College football is a high-turnover industry. The best players are rarely more than a year from departing for the NFL, and the success of college programs comes down to how well they can stock the pipeline behind their stars. In the run-up to the 2021 season—which starts at the end of August—it’s worth considering the players who will fill those roles in 2021. A few will be first-time starters, while others have already established themselves as rising stars and will use 2021 as a launching pad to something even bigger.
Meet 10 of them. These players, representing teams from across the country, stand out in prime positions and are poised to have a major impact on the 2021 season.
DJ Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson
Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
Uiagalelei and Young were both five-star recruits in the class of 2020, but they sat behind star QBs in their first seasons. Uiagalelei had a couple of chances to start while Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence was out after catching COVID-19, and he showed a lot of skill—even while nearly losing to Boston College and then actually losing, in overtime, to Notre Dame.
Young was limited to mop-up duty at the end of Bama’s blowout wins. With Lawrence and Alabama starter Mac Jones both in the NFL, Uiagalelei and Young will be chiefly responsible for maintaining the two greatest programs in the sport right now.
John Metchie III, WR, Alabama
This will be Metchie’s third year at Alabama. In 2019, he barely saw the field because the Tide had four receivers ahead of him (they have all since become first-round NFL draft picks). He had more playing time in 2020, but he was still just the No. 3 wideout behind two of those NFL first-rounders.
This year, all of the guys ahead of him are gone, and it falls to Metchie to be the latest in an increasingly long line of unstoppable Alabama receivers. Expect him to be great. The only question is how great. With Bama reloading more than normal this year, whether Metchie is elite or ultra-elite will have a big effect on the Tide’s fortunes.
Jaivon Heiligh, WR, Coastal Carolina
QB Grayson McCall gets most of the attention for the Chanticleers, who stunned everyone with an unbeaten regular season in 2020. McCall is indeed critical, but let’s focus for a moment on Heiligh, whose big-play ability in single coverage had a strong effect on the rest of the offense’s success last year. Heiligh was a first-team All-Sun Belt player in 2020. This year, he should be considered an All-American candidate and—if he plays as well as he did (998 yards and 10 touchdowns)—a key to Coastal winning the Sun Belt again.
Jamaree Salyer, OL, Georgia
Salyer is the anchor of Georgia’s offensive line. The Dawgs have what feels like infinite talent along the line, but they’ve occasionally struggled to find the right combination of players to fill the five spots, leading to breakdowns. (A notable example was a loss to Florida last year.)
The simplest way to ensure the Dawgs’ line holds up is for the most sure-thing star on that line, Salyer, to play like a star. If he’s dominant at the point of attack and in pass protection, it’ll make life a lot easier for the rest of the Dawgs—particularly quarterback JT Daniels, whose main concern will be staying healthy.
Jermayne Lole, DT, Arizona State
The Sun Devils have a chance to win the Pac-12. If they’re going to do it, Lole will need to set the tone in the middle of their defensive line. He was one of ASU’s best players during a surprisingly strong 2019 season, and he dominated during a four-game abbreviated season in 2020.
Lole is the kind of mid-line presence that’s become somewhat rare in the Pac-12, a league that lacks the talent in the trenches like the SEC, Big 12, and Big Ten. Last year, he had four sacks in four games—quite a feat for a player stuck in the middle of the line. If he builds on that progress, Herm Edwards’ program will be a lot better for it.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon
Thibodeaux is sort of an odd fit for a discussion about breakout players, because he arguably had broken out before he even set foot on Oregon’s campus in 2019. He was the consensus No. 1 overall recruit in the country, and everyone expects him to be a contender for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft as well.
But despite his stellar recruiting pedigree and his strong performance in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, it feels like Thibodeaux still has a lot to show before he turns pro next year. Oregon is the Pac-12’s best hope to end a conference-wide College Football Playoff drought that has lasted since 2016. If the Ducks do make a playoff run this year, Thibodeaux will be a key part of their success.
Myjai Sanders, DE, Cincinnati
The Bearcats were 2020’s best team in the Group of Five conferences (the lower half of FBS, if you’re just catching up), and they nearly beat Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The driving factor in UC’s dominance was its defense, and nobody will be a bigger part of that defense than Sanders, who racked up eight sacks and a whopping 31 QB hurries last year.
JoJo Domann, LB, Nebraska
The Huskers are probably not going to be very good this year, but Domann is an excellent hybrid linebacker who can also play as a slot cornerback or a box safety, where he covers receivers or chases running backs and tight ends around. If, and it’s a big if, the Huskers rebound a bit this year and restore some shine to one of college football’s legacy programs, Domann will be a key asset.
Bralen Trahan, S, Louisiana
The Ragin’ Cajuns were one of the country’s better teams last year, and they have a lot of talent coming back for 2021. They lead FBS’ 130 teams with a 96 percent returning rating in ESPN’s “returning production” metric, which tracks how many yards, tackles, touchdowns, and other statistical totals remain on a team’s roster from the year before.
The Cajuns will also retain their head coach, Billy Napier, who had been widely expected to leave for another job. With four interceptions and seven pass breakups last year, Trahan returns as one of the best secondary players in college football. If UL’s defensive backs are as good as they were last year, the Cajuns could upset Texas in Week 1 and make another run at a Sun Belt title.
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