It’s officially time to hit the reset button.
The 2022 college football season has come and gone, and so has the deadline to enter the 2023 NFL Draft. Now that we know who will continue playing on Saturdays next fall, let's take an early look at the top returning players at every position.
1. CALEB WILLIAMS, USC TROJANS
Williams became head coach Lincoln Riley’s third quarterback in the past six years to win the Heisman Trophy, joining Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. The sophomore excels outside of the original play design, plays on which he led the nation in passing yards (707), passing touchdowns (seven) and big-time throws (10) in 2022. He’s the early favorite to be the first pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and will try to join former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin as the only two-time winners of the coveted stiff-arm trophy.
2. DRAKE MAYE, NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Maye is the biggest challenger to dethrone Williams as QB1 both in the 2024 draft and in college football in general. The redshirt freshman was the most valuable player this past season, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. His 45 big-time throws were 10 more than the next closest FBS quarterback. Maye also tied for second among all quarterbacks with 56 combined rushing first downs and touchdowns.
1. BLAKE CORUM, MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
Corum was arguably the best running back in college football last season, making him an easy choice for No. 1 here. His 96.2 grade didn’t just lead all players in the country, it was the best PFF has ever seen from a Power Five player.
Highest-graded Power Five seasons in PFF College era (since 2014)
|Chase Young||Ohio State||EDGE||2019||96.0|
Corum’s 96 combined rushing first downs and touchdowns were the second most in the country, behind only Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, who received 72 more carries. The junior should be on the shortlist of favorites to win the Heisman Trophy next season.
2. QUINSHON JUDKINS, OLE MISS REBELS
Judkins was arguably the best newcomer in college football last season. His 88.2 grade tied with Michigan cornerback Will Johnson for first among Power Five true freshmen.
The former three-star recruit was a true workhorse for the Rebels, ranking in the top 10 in the FBS in attempts, rushing yards, yards after contact and forced missed tackles. Judkins also recorded 91 combined rushing first downs and touchdowns, the fourth most in the country.
1. MARVIN HARRISON JR., OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
He may not have won the Biletnikoff Award, but Harrison was the best receiver in college football this past season.
Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison’s son was both the highest-graded and most valuable wide receiver in the country in 2022, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. Against single coverage, the sophomore’s 878 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns led all FBS wide receivers.
2. EMEKA EGBUKA, OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
It remains to be seen who will take over as Ohio State’s next quarterback after C.J. Stroud, but whoever it is will be throwing to the two best receivers in the nation.
Outside of Marvin Harrison Jr., Egbuka was the most valuable Power Five wide receiver last year, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. Only Harrison tallied more receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last year than Egbuka among returning Power Five receivers. Egbuka’s 2.98 yards per route run ranked third in that same group, as well.
1. BROCK BOWERS, GEORGIA BULLDOGS
There are some positions where the best returning college player is debatable. Tight end is absolutely not one of them. Bowers is easily at the top because he’s arguably been the best tight end, period, in each of his first two seasons.
As a true freshman in 2021, Bowers was the highest-graded Power Five tight end and the most valuable player at the position in college football, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. He was once again the most valuable tight end in the nation this past season and led the position in receiving yards (942), yards after the catch (479) and receiving yards after contact (274). He’s the reigning John Mackey Award winner, given to the best tight end in college football.
And not only is Bowers the best tight end in the country, but he’s also on pace to be the best in the PFF College era.
2. BREVYN SPANN-FORD, MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Spann-Ford is arguably the most well-rounded tight end returning to college football.
The redshirt senior’s 82.5 run-blocking grade in 2022 ranked second among FBS tight ends, while his 82.1 receiving grade placed eighth. His 2.22 yards per route run also ranked fourth among all tight ends. No matter what the Golden Gophers asked of him, Spann-Ford delivered.
1. JOE ALT, NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
As was the case for quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, an argument can be made that 2022's best offensive tackle in college football is returning to school.
Alt was both the highest-graded and most valuable tackle in the country according to PFF’s wins above-average metric. The sophomore’s 91.0 run-blocking grade led all FBS tackles while his 99.0 pass-blocking efficiency score was fifth. Alt looks like a potential top-five pick in 2024 and the best offensive tackle prospect since Penei Sewell.
2. GRAHAM BARTON, DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Barton was one of the best all-around tackles in the country as a junior this season.
In fact, he was the only Power Five tackle who posted 85-plus grades as both a pass- and run-blocker. He finished the season with 17 big-time blocks (PFF’s highest-graded blocks), five more than any other tackle in the country. Barton likely could’ve been a Day 2 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft but instead will be one of the best offensive tackles in college football for another season.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
1. OG COOPER BEEBE, KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
Beebe spent the last two seasons at offensive tackle before moving inside to left guard in 2022.
