We’re inching closer and closer to the start of college football, and the excitement continues to grow. Up until this point, we’ve seen some explosive players with the potential to rise up, but certain things need to happen for them to get there. The players in the Top 20 have proven they’re capable of being elite. They’ve made plays that put them this high on the list, and we’re set to see big things from all of them in 2021.
20. CB/PR/KR Marcus Jones, Houston
When Marcus Jones came to Houston, everyone knew him as the player who can return kicks and punts really well. Skepticism about his ability to do that in the American remained, but were quickly erased when they saw what he could do as a returner. Still, some didn’t believe that he’d contribute defensively, and all he did was prove that he’s almost as good of a corner as he is a returner. Now that he’s familiar with the system and will have a full year ahead of him, teams should be even more terrified of the big plays he can make. And that includes as a corner.
19. RB Jerome Ford, Cincinnati
Cincinnati fans have it made. First, Michael Warren was running over people on his way to two 1,000-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019. Then, Gerrid Doaks took over with his versatile skillset, and proved to be a reliable asset for the rushing attack. Now, the Bearcats turn to former Alabama transfer Jerome Ford. As a backup last year, he rushed 73 times for 483 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and scored eight touchdowns, including an electric run against Georgia in the Peach Bowl. There are some, including myself, who believe Ford will be the best of those three, and Cincinnati won’t have anything to worry about with the ball in his hands.
18. TE Grant Calcaterra, SMU
Calcaterra made some incredible plays at Oklahoma, but injuries forced him to retire. He then came out of retirement and transferred to Auburn until Gus Malzahn was fired. Looking for a new home, he landed with Sonny Dykes and SMU, and the fit couldn’t be more perfect. going from Lincoln Riley’s offense to Dykes’ makes for a smooth transition, and gives the Mustangs another big play threat downfield. Calcaterra comes with 637 yards and nine touchdowns, and was a huge addition given the loss of Kylen Granson to the NFL.
17. CB Coby Bryant, Cincinnati
While everyone’s focusing on the other cornerback on Cincinnati’s defense, Coby Bryant’s quietly having a great career. He already has seven picks to his name (four last year) and 24 passes defended, and he should expect to be busy once again in 2021. He embraces that challenge, and at times teams are better off avoiding both corners in the passing attack. That’s how good he can be. There aren’t many teams that have the quality of a second option at corner like Cincinnati does, and Bryant’s ready to remind people why he’s also an elite player.
16. OT Tyler Smith, Tulsa
Normally, freshmen don’t step in and play this well. Tyler Smith ignored those expectations thanks largely to his skillset. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he’s 6’5”, 332 pounds and can take on any matchup he faces with ease. A self-proclaimed comedian, there’s nothing funny about his game to the defenders he’s blocking, and the winner of the quarterback battle will love the security they get from having Smith protect their blindside.
15. LB Dorian Williams, Tulane
If you’re not familiar with Dorian Williams yet, you will be soon enough. The Green Wave’s leading tackler in 2020 finished just shy of 100 tackles with 15.5 tackles for loss. Williams game features hard hits and great athleticism in space, and it feels like he’s set to have an even bigger season in 2021. The fact that he doesn’t wear gloves on his hands makes him more intriguing too, and he should even think about doing the Sean Taylor tape on his hands. Regardless of look, Tulane has a natural playmaker who will help take the Green Wave defense to a new level this year, and AAC Defensive Player of the Year is definitely in play.
14. RB Ulysses Bentley IV, SMU
When TJ McDaniel went down with an injury, it would have been easy to see why SMU ditched the run. Luckily for them, Bentley stepped up in a big way before McDaniel went down. A 227-yard performance against North Texas got the ball rolling, and he never looked back. This year’s goal: rushing for 1,000 yards, though that might be difficult with McDaniel, Tyler Lavine and North Texas transfer Tre Siggers in the backfield. Regardless of how this year goes, Bentley is the future of the Mustangs rushing attack, and last year was just the beginning for him.
13. TE Josh Whyle, Cincinnati
Whyle might not have the stats that most other players do on this list (or even tight ends for that matter), but make no mistake about his abilities. He did catch 28 passes for a team leading 353 yards and six touchdowns, and a more potent passing attack could result in a breakout year for him. As a blocker, Whyle thrives too, something he needs to do to help Jerome Ford run free. Even with Leonard Taylor on the roster behind him, Whyle is TE1 for the Bearcats, and getting a lot of love across the country this offseason. It’s easy to see why when you watch the film.
12. TE Sean Dykes, Memphis
Injuries and sitting behind Joey Magnifico, it would have been understandable for Sean Dykes to get frustrated. Yet he never did. Even when he produced a combined 205 yards and two touchdowns in 2018 and 2019 for those reasons, he came back stronger than ever in 2020. Dykes had a breakout season with 47 catches for 581 yards and seven touchdowns, and returns to beat those numbers this year. Given that he’ll play two or three more games, that seems more than likely that will happen, even with a new quarterback throwing the ball.
11. WR Jaylon Robinson, UCF
Someone with the nickname “Flash” better be fast, and Jaylon Robinson doesn’t disappoint in that regard. While he does have to learn a new system, Robinson’s speed will help him win on nearly every route, and it’s something that Gus Malzahn can’t wait to unleash this year. As the second best receiver on the team last season, Robinson nearly broke 1,000 yards (979) and caught six touchdown passes. With Marlon Williams off to the NFL, he’s set to be the top target for Dillon Gabriel and the UCF offense.