2018 college football season: The top 25 players who will be back next year
College football lost a ton of star power, but these players are studs going into next fall
The declaration deadline for underclassmen thinking about the 2018 NFL Draft has come and gone. Barring some surprises this week when the official list is released on Thursday, we know who's staying and who's going. With that in mind, it's time to look ahead to the 2018 college football season and its best returning players.
Initially, this was going to be a list of 18 for '18, but narrowing down college football's premier players to a list of less than 20 without leaving out some big names is impossible. So the list was expanded to 25; even still, no list like this is ever fully complete.
Despite the tremendous loss of star power to the draft, the following players undoubtedly mean the world to their respective teams. Based on season-long grades from Pro Football Focus, along with other stats and measurables, here are the top 25 returning players for next season. And if there's a player missing that should be included, fear not -- that's what All-American teams are for.
25. Drew Lock, QB, Missouri: Lock was college football's most prolific quarterback in the second half of the season with 33 touchdowns in October and November. Can new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, who has never coached quarterbacks or led an offense, not screw this up?
24. Cece Jefferson, DE, Florida: Florida's 2017 season was a disaster, but Jefferson most certainly was not. A productive edge rusher, Jefferson led the team in sacks (4.5), tackles for loss (13.5) and quarterback hurries (six). He's their best player coming back, which is good news for first-year coach Dan Mullen.
23. Hjalte Froholdt, OL, Arkansas: Bret Bielema's final season as Arkansas' coach didn't feature many bright spots, but the Hogs still had a couple of studs along the O-line. With Frank Ragnow gone, this line belongs to Froholdt, who is one of the top run-blocking guards in the country, according to PFF.
22. David Sills V, WR, West Virginia: Sills was a Biletnikoff finalist who tied for first in the country with 18 touchdowns. However, he didn't record a single receiving score once quarterback Will Grier was lost for the season with a hand injury.
21. Jake Browning, QB, Washington: You can't exactly leave a quarterback who's led his team to a playoff appearance and a New Year's Six bowl in consecutive years off of the list of best returning players. He also holds the school record for touchdown passes with 78.
20. Andrew Wingard, DB, Wyoming: The Cowboys had a well-known NFL prospect in quarterback Josh Allen last season, but over the past few seasons, Wingard has been the team's more consistent player. An impact player since he was a freshman, Wingard returns as one of the most productive and top-graded safeties in the country. He led the Mountain West in tackles in 2016 and finished with 114 last season. PFF also grades him as the top returning safety, ranking him in the top 10 in both run support and pass coverage.
19. Cameron Smith, LB, USC: He's ol' reliable. Smith led the Trojans in tackles in each of the past two seasons and could very well have led the team as a freshman in 2015 if he hadn't been limited by injury. Smith isn't the best pure athlete among linebackers, but at this point in his career, it's hard to argue against the production. The team captain is always around the ball and is one of the surest things on defense that you'll find on any team, anywhere.
18. Byron Murphy, CB, Washington: Going with Murphy requires a leap of faith. He is among the more inexperienced players on what could be the best secondary in college football next season. He appeared in just six games as a redshirt freshman in 2017 -- all starts -- and missed the meat of the schedule with a broken foot. However, when he was healthy, he was superb. Murphy had two picks in his first game against Rutgers and finished the year with solid back-to-back performances in the Apple Cup and Fiesta Bowl. He allowed just one touchdown with 13 passes deflected or incomplete on 22 targets. Murphy enters next season with tons of promise as one of the top returning cover corners per PFF (minimum 300 snaps) and could be one of the best in the nation this time next year.
17. Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona: There was a six-week stretch midseason when Tate could not be stopped. "Mr. October" was must-see television -- if you were inclined to stay up late, that is -- with 1,207 of his 1,411 rushing yards coming between Oct. 7 and Nov. 11. He was pure entertainment. How he's utilized under new coach Kevin Sumlin will be interesting to follow; for all the talk about Tate as a runner, he was at times an efficient passer. Now, can he do it all season long?
16. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin: Taylor wasn't simply the most productive freshman back in 2017, he was one of the most productive backs by any classification: 1,977 yards on 299 attempts, 6.6 yards per rush and 13 touchdowns. His game is incomplete -- Wisconsin doesn't utilize running backs in the pass game much, PFF grades him poorly in pass protection and ball security has been an issue -- but he has plenty of time to round out everything. Right now, he's a yards and touchdown machine, and there's nothing wrong with that.
15. Greedy Williams, CB, LSU: If Williams' best days are theoretically still ahead of him, what does that say about a redshirt freshman who finished tied for first in the SEC with six interceptions, and is the conference's leading returning corner in passes broken up and passes defended? The man's nickname is Greedy, for goodness sake. Of course, the sign of a great corner is the absence of stats and Williams excelled there, too. He allowed just one touchdown on 71 targets and returns as one of the top-graded cover corners in the game.
14. Dakota Allen, LB, Texas Tech: What? A Texas Tech defensive player? Yep, and he's bonafide. The former "Last Chance U" star is a do-it-all monster for a Red Raiders' defense that was an improved unit from 2016. As the "Will" in Tech's 4-2-5, Allen gave the Red Raiders a little run defense, a little pass defense and some disruption (six turnovers forced, 16 total pressures). Perhaps no individual impact player meant more to one side of the ball than Allen given Texas Tech's history of defensive futility.
13. A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss: The Rebels had about four avatars at wide receiver and Brown was the most productive with 1,252 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 23 forced missed tackles is ridiculous for a guy who weighs in at 225 pounds. His open-field moves and ability to catch 50-50 balls in traffic, plus his catch radius, makes him a difficult wideout to defend. He's just a dominant, physical presence on offense, plain and simple.