Over the last two seasons, the junior’s 94.0 pass-blocking grade leads all offensive linemen in the country, as he hasn’t allowed a sack over the course of his 770 pass-blocking snaps since 2021. He’s also the most valuable returning interior offensive lineman in the country over those two years according to PFF’s wins above average metric. No matter where Beebe lines up, he produces elite play.
2. OG BEAUX LIMMER, ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Limmer is an all-around stud at right guard. The redshirt junior was one of only three Power Five guards who recorded 80-plus grades as both a pass- and run-blocker this season.
Among returning FBS interior offensive linemen over the last two seasons, only Beebe has been more valuable than Limmer according to PFF’s wins above average metric.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
1. JER’ZHAN NEWTON, ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Newton broke out in a significant way as a redshirt sophomore this season.
He finished as the most valuable Power Five interior defensive lineman according to PFF’s wins above average metric and led that same group with 59 pressures while his 13 tackles for loss/no-gain were tied for the most among all FBS interior defensive linemen.
2. DONTAY CORLEONE, CINCINNATI BEARCATS
As a redshirt freshman this season, Corleone led all FBS defenders with a 93.8 grade.
His 94.7 run-defense grade was also the best mark by a defensive player since Micah Parsons in 2019. Despite ranking just 256th among interior defensive linemen in run-defense snaps (172), “The Godfather” registered the sixth-most run-stops (27).
Highest single-season run-defense grades in PFF College era (Since 2014 among DI, EDGE and LB)
|Micah Parsons||Penn State||LB||2019||94.8|
1. JARED VERSE, FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Arguably the most surprising returner in college football, Verse was a projected top-20 pick in the 2023 draft before announcing that he’d stay in Tallahassee for another season.
The former Albany edge dominated in his first season at the FBS level, as the redshirt sophomore’s 24.4% pass-rush win rate ranked fourth among Power Five edge defenders while his 10 tackles for loss/no-gain were tied for sixth.
2. BRALEN TRICE, WASHINGTON HUSKIES
For the first time since 2019, Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. didn’t lead the nation in total pressures.
Trice set the pace this year with 70 pressures and was college football's most productive pass-rusher. The redshirt sophomore also led all FBS edge defenders in pass-rush win rate (29.5%) and was second in pressure rate (22.4%).
1. JEREMIAH TROTTER JR., CLEMSON TIGERS
The son of former All-Pro linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Sr., the sophomore linebacker has lived up to his father’s name and then some.
The younger Trotter excels on passing plays, as he was the only Power Five linebacker with 80-plus grades as a pass-rusher and in coverage. Trotter was second in that same group in both passer rating allowed (42.9) and open target rate allowed (47.6%).
2. HAROLD PERKINS JR., LSU TIGERS
Perkins was a top-10 recruit in the 2022 class, which may have been too low.
As a true freshman, he led all Power-Five linebackers with a 91.0 pass-rushing grade. He ranked second among all linebackers in the country with 18 quarterback knockdowns (sacks/hits) and was tied for second in the country with four forced fumbles. Perkins is Micah Parsons-esque in that he can play either linebacker or edge defender at a very high level.
1. KOOL-AID MCKINSTRY, ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Among those returning to school, McKinstry is the best cornerback, best returner and has the best nickname.
Kool-Aid was a first-team All-American for PFF this past season, and his 18 forced incompletions tied for second among all corners in the country. The sophomore also led all Power Five players with 332 punt return yards. He’s the most valuable returning Power Five corner according to PFF’s wins above average metric.
2. KALEN KING, PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
Joey Porter Jr. received all of the love in Penn State’s secondary and is a projected first-round pick, but King was Penn State's true star this past season.
In single-coverage, the sophomore led all corners in the country with a 93.3 grade and 18.3 passer rating allowed. His 15 forced incompletions in single-coverage were tied for third among FBS corners as well.
1. CALEN BULLOCK, USC TROJANS
Bullock was a PFF first-team All-American in 2022 thanks to his dominance in coverage.
The sophomore’s five interceptions were tied for fifth among all safeties in the country. He was also the third-most valuable safety in the country according to PFF’s wins above average metric.
2. KAMREN KINCHENS, MIAMI (FL) HURRICANES
Kinchens broke out as a sophomore on his way to becoming a second-team All-American for PFF, as he led all safeties in the country with a 90.0 grade and a 90.7 coverage grade. Kinchens’ six interceptions were also tied for the most in the Power Five.