This time a year ago, only a few conferences were planning to play college football because of COVID-19 concerns.
Therefore, ESPN’s preseason All-America team was reduced to a smaller pool of players. But our 2021 team is back to full strength, and 14 of the 26 players are on teams ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press preseason poll.
The only two players returning from our 2020 postseason All-America team are Iowa State running back Breece Hall and LSU place-kicker Cade York.
As we do every year in unveiling our preseason All-America team, just a reminder that this is not a list of the top NFL draft prospects, even though many of these guys will go on to long pro careers. It’s also not a list of the returning players with the best stats from a year ago or a career achievement award. The goal is to project what we think the All-America team will genuinely look like come December.
QB: Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma Sooners
After his first tour through the Big 12 produced 3,031 passing yards, 28 passing touchdowns and six rushing touchdowns a year ago, Rattler should be even better as a redshirt sophomore, especially with a few new pieces added to the OU offensive attack. Rattler’s 92.5% passing grade last season, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), ranked third nationally behind only BYU’s Zach Wilson and Alabama’s Mac Jones, both of whom went in the top 15 picks of the NFL draft.
RB: Breece Hall, Iowa State Cyclones
What does Hall do for an encore after becoming the first player in Iowa State history last season to earn unanimous All-America honors? If he’s anywhere close to the numbers he put up as a sophomore, there will be plenty of happy fans in Ames. The 6-1, 220-pound Hall led all FBS players with 1,572 rushing yards in 12 games and scored 23 total touchdowns. He tied for third nationally with eight runs of 30 yards or longer and also caught 23 passes.
RB: Bijan Robinson, Texas Longhorns
Not only is Robinson one of the most talented true sophomores in college football, but he enters the 2021 season with some serious momentum. The 6-foot, 214-pound back piled up 220 or more rushing/receiving yards in each of his last two games as a freshman. That’s after being plagued by a back injury to start the season. He had a team-high 14 plays of 20 yards or longer a year ago and is a perfect fit in the backfield for Steve Sarkisian’s offense.
WR: Chris Olave, Ohio State Buckeyes
One of Ryan Day’s most important recruits this offseason was holding onto Olave, who spurned the NFL draft to return for his senior season. He’s an elite athlete and equally explosive and will team with Garrett Wilson to give Ohio State two of the most talented receivers in the country. The 6-1, 188-pound Olave has been the Buckeyes’ top pass-catcher each of the previous two seasons and caught seven touchdown passes in seven games in 2020.
WR: Justyn Ross, Clemson Tigers
Selecting Ross as one of the two receivers may be a bit of a gamble given his spine condition/surgery that caused him to miss last season. But he’s been cleared medically to play in 2021, and if he is indeed healthy, there’s not a tougher matchup in college football than the 6-4, 205-pound Ross. He caught 17 touchdown passes and averaged 16.7 yards per catch in his first two seasons and is a prime target in the red zone.
TE: Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M Aggies
Picking just one tight end was difficult, but Wydermyer gets the nod based on being the most complete player of the bunch. One of three finalists for the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end last season, Wydermyer is as comfortable blocking in the run game as he is going up and making an acrobatic catch down the field. The 6-5, 255-pound junior has caught six touchdown passes in each of his first two seasons.
OT: Evan Neal, Alabama Crimson Tide
A starter since his true freshman season, Neal will line up at his third different spot in 2021. He was Alabama’s left guard in 2019, moved over to right tackle a year ago and will take over at left tackle this season. He will do so in the best shape of his career. The 6-7 Neal has shed 15 pounds and is down to 345. He moves incredibly well for a man that size and showed off his athleticism this summer with a 48-inch box jump.
OG: Thayer Munford, Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State’s offensive line in 2021 should be loaded, especially with the 6-6, 320-pound Munford returning for a fifth season. One of the Big Ten’s most experienced players, he has played in 45 of 50 games over the past four seasons. And thanks to Dawand Jones’ development, Munford is poised to move from left tackle to left guard, paving the way for the Buckeyes to get their five best offensive linemen on the field.
C: Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa Hawkeyes
Had Linderbaum decided to enter the NFL draft following the 2020 season, he would have been one of the top centers taken. But he had more he wanted to accomplish at Iowa, and the 6-3, 290-pound redshirt junior returns as one of the most complete offensive linemen in college football. He’s as fundamentally sound as he is powerful and will anchor the middle of the Hawkeyes’ offensive line for the third consecutive season.
OG: Cain Madden, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Irish “struck gold” this offseason with the addition of Madden. The 6-2, 310-pound graduate transfer from Marshall brings power, toughness and experience to the middle of a Notre Dame offensive line that lost four starters from a year ago. Madden, nicknamed “Dump Truck,” has 31 career starts and has blossomed into one of the top interior linemen in college football after arriving at Marshall as a walk-on.
OT: Darian Kinnard, Kentucky Wildcats
Good luck in finding a man as large as the 6-5, 345-pound Kinnard that moves as well as he does. Kinnard is back for his senior season after considering a jump to the NFL and will remain at right tackle with LSU transfer Dare Rosenthal slated to move in at left tackle. He’s ranked by Pro Football Focus as the top run-blocking tackle in the country and uses his athleticism to also swallow up pass-rushers. Kinnard has started since his freshman season and has a total of 26 career starts.
AP: Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State Wildcats
All Vaughn did as a true freshman running back was lead the Wildcats in rushing yards (642), receiving yards (434) and all-purpose yards (1,221). At 5-6 and 173 pounds, Vaughn is shifty and hard to get on the ground. He’s a big-play threat in every facet of the game and joined Najee Harris and Travis Etienne last season as the only three FBS players to rush for more than 600 yards and have more than 400 receiving yards.
