Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, college football’s 2020 season was unusual in many ways. Conferences starting play at different times, canceled games, bowl matchups shifted to different locations, and more uncertainty as to who on the roster was available on a week-to-week basis were just a few ways the ’20 season was unique. However, in addition to all of those factors, last year was a free year of eligibility for every FBS player. Essentially, player eligibility was frozen in ’20, giving seniors a chance to return for a full (and hopefully normal) final season on campus in ’21. According to the Associated Press, more than 1,000 players took advantage of the eligibility freeze. As a result, several teams are returning more experience than usual and many key players opted to return rather than prepare for the NFL draft.
Who are some of the key seniors passing on the NFL for one more senior year in college? Here’s a look at some of those names coming back in 2021:
35 Key College Football Super Seniors Returning in 2021
Alonzo Addae, S/Sean Mahone, S, West Virginia
West Virginia quietly led the Big 12 in the fewest yards per play allowed and scoring defense last season. The bulk of this unit returns in 2021 and getting Addae and Mahone for an extra year is huge with cornerback Dreshun Miller opting to transfer.
The Cardinals have a good shot to repeat as MAC champions thanks to the return of several key seniors from their 2020 team, including quarterback Drew Plitt, receiver Justin Hall, defensive back Bryce Cosby and linebacker Brandon Martin.
Coby Bryant, CB, Cincinnati
Bryant and teammate Ahmad Gardner both claimed first-team All-AAC honors after a standout 2020 season. With Bryant opting for an additional senior year, this secondary will once again rank near the top of college football and the Bryant-Gardner duo at cornerback is easily one of the best in the nation.
The Chanticleers are one of the big winners for extra eligibility in 2021. The bulk of the ’20 senior class is returning, including three offensive line starters, defensive tackle C.J. Brewer and linebackers Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher.
Jack Coan, QB, Notre Dame
Graham Mertz is entrenched as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, so Coan transferred to Notre Dame for a chance to start. The senior gives coach Brian Kelly’s team a proven and experience option to help an offense in transition in 2021.
Dustin Crum, QB, Kent State
The combination of Crum and coach Sean Lewis should make Kent State among the favorites to win the MAC East title in 2021. Crum played in only four games last season but passed for 1,181 yards and 12 touchdowns and added 240 yards and four scores on the ground. The Golden Flashes averaged 7.4 yards a snap and 49.8 points a game in ’20.
Danny Davis III/Kendric Pryor, WR, Wisconsin
Davis and Pryor combined for just 11 catches due to injury last season, but a return to full strength should help the development of quarterback Graham Mertz in 2021.
Kuony Deng/Cameron Goode, LB, California
Deng and Goode lead the way for a California defense that figures to rank among the best in the Pac-12 this fall. Goode earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors after picking up eight tackles for a loss and three sacks, while Deng led the team in tackles with 119 in ’19.
Dontario Drummond, WR, Ole Miss
Elijah Moore will be missed, but Drummond (25 catches for 417 yards and seven scores) is a capable No. 1 target in Lane Kiffin’s high-powered offense.
Greg Eisworth, S, Iowa State
Eisworth – a first-team All-Big 12 pick for 2020 – is back to anchor the secondary for a strong Iowa State defense next fall.
Emeka Emezie, WR, NC State
Emezie ranks as one of the ACC’s top returning receivers for 2021 after pacing the Wolfpack offense in catches (47) and yards (738) while also catching five passes for scores.
Tomon Fox, LB, North Carolina
North Carolina’s pass rush and defensive front got great news when Fox decided to return for an extra year. He’s accumulated 33 tackles for a loss and 21 sacks since 2016.
Ty Fryfogle, WR, Indiana
Indiana will miss Whop Philyor, but the receiving corps in good hands with Fryfogle. He returns as quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s No. 1 target after catching 37 passes for 721 yards and seven touchdowns last year.
Haskell Garrett, DT, Ohio State
Tommy Togiai’s departure to the NFL was a big loss, but Garrett’s return was huge for an Ohio State defense that is losing some key pieces at every level. Garrett played in eight contests last fall, recording 20 stops (four for a loss), two sacks and one pass breakup.
Treshaun Hayward, LB, Arizona
Hayward transferred to Arizona for his final year of eligibility after a standout career at Western Michigan. The Michigan native recorded 229 tackles (16 for a loss) and 5.5 sacks in 39 games.
Zion Johnson/Ben Petrula, OL, Boston College
Johnson – a Davidson transfer – has started the last two years for the Eagles and emerged as one of the better offensive linemen in the ACC. Petrula is a four-year starter and earned all-conference honors in each of the last two seasons.
D’Eriq King, QB, Miami
King is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the bowl win over Oklahoma State, but he’s on track to return in time for the 2021 opener. The Houston transfer helped Miami average 34 points a game – up from 25.7 in 2019 – by accounting for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns through the air and 538 yards and four scores on the ground.
Nate Landman, LB, Colorado
Landman suffered a torn Achilles against Utah in late December, but assuming the California native returns at full strength, he should be one of the Pac-12’s top linebackers after recording back-to-back seasons of 100-plus tackles in 2018-19.
Levi Lewis, QB, Louisiana
The Ragin’ Cajuns are aiming for their fourth Sun Belt West Division title in a row, and Lewis’ return is a big reason why coach Billy Napier’s team will be favored to do so in 2021. Lewis has accounted for more than 7,000 total yards (7,031) and scored 63 overall touchdowns since ’17.
