We are under 150 days away from the opening week of the 2020 college football season, so what better way to get ready for the season than to take a look at every single program’s best returning player?
Using PFF’s advanced database — the same one used by all 32 NFL teams and 79 FBS programs — we present the top player on all 130 FBS college football teams as we look forward to the 2020 college football season.
Alabama: WR DeVonta Smith
The fact that DeVonta Smith averaged 3.52 yards per route run last year — sixth of 359 qualifying wide receivers — while playing alongside Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle is quite remarkable. He routinely toasted press coverage, recording the highest raw PFF grade on such reps while also averaging 29.7 yards per reception, the most in the nation by over four yards.
With NFL FA calming down, here is an interesting stat I came across in @PFF_College‘s database:
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) March 20, 2020
Arkansas: WR Treylon Burks
Burks had a solid true freshman campaign in 2019, producing a 70.5 receiving grade that was good for ninth among first-year wideouts. The 6-foot-3 receiver proved his worth as a deep threat, too, as he hauled in nine deep passes (throws of 20-plus yards downfield). He does still need to work on improving his 13.2% drop rate.
Auburn: CB Roger McCreary
In his first season with considerable reps, Roger McCreary clearly did not disappoint. His PFF coverage grade sat at 81.1, which was 33rd of 419 qualifying cornerbacks. McCreary’s ball skills were exceptional — he consistently forced tight coverage and hardly lost at the catch point. He actually forced a contested target at one of the three highest rates on the outside (23 targets in total) and he allowed just nine to be caught while making 11 total plays on the ball.
Florida: CB Kaiir Elam
Kaiir Elam’s true freshman season was better than anyone could have imagined and has made Gator fans excited for their defense’s future with him on the outside. Elam was on the field for 310 snaps this year and had just a handful of starts. But he was consistent, keeping his missed tackle and touchdown counts to zero and allowing 10 catches on 23 targets while picking off three passes.
Georgia: QB Jamie Newman (transfer from Wake Forest)
Most don't recognize the magnitude of Newman opting to transfer from Wake Forest to Georgia, but it's massive. Newman is an athletic player who is known for his rushing ability, but his arm talent simply does not get enough credit. When throwing to a tight window, he ranked behind only Joe Burrow in PFF passing grade. Georgia didn’t have much of a deep passing attack with Jake Fromm, but they’ll certainly have that with Newman. He was second to only Burrow on 20-plus yard throws last season.
Kentucky: CB Brandin Echols
Echols was a junior college transfer who started off at receiver and ended up a defensive back. And based on his play in his first year at Kentucky, it seems like the move was a great call. The Wildcat is one of the 10 best press-man corners in college football, where he’s allowed just eight catches on his 23 targets for 99 yards. He’s a sticky corner and is difficult to beat in contested situations. On those plays, he’s allowed just six catches while forcing 12 incompletions.
LSU: CB Derek Stingley Jr.
Now, this was an incredibly close one. As great as wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase was in 2019 (second-most valuable non-quarterback of the season), what we saw true freshman Stingley do was flat-out insane. Not only did he edge out Chase to be the most valuable non-quarterback of the season, but he also produced the most valuable season we have ever seen from a cornerback:
Most valuable seasons by a CB in the PFF College era (since 2014)
|Player||Wins Above Average (WAA)|
|1. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU (2019)||1.08|
|2. Josh Jackson, Iowa (2017)||0.93|
|3. Mike Hughes, UCF (2017)||0.85|
The term “generational talent” is thrown around loosely, but if there is any proper time to use it to describe a player in college football, it should be used next to Derek Stingley Jr.’s name.
Mississippi: WR Elijah Moore
The 5-foot-9 slot receiver has been an impactful player since his 2018 freshman season for Ole Miss, posting a two-year slot receiving grade that is the 18th-best in college football. Moore was a weapon vertically in that span and actually owned the 10th-best grade on vertical routes in the slot, as well as the fourth-most catches on those.
Mississippi State: QB K.J. Costello (transfer from Stanford)
Air Raid coach Mike Leach is headed to the Bulldogs, and he brought transfer quarterback K.J. Costello from Stanford with him. As a redshirt freshman with the Cardinal in 2017, Costello won over the starting job to close out the season and played reasonably well considering his experience, producing a 72.6 PFF passing grade. He came back as the starter in 2018 and continued to progress before finishing the year as one of the 20 most valuable quarterbacks in college football, which led to him starting to receive a lot of attention from the NFL Draft community. However, his 2019 campaign didn’t go as planned and didn’t end with him progressing into a first-round prospect as some expected. Costello started just five games due to a variety of injuries and posted PFF grades below 55.0 in three of the five outings. He’s very much a wild card given his 2019 campaign, but given a clean bill of health that’d perhaps get him back to 2018 form, he is the best player on the roster by a mile.
Missouri: LB Nick Bolton
In losing Cale Garrett midseason due to injury, Missouri was without the highest-graded linebacker in coverage. But Nick Bolton stepped up and shined in every facet of play. In his only collegiate season as a starter, he finished as one of the three highest-graded players at his position. When it mattered most in coverage, Bolton was at his best, posting an elite 90.4 coverage grade and allowing just 180 yards on 352 coverage snaps with 10 combined pass breakups and interceptions on his 29 targets.
South Carolina: CB Israel Mukuamu
Mukuamu has been a reliable cornerback for the Gamecocks since his first time stepping on a collegiate field in 2018. He owns a 76.9 coverage grade when lined up on the outside since 2018 and has held his own against stiff competition in that span. Against SEC foes on the outside, Mukuamu has allowed only 19 catches on 286 coverage snaps, with 13 of those catches allowed being just nine yards or less downfield.
