When assessing a college team’s prospects for the next season, one of the most common starting points is evaluating the returning talent. This is often done through counting the number of returning starters and assuming that experience will equal strong play. While that is often the case, we can go further than just counting starts, particularly if we just focus on returning snaps. Starts are less relevant than actual snaps in today’s football, so that gives us a better starting point.
The next step is evaluating actual on-field production, and that’s what we’re doing here. We looked up and down the rosters of all FBS teams to determine which teams are returning the most production using last year’s PFF grades and snap counts.
The reigning nation champions are loaded once again on the defensive side of the ball, perhaps flipping the script from recent years as we start in the secondary. CB Marlon Humphrey will vie for top billing in the country after grading at 86.1 last season while free safety Eddie Jackson is right in the mix as best at his position as well. Minkah Fitzpatrick manned the “star” slot role in Nick Saban’s defense last year and finished with the top grade among true freshman cornerbacks.
Not to be outdone, the trenches will be well-manned with potential first-round pick Jonathan Allen returning as one of the nation’s top interior pass rushers and perhaps Alabama’s best outside linebacker tandem in the Saban era in Ryan Anderson (No. 2 breakout star in 2016) and last year’s breakout sensation Tim Williams. The linebacking corps has their next star in Reuben Foster in the middle. Offensively, WR Calvin Ridley is the top returner and TE O.J. Howard has the talent to post big numbers as a senior. A re-vamped offensive line is led by LT Cam Robinson who hasn’t been as good as the hype would indicate, but his talent is not in question when healthy. It’s another championship-caliber roster for Alabama who will rely on the defense early as they break in a new quarterback and re-set the offensive line.
The headliner is last season’s top-graded running back in Leonard Fournette (94.3 grade last year) but there’s plenty of surrounding talent on LSU’s roster. The defense has potentially elite pass rushers in true sophomore Arden Key (82.7) and junior Davon Godchaux — the top returning pass-rushing interior defensive lineman from last season. Safety Jamal Adams is also a junior and he’s coming off a strong year in coverage, against the run and as a blitzer. LSU also boasts two good receivers in Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, while CB Tre’Davioius White took a step back last season but is still extremely talented (79.0 in 2014). Along the offensive line, William Clapp is one of the SEC’s best guards while Ethan Pocic is one of the best centers. If LSU can get more consistent quarterback play from Brandon Harris (69.1), they have the roster to make a run at the College Football Playoff.
For those following PFF all spring and summer, it’s no surprise to see Michigan on the list. They have the nation’s best defensive line which include four players who played at least 330 snaps and graded at 83.0 or higher (DT Maurice Hurst, DT Ryan Glasgow, DT Chris Wormley, DE Taco Charlton). Jabrill Peppers is slotted to play more linebacker this year after posting a strong 85.5 grade as a safety/slot hybrid a year ago and let’s not forget CB Jourdan Lewis whose 89.1 grade is the best of all returning cornerbacks. While the defense is the clear strength of the team, the offense has strong skill position players in WR Jehu Chesson (78.4) and one of the nation’s top receiving tight ends in Jake Butt (80.9). RB De’Veon Smith is coming off a strong year while former OT Mason Cole moves to center to anchor the offensive line. Michigan is looking for a game-managing quarterback to feed their playmakers and let the defense win games.
Even with the loss of the nation’s top-graded receiver in Sterling Shepard as well as one of the best edge rushers (Eric Striker) and fourth-round defensive lineman (Charles Tapper), there are playmakers returning on both sides of the ball in Norman. It starts with QB Baker Mayfield, the nation’s top-graded returning quarterback, who will have Oklahoma in every game if he has a repeat performance. He’ll have some pressure relieved by having a full season of running back Samaje Perine in the backfield along with sophomore RB Joe Mixon who combines with Perine to form one of the nation’s best backfield tandems. Defensively, DE Charles Walker returns as the anchor up front and his run-stopping ability placed him in the PFF College 101 at No. 46. Oklahoma has strength in the back-seven as well, led by Jordan Evans at linebacker (number nine coverage grade among returning linebackers) and Steven Parker at safety (number eight overall grade among returning safeties).
- North Carolina
While the up-tempo spread offense gets most of the publicity in Chapel Hill, it might be the defense that carries the Tar Heels into College Football Playoff contention. The cornerback duo of M.J. Stewart (88.3 grade last year) and Des Lawrence (82.6) is one of the nation’s best and the interior defensive line boasts a similar pair of stars in Nazair Jones (83.6) and Jeremiah Clarke (78.2). Offensively, RB Elijah Hood deserves mention among the nation’s best in a deep crop, and he’ll run behind an offensive line led by RT Jon Heck who posted a strong 80.2 grade last year. The wide receivers provide an array of playmakers for new quarterback Mitch Trubisky, headlined by Mack Hollins who averaged 24.8 yards per reception last year and is poised for a breakout season along with Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer. Trubisky is the big question mark for UNC heading into 2016, but he performed well in his small sample last year and the surrounding talent will make the Tar Heels a dangerous team as he gets settled in as the starter.
