The 2018 college football season is still months away, but it’s never too early to look ahead at the upcoming year and rank some of the top players returning to the gridiron. Houston's Ed Oliver takes the top spot in Athlon's early top 50 players returning for 2018, with Clemson's Christian Wilkins and Stanford's Bryce Love rounding out the top three. It's a deep year for talent on the defensive line. In addition to Oliver and Wilkins, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell, Ohio State's Nick Bosa and Northern Illinois' Sutton Smith also have a spot in the top 10. Penn State's Trace McSorley is the highest-ranked quarterback, checking in at No. 5 overall prior to spring ball.
The early entry deadline has passed and a better picture of how all 130 teams stack up has started to form. Using career accomplishments so far, projected performance next season, positional importance and overall talent, Athlon Sports has ranked the (early) top 50 players for 2018. This list will look a little different by the fall, but there is no shortage of big names coming back or players poised to take a huge step forward next season. Keep in mind: This is not a list of accomplishments so far. Instead, we are projecting ahead, weighing overall talent/importance to team and how the player has performed so far in their carer.
College Football's Early Top 50 Players for 2018
Just Missed: Andrew Wingard, S, Wyoming; David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State; Montez Sweat, LB/DL, Mississippi State; Ben Banogu, DL, TCU; Dre'Mont Jones, DL, Ohio State; Ryan Finley, QB, NC State; Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo; Beau Benzschawel, OL, Wisconsin; Lavert Hill, CB, Michigan; Ricky Walker, DT, Virginia Tech; Greg Little, OL, Ole Miss; Mack Wilson/Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama; Mark Gilbert, CB, Duke; Troy Dye, LB, Oregon; Bobby Okereke, LB, Stanford; Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky; Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State
50. Cam Akers, RB, Florida State
Akers ranked as the No. 1 running back by the 247Sports Composite last season and didn’t disappoint in his first year on campus. The true freshman rushed for 1,025 yards and seven scores and added 16 receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown. He should be involved even more in 2018 under new coach Willie Taggart.
49. N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
After catching 58 passes for 659 yards as a freshman in 2016, Harry eclipsed those totals with 82 receptions for 1,142 yards and eight scores. Expect to see quarterback Manny Wilkins and Harry connect frequently in 2018.
48. Byron Murphy, CB, Washington
A broken foot sidelined Murphy for seven games and limited him to just 16 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups. With another offseason to develop, Murphy is poised to rank among the nation’s top defensive backs in 2018.
47. Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma
With Baker Mayfield off to the NFL, Oklahoma’s offense could lean a little more on Anderson to ease new quarterback Kyler Murray into the starting lineup. Anderson only recorded 12 carries through the first five games of 2017 but finished on a tear. He ended the year with 1,161 yards on 188 attempts and scored 18 times in total.
Related: Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches from 2017
46. Jeffery Simmons, DL, Mississippi State
New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop inherits two of the SEC’s best in the front seven, as Simmons and Montez Sweat are back in 2018. Simmons had a breakout 2017 season, finishing the year with 12 tackles for a loss (60 tackles), five sacks and two forced fumbles.
45. Jaquan Johnson, S Miami
Johnson is an all-around standout on the back end of Miami’s defense for coordinator Manny Diaz. As a junior in 2017, Johnson led all Hurricanes with 96 tackles and three forced fumbles. In addition to his ability to be a sure tackler in space, Johnson tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
44. Brian Lewerke, QB, Michigan State
With the depth chart returning nearly intact for 2018, Michigan State should be a contender for the Big Ten title. And a big reason why the Spartans will be in a position to contend is the continued development of Lewerke. In his first full season under center in 2017, Lewerke threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 559 yards and five scores.
43. Te’von Coney, LB, Notre Dame
New defensive coordinator Clark Lea received good news this offseason when Coney turned down the opportunity to jump to the NFL for another year in South Bend. Coney paced the Notre Dame defense in tackles (116) and stops for a loss (12.5) in 2017. His 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl were a career high.
42. Shaq Quarterman, LB, Miami
Miami’s defense has a few faces to replace up front, but the linebacker unit should be among the best in the nation. Quarterman has started all 26 games in his career and finished 2017 with 83 tackles (seven for a loss). He earned second-team All-ACC honors last year.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2018
41. Joe Giles-Harris, LB, Duke
Giles-Harris is quietly one of college football’s top defenders. He paced the Duke defense with 16 tackles for a loss and finished second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Additionally, Giles-Harris collected 125 tackles, which ranked third among ACC defenders last year.
40. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
A collarbone injury derailed Herbert’s 2017 season in late September. Without Herbert under center following a 4-1 start, Oregon proceeded four of its next five games. The Oregon native returned for the final three contests and finished the year with 1,983 passing yards and 15 touchdowns. Look for Herbert to push for All-Pac-12 honors with a full season of snaps in 2018.
39. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Fromm could easily finish higher than this spot by the end of the 2018 season or he could be locked into a tight battle for playing time with incoming freshman Justin Fields. As a true freshman in 2017, Fromm was always poised and rarely overmatched, throwing for 2,615 yards and 24 touchdowns.
38. Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
With Auburn losing running back Kerryon Johnson to the NFL, coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey should put more of the workload on Stidham’s right arm. After spending 2016 at a junior college (and not playing football), Stidham threw for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
Related: College Football's Top 30 Early Projected Breakout Players for 2018
37. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
With 4,055 career rushing yards, Gaskin the active FBS leader in this category entering the 2018 season. He’s reached 1,000 yards in each of the last three years, including a 1,380-yard campaign last fall.
36. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning’s touchdowns dropped from 43 in 2016 to 19 in ’17. However, the California native completed 68.5 percent of his throws and tossed only five picks in 336 attempts. Assuming Washington can find a go-to receiver, Browning should surpass his 2017 totals.
35. Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama
With the Crimson Tide set to lose center Bradley Bozeman, Williams could change positions in spring ball for 2018. The California native has started all 29 games since stepping onto campus and earned first-team All-SEC honors in 2017.
34. Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
With Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand departing Tuscaloosa, Davis is the centerpiece of Nick Saban’s defensive line. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone after Davis delivered a solid 2017 season, which included 69 stops (10 for a loss) and 8.5 sacks.
33. Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
A leg injury suffered in the loss to Ole Miss is not expected to limit Fitzgerald during the 2018 season. He will continue his development under the watchful eye of new coach Joe Moorhead after accounting for 984 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns and 1,782 yards and 15 scores through the air in 2017.
32. Trey Adams, OL, Washington
Adams’ 2017 season ended prematurely due to a knee injury suffered against Arizona State on Oct. 14. He should be back to full strength in 2018 and protect the blindside of quarterback Jake Browning.
Related: Early Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2018
31. Khaleke Hudson, LB, Michigan
Similar to teammate Devin Bush, Hudson entered the year with just a handful of snaps and statistics under his belt. However, Hudson quickly emerged as a key piece of Don Brown’s defense in the viper position. Of Hudson’s 82 tackles, 18 went for a loss. Additionally, he recorded eight sacks and two forced fumbles.
30. Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
After receiving limited snaps as a backup in 2016, Bush was ready for prime time in 2017. He emerged as Michigan’s leading tackler (102) and helped the rush defense limit opponents to just 3.5 yards a carry.
29. T.J. Edwards, LB, Wisconsin
Jim Leonhard’s defense loses a couple of key players, but the Badgers aren’t expected to miss a beat on this side of the ball. Edwards is the top returning defender for Leonhard after finishing 2017 with 81 stops (11 for a loss) and two sacks.
28. Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
Lock considered an early jump to the NFL after throwing for 3,964 yards and 44 touchdowns in 2017. He’s back in 2018 as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and will be working under a new play-caller in former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley.
27. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
This might seem high for Tagovailoa, but the Hawaii native could be first team All-SEC in 2018. In nine appearances (and zero starts), Tagovailoa threw for 636 yards and 11 touchdowns, including 166 yards and three scores in the second half against Georgia in the national championship. Again, this might be high for the sophomore. But for now, we think he's ready to emerge as one of college football's top quarterbacks in 2018.
26. Chase Winovich, DE, Michigan
The combination of Winovich and Rashan Gary should provide a relentless pass rush for defensive coordinator Don Brown once again in 2018. Winovich recorded eight sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss last year.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2018
25. David Edwards, OL, Wisconsin
Thanks to Edwards’ return to Madison in 2018, Wisconsin’s standout offensive line is in great shape to push for a CFB Playoff spot once again. Edwards has 21 career starts over the last two years and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2017.
24. Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan
Former No. 1 recruit poised for a monster junior year after recording 12 tackles for a loss and six sacks in 2017.
23. A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss
Despite a coaching change and an injury to quarterback Shea Patterson, few defensive backs had an answer for Brown in 2017. He finished the year with 75 catches for 1,252 yards and 11 touchdowns.
22. Devin White, LB, LSU
In his year as a full-time starter, White was all over the field for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. The Louisiana native made 133 stops (14 for a loss), recorded 4.5 sacks and anchored a run defense that ranked third in the SEC.
21. David Sills, WR, West Virginia
The journey of Sills from quarterback recruit to West Virginia receiver is one of the most interesting storylines in recent memory. Sills turned down a chance to leave Morgantown early to go to the NFL after catching 60 passes for 980 yards and FBS-leading 18 touchdowns (tied with Memphis' Anthony Miller) in 2017.
