Former CFB Players Who Could've Made the Most Money with New NIL Rule

Morgan MoriartyFeatured Columnist IAugust 19, 2021

Former CFB Players Who Could've Made the Most Money with New NIL Rule

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    KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/Associated Press

    College football players across the country can now profit off their name, image and likeness because of the new NCAA rule adopted on July 1. The groundbreaking decision came not long after 24 states passed laws allowing players to make money from endorsement deals, sponsorships and various other means. The clock was ticking for the NCAA to follow suit, and it ultimately did ahead of the 2021 season.

    We've already seen a handful of current college football players cash in, including Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. The sophomore, who has completed just 13 passes in his Alabama career, has reportedly amassed more than $800,000 in deals. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix is teaming up with an Alabama-based sweet tea company. Miami quarterback D'Eriq King also inked a deal with the NHL's Florida Panthers, which requires King to appear at Panthers games and events, as well as collaborate on merchandise. For decades, schools have profited millions off of their players, while the athletes themselves weren't able to do the same. Now, the tide is turning, and athletes finally get a chance to cash in.

    As the offers roll in for a number of high-profile players this season, it's hard not to think about past college football players who were denied the right to sign lucrative deals. Let's run through the amateur stars who could have benefited the most had this rule been in place when they were in school. Some of these guys make great candidates because of what they did on the field, their personalities, or a combination of the two. 

Deion Sanders, DB, Florida State

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    DAVID BANKS/Associated Press

    This list wouldn't have been complete without Deion "Prime Time" Sanders on it, right? Like Auburn's Bo Jackson, Sanders played baseball and ran track for the Florida State Seminoles. Sanders was a lockdown corner for the 'Noles, but he was also an electric punt returner. 

    Sanders led the team in interceptions with four as a sophomore in 1986. His junior year, he added another four interceptions, and averaged 11.9 yards per punt return,. the 'Noles going 11-1 that season. He was voted a unanimous first-team All-American, too. 

    Sanders burst onto the national college football scene in his last and final season in 1988, however. As the late, great Bobby Bowden explained in a radio interview in 2017, Deion transformed into Prime Time during his senior year:

    "When Deion came to Florida State, the first three years he was there he was no different from anybody else. There was nothing different about him, except that he was a great football player. That was very obvious. But on his last year, he kinda started showboatin'. I think somebody convinced him if you're a showboat you make a lot of money, so he wanted to make a lot of money and he did."

    Showboat Sanders did indeed. Against Clemson, Sanders was seen talking trash toward the Tigers bench while he awaited a punt. Naturally, Sanders fielded the ball at the 25 and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. 

    Before FSU's last regular-season game against rival Florida, Sanders rolled up to the stadium in a white limousine and wore a tuxedo. 

    "How do you think defensive backs get attention?" Sanders said of his grand entrance. "They don't pay nobody to be humble."

    He led the nation with two pick-sixes on the year and had a game-sealing interception against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, his final collegiate contest.

Tim Tebow, QB, Florida

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    No, I am not just including him here because I am a Florida grad. The former Gators quarterback was part of two national titles at Florida and won the Heisman Trophy in 2007. That same year, he became the first player in NCAA history to have at least 20 rushing and passing touchdowns in a single season.   

    Off the field, his clean-cut image, public openness about his faith and charity work grew his popularity beyond the gridiron. During the 2009 BCS National Championship Game, the "John 3:16" message he painted over his eyeblack prompted 94 million people to Google the Bible verse. Florida even started selling No. 15 jerseys—deviating from the Nos. 1 and 96 options sold for years—to capitalize on his popularity.  

    Tebow is on the record as saying he wouldn't have had any interest in making money off his jersey sales if it had been allowed. Would he have tried to take advantage of this rule at all? There certainly would've been plenty of opportunities to do so.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    For a guy whose nickname in college was literally "Money" Manziel, the marketing possibilities would have been endless. The quarterback known for his flashy, unconventional play style took the college football world by storm in 2012 as a redshirt freshman. He led the Texas A&M Aggies to an 11-2 season, highlighted by an upset of Nick Saban and No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy that season and racked up over 5,100 yards of total offense while throwing for 26 touchdowns and rushing for 21 more. 

