An early ranking of college football's top 50 returning players for 2020
The 2020 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. As expected, quarterbacks top the rankings for 2020. Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State's Justin Fields were easy selections for the first two spots, with North Carolina's Sam Howell and Texas' Sam Ehlinger bringing up the next tier. Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell ranks No. 3, followed by a pair of LSU standouts in cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and receiver Ja'Marr Chase to round out the top five.
With rosters largely set for 2020 and teams beginning to start spring practice, 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 2020. 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. A list of players that just missed the top 50 or was considered is also listed below.
College Football's Early Top 50 Players for 2020
50. Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis
An injury to Patrick Taylor in the season opener against Ole Miss opened the door for Gainwell to emerge as one of the top all-purpose threats in college football in 2019. The Mississippi native used a run of six consecutive games with 100 or more rushing yards to finish with 1,459 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. He also caught 51 passes for 610 yards and three scores. Gainwell finished the 2019 campaign ninth nationally (147.8) in all-purpose yards per game.
49. Kylin Hill, RB, Mississippi State
New coach Mike Leach is known for producing high-powered passing games, but Hill is going to see plenty of opportunities in the new offense. The senior is simply too talented to ignore, as he paced the Mississippi State offense with 1,350 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Hill also led SEC running backs by averaging 103.9 rushing yards a game and chipped in 18 catches – a number that's likely to increase significantly under Leach in 2020.
48. Jaret Patterson, RB, Buffalo
Thanks to a strong offensive line and deep backfield, the Bulls leaned on their ground attack by averaging just over 50 rushing attempts a game last season. Patterson anchored the powerful Buffalo running game with 312 carries and 1,799 yards. He also scored 19 times, averaged 5.8 yards per carry and gashed Bowling Green for 298 yards in late November last year.
47. Hamilcar Rashed, LB, Oregon State
Rashed had a breakout year in his third season with the Beavers and excelled at creating havoc for an improved defense. The Arizona native recorded 62 stops and led all Pac-12 defenders with 22.5 tackles for a loss. Rashed registered the most sacks (14) of any Pac-12 player, with 11 coming in conference play.
46. Richard LeCounte, S, Georgia
LeCounte should become the leader for Georgia's secondary after J.R. Reed finished his eligibility and is one of the top players on a defense that should rank as one of the best in college football. The Georgia native started all 14 games for the Bulldogs in 2019 and recorded 61 stops (4.5 for a loss), four interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three pass breakups.
45. Gregory Rousseau, DL, Miami
Rousseau set the bar high for 2020 after recording 19.5 tackles for a loss, 15.5 sacks, and 54 overall tackles as a freshman last fall. Rousseau notched 12 of his sacks in ACC games, including four versus Florida State and two against Pitt. He should team with Temple transfer Quincy Roche to form one of the nation’s top defensive end combinations in college football for 2020.
44. Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU
TCU’s defense has a few holes to fill at cornerback this offseason, but coach Gary Patterson won’t be starting completely from scratch in the secondary. The duo of Ar’Darius Washington and Moehrig should form one of the better safety combinations in the nation. Moehrig recorded 62 stops, 11 pass breakups, and four interceptions and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last season.
43. D’Eriq King, QB, Miami
Miami utilized three quarterbacks last season, but the carousel under center will end with King coming to Coral Gables after transferring from Houston. Dynamic is the best way to sum up King’s career with the Cougars from 2016-19. The Texas native received playing time as a receiver in 2016 before moving back to quarterback in '17. King accounted for 1,639 total yards that year and delivered a monster all-around campaign the following season. Over 11 appearances for Houston, King accounted for 3,656 total yards and 50 overall scores. King took a redshirt season after playing in four games in 2019.
42. Chatarius Atwell, WR, Louisville
The Cardinals were drastically better in coach Scott Satterfield’s debut, with a much-improved offense leading the way for a six-game jump in wins from the previous year. Atwell was a breakout star in Satterfield’s offense after only catching 24 passes as a freshman in 2018. The Miami native grabbed 70 receptions for 1,276 yards and 12 touchdowns last year and his per-catch average of 18.2 ranked fourth among ACC receivers. He also had six receptions of 50 yards or more in 2019.
41. Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Farley bounced between receiver and cornerback early in his career but settled into a defensive role after using a redshirt year in 2017 to recover from a knee injury. Farley had a solid freshman season in 2018, recording 36 tackles, two picks, and seven pass breakups over 13 appearances. However, Farley took a major step forward in his development last fall. Farley earned first-team All-ACC honors after recording 12 pass breakups, four picks, and 36 total tackles.
40. Carlos Basham, DL, Wake Forest
Basham might be one of the most underrated defenders in college football and should rank among the top linemen in the nation after passing on the NFL draft. As a junior last fall, Basham dominated the line of scrimmage by recording 18 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. He also forced three fumbles, collected 57 tackles and earned first-team All-ACC honors.
39. Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia
Newman is one of the toughest players to rank going into 2020. The Wake Forest graduate transfer is set to start for the Bulldogs after Jake Fromm left early for the NFL. Newman tossed 17 scores through the first six games of 2019 but cooled in the second half of the year with three contests of fewer than 200 passing yards and only nine touchdown tosses. Injuries to Newman and his supporting cast played a role in that regression, but the North Carolina native still finished with 2,868 passing yards and added 574 more on the ground to go with 32 overall scores. Newman showed he’s capable of finishing 2020 as the top quarterback in the SEC, but he also has to navigate a new play-caller, scheme, a rebuilt offensive line, and a thin group of proven playmakers on the outside.
38. Shane Buechele, QB, SMU
Buechele’s arrival at SMU as a graduate transfer helped the program win 10 games for the first time since 1984. The former Longhorn set new single-season records for the Mustangs in passing touchdowns (34) and yardage (3,929) while also connecting on 62.7 percent of his attempts. Buechele also connected on 16 throws of 40 yards or more and led all quarterbacks in the AAC by averaging 302.2 passing yards a contest.
37. Chris Rumph, DL, Duke
Rumph didn’t register a start in 2019 but was regarded as one of the top pass rushers in the ACC. The Florida native led Duke’s defense with 13.5 tackles for a loss and finished second on the unit with 6.5 sacks. He also broke up three passes and registered 11 quarterback hurries. Rumph ended 2019 on a high note by recording five tackles for a loss over the final two games.
36. Jalen Twyman, DL, Pitt
Twyman wreaked havoc in the backfield for a Pitt defense that quietly held teams to just 22.5 points a game in 2019. After working as a reserve in 2018, Twyman recorded 41 tackles (12 for a loss) and 10.5 sacks in a breakout year for the Washington, D.C., native last season.
35. Tanner Morgan, QB, Minnesota
Morgan’s development at quarterback was instrumental in Minnesota’s breakout 2019 season. Quarterbacks for the Golden Gophers combined for just 20 touchdowns in 2018, but Morgan easily exceeded that mark with 30 on his own in 2019. In addition to the 30 touchdown tosses, Morgan completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,253 yards and averaged a healthy 10.2 yards per attempt. Morgan’s 2019 totals in passing yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage all rank as the best in a season in Minnesota’s program history.
34. Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
Tee Higgins will be missed, but quarterback Trevor Lawrence won’t be hurting for receivers this year. Ross will assume the go-to role for Lawrence, and the junior is primed for his best season in Death Valley. After catching 46 passes for 1,000 yards and nine scores as a freshman in 2018, Ross caught 66 balls for 865 yards and eight touchdowns.
33. Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri
Bolton picked up the slack for Missouri’s defense after standout linebacker Cale Garrett suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. The Texas native played in a backup role in 2018 as a true freshman but emerged as one of the SEC’s top breakout players with 107 overall tackles (7.5 for a loss), two interceptions, and eight pass breakups last fall.
32. Cole Van Lanen, OL, Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s offensive line has a couple of holes to fill this offseason, but Van Lanen’s return provides a centerpiece for coach Paul Chryst to build around in 2020. He started 13 games at left tackle for the Badgers and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year.