Tennessee: CB Shawn Shamburger
This one might be a surprise to some, but Shamburger is the most valuable returning Tennesee Volunteer from the 2019 season. Against incredibly difficult competition, Shamburger allowed 45 yards or less in every game played and allowed only 0.67 yards per coverage snap played in the slot — a mark that ranked fourth in the FBS and by far the best in the SEC (only other SEC slot corner to allow under a yard per coverage snap was Alabama’s Shyheim Carter).
Texas A&M: QB Kellen Mond
Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond has been one of few quarterbacks to be a reliable option both as a passer and a rusher. Mond has been better than most at his position on the ground, particularly in his scrambling. Nearly a quarter of his scrambles the past two years have resulted in a gain of 10-plus yards, averaging 8.5 yards per scramble with 4.6 of those coming after contact. He won’t “wow” you with his arm strength by any means, but Mond has routinely made positively graded throws on his intermediate and short passes, ranking among the 15 best in the past two years in that rate.
Vanderbilt: CB Jaylen Mahoney
We saw Mahoney on a limited basis in his freshman 2019 year, and what we saw from him on those reps was far better than most anticipated. Mahoney recorded a solid 74.0 coverage grade and allowed just 107 yards on 201 coverage snaps with three combined pass breakups and interceptions.
Cincinnati: CB Ahmad Gardner
True freshman Ahmad Gardner went from three-star recruit to one of the best cornerbacks in the country in just a few months. He produced an elite 90.0 coverage grade while allowing just a 39.4 passer rating when targeted. Gardner was a sticky corner who was difficult to overpower in tight coverage — he actually forced 35 tight-coverage targets and allowed just six to be caught (only one was a first down) while intercepting three and forcing 15 incompletions.
Connecticut: DI Travis Jones
Jones impressed as a true freshman back in 2018 as a run-defender by owning an 88.3 run-defense grade. His pass-rushing needed a lot of work, though, as he owned a 64.1 grade in that facet and he had just a 5% win rate. In 2019, he improved on just that. He raised his pass-rush grade to 78.9, and his win rate increased by more than eight percentage points.
East Carolina: WR C.J. Johnson
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound former three-star recruit C.J. Johnson was one of the best true freshman wide receivers in college football last season, producing an 82.1 receiving grade that ranked behind only Georgia’s George Pickens among first-year wideouts.
Houston: WR Marquez Stevenson
Stevenson had an injury-riddled first two seasons of his college career, missing practically the entire time due to various injuries. Over the last couple of years, though, he’s become one of the better slot receivers in college football. He’s seen the fourth-most targets in the slot since 2018 and produced a receiving grade on those that ranks 27th of 107 qualifiers.
Memphis: RB Kenneth Gainwell
The definition of a dual-threat running back is Kenneth Gainwell. He’s the only running back to have a rushing grade and receiving grade above 85.0 and was the eighth-most valuable of the year. In rushing and receiving combined, Gainwell was responsible for a whopping 37 plays of 15-plus yards, the second most in the country.
Navy: G Peter Nestrowitz
After playing mostly left tackle in 2018, Nestrowitz moved to right guard in 2019 and found great success. Among all right guards in 2019, Nestrowitz was the fifth most valuable in PFF WAA. He opened up holes consistently in Navy’s option offense and will look to continue that in 2020 as the squad’s top player.
SMU: QB Shane Buechele
Buechele had a career year in his lone season at SMU in 2019 after transferring from Texas, producing an 83.0 overall grade that ranked 28th. He routinely went deep with the ball, leading the country in 20-plus yard attempts. And while his accuracy was shaky, he made some nice throws into tight windows, posting the fifth-highest passing grade on such plays.
Temple: CB Christian Braswell
Braswell was absolute stingy in coverage this past year for Temple, allowing just a 37.1% catch rate that was the fifth-lowest mark among corners who saw at least 25 targets in coverage. He allowed 18 yards or fewer in coverage in over half of his games played, which is an incredible number for a cornerback.
Tulane: RB Amare Jones
Jones was given fewer opportunities than most running backs a season ago and still managed to produce the sixth-most wins above average at his position. Versatile is the perfect word to use when describing Jones' play. He actually lined up in the slot 220 times last season and just 97 times in the backfield. He picked up the fifth-most yards per route run at his position while also being an elusive, breakaway rushing threat. On his 60 carries, Jones forced 20 broken tackles and racked up 12 explosive plays of 10 or more yards.
Tulsa: LB Zaven Collins
Off-ball linebacker Zaven Collins impressed in his redshirt freshman season in 2018 and came back in 2019 as one of the top players at his position in coverage. His PFF coverage grade was among the 30 best at his position, and he was responsible for very few negatives in that facet of play. Collins was targeted 16 times, allowing just 10 catches for 98 yards while notching three pass breakups on his 303 coverage snaps — paving the way to the fifth-lowest yards per coverage snap mark in the entire FBS.
UCF: QB Dillon Gabriel
Dillon Gabriel was not only the highest-graded true freshman of the 2019 season, but he finished with the third most WAA by a true freshman quarterback in the PFF College era. His decision making overall was really impressive given his age — he and Joe Burrow were the only quarterbacks to produce a turnover-worthy play and big-time throw rate among the 15 best quarterbacks in all of college football (both were actually in the top five). There’s a lot to love with his deep ball, too.
USF: CB K.J. Sails
Sails spent the first three seasons of his collegiate career at North Carolina, where he had little success and missed most of the 2018 season due to injury. He subsequently transferred to USF in 2019, where he put together one of the best comeback seasons in college football. Sails produced a WAA total that is 26th among returning cornerbacks and allowed just 28 catches on his 375 coverage snaps.