Improving the play in the trenches is a key offseason storyline for LSU, and coach Ed Orgeron is set to bring back a couple of seniors on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Liam Shanahan and Austin Deculus are back, while Glen Logan, Neil Farrell and Andre Anthony return on defense.
Chase Lucas, CB, Arizona State
Arizona State has a team built to win the Pac-12 in 2021 and Lucas’ return only adds to the foundation in place for a strong defense. He’s played in 43 games in Tempe, recording 189 tackles (11 for a loss), picked off six passes and defended 28.
DeAngelo Malone, DL, WKU
Malone has been one of Conference USA’s top defenders over the last couple of seasons, recording 42.5 tackles for a loss, 255 tackles, 25 sacks, and five forced fumbles since 2017. The Georgia native will have a chance to add to those totals and contend for All-America honors once again in ’21.
Grant Morgan, LB, Arkansas
Sam Pittman’s rebuilding effort in Fayetteville got a big boost when Morgan passed on the NFL. The Arkansas native finished third nationally in tackles (111), while also recording two sacks, five pass breakups and one interception for the Razorbacks in 2020.
Thayer Munford, OT, Ohio State
Munford will help ease the transition for Ohio State’s new starting quarterback in 2021. The Cincinnati native has played in 46 career games and earned at least honorable mention all-conference honors in each of the last three years.
The Cornhuskers seem to have the pieces in place to take a step forward on defense in 2021. Key seniors in lineman Ben Stille, linebackers JoJo Domann and Will Honas, along with safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke passed on the NFL for an extra year in Lincoln.
Kenny Pickett, QB, Pitt
Pickett has started 36 games and passed for 7,984 yards and 39 touchdowns during his career with the Panthers. With another prolific season, Pickett could end up as Pitt’s all-time leader in passing yardage and total offense.
Ronnie Rivers, RB, Fresno State
Rivers should be among the nation’s top all-around running backs in 2021. Since he stepped onto campus, the California native has rushed for 2,629 yards, added 44 overall scores and caught more than 100 passes for 1,053 yards.
Malcolm Rodriguez, LB, Oklahoma State
Rodriguez led Oklahoma State in tackles in back-to-back years and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2020. The senior paced the defense with 82 tackles (seven for a loss), recorded three sacks and forced three fumbles.
Reggie Roberson, WR, SMU
Roberson missed most of the 2020 season due to injury. However, when healthy, he’s one of the top Group of 5 receivers in the nation – as evidenced by his ’19 production (43 catches for 803 yards and six touchdowns).
Coach Greg Schiano will bring back a handful of seniors in 2021. Receiver Bo Melton returns after grabbing 47 catches in ’20, with linebackers Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyshon Fogg back to anchor the defense.
James Skalski, LB, Clemson
The 2021 season marks Skalski’s sixth year on campus due to a redshirt year from an injury in ’18. The Georgia native has recorded 174 stops (16 for a loss) with the Tigers.
Nick Starkel, QB, San Jose State
Starkel was instrumental in San Jose State’s run to the Mountain West title in 2020. His return should ensure coach Brent Brennan’s team is near the top of the conference once again in ’21.
Keylon Stokes, WR, Tulsa
Stokes has been a consistent big-play threat for the Golden Hurricane, catching at least 41 passes and averaging more than 14 yards per reception in each of the last three seasons.
Skylar Thompson, QB, Kansas State
Thompson missed most of 2020 due to injury, and his return to the lineup should be a big boost to Kansas State’s offense. He’s accounted for more than 6,000 total yards (6,104) and 52 overall scores the last four years.
Luke Wattenberg, OL, Washington
After starting 27 games at left guard from 2018-19, Wattenberg kicked inside to center and started all four contests for Washington in ’20.
Other Seniors Returning
Blaze Alldredge, LB, Missouri
Chris Bergin, LB, Northwestern
Corey Bethley, DL, TCU
Ryan Bowman, LB, Washington
Charlie Brewer, QB, Utah
Phil Campbell, LB, Pitt
T.J. Carter, CB, TCU
Tariq Castro-Fields, CB, Penn State
Ty Clary, OL, Arkansas
Coney Durr, CB, Minnesota
Nathan Eldridge, OL, Oregon State
Lawson Hall, LB, Nevada
Jake Hansen, LB, Illinois
Riko Jeffers, LB, Texas Tech
Johnny Johnson/Jaylon Redd, WR, Oregon
Matt Hankins, CB, Iowa
Mike Harley, WR, Miami
Brad Hawkins, S, Michigan
Hayden Howerton, OL, SMU
Kekaula Kaniho, DB, Boise State
Derek Kerstetter, OL, Texas
Doug Kramer, C, Illinois
Damari Mathis, CB, Pitt
Trey McBride, TE, Colorado State
Zach McCloud, LB, Miami
Jaylon Monroe, CB, Tulane
Dion Novil, DL, North Texas
Chris Owens, OL, Alabama
Jacub Panasiuk, DL, Michigan State
Scott Patchan, DL, Colorado State
Elijah Ponder, DL, Cincinnati
Sam Schlueter, OL, Minnesota
Antonio Shelton, DL, Florida
Josh Sills, OL, Oklahoma State
Raleigh Texada, CB, Baylor
Maxs Tupai, DL, Utah
Riley Whimpey, LB, Boise State
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(Top photo courtesy of @CanesFootball)