PFF is uniquely equipped to name the most underrated players in America because it grades every player on every play in every game at the collegiate and professional level of football. And with the 2021 college football season just around the corner, it’s time to do just that. Below is a team of the most underappreciated college football players set to take the field this fall.
Be sure to show this group more love. They deserve it.
QB: Layne Hatcher, Ark State
After transferring from Alabama, Hatcher has been the third-highest-graded passer in the Group of Five over the past two years. He’s been uber-aggressive downfield with the RedWolves, producing the highest average depth of target in the Group of Five since 2019 (13.2). He's also delivered on those deep balls, posting top-10 marks in the FBS in passing grade and big-time throw rate on throws of 10-plus yards.
Arkansas State employed a maddening two-quarterback system in 2020 that started Logan Bonner but swapped in Hatcher at times. The decision came as a surprise, to say the least, since Hatcher posted an elite 90.0 passing grade while filling in for the injured Bonner in 2019. Almost predictably, Hatcher ended up producing the better passing grade in 2020 (82.6 versus 71.1) and executed the more efficient passing offense (0.24 EPA per pass versus 0.12). Arkansas State fans should be happy that he'll be taking the reins for 2021.
Jones is listed here as a running back, but that may be doing him a disservice. He’s going to be a versatile weapon in the Eagles’ option-gun offense, serving as a running back, slot receiver, return specialist and even quarterback.
Jones emerged as a lethal kick returner in his debut season with the Green Wave in 2018 and racked up over 2,000 career return yards. He has averaged 24.8 yards per kick return and 9.2 yards per punt return for his college career.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder started making plays on offense back in 2019 as both a receiver in the slot and as a runner in the backfield. He’s generated 1.96 yards per route run when lined up in the slot or out wide over the past two seasons while averaging 4.0 yards after contact per attempt on the ground.
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RB: Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech
A top-100 recruit in the 2020 class, Gibbs averaged 4.17 yards after contact per attempt and broke 0.39 tackles per attempt on the ground in 2020. The latter mark ranked second-best in college football, behind only 2021 second-round pick Javonte Williams.
As great as that is, Gibbs was at his best in the passing game. His 2020 receiving grade tied for fifth among all Power Five running backs in the seven years of the PFF College era. He also ranked fourth among that group in yards per route run generated and second in the percentage of targets turned into a gain of 15-plus yards.
And remember, he did all of that as a true freshman. He’s going to be a nightmare for any defense to defend this fall and will have the chance to claim the title of top receiving back in the country.
WR: Justin Hall, Ball State
Hall is small, shifty, explosive and one of the biggest YAC threats in the nation. The super senior has averaged 7.4 yards after the catch per reception across his 258 career receptions while also breaking 80 tackles. The latter mark is 21 more than any other FBS wide receiver since 2017.
WR: Elijah Cooks, Nevada
The scary part about the Nevada Wolf Pack, who went 7-2 in 2020, is that they not only return quarterback Carson Strong and wide receiver Romeo Doubs after their breakout years but will also bring back 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver Elijah Cooks.
Cooks missed almost all of last year due to injury, but he was a bully on the field in 2019, repeatedly hauling in off-target throws. He caught 15 contested passes, broke 15 tackles after the catch and led the FBS in yards generated from catchable but inaccurate targets (417).
Melton suffered through some of the worst quarterback play in college football before the 2020 season. From 2017 through 2019, Rutgers’ quarterback room was the lowest-graded unit in the entire FBS by over 15 grading points. To no one’s surprise, Melton saw the lowest percentage of catchable targets over that span. Things were slightly better in 2020, and Melton ended up having a career year.
Last year, Melton ranked in the top five in the Big Ten in deep receptions (seven), yards (276) and touchdowns (four). He is capable of being a top player at the position, but Rutgers’ quarterback play will have to keep getting better.
The Chanticleers may have popped up on everyone’s radar in 2020 but Likely has sneakily been one of the best tight ends in the game ever since he took on a major role in 2019. The former two-star wide receiver recruit who received only one FBS offer now has the third-best receiving grade in the FBS since 2019.
