It’s officially reset time in college football.
We are on to the 2022 season, where teams across the country will compete for a chance to play for the College Football Playoff National Championship at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. There’s still a lot to be figured out between now and then with team rosters and depth charts — the transfer portal deadline is months away. But the 2022 NFL Draft deadline is approaching for those who are eligible, so we now know who among college football’s top talents will be leaving and returning for this season.
As such, there's no better time to dive into early position rankings of the top returning players in college football. The following are the top-10 cornerbacks returning to college football this fall. (Please note that this has nothing to do with pro potential.)
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Alabama plucked the top cornerback returning to college football out of the transfer portal in Eli Ricks, who comes from LSU.
Before his injury-riddled 2021 campaign, Ricks produced at an extraordinarily high level for a true freshman. In that 2020 season, Ricks was tasked with a high dose of man coverage and handled it like a pro. His man-coverage grade ranked first among all Power Five cornerbacks in 2020. He allowed just six catches on 19 targets while making seven total plays on the ball when he was tasked with single coverage.
Ricks' physicality at the line of scrimmage and catch point make him a difficult cornerback to beat outright. It’s quite clear he already has an excellent feel for the position and could be the first Thorpe Award winner from Alabama since star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2017.
Smith was one of the unsung heroes of the 2021 season. He allowed multiple catches in just two of his 11 games this year. In all, he gave up only 15 catches on 32 targets for the entire season. Of those 15 catches, 10 went for a first down, which is fewer than the number of plays he made on the ball (12). Smith — a top 150 recruit in the 2019 class, according to 247Sports composite — earned an 89.7 coverage grade this past season across his 217 coverage snaps. He has All-America potential in 2022.
Phillips took a massive step forward midway through his 2021 campaign. Over his last six games, the 2020 No. 51 overall recruit was the highest-graded outside corner in the country. Phillips allowed 0.34 yards per coverage snap in that span. He finished the season with nine pass breakups, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 14 passing stops. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound corner has some legit bounce and quicks. His breaks and processing speed shined down the stretch for Utah. Phillips is hands down the top returning corner on the west coast and capable of reaching elite status in 2022.
Clark Phillips III (true soph) has been one of the top DBs out west in the second half of the season.
Best returning Pac-12 corner https://t.co/tqqNiToeoJ
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) January 1, 2022
Life is a bit easier for a cornerback when playing for one of the best front sevens college football has ever seen, as Ringo did in 2021, but he more than proved to be a talented player with a high ceiling. After sitting out his first year on campus recovering from an injury, Ringo earned a starting spot in 2021 and produced a 73.3 coverage grade. He allowed under 40 yards in coverage in every game except two against Alabama and helped the Dawgs clinch the national championship with his late pick-six.
Ringo was the No. 4 overall recruit in the 2020 class. He has the length and strength to give wide receivers a problem at the line at 6-foot-2 and 205-pounds but also rare long speed for that size. In high school, he clocked a verified 4.35 40 time. Now, did he make some mistakes this past season? Yes. Alabama and Tennessee gave him fits, and there were some late-reaction plays that led to positive plays for the opposition. But at the end of the day, he performed at a high-level given his age and experience. Ringo did a good job of sticking with his receiver by allowing only two of his 36 targets in single coverage to have separation (seventh-lowest rate in the Power Five).
Darrell Luter’s name should be in any conversation about the most underrated player in college football. Luter missed the final two outings due to injury, but we won’t let that take away from what he did in 10 games as a starter. Luter was tested with 45 targets in coverage but only allowed a 26.7% catch rate and actually came up with more combined interceptions and pass breakups (14) than catches allowed (12). The 2020 JUCO product even earned a 97.8 PFF grade in single coverage this past year — the highest mark in the country by more than five grading points.
Turner took on a starting spot for the first time in his Michigan career in Week 8 this past season and performed at a high level from that point forward. His 80.7 coverage grade from Week 8 on was the third-best among Power Five outside corners. And Turner did that despite playing a decent amount of press-man and being picked on with the 13th-highest target rate among that group at 17.4%. The 2019 four-star recruit allowed the fourth-lowest catch rate in the Power Five over that span at 42%. Overall, Turner finished with an 83.3 coverage grade and is a candidate to obtain elite status in 2022.
Marshall opened his 2021 true freshman campaign with a couple of rough outings, but he played at an advanced level after those were out of the way. From Week 3 on, the five-star recruit earned a 78.6 coverage grade and allowed only 10 catches on 30 targets and 254 coverage snaps for 93 yards. Marshall didn’t record a penalty in that span, nor did he allow any of his eight deep targets to be caught. He looked excellent in 150 coverage snaps playing press coverage, allowing only two first downs on those reps. While the Gators lose Kaiir Elam, they still look to have one of the top corners in the conference with Marshall.
Moss has been bred for Phil Parker’s zone defense and is playing it a high level. The 2018 two-star recruit earned an 81.5 coverage grade last season. He has fantastic eyes in this defense, and his four interceptions, six pass breakups and seven passing stops from this past season back that up.
2022 NFL Draft position rankings:
Top 10 players at every position
Mullen’s 2021 campaign was derailed by an injury, limiting him to only four starts and 227 snaps overall. If healthy, he’s undoubtedly among the best at the position. The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder has inside-outside versatility and is a ferocious blitzer. Mullen is also the proud owner of the highest run-defense grade among cornerbacks since he came to Bloomington as a true freshman in 2019. In coverage, he’s consistently at the catch point and winning, with a 20.6% forced incompletion rate since 2019 — the second-best among all active Power Five cornerbacks.
Stevenson came back home to South Beach to play on the outside for Miami after two years playing for Georgia in the slot. The 2019 No. 37-ranked recruit elevated his play after the position and school change. He earned a 76.1 coverage grade while allowing 0.68 yards per coverage snap in 2021. When Stevenson was left on an island, he almost always came out on top. He has proven to be the best corner returning to the ACC and has the skill set to make the leap to even higher levels of play in 2022.
SLEEPER TO WATCH: MEKHI GARNER, LSU TIGERS
Garner has been one of the best cornerbacks at the Group of Five level over the last couple of seasons at Louisiana and now is taking the leap to the Power Five to join Brian Kelly’s LSU Tigers. He has earned an 83.5 coverage grade since 2020 with zero catches allowed in 10 of his games played. The 6-foot-2, 212-point cornerback has racked up 15 pass breakups and three interceptions in that span. He plays in control and isn’t going to lose at the catch point with his physical frame. How Garner holds up against some of the more athletic receivers in the SEC will be something to monitor.