris Olave
    Chris OlaveJay LaPrete/Associated Press

    During the last decade, an undeniable trend emerged. For very understandable and financial reasons, the best college football players often bolted for the NFL as soon as possible. But there's always a small group of top performers who stay in school.

    In 2021, these standouts include some popular namesMiami's D'Eriq King and Ohio State's Chris Olave, for exampleand under-the-radar stars, such as Liberty's Malik Willis.

    Two notes for clarity: The following players were draft-eligible prospects but decided to return for another year; Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler and Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux don't satisfy the first part of that requirement. And these players are not necessarily the best NFL prospects; the focus is squarely on their college performance.

    While the list is subjective, it considers past contributions and projected impact in 2021.

Jamaree Salyer, OL, Georgia

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    Jamaree Salyer, a 5-star lineman in the 2018 class, has showed off fantastic versatility at Georgia.

    After logging backup snaps at four positions as a freshman, Salyer earned a couple of starts at right tackle in 2019. Last year, he opened nine of UGA's 10 games at left tackle and shifted to left guard for the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati.

    And in 2021, he might be the starting center.

    Salyer has developed into an exceptionally reliable blocker whom Georgia can move around to fill whatever need is most pressing. There's a strong chance he'll land All-America recognition this fall.

Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Tyler Linderbaum, on the other hand, is already an All-American. Iowa's center received AP second-team recognition last year.

    The 6'3", 290-pounder first joined the Hawkeyes lineup in 2019, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten. In 2020, Linderbaum was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center. Yet he didn't consider leaving for the NFL draft.

    "I wanted to compete with my buddies," he said, per Chad Leistikow of the Des Moines Register. "There's a lot more to do, a lot more to improve on. ... I was coming back for sure."

    Linderbaum is the undisputed anchor for Iowa, which ended the 2020 season on a six-game winning streak.

Malik Willis, QB, Liberty

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    James Kenney/Associated Press

    During the 2017 recruiting cycle, Malik Willis headed to Auburn as one of the highest-rated 3-star prospects. He made scattered appearances for the Tigers in 2017 and 2018 but transferred to Liberty after the arrival of Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood.

    And now, Willis is among the nation's most prolific quarterbacks.

    While guiding Liberty to a 10-1 record last season, he collected 2,260 passing yards (8.5 per attempt) with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. Willis also scampered for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns, both of which led FBS players at the position.

    Since the Flames return a strong majority of their offensive starters, Willis seems destined for another impressive year.

D'Eriq King, QB, Miami

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    D'Eriq King is a prime example of how a good quarterbackespecially a mobile onecan energize an offense.

    Miami trudged to a 6-7 record with a slew of painful losses in 2019. The terrible season led Miami to hire offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and quickly target King, who racked up 50 touchdowns at Houston in 2018 before taking a redshirt in 2019.

    Last year, King led the 8-3 'Canes to 34.0 points per game (up from 25.7). Despite a shaky offensive line, he still totaled 3,224 yards with 27 touchdowns to only five interceptions.

    King tore the ACL in his right knee during the Cheez-It Bowl but is reportedly on track for the opener against Alabama.

Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Aidan Hutchinson entered the 2020 season with NFL buzz, but a broken ankle put those professional plans on hold.

    The edge-rusher had built his profile as a sophomore in 2019, posting 68 tackles with 10 for loss and 4.5 sacks. The son of All-American defensive tackle Chris Hutchinson, he added six pass breakups and two forced fumbles that season.

    Hutchinson made 15 tackles in three appearances last year. He'll be Michigan's featured pass-rusher this season after the departure of first-round draft pick Kwity Paye.

Thayer Munford, OL, Ohio State

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Perhaps the shortened year limited his award upside, but Thayer Munford played at an All-American level in 2020.

    Nevertheless, he has hardly missed a snap in three seasons as Ohio State's left tackle. He's landed All-Big Ten status each year, steadily progressing from honorable mention (2018) to second team (2019) to first-team (2020) recognition.

    This fall, per Nathan Baird of, Munford slid inside to left guard as the Buckeyes flipped right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere to the left side and inserted Dawand Jones at right tackle. That change isn't finalized but is worth monitoring in the final weeks of preseason camp.

    No matter whether he lines up at left tackle or guard, Munford should be one of the country's top blockers.

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Ohio State would have had an absurdly talented receiving corps if Chris Olave had gone to the NFL, but his return gives the Buckeyes the best pass-catching group in the FBS.

    After a late rise as a freshman, he made 49 catches for team-best totals of 849 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2019.

    In seven games last season, he paced Ohio State in each major category with 50 receptions for 729 yards and seven scores. Olave ranked 12th nationally with 104.1 receiving yards per game.

    Olave is a premier route-runner, and that ability to create natural separation should ease the transition for OSU's new quarterbackwho is expected to be C.J. Stroud.

Nik Bonitto, Edge, Oklahoma

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    At a program known for its offense, Nik Bonitto has shifted a little attention to Oklahoma's defensive talent.

    Bonitto took a redshirt in 2018 before joining the rotation in 2019, when he registered 43 tackles with 6.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks.

    In 2020, he put together a true breakout season. Among his 32 tackles, he notched 10.5 for loss and eight sacks. He tied for fourth nationally with 49 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and landed second-team AP All-America honors.

    With the help of defensive linemen Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and Jalen Redmond, Bonitto has the upside to finish among the most productive pass-rushers in the FBS.

Edefuan Ulofoshio, LB, Washington

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Unfortunately for Washington, it will be without Zion Tupuola-Fetui for part of the 2021 season. But as long as Edefuan Ulofoshio is there, the defense will have a stabilizing force.

    Ulofoshio began his career in 2018 as a walk-on, only playing a few snaps on special teams. He spent most of 2019 in a similar role but worked into the lineup by November, making 36 tackles (3.5 for loss) during the final four games of the season.

    And in 2020, he thrived.

    Although the Huskies only played four games, Ulofoshio landed a second-team All-Pac-12 spot. He racked up 47 tackles, broke up four passes and both forced and recovered a fumble.

    Compared to the other players highlighted, his resume isn't as extensive. But his performance has demanded early attention as an All-American candidate in 2021.


    All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from, or B/R research. Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.