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College football teams that have gotten the most production from underclassmen

Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) reacts after a touchdown against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the fourth quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

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 — College football teams that have gotten the most production from underclassmen

Getting high-quality play out of underclassmen doesn't come easily. There is a steep learning curve from high school football to college, just as there is from college to the pros. No one should expect an underclassman who is less than a couple of years removed from high school to be a standout player right away, even if they are among the exclusive five-star pool in their class.

But there is a select group of players each season who have no issue making the jump to the collegiate ranks. Sometimes, those surprise performers can elevate a team to championship status, while other times, they help a team get by and make up for the upperclassmen's lack of quality play.

With the help of PFF's play-by-play grading system, we are able to dive into which programs have been getting the most out of their non-draft-eligible talent through the first half of the 2021 season.

Below is a ranking of the 10 teams whose non-draft-eligible players have been the most productive this season. Note that these rankings are not based on players' recruiting status or team success as a whole, but solely on 2021 production.

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1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 12
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 7

Top performing underclassman: RB TREVEYON HENDERSON (Class: 2021 5-star, National rank: 9th, Position rank: 1st)

Henderson has played only six games at the collegiate level, and his name is already in the conversation as a top-10 running back in the nation. Henderson has earned an 87.0 rushing grade while breaking 27 tackles, generating 18 runs of 10-plus yards and averaging 5.29 yards after contact per attempt on 69 carries. That yards-after-contact average is the second-best among Power 5 running backs through Week 7.

Player to watch: WR JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 91st, Position rank: 10th)

Smith-Njigba has been the third option in Ohio State's offense due to the Buckeyes' stacked wide receiver corps that features the best duo in college football in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. Even so, Smith-Njigba has been a productive player and will likely become a top-tier wide receiver in the future. Smith-Njigba has earned a 79.0 receiving grade and generated 3.14 yards per route run while playing primarily in the slot for the Buckeyes. Despite playing primarily on the inside, Smith-Njigba has beaten single coverage for seven explosive receptions of 15-plus yards (tied for fifth in the Power 5).

2. Oklahoma Sooners

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 12
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 7

Top performing underclassman: QB Caleb Williams (Class: 2021 4-star, National rank: 16th, Position rank: 1st)

Williams wasn't expected to play as a true freshman this season outside of garbage time, but as Spencer Rattler‘s undisciplined play continued to be an issue, Sooners coach Lincoln Riley opted to give Williams the keys to the offense. The move paid off in a big way in Williams' first start as he earned an elite PFF grade above 90.0 in Saturday's win over TCU, orchestrating Riley's offense as a passer while making plays in the ground game. Williams completed 10 of 14 passes of more than 10 yards downfield for 202 yards and four scores, while also taking two of his six designed runs for 20-plus yards. He has special arm talent and athleticism paired with poise beyond his years. It's early, but Williams looks like one of the rare underclassman quarterbacks who can produce at a top-five level nationally.

Player to watch: OT ANTON HARRISON (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 158th, Position rank: 20th)

Harrison has been one of the best pass-protecting tackles in the country this year, as he has earned a pass-blocking grade north of 70.0 in each of his seven starts at left tackle. This has led Harrison to an 83.9 pass-blocking grade overall this year, which ranks 11th among all Power 5 tackles. That level of consistency from a true sophomore is rare.

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3. Alabama Crimson Tide

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 11
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 4

Top performing underclassman: QB BRYCE YOUNG (Class: 2020 5-star, National rank: 5th, Position rank: 1st)

Young is coming off his third elite-graded game of the season (90.3) despite being pressured on 44% of his dropbacks against Mississippi State. He has a 91.1 passing grade for the season — second-best among Power 5 quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks. Young's ability to withstand the heat and make plays when knocked off rhythm, while avoiding poor decisions, is special for someone of his age and experience. Like Williams, Young is among the rare group of starting underclassmen quarterbacks who can produce at an extremely high level.

