After navigating the challenges of the 2020 college football season, is there anybody not eager to look ahead a little bit?
We bid adieu to stars such as DeVonta Smith, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Daviyon Nixon, but there’s a whole new batch of players waiting to star on college football fields next season. We at ESPN have you covered with the way-too-early All-America team for the 2021 season.
Iowa State running back Breece Hall and LSU place-kicker Cade York are the only holdovers from ESPN’s All-America team for the 2020 season. Reigning national champion Alabama is the only school to place three players on the team, and the true sophomore class in 2021 will be especially impressive.
Here’s what we came up with:
In his first two seasons, Howell has thrown more touchdown passes (68) than Lawrence did in his first two seasons at Clemson (66). That’s pretty good company, and after a sophomore season that saw the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Howell pass for 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions, he could be looking at a Heisman Trophy campaign in 2021. Howell has been at his best late in games, as he threw 19 touchdowns and no interceptions in the fourth quarter.
Hall leads a brigade of talented returnees for the Cyclones into next season and was one of college football’s most productive running backs in 2020 as a sophomore. The 6-1, 215-pound Hall led all FBS players with 1,572 rushing yards and was second only to Najee Harris with 21 rushing touchdowns. Hall tied for third nationally with eight runs of 30 yards or longer and also caught 23 passes, including two for touchdowns.
Look for the 6-foot, 222-pound Robinson to pick up right where he left off to end his freshman season, especially with new coach Steve Sarkisian calling the plays. After shaking off a back injury, Robinson started the final six games and was tremendous with 220 or more rushing/receiving yards in each of his last two games. Robinson averaged 8.9 yards per touch last season to go along with a team-high 14 plays of 20 yards or longer.
As a true freshman, the 5-11, 177-pound Mims was electric for the Sooners, providing a glimpse of what the former four-star prospect from Frisco, Texas, is capable of. Mims set an OU freshman record last season with nine touchdown catches, and four of his scores went for at least 45 yards. Spencer Rattler and Mims will make for one of the more feared quarterback/wide receiver combos in the country next season.
Projected as one of the top receivers in the upcoming NFL draft, Olave put off pro football for another season and announced Monday he was returning to Ohio State for his senior season. The Buckeyes couldn’t have picked up a better (or more talented) recruit this offseason. Olave is an elite athlete and explosive. He has been the Buckeyes’ top pass-catcher each of the previous two seasons and caught seven touchdown passes in seven games in 2020.
Justin Fields heaves it downfield to Chris Olave for a 56-yard touchdown and 42-21 OSU lead.
The Chanticleers were highly entertaining to watch on offense last season and should be again with quarterback Grayson McCall returning to throw to Likely, who was second on Coastal Carolina’s team with 30 catches, including five that went for touchdowns. The 6-4, 245-pound Likely, who averaged 20 yards per catch a year ago, has the size, speed and hands to be a nightmarish matchup for any linebacker or safety.
Alabama had the closest thing there was last season in college football to an NFL offensive line. While a couple of Tide linemen will be moving on to the pro ranks, the 6-7, 360-pound Neal returns as one of the top tackles in the country. He started all 13 games in 2020 at right tackle and was the Tide’s starter at left guard as a true freshman in 2019. Wherever he lines up, he’s a force and a big reason Alabama should again be dominant up front.
Texas A&M’s offensive line was a veteran unit last season, but the enforcer of the “Maroon Goons” from his left guard spot was the 6-4, 325-pound Green, who was named to several All-America teams as a true sophomore. Green helped pave the way for the Aggies to average more than 200 rushing yards per game and is also an excellent pass-protector.
Despite being rated by Mel Kiper Jr. as the No. 2 draft-eligible center, Linderbaum wanted to accomplish more at Iowa and is back for his redshirt junior season. A two-year starter for the Hawkeyes, the 6-3, 290-pound Linderbaum was a finalist last season for the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the top center in college football.
Don’t sleep on Louisiana’s offensive line next season when ranking the best lines in college football. The 6-5, 332-pound Torrence is the best of the bunch at right guard. He once weighed more than 400 pounds before arriving in Lafayette, but has trimmed down and developed into one of the best interior offensive linemen in the country. Nicknamed “Cybo,” Torrence has been a starter each of his first two seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Kinnard was a huge pickup for the Wildcats when they signed him as a coveted prospect out of Ohio, and he has been everything they hoped for and then some. The 6-5, 345-pound Kinnard thought about turning pro but decided to return for his senior season and will again anchor Kentucky’s offensive line from the right tackle position.
Coming off a stellar true freshman season, Vaughn is back as the Wildcats’ version of a Swiss Army knife. He rushed for a team-leading 642 yards and seven touchdowns, caught a team-leading 25 passes, averaging 17.4 yards per catch, and also averaged 20.7 yards on seven kickoff returns. The 5-5, 168-pound Vaughn joined Harris and Travis Etienne as the only three FBS players in 2020 to rush for more than 600 yards and have more than 400 receiving yards.
Injuries at the defensive end position forced Clemson to play younger players in 2020, including Murphy. He showed the kind of promise everyone was predicting when he signed with the Tigers. As a true freshman, the 6-5, 275-pound Murphy led the team with 12 tackles for loss and also had eight quarterback pressures. Murphy has everything it takes to blossom into one of the top defenders in the country in 2021.
Clemson’s young defensive line talent was hard to miss last season, and the 6-5, 300-pound Bresee earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Rated as ESPN’s top defensive tackle prospect in the country, Bresee stepped right into the Clemson starting lineup and tied for the team lead with 11 quarterback pressures. He also had 6.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks, and gives the Tigers a dominant presence in the middle of their defensive line.
Some interior defensive linemen take on double-teams, and then there’s the 6-6, 330-pound Davis. He gobbles up double-teams, not to mention ball carriers and quarterbacks. Davis turned down a chance to enter the NFL draft and instead decided to return for his senior season. He’s not a guy who puts up big tackle numbers, but his real value comes in the way he destroys the pocket on every play.
After a true freshman season that saw the 6-5, 250-pound Thibodeaux wow everybody in the Pac-12 with a team-high nine sacks, he came back in a shortened season in 2020 and was just as disruptive. Thibodeaux combines power and speed as a pass-rusher but is also a defender who makes life miserable for opposing offensive linemen on running plays.
The 6-4, 235-pound Anderson is the latest from an endless list of talented linebackers to come through Alabama’s program. He was terrific as a true freshman for the Crimson Tide and finished second on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. From the time Anderson stepped on campus, coaches were raving about his ability and work ethic, and he’s just getting started.
The Utes’ defense received a huge boost when Lloyd announced earlier this month that he would return for his senior season. A Butkus Award finalist as a junior, the 6-3, 232-pound Lloyd had 10 tackles for loss in five games and was one of the Pac-12’s top playmakers on defense. Lloyd will again captain a Utah defense slated to return all 11 starters in 2021.
Bringing back the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for another season is always a nice bonus, and that’s one of several reasons the Cyclones have such lofty expectations for 2021. The 6-4, 245-pound Rose led Iowa State as a junior with 96 total tackles, including 10.5 for loss, and he also intercepted five passes. His leadership in the locker room is equally invaluable.
As a sophomore, Mullen became the first Indiana cornerback in program history to earn first-team All-America honors. He combines excellent coverage skills with the ability to make big plays in the run game. The 5-10, 176-pound Mullen finished with 3.5 sacks, three interceptions and one forced fumble in eight games last season.
For much of last season, Jobe was overshadowed by the NFL-bound Patrick Surtain II. But the 6-1, 192-pound Jobe was just as effective as Surtain in pass…