- Washington State
While Washington is receiving most of the offseason hype in the Pac-12 North, Washington State is quietly returning a lot of productive players. QB Luke Falk is primed to be one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, and he’ll be throwing to WR Gabe Marks, the number two-graded returning PAC-12 receiver. Up front, the Cougars lose start left tackle Joe Dahl, but they return three offensive linemen who graded at least 79.0 or higher in C Riley Sorenson, RT Cole Madison, and RG Eduardo Middleton. Defensively, Washington State is bringing back a lot of experience, headlined by DE Hercules Mata’afa who posted the PAC-12’s fourth-best grade among interior defensive linemen to go with eight sacks, nine QB hits, and 21 hurries a year ago. Keep an eye on CB Darrien Molton who ranked sixth among true freshmen corners last season at 78.3.
- Ole Miss
Despite sending three first-round picks to the NFL, Ole Miss is loaded up once again with talent. They boast the SEC’s top returning quarterback in Chad Kelly and one of the nation’s best receiving tight ends in Evan Engram. WR Damore’ea Stringfellow should improve upon his 76.0 overall grade with more targets now that Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core are off to the NFL. On defense, defensive ends Fadol Brown and Marquis Haynes are a formidable pair while DT D.J. Jones assimilated well to SEC competition last year as a JUCO transfer, landing him a spot on the PFF 101 at number 51. On the back end, CB Kendarius Webster ranks third among returning SEC corners at 79.6 while safety Tony Conner returns after playing only 163 snaps last season – he was excellent as a sophomore in 2014 at 79.2. Multiple years of strong recruiting have put Ole Miss into reload mode.
Expect a bounce-back year in Lincoln as the Huskers return production on both sides of the ball. The defense is led by free safety Nate Gerry who was outstanding in 2014 and strong last season at 80.9. The defense will also be bolstered by two of our top six breakout players in LB Marcus Newby and DT Kevin Maurice. LB Josh Banderas has the No 4 grade against the run among Big Ten linebackers while DE Freedom Akinmoladun ranks eighth as a pass rusher. On offense, wide receivers Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly boast the top two returning grades among Big Ten wide receivers at 81.4 and 79.3 respectively. The offensive line has work to do, but LT Nick Gates has the highest grade among returning Big Ten offensive tackles at 78.5. Nebraska’s success all depends on continued improvement from QB Tommy Armstrong, Jr who was a respectable 72.0 last season.
- West Virginia
A lot of talent left Morgantown but they have a lot to look forward to in 2016. QB Skyler Howard was solid last year at 73.3 while center Tyler Orlosky earned the number 60 spot on the PFF College 101 as one of the nation’s top centers. Orlosky is joined by two other offensive linemen who graded at least 70.0 or above in RG Kyle Bosch and RT Marcell Lazard. The top two receivers also return in Shelton Gibson who averaged 24.0 yards per reception and Daikiel Shorts who was the more efficient option. Defensively, the Mountaineers lost important playmakers at every level, but safety Dravon Askew-Henry is one of the nation’s best safeties and defensive ends Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown are stout up front against the run. Ultimately the defense will likely take a step back, but the offense has the weapons and linemen to pick up the slack.
- Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech is quietly returning talent up and down the roster, starting on offense with WR Isaiah Ford, LG Wyatt Teller, and TE Bucky Hodges. Ford and Teller earned spots on the PFF College 101 at No. 54 and 75 respectively, while Hodges posted a 77.9 grade last season and the former quarterback may have an even bigger season as a junior. The defense is filled with solid yet unspectacular players like Chuck Clark, who lined up all over the field for the Hokies last year – slot, free safety, and strong safety – and tied for seventh among returning defensive backs in stops with 37. Up front, DT Woody Baron and DE ken Ekanem are two of the ACC’s best pass rushers at their respective positions. Like other teams on the list, solidifying the quarterback position will be key in Virginia Tech taking advantage of the returning talent and surprising people in the ACC Coastal division.
Group of 5
- Boise State
RB Jeremy McNichols and WR Thomas Sperbeck are the two big playmakers, QB Brett Rypien was one of the best true freshman signal callers last season, and linebackers Ben Weaver and Tanner Vallejo are a solid duo.
- Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers lose QB Brandon Doughty, but LT Forrest Lamp earned the No. 39 spot on the PFF College 101 and WR Taywan Taylor is one of the nation’s best at 86.3. DT Omarius Bryant anchors the defensive line after a dominant 382 snaps last season in which he graded at 81.2.
- Appalachian State
Star DE Ronald Blair if off to the NFL but the offensive line is one of the nation’s best, led by PFF College’s No. 69 overall player, Colby Gossett. He finished at 89.8 last season and the trio of LT Beau Nunn, LG Parker Collins, and RG Jamie Collmar all graded at 78.0 or better.
- Northern Illinois
Undersized CB Shawun Lurry stepped in and led the nation with nine interceptions on his way to a strong 84.8 grade. Safety Brandon Mayes was right there with him at 80.2 while the offensive tackle duo of Max Scharping and Levon Myers and WR Kenney Golladay will lead the offense.
Star running back Kareem Hunt is one of the nation’s best, while DT Trayvon Hester could be one of the best interior defensive linemen by the end of the season. S DeJuan Rogers was outstanding last year grading at 90.4, fifth-best in the nation.