Likely posted a 95.0 receiving grade over his last five games of 2020, the highest among FBS tight ends in that span. He hauled in 11-of-14 contested-catch opportunities over that same five-game stretch, and he did that while playing through a lower-body injury that required post-season surgery.
Coastal will have a shot at an undefeated record in 2021, and the return of Likely is one of the many reasons why.
Snyder has been a mainstay on San Jose State’s offensive line for the past four years, but he took a massive step forward in each facet in 2020. He earned a grade above 88.0 as both a pass-blocker and a run-blocker en route to a 90.9 PFF grade for the season. His play strength markedly improved, which led to far cleaner true pass sets and more impactful run blocking.
Skoronski was thrust into the starting left tackle spot as a true freshman because Rashawn Slater opted out of the year, and the four-star recruit far surpassed expectations, recording an 81.4 PFF grade that led all true freshman offensive linemen by over six grading points.
Torrence was thrown into the fire as a three-star true freshman in 2019 when the team's starter went down with an injury. He got off to a bumpy start, allowing a couple of hurries, but the 6-foot-5, 332-pound guard — who weighed 420 pounds in the eighth grade — then proceeded to put up the highest grade among true freshman interior offensive lineman in 2019.
That success carried into 2020, as he was nearly flawless in pass protection, posting an 89.0 grade in that facet, third-best among FBS guards. Torrence didn’t allow a single sack or hit across 713 pass-block snaps at guard as an underclassman. That’s the most snaps played without a sack or hit allowed among all FBS guards in that span.
Georgia reportedly made a late push to bring in Torrence as a member of the team's 2019 class, but he opted to join the Ragin’ Cajuns. He got his opportunity to shine early and is currently seizing it.
Stetz has quietly been one of the best pass-protectors in the Group of Five over the last two years. He owns a 90.7 pass-block grade on true pass sets since 2019, the best among all FBS guards. He has allowed just one pressure on 165 such reps, good for the lowest rate among that same group (0.6%).
Maietti ranked sixth among Power Five centers in pass-block grade from 2017 through 2019. He then transferred to Missouri to play under Eli Drinkwitz for the 2020 season and maintained his stout pass protection while showing notable improvement in the run game, turning in a 76.5 run-block grade over 13 grading points higher than his previous single-season best.
He also boasts the longest streak of career pass-block snaps played without a sack allowed by a Power Five center in the PFF College era (1,329). Creed Humphrey, who was drafted by the Chiefs in Round 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft, is in second place (1,230).
DI: Kobie Whiteside, Missouri
Whiteside was among the players PFF was excited to see in 2020, but an injury ultimately robbed him of a full season. He was healthy for contests against Alabama and Tennessee to start the season, and he put up a 17% pass-rush win rate and a 76.4 pass-rush grade in those contests — no small feat.
Whiteside was versatile and productive in 2019. His dominance at nose tackle, though, really caught our eye. He finished the season with a 79.7 pass-rush grade and a 16% win rate when playing 0/1-technique, which are both the third-best marks from an SEC nose tackle in PFF's seven years of grading college football. The only players to surpass Whiteside in those metrics were Jeffery Simmons and Javon Kinlaw, who were first-round picks.
Whiteside flashes an impressive get-off for a 310-pound man and pairs that with plenty of power. With a fully healthy year under his belt, I’d expect Whiteside to become a household name.
DI: Travis Jones, UConn
Jones is a 6-foot-4, 333-pound unit who has been a force ever since he stepped foot on the field as a true freshman in 2018. As an underclassman in 2018 and 2019, he was one of the 25 highest-graded run defenders in college football.
Jones didn’t play a down in 2020, but that didn’t stop the interior defensive coming at No. 13 on Bruce Feldman's 2021 “Freaks List.” Feldman noted how much Jones has developed his body at UConn and how good an athlete he is for a human his size.
Edge: Carson Wells, Colorado
Wells enjoyed a mini-breakout in the shortened 2020 season after a couple of years of subpar play. His 78.1 PFF grade, over 11 grading points better than his 2019 mark, ranked fourth in the Pac-12. Wells’ run defense, in particular, stands out at the position. His grade in that facet ranked eighth in the Power Five, and his 14.8% run-stop rate placed second.