    Throughout his Texas A&M career, he became known for doing a money hand sign after throwing a touchdown or making a big play. Although the origins of the signal were rumored to be regarding his friendship with the rapper Drake, Manziel said it was something he started with his teammate, running back Ben Molina.

    "When were freshman at A&M, was kind of just say, 'Let's get this money, let's go make a play for this team,'" Manziel said on ESPN Cleveland (h/t Fansided) after he was drafted. "Me and Ben kind of had an inside joke, and look where it is now."

    Manziel threw for more yards (4,114) and touchdowns (37) as sophomore, but an 8-4 regular season put the Aggies out of SEC title contention. Still, Manziel repeated as a Heisman finalist and closed out his sophomore year as popular as ever. The Cleveland Browns selected the undersized signal-caller in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. Although his short-lived NFL career included domestic violence allegations and struggles with substance use, Manziel's marketability in college was huge.

Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn

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    Associated Press

    Although Jackson put up the biggest numbers on the football field for the Tigers, the running back lettered in three sports during his career at Auburn.

    Before his freshman season with the Tigers even began, he was drafted by the New York Yankees in the second round of the 1982 MLB draft but chose to play college football instead. 

    He won the Heisman Trophy in 1985 and finished his career with 4,575 yards from scrimmage and a whopping 45 total touchdowns. But he also played three seasons on the Auburn baseball team and competed in track and field as a sprinter, hurdler, jumper and decathlete. Jackson's now famous "Bo Knows" marketing campaign could have gotten started a whole lot earlier at Auburn.

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Trevor Lawrence was such an elite recruit that he unseated Kelly Bryant to take over the starting quarterback job as a true freshman in 2018 after just four weeks. (Bryant had guided Clemson to the College Football Playoff the year before.) From there, he never looked back.

    Lawrence led the Tigers to back-to-back national championship games, defeating Alabama in 2018, and finished his Clemson career as the winningest starting quarterback in school history. He made five College Football Playoff starts and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2020. Lawrence was so good throughout his time at Clemson that he was the presumed No. 1 overall pick long before the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him this past April. 

    It's no secret that Lawrence's on-field performance alone could have earned him plenty of endorsement deals. But the one we all missed out on? A sponsorship from Head & Shoulders shampoo for that glorious mane of his. I mean his hair even has had its own Twitter account since 2016, people! Or any number of haircare products would have sufficed. As long as he doesn't chop those locks off, it's never too late to give up hope.

Vince Young, QB, Texas

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    Associated Press

    It's been 16 years since Vince Young suited up in a Texas uniform, but he's still considered one of the greatest Longhorns quarterbacks in school history. After going 6-1 as a starter during his redshirt freshman season in Austin, Young finished first among Division I quarterbacks with 1,079 rushing yards during his sophomore season in 2004. Young led the Longhorns to an 11-1 record that same year and capped it off by earning Rose Bowl MVP honors against Michigan. Young scored five total touchdowns—four of them rushing—in the Longhorns' 38-37 win. 

    Young saved his best for last as a junior. The quarterback set a new single-season school record with 4,086 total yards and scored 38 total touchdowns. He also led Texas to an undefeated season, which culminated in an incredible 41-38 BCS National Championship Game victory over USC. Young was named the game's offensive MVP after throwing for 267 yards and rushing for another 200.

    Sure, Young may not have had a flashy or loud personality like some of these other guys in this list. But the QB was so good on the field it’d be a no-brainer for brands to team up with Young if they could have.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Before Lamar Jackson was juking the souls out of defenders in the NFL, he set the college football world on fire at Louisville. He made eight starts as a freshman in 2015, throwing for 1,840 yards and 12 touchdowns. As the Cardinals' full-time starter in 2016, he scored a whopping 51 touchdowns and took home the Heisman Trophy.

    He is the youngest recipient of the award, and his 1,571 rushing yards are the most ever by a Heisman-winning quarterback. According to Andrea Adelson of ABC News, he celebrated being named college football's most outstanding player with chicken wings and mozzarella sticks. Any number of restaurants in Louisville would have given Jackson unlimited chicken wings and mozzarella sticks for life if they could. 

    Speaking of the Heisman, Jackson showed off his sense of style with the red and black jacket he wore for the occasion. He apparently got the jacket from Macy's on sale for a cool $89. 

    "Well you know it’s our team color,” Jackson told SB Nation. “I just like the way it looked, and I like the way it felt, so I just went with it.”