Related: College Football's Top 20 Teams on the Rise for 2018
20. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
In his first season in Columbus, Dobbins led the Buckeyes with 1,403 rushing yards. Dobbins scored seven times and averaged a healthy 7.23 yards per rush. He’s slated to share the backfield role with Mike Weber once again in 2018.
19. AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College
Largely due to the emergence of Dillon, Boston College came on strong over the second half of 2017. As a true freshman last year, Dillon led all running backs in the ACC with 1,589 yards. He also recorded two games of at least 200 yards and scored 14 times on the ground.
18. Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson
Lawrence holds the point of attack on the interior for Clemson’s defensive front. Over the last two seasons, Lawrence has recorded 12 tackles for a loss and helped the Tigers rank near the top of the ACC in rush defense.
17. Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson
Bryant and Clelin Ferrell form the nation’s best combination at end for 2018. In his first full season as a starter, Bryant recorded 15.5 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2018
16. Cameron Smith, LB, USC
Smith has been a steady presence for USC’s defense in each of the last three years and returns for his senior campaign to anchor this unit in 2018. The California native led the defense in tackles in back-to-back years (2016-17) and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2017.
15. Greedy Williams, CB, LSU
Williams is coming off his redshirt freshman season, but he’s already among the top defensive backs in college football. He broke up 11 passes, intercepted six and recorded 38 tackles to lead LSU’s secondary in 2017.
14. Devin Singletary, RB, FAU
“Motor” was the focal point of FAU’s high-powered offense in 2017. Singletary gashed opponents for 1,920 yards (6.4 ypc) and reached the end zone 32 times.
13. Dalton Risner, OL, Kansas State
Risner is the anchor for a Kansas State offensive line that should rank among the nation’s best in 2018. He’s earned first-team All-Big 12 honors in back-to-back years.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2018
12. Mitch Hyatt, OL, Clemson
Hyatt has been a stalwart on the left side of Clemson’s line for three consecutive years. He’s started 42 out of the 43 games since stepping onto campus in 2015.
11. Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona
Dynamic. That’s the easiest way to describe Tate, and he’s not going to slow down under new coach Kevin Sumlin. Tate averaged 9.2 yards per carry last season and finished the year with 3,002 total yards. He’s only going to get better with more experience.
10. Sutton Smith, DE, Northern Illinois
Smith has an interesting backstory, as he started his career at Northern Illinois on offense at running back. He was shifted to defense as a redshirt freshman and emerged as one of the nation’s top pass rushers through two years in DeKalb. Smith racked up 29.5 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks in 13 games in 2017.
9. McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF
New UCF coach Josh Heupel inherits a solid core of talent from former coach Scott Frost. One of those returning pieces is Milton, who averaged 357.7 total yards a game and accounted for 45 total touchdowns in 2017.
Related: College Football's Early Heisman Contenders for 2018
8. Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
A hand injury prevented Grier from playing in West Virginia’s final two games, but he still finished 2017 with 3,490 yards and 34 touchdown passes. He should be in the mix for first-team All-America honors in 2018.
7. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Taylor emerged as the next star running back in Madison, rushing for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2017.
6. Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
After flashing his potential in limited snaps as a freshman, Bosa burst onto the scene in 2017. He played in 14 games (with nine starts) and recorded 16 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks.
Related: College Football's Top 20 Teams on the Rise for 2018
5. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State
With Saquon Barkley off to the NFL, Penn State’s offense will rely even more on McSorley in 2018. He led all Big Ten quarterbacks by averaging 274.6 passing yards a game last season and finished the year with 3,570 yards and 28 TD passes. McSorley also added 491 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in 2017.
4. Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson
Ferrell is the first of two Clemson defensive ends in the top five. He emerged for coordinator Brent Venables in 2017, leading all Tigers with 18 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks.
3. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
Stanford’s ground attack didn’t miss a beat after Christian McCaffrey left for the NFL. Love stepped into the No. 1 role and emerged as a Heisman finalist after rushing for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also recorded 13 runs of 50 yards or more – the most of any running back in college football.
Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2018
2. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
Wilkins made a surprising decision to return to Clemson for his senior year, but that’s good news for coach Dabo Swinney and coordinator Brent Venables. Wilkins is a versatile defender who can play on the inside or hold the edge at end. He recorded 8.5 tackles for a loss as one of Clemson’s starting tackles last fall and was instrumental in helping the defense limit opponents to 13.6 points a game in 2017.
1. Ed Oliver, DL, Houston
Oliver has dominated opposing offensive lines in his first two seasons with the Cougars. He enters his junior year with 39.5 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and 139 overall stops.
(Ed Oliver photo courtesy of University of Houston Athletics)