Player to watch: Edge WILL ANDERSON JR. (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 49th, Position rank: 6th)

Anderson easily could have been listed as the top performing underclassman for the Crimson Tide considering he has been one of the best players at his position as a true freshman and sophomore. After posting a 79.1 PFF grade as a freshman in 2020, Anderson sits at an 81.2 mark through Week 7 this season. He's second among Power 5 players in both tackles for loss or no gain against the run (eight) and total pressures (35). He is an impact player in its purest form.

4. Georgia Bulldogs

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 10
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 4

Top performing underclassman: DI Jalen Carter (Class: 2020 5-star, National rank: 12th, Position rank: 2nd)

Carter hasn't been an every-down player for the Bulldogs, but he's been one of their most dominant. He has earned a grade north of 70.0 in each of his seven starts en route to an 89.8 overall mark for the season, best in Power 5. Carter owns a grade north of 80.0 against the run and as a pass-rusher, joining Alabama's fifth-year senior Phidarian Mathis as the only interior defenders in Power 5 with that distinction. Carter is a brute force of nature and is legitimately in the conversation as perhaps the best interior defensive lineman in the country.

Player to watch: TE BROCK BOWERS (Class: 2021 4-star, National rank: 210th, Positional rank: 4th)

Bowers has earned an 89.4 PFF grade and generated 3.50 yards per route run this season. That's not just a ridiculous level of production for a true freshman; it's a level rarely obtained by any tight end, as Bowers leads all Power 5 tight ends in both metrics. With his speed, explosiveness and ball skills, Bowers fits the mold of the modern-day tight end.

5. Florida Gators

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 9
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 4

Top performing underclassman: QB ANTHONY RICHARDSON (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 183rd, Position rank: 6th)

Richardson isn't the Gators' No. 1 quarterback — for now, at least — but he has accumulated more than 100 snaps this year and has earned the highest grade of any non-draft-eligible player on Florida's roster. The 6-foot-4, 236-pounder is a jumbo run threat and has posted nine runs of 10-plus yards on 28 total carries (26 designed, two scrambles). Richardson has made some mistakes as a passer when under pressure, but that is typical of a QB with so little experience. Over the last two games, Richardson has produced three turnover-worthy plays on 25 dropbacks, all when he was under pressure. From a clean pocket in those two games, Richardson performed admirably, recording an 87.2 passing grade. His future is bright.

Player to watch: DI GERVON DEXTER (Class: 2020 5-star, National rank: 17th, Positional rank: 3rd)

Dexter took over a starting role after the first few weeks of the season. He's long and strong at 6-foot-6, 303 pounds, and is a highly productive true sophomore who plays a quarter of his snaps as a head-up nose tackle against stout SEC competition. Dexter has recorded an 86.4 pass-rush grade, 22.7% pass-rush win rate and 18.1% pressure rate, all of which are among the top five among Power 5 interior defensive linemen.

6. LSU Tigers

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 16
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 5

Top performing underclassman: DI JAQUELIN ROY (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 37th, Position rank: 5th)

Roy has emerged as one of the top interior pass-rushers in the SEC. He has grown-man strength and currently stands as the highest-graded pass-rusher in the Power 5 (91.3). While 10 of his 17 pressures on the season have come against McNeese State and Central Michigan, Roy has racked up wins against Power 5 lines as well. His 88.0 pass-rush grade against Power 5 lines is still the best in the country. That's not too shabby for a player who doesn't even start.

Player to watch: Edge BJ OJULARI (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 122nd, Position rank: 13th)

Ojulari isn't as polished a pass-rusher as his brother Azeez, who is a former Georgia Bulldog and current member of the New York Giants, but he has racked up pressures thanks to his high motor. Ojulari has 28 pressures in seven games, with more than half them of the cleanup variety. If he can come with a better pass-rush plan and add more moves to his repertoire, his 68.3 pass-rush grade is bound to improve. Ojulari is just scratching the surface.

