College football will be littered with superstars heading into the 2021 season, and many of them are juniors or redshirt sophomores. From North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell to Georgia wide receiver George Pickens to USC signal-caller Kedon Slovis, many of these players will be vying for invitations to New York (hopefully … please) as finalists for the Heisman Trophy.
In addition to potentially achieving individual and team success for their respective programs, these stars are also setting out to make massive cases to be high draft picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Let’s now rank the top 20 third-year players from the Class of 2019 heading into the season. Keep in mind that this is neither a mock draft nor a ranking of NFL Draft prospects. These are players returning to college football for their third year — which excludes redshirt juniors like Georgia quarterback JT Daniels.
1. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina: There is no doubt who takes the title of best third-year player in the country, and he makes his home in Chapel Hill. Howell has proven through two seasons that not only is he one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but that he can lead a team to national prominence. His 3,586 yards and 30 touchdowns in the COVID-shortened season in 2020 are just a precursor to what should be an incredible junior year.
2. Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon: The No. 2 overall player in the Class of 2019 has been a star since he stepped foot on campus in Eugene. He had 38 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, and three sacks for the Pac-12 champions last season. He’s one of those players that teams are forced to double team, creating a massive advantage for the entire defense.
3. Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma: Rattler was a flat-out stud in his first year as the starter in Norman. He threw for 3,031 yards, rushed for 160 and combined for 34 touchdowns for the Big 12 champions. The redshirt sophomore is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, according to William Hill Sportsbook, and that’s unlikely to change between now and the time the season kicks off.
4. Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State: Hall came to Ames in the Class of 2019 and immediately became a star. He rushed for 897 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman, and followed it up with a stellar 1,572 yards and 21 touchdowns in the Cyclones’ dream season in 2020. He should push the 2,000-yard mark as long as he stays healthy and the season isn’t condensed again.
5. Kenyon Green, OL, Texas A&M: Green was the No. 15 overall prospect in the Class of 2019, and has not disappointed. He made the SEC All-Freshman team in 2019 and followed it up with second-team AP All-American honors last season. The Aggies’ have to establish the run for the offense to click, and Green is a big part of that plan.
6. Derek Stingley Jr., DB, LSU: The true junior was banged up a bit as a sophomore, which prevented him from replicating his stellar freshman campaign during LSU’s national title run. He still managed to break up five passes and notch 27 tackles in seven games for the Tigers.
7. George Pickens, WR, Georgia: The junior only had 513 yards in seven games in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but that came after a 727-yard freshman season that established the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder as a budding star in the SEC. Now that Daniels is entrenched as the starting quarterback, Pickens should push 1,200 yards this year.
8. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC: Slovis threw for 17 touchdowns and 1,921 yards in just six games last year — good for 320.2 yards per game. In golf terms … that’ll play. The Trojans still have weapons everywhere, and a somewhat normal offseason should send Slovis’ stats to the moon.
9. Christian Harris, LB, Alabama: Harris won a starting linebacker job in Nick Saban’s defense as a freshman in 2019, and kept that momentum going in 2020 with a stellar sophomore season. He had 79 tackles (second-most on the Crimson Tide) and seven tackles for loss for the national champions last season, and should be the foundation of the defense as a junior in 2021.
10. Kyle Hamilton, DB, Notre Dame: Hamilton was a big part of Notre Dame’s run to the College Football Playoff last year with 63 tackles and one interception, including eight tackles in the regular season win over Clemson.
11. Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State: Wilson and former Buckeye stud Chris Olave were one of the best receiving tandems in college football last year. With Olave returning, Wilson should get plenty of one-on-one opportunities this fall. Expect him to push for 1,000 receiving yards as a junior.
12. Jalen Wydermyer, TE, Texas A&M: Tight ends used to be myths in College Station, but all of that changed when Jimbo Fisher took over the program prior to the 2018 season. Wydermyer had 506 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, and was a player that every defensive coordinator had to devote attention to while watching film during game week.
13. Kaiir Elam, DB, Florida: Elam was an under-the-radar superstar last season for the Gators defense. He broke up 11 passes, picked off two and notched 39 tackles to help the Gators win the SEC East for the first time since 2016. He should be the focal point of the secondary next season for coach Dan Mullen’s crew.
14. Ahmad Gardner, DB, Cincinnati: The Bearcats defense was the catalyst to their run to the AAC title and appearance in the Peach Bowl, and Gardner was the star of bunch. Gardner, who was ranked No. 1,672 in the Class of 2019, had three interceptions and 28 tackles while being named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press.
15. Isaiah Spiller, RB, Texas A&M: Texas A&M was a run-first team last year with Spiller leading the charge. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Spring, Texas, had 1,036 yards and nine touchdowns last year, and posted 946 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman in 2019.
16. Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF: It’s safe to say that Gabriel is one of the top quarterbacks in college football after back-to-back seasons in which he topped the 3,500-yard mark through the air. Not only will that passing production continue in 2021, but his work on the ground should be more of a factor under first-year coach Gus Malzahn.
17. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, DB, TCU: The 5-foot-9, 177-pounder from Waco, Texas, played bigger than his size suggested in 2020. He had 26 tackles and broke up 13 passes in 10 games for the Horned Frogs, and earned second-team All-American honors from the Associated Press.
18. Zay Flowers, WR, Boston College: Flowers had 892 yards and nine touchdowns in 11 games for the Eagles that proved that new coach Jeff Hafley is the right man for the job. Expect Flowers to be a preseason first-team All-ACC member before and after the 2021 season.
19. John Metchie III, WR, Alabama: Metchie had 916 receiving yards and six touchdowns alongside Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith last season. He’ll have to be “the man” next season now that Smith, quarterback Mac Jones and running back Najee Harris have all left Tuscaloosa.
20. Kevin Harris, RB, South Carolina: You might not recognize Harris’ name if you weren’t paying close attention to the Gamecocks last year, but that’s exactly what made his performance even more impressive than your average sophomore season. He rushed for 1,138 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games for a Gamecocks’ offense that lacked a consistent passing attack. Defenses keyed on Harris and it didn’t matter. That’s how good he was.
Honorable mention: West Virginia DB, Tykee Smith, Alabama OL Evan Neal, Indiana DB Taiwan Mullen, Georgia LB Nakobe Dean, Auburn LB Owen Pappoe, Ole Miss RB Jerrion Ealy, Arizona State QB Jayden Daniels, Arkansas WR Treylon Burks, Texas A&M DeMarvin Leal,