The deadline for early entrants to the 2021 NFL Draft has come and gone, and several draft-eligible players passed on the cash to come back for another year on campus. In addition to true juniors and redshirt sophomores being able to declare early, seniors were given the option to return for 2021 after the NCAA passed a blanket waiver that preserved one year of eligibility. That waiver has created a logjam of star players returning to college football.
Georgia quarterback JT Daniels, Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim and Clemson linebacker James Skalski are just a few of the hot names who will dot the national landscape next season. Let’s break down the top players who passed on the pros.
- D’Eriq King, QB, Miami (FL): King passed for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns while adding 538 rushing yards and four touchdowns in first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s offense. The dual-threat star should be one of the favorites to travel to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist once recovered from an ACL tear suffered in the Hurricanes’ bowl game.
- Darian Kinnard, OL, Kentucky: It was a shock to see Kinnard announce his return to Lexington. The third-team AP All-American was the anchor of a Kentucky offensive line that was among the most talented groups in the entire country in 2020.
- Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: Olave led the Buckeyes with 727 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in seven games last season. With quarterback Justin Fields gone, Olave and teammate Garrett Wilson will have to be superstars in 2021 if the Buckeyes intend to ascend to the top of the college football pecking order.
- Mohamed Ibrahim, RB, Minnesota: The Golden Gophers’ season didn’t go according to plan, but Ibrahim was one of the best players in the country despite the absence of a division title. He rushed for a Big Ten-best 153.71 yards per game and scored 15 rushing touchdowns in a stellar junior campaign.
- Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa: One of the best centers in college football, the AP second-team All-American announced that he will return to the Hawkeyes after a stellar redshirt sophomore season. The Big Ten West is known for producing monsters up front, and Linderbaum is one of the best.
- Jordan Davis, DL, Georgia: Games are won and lost in the trenches, and Davis will be the centerpiece of a Bulldogs defensive line that is loaded with talent. The 330-pound monster didn’t have a direct impact on the stat sheet, but his presence clogging the middle was a big reason why Georgia’s defense was so successful last year.
- Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson: The star Tiger receiver didn’t play last season due to a spinal condition, but he announced that he will give it another go for coach Dabo Swinney’s crew. He had 865 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore in 2019, and 1,000 yards as a true freshman in 2018. If healthy, he’ll be one of the best receivers in the country.
- Haskell Garrett, DL, Ohio State: The second-team All-American was a force up front for the Big Ten champs. He had 20 tackles, four for loss, in eight games last season. Garrett will utilize the extra year for another shot at glory in Columbus.
- JT Daniels, QB, Georgia: It seems like Daniels has been around forever, but a redshirt in 2019 following his true freshman season makes him one of the most experienced juniors in the country. He threw for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns in just four games for the Bulldogs last season.
- Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State: The trigger man of the most successful season in generations in Ames will be back to lead the charge to what they hope will be a Big 12 title. Purdy had 2,750 passing yards and 19 touchdowns to go along with 382 rushing yards and five touchdowns as a junior.
- James Skalski, LB, Clemson: The Tigers defense has struggled mightily when Skalski hasn’t been in the lineup. Luckily for the Tigers, the senior took advantage of the free year of eligibility to come back to the upstate in the hopes of winning another national championship.
- Ty Fryfogle, WR, Indiana: Fryfogle will hope to build off of a stellar season by taking advantage of the blanket waiver. He had 721 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games for the Hoosiers, earning Big Ten receiver of the year honors. He should be a contender for the Biletnikoff Award in 2021.
- Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah: The Pac-12 was a lost cause for the majority of college football fans in 2020, but Lloyd was one of its stars. The 6-foot-3, 232-pounder led the Utes with 48 tackles in five games and should be considered an All-American candidate in 2021.
- Zakoby McClain, LB, Auburn: The SEC’s leading tackler in 2020 notched 113 stops, 5.5 for loss and forced one fumble for a Tigers defense that shouldered the load while the offense sputtered. He will be the centerpiece of a defense led by first-year coordinator Derek Mason.
- Micah McFadden, LB, Indiana: The third-team All-American anchored the middle of a Hoosiers defense that took control after quarterback Michael Penix Jr. went out with an injury. He finished the 2020 campaign with 58 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions in eight games.
- Phidarian Mathis, DL, Alabama: Mathis chose to stick around and try to win another title in Tuscaloosa after becoming a key contributor along the Crimson Tide defensive line in 2020. He had 31 tackles, five for loss and broke up three passes. The 312-pounder should be the anchor of Alabama’s defensive line in 2021.
- Zamir White, RB, Georgia: The player they call “Zeus” was the leader of a talented backfield in 2020, and will assume that role again in 2021. He had 779 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, which is even more impressive considering the passing game struggled mightily until the final four games of the season.
- Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB, UCLA: If you weren’t paying attention to Pac-12 football last season, you missed a pretty solid season from the dual-threat star of the Bruins. “DTR” announced that he will return after tossing 12 touchdown passes, rushing for three more and completing 65.2% of his passes. He should be one of the most dynamic players in college football in 2021.
- Payton Wilson, LB, NC State: A first-team All-ACC linebacker last season, Wilson was once a highly regarded recruit back in 2018. He had an ACC-best 108 tackles a season ago and should up his draft stock with another season in Raleigh.
- Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State: Dotson got lost in the Big Ten shuffle last year due to the disappointing campaign from his Nittany Lions. But he notched 52 catches for 884 yards and eight touchdowns in a season in which he was the biggest offensive threat on the roster.
Honorable mentions: Florida DB Trey Dean III, Iowa State LB Mike Rose, Iowa State TE Charlie Kolar, Ohio State DL Tyreke Smith, Georgia OL Jamaree Salyer, Clemson DB Nolan Turner, Auburn DB Smoke Monday, Oklahoma LB Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma LB Brian Asamoah, Miami (FL) DB Bubba Bolden, Auburn DB Roger McCreary,