What makes a stand out player?
It’s difficult to narrow down a list when defining a true “breakout” kid, so we limited our list to 10 names, where the players bet off against each other in terms of grit and sheer celebrity stardom.
These players have either played fewer than 500 snaps or started under half a regular season.
In no particular order, here are 10 top college football players to watch in 2021.
1. WR JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA, OHIO STATE
Career Snaps: 162
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, aided by his short-area quicks and ball skills, might be the next big breakout wide receiver.
Smith-Njigba could take on a massive role alongside players like Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Although he was not on-field a great deal as a freshman, with only 69 route runs, he impressed everyone with one of the best touchdown grabs of 2020.
2. QB D.J. UIAGALELEI, CLEMSON
Career Snaps: 233
Uiagalelei has a rocket launcher arm. He may be equipped to become a star college quarterback. Not scared by difficult throws, Uiagalelei shone in sport as a freshman when Trevor Lawrence was side-lined due to COVID-19.
Uiagalelei earned an 83.6 passing grade, making five big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy in two games against Boston College and Notre Dame. Both outings are the team’s top 3 most efficient passing performances of the 2020 campaign.
3. WR QUENTIN JOHNSTON, TCU
Career Snaps: 444
Johnston is a machine to defend on-go balls and he does not go down easily either. This long strider of a wide receiver racked up five go routes for 267 yards in 2020 and broke 16 tackles on 22 receptions while averaging 8.9 yards after the catch per reception.
He’s made our list because he’s one of the game’s unique all-around athletes. His highlights include 214 routes in his 2020 freshman campaign, with a finish of two astounding performances. Johnston produced a 91.1 receiving grade and five receptions with a 15-plus yard gain against Oklahoma State and Louisiana Tech.
4. EDGE ADAM ANDERSON, GEORGIA
Career Snaps: 337
Anderson produced incredibly well on just under 200 pass-rush snaps. He didn’t start a single game for the Bulldogs, but he has recorded a 90.9 pass-rushing grade, 24.5% win rate and 23.7% pressure rate on those reps.
Anderson is a talented athlete – the second-best win rate among SEC edge defenders in the seven years of PFF College’s existence.
5. LB EDEFUAN ULOFOSHIO, WASHINGTON
Career Snaps: 452
Ulofoshio is one of the top off-ball line-backers in college football, currently. He may have only seven career starts to his name, but this previous walk-on has yet to have a bad outing in his two years at Washington.
Ulofoshio has posted a grade above 82.0 against the run, as a pass-rusher and in coverage spanning 452 snaps since 2019, something that others in the Power Five haven’t accomplished in the same span. He only missed 5 times across 93 career attempts to form a 5.4% missed tackle rate – a strong tackler that ranks third among Power Five line-backers.
6. CB TONY GRIMES, NORTH CAROLINA
Career Snaps: 317
Head coach Mack Brown was right on the money, when it came to Grimes, immediately making plays recruiting after he returned to Chapel Hill. Grimes selected North Carolina above all the major bluebloods, spotlighting him as a highly coveted player in his freshman year.
Grimes allowed eight catches on 20 targets for 89 yards across 189 coverage snaps in 2020. Only one of those receptions resulted in a gain of 15-plus yards. He played the most over the final five games of the season, making as many plays on the ball as catches allowed (3).
7. TE DARNELL WASHINGTON, GEORGIA
Career Snaps: 326
Tight end Washington is a 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end with an impressive 85-inch wingspan and speed to boot! We admired his physical advantage as a run blocker in his true freshman season. This generated the 11th-best positively graded block rate among Power Five tight ends.
In his last two games, Washington earned an 88.5 receiving grade while producing a 4.28 yards per route run, breaking five tackles on his five receptions.
He was limited for the majority of the 2020 season on the receiving front. We are excited to witness what he and receiver, Arik Gilbert, are going to do as a dynamic duo this year.
8. EDGE BOYE MAFE, MINNESOTA
Career Snaps: 606
Not surprising on our list, with a full year under his jersey, Mafe may become a household name. We admire his tenacity as a pass-rusher. He has that presence that gives offensive linemen nightmares and has rushed the passer 324 times in his college career. He ranks sixth among Power Five edge defenders with 200 such pass rushes since 2018.
His absurd 40.5-inch vertical jump landed him on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List last year.
9. WR KAYSHON BOUTTE, LSU
Career Snaps: 491
Boutte displayed grit, speed and top acceleration in his stretch for LSU in his true freshman campaign. 2020 saw him haul in 14 receptions for 308 yards and three touchdowns against Ole Miss, securing a starting spot for the final four games remaining. This earned a 73.1 PFF grade and generated 2.38 yards per route run for the year.
Not afraid to make plays over the middle of the field, he averaged 7.6 yards after the catch while forcing 12 tackles on his 45 receptions.
10. TE JAHLEEL BILLINGSLEY, ALABAMA
Career Snaps: 406
Billingsly is a dynamite mix of tight end and versatility. He can play anywhere on the field, with his ability to combine speed and ball skills. Making it onto the radar in the second half of 2020, Billingsley showed what he is made of in the Crimson Tide’s offense.
Billingsly generated an 81.6 receiving grade, racked up 2.28 yards per route run and brought in 9 15-plus-yard receptions, all ranking sixth or better among Power Five tight ends. Read more about sports