12. David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State: Montgomery didn't get the same hype as Bryce Love, Rashaad Penny or Saquon Barkley. He didn't have the same numbers, either, though 1,146 yards is nothing to ignore. However, he was the best finisher among running backs last season. This dude runs hard. He's not the type to go down on the first or even the second hit with his 110 missed tackles. In fact, he's the top returning running back in the country by grade per PFF. Yep, over Love. There's not a lot of flash about him on paper, but he's the guy who gets the job done as efficiently as possible.
11. Devin Singletary, RB, FAU: Singletary was a beast for Lane Kiffin's offense, which meant Kiffin rode his primary back over and over until defenses couldn't take it anymore. Singletary led the nation in rushing touchdowns (32) by a wide margin and his 6.38 yards per carry were remarkable considering he also tied for first in total carries with 301. And for all the talk about Love as college football's most explosive running back -- and he was, overall -- Singletary actually tied for first with Penny with 37 rushes of 15 yards or more.
10. McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF: Milton returns as college football's most efficient quarterback by passer rating (119.5 per PFF) after leading UCF on an undefeated run last season. Milton doesn't have traditional quarterback size at a listed 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, but he has traditional quarterback skills with 96 deep throws and a 9.9 yards per attempt average. He's now under the guidance of new UCF coach Josh Heupel, a former quarterback himself, who coached Mizzou's Drew Lock into one of college football's most accomplished passers.
9. Nick Bosa, DL, Ohio State: He's no longer just Joey Bosa's younger brother. Nick Bosa has established himself as one of college football's premier edge rushers with 65 total pressures. That's second among returning players. That's also impressive given how talented the Buckeyes were at defensive line and their "all defensive end pass rush package" that terrorized offenses on a weekly basis. The crazy thing is, Bosa can actually play more snaps this year.
8. Dalton Risner, OL, Kansas State: Offensive linemen are the toughest positions to evaluate, but Risner is bonafide with the highest grade of any tackle last season, according to PFF. Risner has some versatility about him as he started at both center and tackle in his career. He's a first-team All-Big 12 selection and a pillar in an offense that prides itself on wearing down defenses with ground-and-pound rushing attacks.
7. Clelin Farrell, DL, Clemson: Christian Wilkins (see below) is the anchor of Clemson's vaunted D-line, but Farrell was more of the stat monster. He led that unit with 46 total pressures -- an outstanding number considering that pressure can come from any spot along this line -- and 66 tackles. He would have been a surefire first-round pick who instead will make one more go of it in college.
6. Will Grier, QB, West Virginia: Grier is the best pure passer the Mountaineers have had in a generation and could leave the school as the most gifted signal-caller to ever go through the program. He's PFF's highest-graded returning quarterback and throws the deep ball better than anyone. West Virginia's offense went kaput when Grier injured his hand against Texas, which shows how valuable he was, too. With receiver David Sills V back, West Virginia should have the most formidable QB-WR duo in the country, a la Mason Rudolph and James Washington. On that note, with no Rudolph and no Baker Mayfield, the 'Eers have a rare legitimate window to make a Big 12 title run.
5. Sutton Smith, DE, Northern Illinois: There's definitely a case that Smith is the best edge rusher in college football. He tied for first nationally in sacks (14), and was tops in tackles for loss (29.5) and total pressures with 87 -- 21 more than the next guy. However, he also graded well in run defense and had just seven missed tackles all season with 778 snaps taken. The one-time running back has made a name for himself coming off the edge.
4. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State: With Barkley gone, McSorley becomes Penn State's Heisman hopeful. He's earned that distinction, though, as few quarterbacks were as good in clutch situations as he was last year. His game-winning touchdown throw against Iowa remains one of the prettiest from the '17 season. And he went 12-of-freakin'-12 on third downs for 193 yards and two touchdowns in the Nittany Lions' Fiesta Bowl win over Washington. McSorley will give you some head-scratchers, but with the game on the line, he's the guy you want.
3. Ed Oliver, DL, Houston: Large adult son dominance. That's about the only way to describe Oliver as he enters his third, and likely final, year of college. Oliver was the best run stopper among defensive tackles according to PFF and he wasn't too shabby in pass rush situations with 17 hurries and 27 total pressures. The Outland Trophy winner is such a mismatch that he demands constant attention and double teams -- and oftentimes that's still a fruitless effort. He's the most talented interior defensive player in the nation.
2. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson: The truth is, you could make a case for any of Clemson's starting defensive linemen to be on this list or even this high on it.for the 2018 season after being arguably the best group in the nation a year ago. What separates Wilkins from others, though, is his versatility. He can command double teams with pressure as a defensive tackle or rush off the edge as an end. His feet and quickness for a guy his size (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) is a rare combo. That's what makes him one of the most special players in the country.
1. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford: Love's father that the Heisman runner-up was coming back for another season, which is great for college football. Love was a big-play machine with 13 rushes of at least 50 yards -- a FBS record -- and a school record 2,118 yards (and he did it for half the season on one good ankle). With 36 "explosive runs" of 15 yards or more and a explosive run percentage of 13.6, no every-down back was better at getting the big play.
Honorable mentions: Devin White, LB, LSU; Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo; AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College; Mitch Hyatt, OL, Clemson; Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor; Greg Gaines, DL, Washington; Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma; J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State; Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan; Cam Akers, RB, Florida State; Jerry Tillery, DL, Notre Dame; Myles Gaskin, Washington, RB; Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama; Ryan Finley, QB, NC State; Te'Von Coney, LB, Notre Dame
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