DE: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon Ducks
Thibodeaux arrived at Oregon as ESPN’s No. 1 overall prospect in the country and enters his junior season as the most feared defensive player in the college game. The 6-5, 258-pound Thibodeaux combines power and speed and has been at his best on some of the biggest stages. He has a combined 18 quarterback pressures, 10 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in two career Pac-12 championship games.
DT: Jordan Davis, Georgia Bulldogs
Davis’ decision to return for his senior season will benefit both him and the Dawgs. He hopes to play at closer to 330 pounds as opposed to the 370 he once got up to, and with that reduced weight, should be more mobile and figure more prominently in Georgia’s pass rush. The 6-6 Davis is a run-stuffing juggernaut from his nose guard position and a one-man collapser of the pocket.
DT: Bryan Bresee, Clemson Tigers
Clemson just keeps churning out elite defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Bresee has only scratched the surface of how good he can be. As a true freshman, he tied for the team lead with 11 quarterback pressures and also had four sacks, validating his rating as ESPN’s No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the 2020 class. With a ton of talent around him, Bresee will be a force in the middle of the Tigers’ defensive line.
DE: Ochaun Mathis, TCU Horned Frogs
There may be defensive ends with bigger names than Mathis entering the 2021 season, but he has the bigger game. The 6-5, 257-pound redshirt junior made a huge jump from his freshman to sophomore season with a team-leading nine sacks a year ago and he is poised for an even bigger season this year. Gary Patterson defenses are always swarming, and Mathis will be the catalyst for a talented TCU defensive line.
LB: Will Anderson Jr., Alabama Crimson Tide
This Alabama defense could conjure up memories of some of those Tide defenses of old under Nick Saban, the kind of defenses that featured players the caliber of Anderson. The 6-4, 243-pound sophomore headlines the best linebacker corps in the country after finishing with 10.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks as a true freshman. Anderson’s work ethic matches his immense talent, which is bad news for those trying to block him.
LB: Devin Lloyd, Utah Utes
This Utah defense has a chance to be one of the best yet under Kyle Whittingham, and the return of Lloyd for his senior season is a big reason for that. The 6-3, 235-pound Lloyd joins nine other returning starters on defense and was one of the Pac-12’s top defensive playmakers a year ago with 10 tackles for loss in five games. A finalist for the Butkus Award last season as the top linebacker in college football, Lloyd will again be the Utes’ enforcer in 2021.
LB: Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma Sooners
Now a redshirt junior, Bonitto has matured both on and off the field and enters the 2021 season as one of college football’s most disruptive defenders at OU’s rush linebacker position. The 6-3, 240-pound Bonitto is a blur coming off the edge, and after racking up 10.5 tackles for loss and 8 sacks a year ago in 10 games, he should be even better with another year of experience in Alex Grinch’s defensive scheme.
CB: Derek Stingley Jr., LSU Tigers
The next member in LSU’s star-studded “DBU” club is Stingley, who returns as one of the most dynamic athletes in college football. The 6-1, 195-pound Stingley has started since his true freshman season and combines lockdown coverage skills with safety-like physicality. His cornerback cohort on the other side, sophomore Eli Ricks, is also supremely talented, which will make it difficult for teams to avoid one side of the field.
CB: Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati Bearcats
Nicknamed “Sauce,” Gardner is exactly what you’re looking for in a cornerback. He has the frame (6-3, 200 pounds) that all defensive coaches crave to go along with the ball skills, technique and athleticism that make him a future NFL first-round draft pick. Now a junior, Gardner has started since his true freshman season, and according to Pro Football Focus, allowed the third-lowest passer rating in the FBS in coverage in 2020.
S: Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
As a sophomore, Hamilton was one of the best safeties in the country. He has a chance to be one of the best players in college football in 2021. At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Hamilton is what Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly calls an “eraser.” He led the Fighting Irish with 63 total tackles last season despite being hampered by an ankle injury that required surgery in the offseason.
S: Brandon Joseph, Northwestern Wildcats
Coming off a sensational redshirt freshman season that saw him lead Northwestern with six interceptions, Joseph will be the centerpiece of a defense that lost several key players from a unit that ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense. The 6-1, 192-pound Joseph is always around the football thanks to his smarts and instincts and has the versatility to cover slot receivers and tight ends. He’s been especially good in some of the Wildcats’ biggest games.
PK: Cade York, LSU Tigers
LSU doesn’t even have to reach the red zone to have a good chance of scoring points, not with a kicker like York. He enters his junior season having kicked field goals of 50 yards or longer in six of the Tigers’ 10 games a year ago. York has range up to 65 yards and was 9-of-11 from 40 yards or longer in 2020. His school-record 57-yarder in the heavy fog lifted LSU to its biggest win of the season, a 37-34 upset of Florida.
P: Lou Hedley, Miami Hurricanes
His imposing 6-4, 225-pound frame and trademark tattoos make Hedley, a former Australian Rules Football player, look more like a linebacker. He’s a key weapon for the Hurricanes after finishing second nationally last season with a 47.2-yard average. One of three finalists a year ago for the Ray Guy Award, Hedley had 19 punts of 50 yards or longer and forced 24 fair catches. Miami led all FBS teams during the regular season in net punting.
KR: Marcus Jones, Houston Cougars
An All-AAC cornerback last season, Jones doubles as one of the premier special teams players in the country. He led all FBS players in punt return yards (337) and punt return average (19.8 yards per return). The 5-8, 185-pound Jones looks to build on his impressive résumé as a senior. He returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown last season. And while at Troy, where he started his career, he had three kickoff returns for touchdowns.