Edge: Will McDonald IV, Iowa State
McDonald has yet to carve out a role as a full-time starter, but his 22% win rate across 316 pass-rushes since 2019 ranks fifth among all Power Five edge rushers over that period. Keep in mind that 62% of those snaps came as part of a three-man rush. His blend of flexibility and twitch is tough to match up against. Expect that production only to grow with a full-time starting job.
He may have only seven career starts to his name, but the 2018 two-star walk-on has done enough to cement his place as one of the top off-ball linebackers in college football.
Ulofoshio has yet to have a bad outing in his two years of game action at Washington, proving to be a consistent playmaker in every facet of play. Across 452 snaps since 2019, Ulofoshio has posted a grade above 82.0 against the run, as a pass-rusher and in coverage. No one else in the Power Five accomplished the feat. His tackling is no issue, either, as he missed just five tackles across 93 career attempts, forming a 5.4% missed tackle rate that ranks third among Power Five linebackers.
LB: Nick Anderson, Tulane
Anderson went from a two-star recruit to JUCO to one of the top off-ball linebackers in the Group of Five. He is at his best in the run game in 2020, where he earned a 91.6 run-defense grade that tied for the highest in college football. Anderson is a rocked-up 5-foot-10, 220-pounds and knows how to shrink his strike zone.
CB: Mekhi Blackmon, Colorado
Blackmon transferred to Colorado before the 2018 season after one year at the College of San Mateo and served in a limited role in his first season with the Buffaloes. He began 2019 as a starting outside corner but played in only four games before being shut down for the year with an injury. He came back fully healthy in 2020 and had a breakout year, starting all six of Colorado’s games and allowing the lowest catch rate of any outside cornerback in the Pac-12. He also tied for first among that same group in forced incompletion rate. And he accomplished that despite playing a fairly high rate of press-man coverage.
Blackmon played press-man coverage on roughly 29% of his coverage snaps in 2020. On the 10 targets he saw on those plays, Blackmon allowed no catches while forcing four incompletions. His grade on those plays trailed only LSU’s Eli Ricks for the best in the Power Five.
In a year cornerback play across the board may be the best of the PFF College era, Waller is more than capable of producing at a top-10 or even All-American level. He proved as much back in 2019 when he made more plays on the ball than first downs or touchdowns allowed en route to the seventh-best outside coverage grade among Power Five corners. Four of the six cornerbacks ahead of him that year were drafted within the first two rounds of either the 2020 or 2021 NFL Draft, and the other two are LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. and Washington’s Trent McDuffie.
Waller repeatedly tested downfield but rarely let up an open target, routinely forcing tight coverage and playing the catch point exceptionally well. Only Jaylon Johnson (formerly of Utah and now with the Chicago Bears) and former teammate Caleb Farley (now with the Tennessee Titans) allowed a lower catch rate on 10-plus-yard targets among Power Five outside corners than Waller (20.7%).
Led by one of the rising defensive minds in college football — defensive coordinator Patrick Toney — Louisiana had one of the best secondaries in the Group of Five in 2020, and Trahan was the leader of that group. His 89.4 coverage grade was the second-best among FBS safeties. Trahan trusts what he sees out there and was a true playmaker on the back end, with 11 combined pass breakups and interceptions, which also led all FBS safeties.
Louisville’s safety room underperformed in 2020. The group tied for the third-worst coverage grade among the 65 Power Five safety units. Duncan — a transfer from Georgia Southern — is bound to help fix that in 2021. He shined in a limited role in 2018, broke out in a full-time role in 2019 and sustained that success in 2020. Over that span, he recorded an 89.1 PFF grade, buoyed by 87.0-plus marks both against the run and in coverage. Duncan is also one of the best tacklers at the position in the country. Duncan has missed only 16 tackles on 170 career attempts.
Flex: Nehemiah Pritchett, Auburn
It’s unknown where Pritchett will play this fall due to the arrival of West Virginia transfer Dreshun Miller, but he’s capable of playing either inside or outside. He started at the latter in 2020 and put together one of the more underrated seasons in the SEC. He entered the year with only 68 career snaps and ranked sixth among SEC outside corners in coverage grade. He allowed one or no catches in eight of his 11 games, a 36.8% catch rate and 0.5 yards per coverage snap overall while recording one interception and seven pass breakups.