7. Auburn Tigers

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 6
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 4

Top performing underclassman: RB TANK BIGSBY (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 20th, Position rank: 2nd)

Bigsby has had an inconsistent campaign as a true sophomore after emerging as one of the nation's best backs as a true freshman. Part of the reason is the tweak in scheme that has given Bigsby a far higher rate of man runs rather than zone runs as compared to 2020. His zone run rate has gone down more than 31 percentage points to 44.6%. On those carries, Bigsby is one of the five highest-graded ball carriers in the FBS.

Player to watch: RB JARQUEZ HUNTER (Class: 2021 3-star, National rank: N/A, Position rank: 57th)

Hunter's hot start has cooled down the last couple of weeks, but he still holds a spot inside PFF's top 10 graded Power 5 running backs for 2021 (87.3). Hunter is tied for 11th in the Power 5 with seven runs of 20-plus yards despite ranking 70th in total carries (70). He's done a good job of taking advantage of the holes Auburn's line has created for him, but he also has kept his feet churning after contact. He's the only back in the Power 5 who is averaging four or more yards before and after contact.

8. Clemson Tigers

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 14
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 5

Top performing underclassman: S R.J. MICKENS (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 181st, Position rank: 14th)

Mickens has been a key rotational player for the Clemson secondary with 119 snaps across five games this season. He's been a disciplined player with great play recognition, earning an 84.5 PFF grade through Week 7. Mickens has made an impact in every facet with two interceptions, two run stops and two pressures generated, and his tackling has been flawless with zero misses on 15 attempts.

Player to watch: Edge MYLES MURPHY (Class: 2020 5-star, National rank: 13th, Position rank: 4th)

Murphy was one of the top run-stuffing defensive ends in college football last season as a true freshman, and that remains unchanged as a true sophomore. He has the 12th-best positively graded play rate against the run among Power 5 edge defenders. Going back to the start of his collegiate career in 2020, Murphy owns the highest run-defense grade at the position in the Power 5. He needs a lot of refinement as a pass-rusher, where he has earned a 61.0 grade this season.

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9. TCU Horned Frogs

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 9
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 3

Top performing underclassman: RB ZACH EVANS (Class: 2020 5-star, National rank: 16th, Position rank: 1st)

Evans is one of the best pure runners in college football. He has produced an explosive run of 10 or more yards on a quarter of his carries this season (16 on 74 runs) and owns the third-best rushing grade among Power 5 running backs (90.3). Evans is one of the best in the business thanks to a variety of traits, but his balance stands out. He has averaged the second-most yards per attempt when contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage in the Power 5 at 4.3.

Player to watch: WR QUENTIN JOHNSTON (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 63rd, Position rank: 7th)

Johnston is coming off his most productive game of the season, recording a 91.1 PFF grade against Oklahoma in Week 7. The 6-foot-4, 201-pound wide receiver is a vertical route weapon with his size, leaping ability and long speed. TCU has taken advantage of that skill set, as evidenced by his 19.3-yard average depth of target. Johnston has produced four touchdowns on vertical routes, tying for the fifth most in the Power 5.

10. North Carolina Tar Heels

Underclassmen with 100+ snaps in 2021: 9
Underclassmen with a 70.0+ PFF grade through Week 7: 3

Top performing underclassman: WR JOSH DOWNS (Class: 2020 4-star, National rank: 188th, Position rank: 28th)

North Carolina has been an underwhelming team this season, and quarterback Sam Howell‘s supporting cast has been a key reason why. True sophomore Downs has been the only quality weapon for Howell this season. Downs has seen 58 more targets than anyone else in the Tar Heels offense, and he has earned the fourth-best receiving grade in the Power 5 through Week 7 (83.0).

Player to watch: CB TONY GRIMES (Class: 2020 5-star, National rank: N/A, Position rank: N/A)

Grimes originally was a member of the 2021 recruiting cycle but decided to skip his senior year of high school and join UNC a year early. He has been a volatile performer as a starter this season, but he's shown similar high-end flashes as he did in his true freshman campaign. Grimes owns a 17.1% forced incompletion rate and has allowed 0.77 yards per coverage snap in 2021, ranking 28th and 48th among 190 qualifying Power 5 cornerbacks.

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