As a part of our partnership with ESPN, this is a part of a story that was originally published on ESPN+ and can be viewed in its entirety here with your ESPN+ subscription — 2021 midseason awards: Malik Willis for Heisman? A D-line sweep for Aidan Hutchinson?
It's officially time to start considering college football awards as we reach the halfway point of the 2021 season. With the help of Pro Football Focus' unique play-by-play grading system, we can identify who is most deserving of the major honors at the collegiate level.
There is still a lot of football to be played before declaring any winners. As we've already seen during this chaotic year, a lot can change over the course of a few weeks. For now, these are the players and coaches in the driver's seat for the most prestigious accolades in college football in the eyes of PFF.
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Heisman Trophy: Most outstanding player
There isn't a more dangerous player in college football than Willis. He might not be a part of a blue-blood program or a well-rounded team, in general, but Willis has been lighting it up for the Flames this season. He is the highest-graded quarterback in the FBS, with a 93.7 mark. Willis has legitimate arm talent and has shown off his cannon weekly in 2021 en route to a 13.2% big-time throw rate — the highest in the FBS by over 3 percentage points. He also is an electric runner who leads all quarterbacks in rushing grade (94.9), explosive runs of 10-plus yards (24) and broken tackles (38). Liberty might have a cupcake schedule, but that level of production against anyone is impressive. If he keeps this up, Willis will run away with PFF's vote for one of the top awards in all of sports.
Fred Biletnikoff Award: Most outstanding receiver
London is the engine of USC's offense. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound wide receiver has been targeted on 36.7% of his routes this season, the second-highest rate in the country. And London has been making the most of that heavy load with the highest PFF grade among Power 5 wide receivers (89.7).
NFL Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Randy Moss could reasonably use London's tape for his “You Got Mossed” segment during Monday Night Football on a weekly basis with how often the Trojans wideout is bodying defenders at the catch point. He has racked up 18 contested catches on 27 such targets this season. That's only five away from breaking the PFF College record for most single-season contested catches since we began collecting such data in 2017. London's physicality also is present after the catch, as he has shed 14 tackles so far in 2021, tied for the most in the country.
John Mackey Award: Most outstanding tight end
Likely has been on a tear over the past few weeks and now owns a 95.3 PFF grade for the season, the highest in the FBS by over 6 grading points. Likely's production has been off the charts despite not running as many routes as other tight ends in college football due to the Chants' option offense and the number of blowouts the team has had.
Likely has generated 4.71 yards per route run so far in 2021; that's 1.3 yards more than any other tight end in the country. He is a dynamic player at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, has serious route-running chops and is fantastic at high-pointing the ball. Likely is presently the best tight end in the country.
Doak Walker Award: Most outstanding running back
Robinson was one of the blue-chip five-star recruits in the 2020 cycle, and he is living up to those standards quickly. He has been one of the most elusive backs PFF College has ever seen: Robinson has broken 0.48 tackles per attempt in 2021. Not only does that lead all running backs for 2021, it's on pace to match the PFF College record that former North Carolina running back and current Denver Broncos RB Javonte Williams set in 2020. That has led Robinson to a Power 5-leading 92.5 rushing grade for the season.
Outland Trophy: Most outstanding interior lineman & Rimington Trophy: Most outstanding center
Linderbaum is one of the nastiest and most physical offensive linemen in college football. Those two traits show up routinely in the run game. He has earned a 92.7 run block grade through Week 6, which is double-digit grading points higher than any other center in the Power 5. Linderbaum leads all FBS centers in positively graded run block rate by a substantial margin. He plays in control and thrives in Iowa's zone-heavy rushing attack. No offensive lineman has done a better job on a down-for-down basis than Linderbaum this season.
Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards: Defensive player of the year & Ted Hendricks Award: Defensive end of the year
The term “unblockable” is often thrown around loosely, but it certainly applies with Hutchinson. He is the only player in the country who has earned a spot on PFF's Team of the Week three times this season and already has multiple elite performances on his grading profile. Hutchinson has recorded a 92.6 PFF grade through the first half of the 2021 season, the highest mark among all FBS edge defenders. His 32.4% pass rush win rate is on pace to break the Power 5 record in the PFF College era by multiple percentage points.
Hutchinson's power, hand placement and get-off make him a force to be reckoned with and someone few tackles in the country can handle. He isn't just the best edge defender in the country; he is the best player in all of college football through the first half of the year.
Dick Butkus Award: Most outstanding linebacker
In a defense littered with uber-athletes, Dean is among the best. He is one of the most explosive players in the country, and that trait makes him a blitz weapon. Dean, who notched a 41-inch vertical in high school, is the second-highest-graded off-ball linebacker in college football when sent after the quarterback. He has totaled 10 pressures (five sacks) on 38 opportunities. Pair that with sound play against the run and pass, and Dean has made his way to a Power 5-leading 87.3 PFF grade halfway through the 2021 season.
Jim Thorpe Award: Most outstanding defensive back
CB Matt Hankins, Iowa
Hankins is having one of the stingiest seasons PFF College has ever seen from an outside cornerback. He has played 229 coverage snaps across six starts and has allowed only one first down while picking off three passes, breaking up another and forcing six passing stops. Hankins has surrendered 44 total yards this season — 0.19 yards allowed per coverage snap. That's on pace to break the PFF College record by a comfortable margin among cornerbacks who play primarily on the outside. Hankins is a high-level processor who will rarely make a mistake. The Thorpe Award is his to lose at this point.
Home Depot Coach of the Year Award
Steve Sarkisian, Texas
Texas might not be in the national title conversation, but the Longhorns have firmly surpassed market and PFF's expectations offensively. The main reason is the impact Sarkisian has had on the offense. After leading Alabama to the most efficient offense in college football in 2019 and 2020 as their playcaller, Sarkisian has completely revamped the Longhorns' offense in 2021 despite inheriting a lot of young and inexperienced players. Texas has the fourth-most efficient offense in the FBS and the second-most efficient in the Power 5 at the midway point of the 2021 season. The Longhorns are on pace to break program records within the PFF College era in expected points added (EPA) per play generated, successful play rate and yards per play.
Sarkisian is using the same elements in Austin that he used in Tuscaloosa. Texas is keeping defenses on their toes with a high motion usage rate that helps create mismatches and open throws, and the Longhorns are finding success via run-pass options. Sarkisian is helping create room for his receivers to run after the catch, and he continues to show a creative mind for playcalling. This past weekend against Oklahoma, he got the defense to look to its sideline, and Texas immediately snapped the ball, creating an open deep throw opportunity (a play he called in the famous Alabama-LSU game during the 2019 season). Texas is back.
Frank Broyles Award: Assistant coach of the year
Phil Parker, defensive coordinator, Iowa
Parker is the epitome of player development. His secondary consists of three three-star recruits, a two-star recruit who took a grayshirt and a walk on. Yet, they are second to only Georgia in team coverage grade among 130 FBS schools. Parker has turned this pool of undervalued recruits with low expectations into a juggernaut. He has crafted them into disciplined and instinctive defensive backs who fit his two-high zone scheme. Georgia might have the best defense in college football, but considering what Iowa started with from a personnel standpoint, the Hawkeyes have been the most impressive. That's a testament to Parker.