It’s officially time to reset 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. The 2022 NFL Draft deadline is approaching for those who are eligible, though, so we now know which of college football’s top talents will be leaving and returning for this season.
As such, it’s now time to dive into some early position rankings of the top returning players in college football.
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Below are the top-10 off-ball linebackers returning to college football this fall. Please note this has nothing to do with pro potential.
Ulofoshio has played less than 300 snaps in each of the last three seasons. He began as a walk-on in 2018 and eventually earned playing time down the stretch in 2019 and shined (210 snaps in last five games). From there, he was limited to only four games in 2020 due to the pandemic and played six games in 2021 due to injury. Despite all of that, Ulofoshio has more than proven to be one of the best at the position. He owns a 90.3 career PFF grade across 743 snaps with an 82.0-plus grade as a run defender, pass-rusher and coverage defender. Ulofoshio has attempted 148 tackles over that duration and missed only seven.
The Sewell family once again has one of the best players in college football. After Penei dominated the offensive side of the ball, Noah is now wreaking havoc on defense. The Oregon off-ball linebacker takes on blocks with a vengeance and is a fearful blitzer. Sewell racked up 34 pressures from 98 pass-rushes while earning an 88.6 pass-rush grade in 2021. The way he moves at 6-foot-3, 251-pounds is freaky. Sewell’s tackling needs to be cleaner, but no one has a higher ceiling at the position.
Simpson is one of the best athletes at the position at 6-foot-3, 225-pounds. His verified testing numbers in high school in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and pro agility were comparable to the 80th-90th percentile among NFL combine athletes. Former defensive coordinator Brent Venables took advantage of Simpson’s physical gifts in his blitz packages. The off-ball linebacker recorded an 88.3 pass-rush grade while racking up seven sacks, 13 hits and 11 hurries. Simpson was one of the 10 highest-graded players at the position in the Power Five from Week 4 on last season and is poised for an even bigger leap next fall.
Martial was a walk-on for the Trojans all the way back in 2017. He made his first start not too long after in 2018 and has since been one of the best at the position nationally. Martial has posted PFF grades of 90.9, 91.3, 82.4 and 81.8 over the last four seasons — all ranked 12th or higher at the position in that respective season. He’s racked up 211 defensive stops over that entire span — more than anyone in the FBS. Martial may not look imposing at 5-foot-9, 216-pounds, but that small stature clearly hasn’t held him back.
Pace won PFF’s 2021 MAC Defensive Player of the Year playing for Miami of Ohio. This year, he stepped into a starting job for the first time and came out with an 88.3 PFF grade. He was a weapon regardless of role but stood out as a blitzer, where he earned a 91.2 pass-rush grade and totaled 19 pressures from 46 rushes. Pace paired that with an 88.6 coverage grade and 78.7 run-defense grade. Next year, he’ll return to his hometown to play for the Bearcats alongside his brother Deshawn Pace, who nearly made this list after posting a 75.3 PFF grade last season.
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Brown moved from defensive back to off-ball linebacker early on in his collegiate career at Central Michigan, and his coverage ability has shined ever since. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound linebacker has made eye-widening plays on the ball over his career: His 33 passing stops, 14 combined forced incompletions and interceptions and 94.1 coverage grade since 2019 all rank top three among FBS off-ball linebackers. This addition by Ole Miss was one of the most under-the-radar pulls from the transfer portal during this cycle.
Pool tied for eighth among all FBS off-ball linebackers in defensive stops this season (56) while ranking 240th in snaps played (501), equating to 8.6 snaps played per stop — the lowest in the FBS and nearly 13 snaps lower than the FBS average. Now that’s what we call having a nose for the ball. Arkansas’ defense makes it a little easier to rack up those kinds of plays, but that rate is still incredibly impressive.
Thomas was one of the most underrated performers at the position in 2021, as he earned a top-15 PFF grade at the position nationally (80.2). Thomas picked off three passes and broke up four others en route to a 73.3 coverage grade, but his best play came against the run, where he produced an 82.2 grade. Thomas ranked top-10 nationally in both positively graded run play rate and tackles for loss or no gain (16).
Muasau is fresh off a breakout season at Hawaii and was among the most productive off-ball linebackers at the Group of Five level. Muasau ranked 15th nationally in defensive stops this year (51) and led the group in forced fumbles (five). His blitzing ability, in particular, is exceptional — Muasau racked up 37 pressures from 131 rushes en route to a 91.5 pass-rush grade. Watching him attack downhill is a sight to see. His new team, UCLA, owned the highest blitz rate in the Pac-12 by over eight percentage points (48%), but that may not remain with a new defensive coordinator in town. Either way, the Bruins were wise to bring in Muasau.
Campbell got his two lowest-graded games out of the way to start 2021 before finishing as a top-15 graded player in the Power Five from Week 3 on. His 972 snaps played for the season were more than anyone else at the position, making his 85.1 tackling grade (10th in the Power Five) that much more impressive. Campbell missed only 14 tackles on 153 attempts while racking up 56 stops (tied for third-most). The 2019 three-star recruit will lead one of the better linebacker corps in the country next season.
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Jacobs showed up to Iowa in 2019 as a lanky 6-foot-3, 190-pound linebacker. The four-star recruit only played 71 snaps during his first two years on campus, but he carved out a substantial role in 2021 after packing on over 40 pounds and flashing some high-level play. Through Week 7, Jacobs was the 12th-highest-graded off-ball linebacker in the Power Five and ranked third among that group against the run, in particular. From that point forward though, Iowa had Jacobs play an even more versatile role and his production fell. He finished with a middling 65.1 PFF grade, but Jacobs still showed what he’s capable of earlier in the season. He sustained his speed and explosiveness despite packing on so much weight and is a candidate to take his play to top-five status this fall.