31. Samuel Cosmi, OL, Texas
Cosmi shifted to left tackle after starting on the right side as a freshman and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors after helping Texas’ offense average 6.4 yards a play and 35.2 points a game last season. He’s started 25 games over the last two years.
30. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
The loss of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs to the NFL will create more opportunities for Waddle in 2020. He’s thrived in the slot for the Crimson Tide by catching 78 passes for 1,408 yards and 13 touchdowns over the last two years. Waddle has also scored three times on special teams.
29. Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State
Wallace was bookmarked for another 1,000-yard season, but a knee injury suffered in practice sidelined him for the final five games of 2019. Prior to the injury, Wallace caught 53 passes for 903 yards and eight touchdowns – a similar pace to his 2018 All-American campaign (86 catches for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns). Wallace should be back at full strength for 2020 and is one of the top receivers in the nation.
28. Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Tyler Johnson will be missed, but the cupboard isn’t bare at receiver for Minnesota. Bateman delivered a breakout year for the Golden Gophers last fall, catching 60 passes for 1,219 yards and 11 scores. Additionally, his 20.3 per-catch average led all players in the Big Ten.
27. Elijah Molden, CB, Washington
A strong secondary has been an annual hallmark in recent years for Jimmy Lake’s defense at Washington, and Molden has a chance to push for All-America honors in 2020. After playing in 27 games in his first two seasons on campus, Molden earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after starting all 13 contests last year and recording 79 tackles, four interceptions, and 13 pass breakups.
26. Trey Smith, OL, Tennessee
A medical condition limited Smith in practice prior to the 2018 season and later forced him to miss the final five games that year. Additionally, his status for 2019 remained a question mark going into August, but Smith was eventually cleared and started 12 contests for Tennessee. Smith earned first-team All-SEC honors and passed on the NFL for one more season on Rocky Trop.
25. Creed Humphrey, C, Oklahoma
Humphrey was the lone returning starter on Oklahoma’s offensive line last fall and helped this unit transition into one of the better groups in the Big 12 once again. The Oklahoma native is set to anchor this unit once again in 2020 and returns as one of the top linemen in college football after earning first-team All-Big 12 honors in ’19.
24. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
A season-ending injury to JT Daniels in the first game of the year opened the door for Slovis to emerge as USC’s future at quarterback. The bright lights of Los Angeles were no match for the true freshman, as he connected on 71.9 percent of his throws for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns. Slovis tossed only nine picks and posted at least four games with 400 or more passing yards.
23. Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame
Book’s emergence helped Notre Dame reach the CFB Playoff in 2018, and the California native continued to develop with a solid all-around ’19 season. Book became the first player in school history to throw for at least 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns and run for 500 yards. Book’s yards per attempt declined from 8.4 to 7.6 last year but he connected on 60 percent of his passes for 3,304 yards and 34 touchdowns to only six picks.
22. Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State
The 2020 season marked the first time Iowa State averaged more than 30 points a contest (32.2) since 1976. Purdy’s continued development after a breakout freshman campaign was a big reason why the Cyclones reached that goal and earned the program’s third consecutive winning mark under coach Matt Campbell. Purdy started all 13 games and threw for 3,982 yards and 27 touchdowns to only nine picks. He also averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt and scored eight times on the ground in 2019.
21. Quincy Roche, DE, Miami
Roche earned third-team All-America honors from Athlon Sports after recording 13 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss at Temple in 2019. With a year of eligibility remaining, Roche decided to test his skills at the Power 5 level and transferred to Miami. He should team with Gregory Rousseau (15.5 sacks in 2019) to form one of the nation’s top defensive end duos for 2020.
20. Patrick Surtain, CB, Alabama
Surtain has been a key cog in Alabama’s secondary since stepping onto campus prior to the 2018 season. The Florida native has started 25 games over the last two years and followed up a solid freshman campaign by recording 42 tackles, two picks, and eight pass breakups as a sophomore last fall.
19. Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State
Wade’s decision to return to Columbus instead of depart for the next level was a huge boost to an Ohio State secondary already slated to lose cornerbacks Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette, along with safety Jordan Fuller. Over 13 appearances last fall, Wade recorded 25 tackles (four for a loss), two sacks, one interception, and eight pass breakups. He will assume the No. 1 cornerback role for Ryan Day’s defense in 2020.
18. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Moses was regarded as one of the nation’s top defenders last fall but suffered a season-ending knee injury in late August and was forced to miss all 13 games. The injury to Moses was a huge setback for coach Nick Saban’s defense, as the unit had to rely on two true freshmen at middle linebacker. Moses is on track to return in 2020 and should provide needed stability in the middle of the defense. The Louisiana native recorded 86 stops (10 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble for the Crimson Tide in 2018.
17. Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
With Jedrick Wills Jr. off to the NFL, Leatherwood will become the anchor for Alabama’s offensive line in 2020. The Florida native started all 15 games at right guard for the Crimson Tide in 2018 but kicked out to left tackle for 13 starts last fall. Leatherwood earned first-team All-SEC honors for his performance in 2019 and is poised for his best all-around season in an Alabama uniform this season.
16. Marvin Wilson, DL, Florida State
New coach Mike Norvell scored an offseason victory when Wilson announced his intention to return to Tallahassee for his senior year. The Texas native is one of the top interior linemen in the nation and is expected to be back at full strength in 2020 after suffering a hand injury in early November. Despite playing in just nine games and recording 8.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks, Wilson earned first-team All-ACC honors in 2019.
15. Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon
Thibodeaux has already earned a spot among the nation’s top defenders going into his sophomore campaign. The California native ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the 2019 signing class and played in all 14 games as a true freshman for the Ducks. Thibodeaux seemed to get stronger as the season went on, recording 10.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks over the final six contests. With another offseason to develop in the weight room, Thibodeaux should be primed for a monster 2020 season for a standout Oregon defense.
14. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Despite losing Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy to the NFL, Alabama’s receiving corps is in good shape thanks to the return of Smith and Jaylen Waddle in 2020. Smith led the Crimson Tide with 1,256 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches last season. He also averaged 18.5 yards per catch and finished second to Jeudy (77) in receptions (68).
13. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Harris’ decision to return to Tuscaloosa for his senior year was a surprise, but with Tua Tagovailoa off to the NFL and a standout offensive line in place, the California native should have his best all-around year for the Crimson Tide. After working in a reserve role from 2017-18, Harris ran for 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns and added 27 receptions for 304 yards in his first season as the featured back in Tuscaloosa.
12. Wyatt Davis, OL, Ohio State
In his first year as a full-time starter, Davis emerged as one of the top interior linemen in college football. The California native started all 14 games and helped to clear the way for rushers to average 5.6 yards per carry for the Buckeyes in 2019. Davis earned first-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports, and according to Pro Football Focus, did not allow a sack on 459 pass-block snaps.
11. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas
Ehlinger heads into 2020 as the active leader in total career yards (10,400) at the FBS level. Texas regressed in the win column last year, but Ehlinger’s completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown passes, and passing yardage all increased from 2018. Ehlinger’s development as a passer hasn’t slowed his willingness to run. He’s recorded 1,530 rushing yards and 25 scores on 441 carries over the last three years.
10. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
Just 13 games were all it took for Howell to earn a place among the top quarterbacks in college football. The North Carolina native was the centerpiece of coach Mack Brown’s first recruiting haul back in Chapel Hill and never looked back after winning the starting job. Howell started all 13 games and proceeded to throw for 3,641 yards, set a new FBS true freshman record with 38 touchdown passes and tossed just seven interceptions. He tied for fifth nationally in completions of 40 or more yards (17) and threw for at least two scores in all 13 games.
9. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
A season-ending hamstring injury suffered in late September limited Moore to just four games in 2019, but all signs point to the Indiana native returning at full strength this fall. As a freshman in 2018, Moore caught 114 passes for 1,258 yards and 12 scores and accounted for 2,215 all-purpose yards overall. Getting Moore’s all-around versatility and playmaking ability back will be a huge boost to Purdue’s offense in 2020.
8. Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Parsons wasted no time making an instant impact as a freshman in 2018, but the Pennsylvania native was even better as a sophomore. As one of the leaders for a Penn State defense that held teams to just 16 points a game, Parsons recorded 109 stops (14 for a loss), five sacks, and four forced fumbles in 2019.
7. Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
Hubbard shined in his first full year as the starter. After running for more than 100 yards in three out of the final four games in 2018, Hubbard led all FBS running backs with 2,094 rushing yards last season. The Canada native averaged a robust 6.4 yards per rush over 328 attempts and scored 21 times on the ground. Hubbard also led all players with seven runs of 50 yards or more in 2019.
6. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Etienne’s decision to return to Clemson for his senior year came as a surprise but also entrenched coach Dabo Swinney’s team atop the rankings for 2020. The Louisiana native eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards (1,649) for the second year in a row and reached the end zone 23 overall times last season. Etienne’s offseason work to become a better pass catcher paid off in a big way with 37 receptions in 2019. He has posted 13 runs of 40 yards or more over the last two years and averages 7.8 yards per attempt in his Clemson career.
5. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
The change in offensive philosophy to go with Joe Burrow’s development helped LSU create one of the best offenses in college football history last season. Chase benefitted in a big way from both of those factors, as he grabbed 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 scores and won the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's top wide receiver. He also had the most receptions of 50 or more yards (nine) of any player at the FBS level in 2019.
4. Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
High expectations surrounded Stingley once he stepped onto campus as a five-star recruit prior to the 2019 season. The Louisiana native certainly lived up to the hype. He started all 15 games and accumulated six interceptions, 38 tackles, and 21 passes defended for the national champs.
3. Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Sewell is a dominant force on the left side of the line for Oregon’s high-powered offense. The 6-foot-6 tackle has started 20 games over his first two seasons and surrendered just one sack in 1,376 snaps for the Ducks. Sewell claimed the Outland Trophy, was a unanimous first-team All-American, and earned co-offensive player of the year honors in the Pac-12 by the Associated Press last season.
2. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
The arrival of Fields as a transfer with immediate eligibility was a huge boost to Ryan Day’s first season in Columbus. Fields guided Ohio State’s offense to an average of 46.9 points a game en route to a 13-1 overall mark and a trip to the CFB Playoff. Fields torched teams through the air, connecting on 67.2 percent of throws for 3,273 yards and 41 touchdowns and just three picks. He also added 484 yards and 10 scores on the ground and finished third in Heisman voting.
1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Lawrence had an uneven start to the 2019 season but was back to playing at an elite level by October. After tossing eight interceptions through the first seven games, Lawrence did not toss a pick over Clemson’s next eight contests and finished with 3,665 yards and 36 overall scores. In addition to his success through the air, Lawrence utilized his mobility more often in 2019, which included a 107-yard performance against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Through two years at Clemson, Lawrence has passed for 6,945 yards, accounted for 76 overall scores, and is 25-1 as the team’s starting quarterback.
Just Missed (Offense): Sage Surratt, WR, Wake Forest; Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF; Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern; Warren Jackson, WR, Colorado State; Walker Little, OL, Stanford; Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State; Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida; Darian Kinnard, OL, Kentucky; Jackson Carman, OL, Clemson; Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State; CJ Verdell, RB, Oregon; George Pickens, WR, Georgia
Just Missed (Defense): Jordan Smith, OLB, UAB; Carlton Martial, LB, Troy; Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati; Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford; Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame; Levi Onwuzurike, DL, Washington; Tyler Davis, DL, Clemson; Jevon Holland, S, Oregon; Thomas Graham, CB, Oregon; Shaun Jolly, CB, Appalachian State; Darius Stills, DL, West Virginia