    In 2017, he threw and rushed for even more yards than his unbelievable sophomore campaign. But the Cardinals' four losses and Jackson's five games with at least one interception put him second in the Heisman voting behind Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. He left Louisville having broken a slew of school and ACC records before getting taken in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens.

Gardner Minshew II, QB, Washington State

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Former Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew II had a pretty unconventional journey to get to Pullman, Washington, for his senior season in 2018. Minshew began his career at Troy University, spent a season at JUCO and then played two seasons at East Carolina. For his fifth and final season of NCAA eligibility, he verbally committed to Alabama until then-Cougars head coach Mike Leach convinced him to come to Wazzu. 

    “The time we sort out that we want to recruit him, he’d committed to Alabama," Leach said on the Rich Eisen Show. "So we figured we’d call him anyway, because we knew we threw it more than Alabama did. So we called him up and said ‘hey, do you want to hold a clipboard at Alabama or do you want to lead the nation in passing?’ And he came to Washington State.”

    The decision and phone call certainly paid off. Minshew set numerous single-season school records in Pullman and finished fifth in the 2018 Heisman voting. But the "Minshew Mania" he personified was a combination of his on-field accolades and his signature mustache—Cougs fans even donned fake facial hair during games.

    “So the mustache started in [fall] camp," Minshew said in an interview with ESPN's College GameDay. I think it’s just symbolic of just how we [Washington State] are as a team, we’re just free, loose, we’re going to play as hard as we can and we’re going to have fun doing it. 

    A marketing deal with any number of shaving products would have been an ingenious partnership for Minshew. 

Michael Geiger, K, Michigan State

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    This name may not ring a bell, but Michael Geiger nailed a 41-yard field goal to upset the then-No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes in 2015. What Geiger became known for—aside from knocking the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff race with the victory—was his windmill celebration he broke out on the field. Geiger said after the game that he knew the kick was good not long after he kicked it, so the celebration came quickly:  

    "After I hit it I knew it was going through, Geiger told reporters. I watched it for a second as it flew through the air, it was straight, and I don’t even know if I saw it go through the uprights because by then I was gone, I was running."

    The kicker added that his celebration was "instinctual." The fact that this windmilling was completely unscripted makes this story that much better, and it's one of those things that makes college football so great. As far as NIL deals go, Geiger was a junior when he made this field goal, so he would've had plenty of time to agree to sponsorship opportunities. Anything from wind turbine businesses—there are several headquartered in Michigan, by the way—to A/C shops; the possibilities would have been tremendous.

Chris Davis, CB, Auburn

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    You can't read Chris Davis' name without hearing the famous "There goes Davis!" Auburn radio call go through your head, right? Davis, the hero of the 2013 Iron Bowl's kick-six, became an Auburn and college football legend with his 100-yard field-goal return that defeated Alabama and knocked the Tide out of the running for the national championship. His unforgettable touchdown on a play that started with one second left on the clock made him a household name among college football fans.  

    Can you imagine the sponsorships that would have been streaming in had the NIL law been passed when he was at Auburn? The advertising puns he could have used with "one second left" would have been phenomenal. 

    Despite his late-season popularity, Davis went undrafted in 2014 but spent the ensuing season with the San Diego Chargers—mostly on kick returns, as you can imagine. Following a brief stint with the San Francisco 49ers and AAF's Birmingham Iron.

Reggie Bush, RB, USC

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    MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press

    I mean, how could I not have included him on this list? Reggie Bush helped lead the USC Trojans to back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004. During his junior and final season in 2005, he led the nation in all-purpose yards with 2,890. He scored 19 total touchdowns on the season, which earned him the Heisman Trophy before USC made a third consecutive national championship appearance. 

    You are probably familiar with what happened next. Bush forfeited his Heisman in 2010 after an NCAA investigation revealed he received improper benefits while playing for the Trojans. The NCAA also hit USC with sanctions and forced the school to disassociate with Bush for 10 years. Most of Bush's NCAA records, as well as USC's last two wins in 2004 and all in 2005, were vacated.

    He has since been welcomed back to USC and has even apparently been trying to get his Heisman and NCAA records reinstated since the NIL rule's passage. For now, the NCAA says his Heisman won't be returned to him despite the new rule in place. We'll see if that sticks in the years to come.