An early ranking of college football's top 50 returning players for 2019
The 2019 college football season is still months away, but the start of spring practice is inching closer for all 130 teams (some have already begun), so it’s never too early to look ahead at the upcoming year and rank some of the top players returning to the gridiron. Quarterbacks take the top spot in the rankings for '19. Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa narrowly edges Clemson's Trevor Lawrence in the early top 50, with Texas' Sam Ehlinger, Oregon's Justin Herbert and Georgia's Jake Fromm all ranked in the top seven. LSU safety Grant Delpit is the first defensive player in the rankings at No. 8 overall.
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 2019. 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 their respective team and how the player has performed so far in their career. Of note: UCF QB McKenzie Milton was not ranked due to the likelihood he sits out the 2019 season to recover from a knee injury suffered in November. Milton (if healthy for 2019) would rank inside of the top 10.
College Football's Early Top 50 Players for 2019
50. David Woodward, LB, Utah State
Woodward was a breakout performer for Utah State in 2018, earning All-America honors by the Associated Press after recording 134 stops (12.5 for a loss), five sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles.
49. Troy Dye, LB, Oregon
Dye has been a steady force on Oregon’s defense over the last three years, accumulating 313 tackles (34.5 for a loss), 12.5 sacks and three interceptions. Dye should push for All-America honors in his senior campaign in Eugene.
48. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan
Patterson was solid in his first year with the Wolverines, completing 64.6 percent of his throws for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns to seven picks. He also chipped in 273 yards and two scores on the ground. With a standout receiving corps in place, along with the arrival of coordinator Josh Gattis, Patterson should easily improve on those totals in ’19.
47. Jordan Love, QB, Utah State
Love was the catalyst behind Utah State’s high-powered offense in 2018, which finished second nationally in scoring (47.5 ppg). Over 13 games, Love threw for 3,567 yards and 32 touchdowns to just six picks. He also added seven scores on the ground.
46. Caden Sterns, S, Texas
Sterns is one of college football’s top rising stars on defense. As a true freshman last fall, Sterns recorded 62 tackles (three for a loss), four pass breakups and four interceptions. He will be one of the leaders for coach Tom Herman’s defense in 2019.
45. Trey Adams, OT, Washington
A back injury limited Adams to just four games in 2018, but he was able to take advantage of the new redshirt rule and return for ’19. Assuming he’s back to full strength, Adams should resemble the player that was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2016.
44. C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida
Henderson quietly had a strong 2018 season for new Florida coach Dan Mullen and should rank among the top cornerbacks in college football for ’19. Over 13 appearances, Henderson collected 38 tackles (five for a loss), three sacks, two interceptions, nine passes defended and two forced fumbles.
43. Calvin Throckmorton, OL, Oregon
Throckmorton enters his senior year with 38 consecutive starts under his belt and will anchor an Oregon line that should be among the best in the nation.
42. Mason Fine, QB, North Texas
Fine enters his senior season with his name already etched in North Texas’ record book. The Oklahoma native ranks first in program history in passing yardage (9,358) and second in touchdown passes (64). Fine has also completed 63 percent of his throws and tossed only five picks over 469 attempts last season.
41. D’Eriq King, QB, Houston
The combination of King and new coach Dana Holgorsen should be a potent one for Houston in 2019. Before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tulane in 2018, King led the American Athletic Conference by averaging 332.4 total yards a game.
40. CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma
Marquise Brown is off to the NFL, but Oklahoma’s receiving corps is loaded with talent for new quarterback Jalen Hurts. After catching 46 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017, Lamb grabbed 65 receptions for 1,158 yards and 11 scores last season.
39. Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU
Injuries hit TCU’s quarterback position hard in 2018, but Reagor still managed to catch 72 passes for 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns. He also added 170 rushing yards and two scores on 13 rushing attempts and contributed on punt and kickoff returns.
38. Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
Davis didn’t quite have the dominant season most anticipated in 2018, but a return to campus for his senior year should provide plenty of motivation to regain his ’17 form. That year, Davis recorded 10 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks. Those totals slipped to 5.5 and 1.5 in ’18. With Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs departing the trenches, Davis’ play will be a key cog in Alabama’s defensive front for 2019.
37. Evan Weaver, LB, California
Weaver was all over the field for a California defense that limited teams to just 20.4 points a game in 2018. The Washington native recorded 158 stops (nine for a loss), 4.5 sacks, six pass breakups,and two interceptions last fall. Weaver’s interception return for a touchdown was instrumental in California’s upset of Washington.
36. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
With Mack Wilson leaving Tuscaloosa early for the NFL, coach Nick Saban’s defense needs Moses to take the next step and anchor the interior of the linebacker unit. Moses – a former five-star prospect – seems to be on his way to doing just that. As a sophomore last fall, Moses ranked first on Alabama’s defense with 86 tackles (also 10 for a loss) and also recorded 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
35. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt was one of the big winners from the NFL draft’s early entry deadline, as Vaughn joined tight end Jared Pinkney and receiver Kalija Lipscomb in returning to campus. Vaughn spent two years at Illinois before transferring to Vanderbilt. In his first opportunity to play for the Commodores, Vaughn rushed for 1,244 yards and 12 scores, while averaging a healthy 7.9 yards per carry. He also led all Power 5 running backs by posting six rushes for 60-plus yards in 2018.
34. Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
LSU’s secondary will miss Greedy Williams, but the cornerback spot is in good hands with Fulton coming back, along with the arrival of five-star freshman Derek Stingley. Fulton only played in three games in 2016 and missed ’17 due to suspension. However, in his first opportunity for major snaps, Fulton recorded 25 tackles and defended nine passes. According to Pro Football Focus, Fulton allowed only 39.5 percent of throws to be completed in his direction in 2018.
33. J.R. Reed, S, Georgia
With Deandre Baker moving onto the NFL, Reed is the new leader in Georgia’s secondary. The Texas native started his career at Tulsa but transferred to Athens after the 2015 season. He earned All-SEC honors in ’17 and recorded 66 stops, one sack and two interceptions last fall.
32. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
With Mike Weber off to the NFL, expect Dobbins to see even more of the workload in Columbus. Dobbins has rushed for 2,456 yards and 17 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
31. D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
Swift was projected as a breakout candidate prior to the 2018 season and certainly lived up to that billing. Despite a groin injury, Swift managed 6.4 yards per carry over 163 attempts, finishing the year with 1,049 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also added 32 catches for 297 yards and three scores.
30. AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College
An ankle injury hindered Dillon for a chunk of the 2018 season, but he still finished the year with 1,108 yards and 10 scores. With a full offseason to recover, Dillon should recapture the form that allowed him to rush for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman in 2017.
29. Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State
Benjamin delivered a breakout season in his first year as Arizona State’s No. 1 running back. And with quarterback Manny Wilkins and receiver N’Keal Harry moving on, Benjamin will be counted upon even more in 2019. The Texas native recorded 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 35 catches for 263 yards and two scores last fall.
28. Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford
As a redshirt freshman last fall, Adebo emerged as one of the Pac-12’s top defenders. The Texas native picked off four passes, broke up 19 and ranked third on the team with 64 tackles. Additionally, two of Adebo’s interceptions came in the rivalry win over California.
27. Alohi Gilman, S, Notre Dame
Gilman was an impact addition to Notre Dame's secondary last season after transferring from Navy. He ranked second on the team with 94 tackles, recorded two interceptions and five pass breakups.
26. Joe Bachie, LB, Michigan State
Bachie’s presence at middle linebacker helped Michigan State lead the Big Ten in rush defense (77.9 ypg allowed) last season. The Ohio native earned first-team all-conference honors after recording over 100 stops for the second year in a row (102) and he also compiled three forced fumbles, six passes defended and a sack in 2018.
25. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Harris will have plenty of help in an Alabama backfield that features freshman Trey Sanders and Brian Robinson, but the California native is primed for a breakout year as the lead option. Harris rushed for 783 yards (6.7 ypc) and four touchdowns as the top reserve to Damien Harris in 2018.
24. Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
Brown passed on the NFL to return to Auburn for his senior year and should anchor one of the top defensive lines in the nation in 2019. After recording 10.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks in ’18, Brown should build off those totals, only increasing his value for scouts by next year’s draft.
23. Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
With Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, and Austin Bryant off to the NFL, coordinator Brent Venables will have to restock the line this spring. That’s not a problem considering the track record of success in the trenches recently at Clemson, along with Thomas’ play in limited snaps last year. The five-star recruit recorded 10.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks as a freshman in 2018 and should thrive with a full allotment of snaps.
22. Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado
Injuries limited Shenault at the end of the 2018 season, but the Texas native still posted 86 catches for 1,011 yards and six touchdowns and added another 115 yards and a score on the ground. With a full offseason to recover, look for Shenault to challenge for first-team All-America honors in 2019.
21. Tee Higgins/Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
The duo of Higgins and Ross will be one of the nation’s most dynamic pairings at receiver. These two players combined for 1,936 receiving yards and 21 touchdown catches last year. Ross averaged a healthy 21.7 yards per catch, while Higgins paced the Clemson offense with 59 receptions.
20. Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State needed a new go-to receiver with James Washington’s departure to the NFL, and Wallace certainly filled that void in 2018. He paced the Cowboys’ offense by catching 86 passes for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns.
19. Jerry Jeudy/Jaylen Waddle/Henry Ruggs/DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Jeudy is the reigning Biletnikoff winner after catching 68 passes for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2018. There’s plenty of weapons in the receiving corps for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, as Waddle (45 catches for 848 yards), Ruggs (46) and Smith (42) are all back in 2019.
18. Andrew Thomas, OL, Georgia
After starting all 15 games as a true freshman in 2017, Thomas managed 13 starts last fall, despite dealing with a nagging ankle injury for a good chunk of the season. With a return to full strength, Thomas should be among the nation’s top offensive linemen in 2019.
17. Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
Virginia’s defense got a big boost for 2019 when Hall decided to return for his senior year. According to Pro Football Focus, Hall allowed only 34 completions during the 2018 season.
16. Tyler Biadasz, OL, Wisconsin
Biadasz has started all 27 games in his Wisconsin career and returns to Madison after earning third-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports in 2018.
15. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Projection time. Fields transferred from Georgia to Ohio State and was ruled immediately eligible for the 2019 season. Fields – a former five-star prospect – should thrive under new coach Ryan Day.
14. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
Hurts moves from one high-powered offense (Alabama) to another (Oklahoma) for his senior year. The Texas native may not be as prolific as a passer as Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray, but he made significant progress in that department during his three years in Tuscaloosa. Hurts rushed for 1,976 yards and 23 scores and threw for 5,626 yards and 48 touchdowns at Alabama.
13. Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State
Gross-Matos became one of the top defenders in the Big Ten last fall and helped to anchor a Penn State defense that allowed only 20.5 points a game. The Virginia native recorded 20 tackles for a loss, eight sacks and two forced fumbles over 13 games in 2018.
12. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State
Young had a breakout sophomore campaign in 2018, recording 9.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble over 14 contests. With another offseason to work under assistant Larry Johnson, he’s primed to emerge as one of the nation’s top defensive players.
11. Kenny Willekes, DE, Michigan State
Willekes is a former walk-on who has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top defenders over the last two seasons. The Michigan native has recorded 35 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks during that span and earned first-team all-conference honors last fall. Willekes suffered a leg injury in the Redbox Bowl but is expected to return to full strength by the 2019 opener.
10. A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
Epenesa may not be a household name after his first two years on campus, but he’s primed to be one by the end of 2019. The former five-star prospect recorded 4.5 sacks as a freshman in ’17 and then really stepped things up (10.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for a loss) as a sophomore. With Anthony Nelson off to the NFL and Parker Hesse out of eligibility, Epenesa will move into a starting role this offseason.
9. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
Dynamic was the best way to describe Moore’s first season at the collegiate level. The Indiana native was a key pickup for coach Jeff Brohm on the recruiting trail and accounted for 313 total yards in Purdue’s opener against Northwestern. Moore finished 2018 averaging 170.4 total yards a game, leading the country with 114 receptions, and with 14 total touchdowns.
8. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
Delpit is back to anchor LSU’s defense after earning first-team All-America honors from Athlon Sports last fall. The Texas native stuffed the stat sheet in 2018, recording 74 tackles (9.5 for a loss), five sacks, five interceptions, and a forced fumble.
7. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Oregon is projected as the early favorite to win the Pac-12 North in 2019, and that’s largely due to the return of Herbert for his senior year. The Oregon native started every game for the first time in his career last fall, throwing for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns to eight picks and adding 166 yards and two scores on the ground.
6. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Fromm was pressed into the starting job as a freshman in 2017 and nearly guided the Bulldogs to a national championship. He took another step forward last fall, as Fromm tossed 30 touchdowns (up from 24) to six picks and completed 67.3 percent (up from 62.2) of his passes. With Fromm at the helm, Georgia is favored to win its third consecutive SEC East title in 2019.
5. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas
With Ehlinger back under center in 2019, Texas will have a chance to unseat Oklahoma atop the Big 12. In his first full season as the starter in Austin, Ehlinger threw for 3,296 yards and 25 touchdowns to just five picks. Additionally, Ehlinger led the Longhorns by scoring 16 times on the ground and ranked third on the team with 482 rushing yards.
4. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Etienne had only 204 rushing attempts last season, but he certainly made the most of those opportunities. En route to winning ACC Player of the Year honors, Etienne rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns – averaging a robust 8.1 yards per carry.
3. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Taylor was the only FBS running back to eclipse 2,000 yards in 2018, as he recorded 2,194 yards and 16 scores on 307 attempts. During his two years with the Badgers, the New Jersey native has rushed for 4,171 yards and 29 touchdowns.
2. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Lawrence and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa are really 1A and 1B in this ranking. As a true freshman in 2018, Lawrence helped to guide Clemson to the national championship by throwing for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns to just four picks even though he didn't start the season as the starter. With a strong supporting cast in place at receiver and a full offseason to work as the starter, Lawrence is primed for even bigger things in 2019.
1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
As mentioned previously, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Tagovailoa are really 1A and 1B on this list. After guiding Alabama to a comeback victory in the national championship against Georgia two seasons ago, Tagovailoa earned the starting job for the 2018 campaign and posted 3,966 yards and 43 passing touchdowns (both single-season records for Alabama) to just six picks. Tagovailoa finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Kyler Murray.
The Next Tier: Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska; Bradlee Anae, DE, Utah; Colin Schooler, LB, Arizona; Paddy Fisher, LB, Northwestern; Zack Moss, RB, Utah; Marvin Wilson, DL, Florida State; Alaric Jackson, OL, Iowa; Walker Little, OL, Stanford; Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona; Andre Cisco, S, Syracuse; Shaq Quarterman/Michael Pinckney, LB, Miami; Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri; Terrell Lewis, LB, Alabama; Lavert Hill, CB, Michigan; J.J. Taylor, RB, Arizona; Richie Grant, S, UCF; Julian Okwara, DE, Notre Dame; Isaiah Simmons, S/LB, Clemson; Josiah Scott, CB, Michigan State