Between recruits, transfers and new coaches, even the best teams in college football look different year to year. From defending champ Alabama breaking in a new offensive coordinator to Ohio State’s ready-to-contribute true freshmen, these are the most intriguing newcomers for each of the Way-Too-Early top 25 teams.
The Tigers signed arguably their best recruiting class ever in 2021, so there’s no shortage of potential stars among the true freshmen for 2021, but the most intriguing member of the class might be receiver Beaux Collins. First, Collins comes from St. John Bosco High School, where, until last year, he was teammates with Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei. That certainly gives Collins an inside track on some early playing time, given he’ll have as strong a chemistry with Uiagalelei as anyone on the roster. More importantly, however, the receiver position was perhaps the Tigers’ biggest weakness in 2020, with Amari Rodgers and tailback Travis Etienne — both gone to the NFL now — serving as their most consistent pass-catchers. Clemson desperately needs an explosive threat on the outside, and at 6-2 with plus speed, Collins could blossom into a valuable weapon.— David M. Hale
Nick Saban has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assembling his coaching staff. Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian’s careers were on the trash heap and Saban found success with both as his offensive coordinators. And now it’s Bill O’Brien’s turn at professional revitalization after flaming out with the Houston Texan. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to life back in college, the chore of recruiting and no longer being in charge of his own program. But ultimately no question looms larger than how he develops the quarterback position, namely former blue-chip prospect Bryce Young. There may not be a coordinator-quarterback pairing in the country facing more daunting expectations than Young and O’Brien as they attempt to fill to shoes of Sarkisian and Mac Jones. — Alex Scarborough
The Sooners signed the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat QB (Caleb Williams) and No. 1 WR (Mario Williams Jr.), and we’re eager to see both on the field. But if the topic is “most intriguing,” then you’d have to pick Billy Bowman Jr., a 5-10, 175-pound signee from Denton (TX) Ryan. He had more than 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns as a receiver last season, but also intercepted 10 passes in his high school career. Consider Lincoln Riley’s own words in December after he signed: “I don’t have the first clue where he’s going to play for us, but it’s going to be somewhere,” he said. “It wouldn’t shock me if he doesn’t end up having a role for us on both sides of the football.” Intriguing! — Dave Wilson
One of the big offseason storylines in Athens is the defensive talent Kirby Smart’s team is losing. Linebackers Azeez Ojulari, Monty Rice, and Jermaine Johnson are all gone, opening up room for newcomers. Well, Georgia added the No. 1-ranked prospect in the state of Georgia this offseason in ESPN 300 linebacker Smael Mondon. The linebacker is the 11th-ranked player overall in the 2021 class, and should have plenty of opportunities to establish himself as Georgia’s next great linebacker.— Harry Lyles Jr.
There could be a few answers to this for Ohio State as the staff has the No. 1 ranked prospect overall in defensive end Jack Sawyer, the No. 5 pocket-passing quarterback in Kyle McCord and another great haul at receiver and defensive back. Those would all qualify considering the amount of talent in this class, but running back TreVeyon Henderson has a chance to really help this offense next season. Henderson is the No. 1 running back in the class, a five-star and can do a little bit of everything. With Trey Sermon off to the NFL, Henderson has an opportunity to make an impact in the ground game. — Tom VanHaaren
Safety Kendal Daniels is a big-hitting, 6-4 safety that could turn heads early on. But few signees in the country are as intriguing as Jordan Moko, a 6-5, 300-pound offensive tackle from Snow College in Utah who was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 junior-college offensive lineman. While OT recruits don’t normally dazzle fans, Moko’s story is different: A native of Brisbane, Australia, he’s a former rugby player who has just a couple of years of football experience with the Brisbane Rhinos and a Twitter feed full of highlights. After a season where the O-line was arguably the MVP of the Aggies’ best season in decades and a new quarterback will be taking over for four-year starter Kellen Mond, this year’s new “Maroon Goons,” led by Moko and Bryce Foster, are worth watching. — Dave Wilson
Mack Brown inked a terrific freshman class for 2021, but perhaps the most intriguing new addition comes in the form of veteran tailback Ty Chandler, who transferred from Tennessee and joins the Tar Heels this spring. Chandler was a longtime contributor for the Volunteers, with more than 3,000 career all-purpose yards, working as a runner, receiver and returner. With Carolina losing two 1,000-yard backs in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter to the NFL, there’s plenty of touches for the taking. Chandler will have competition in the Heels’ backfield, including from four-star recruit Kamarro Edmonds, but UNC’s offense sets up nicely for multiple backs to put up big numbers, and Chandler’s experience will be invaluable in a young backfield. — Hale
The story for Matt Campbell’s Cyclones in 2021 is how newcomers might not hardly play a role at all. That’s what happens, after all, when you’re projected to return about 20 starters, and your head coach and top assistants all return as well. ISU does have to replace two of its top four safeties, however, which could open the door for a freshman DB like Beau Freyler or Myles Purchase, each of whom were among the more well-touted ISU signees in this class. — Bill Connelly
The Trojans are beginning to turn into a power on the recruiting trail again, with several high-profile signees set to join the program, but former Texas running back Keaontay Ingram has the potential to make an immediate impact in 2021. He rushed for 1,811 over three years with the Longhorns but after losing his starting job and the coaching change in Austin, he opted to find a place for a fresh start. — Kyle Bonagura
The Hoosiers had hot and cold streaks on offense in 2020, but their defense remained scorching on a week-to-week basis. The Hoosiers are returning 10 defensive starters in 2021, but lose defensive coordinator Kane Wommack, who became the head coach at South Alabama after leading an impressive unit in Bloomington. This is the second year in a row where head coach Tom Allen has had to replace a coordinator, but the Hoosiers should have some confidence in the newcomer, former Georgia assistant Charlton Warren. Replacing coaches is never a small deal, but Warren has spent his last two seasons coaching defensive backs with one of the best defensive teams in the country in Georgia. With stops at Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Nebraska, it’ll be interesting to see how Indiana’s best group adjusts under yet another coach. — Lyles Jr.
11. Cincinnati Bearcats: Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel
Luke Fickell’s squad had arguably the greatest coordinator loss of the offseason. Notre Dame, who lost defensive coordinator Clark Lea to his alma mater Vanderbilt, was able to pry away Bearcats defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to South Bend. Cincinnati consistently had a top-five defense in SP+ in 2020, but losing four defensive starters and bringing in a fresh coordinator will be a challenge. Former Michigan State assistant Mike Tressel (yep, that’s Jim’s nephew) is set to replace Freeman. Tressel was the Spartans’ co-defensive coordinator from 2015 to 2017 and then as the team’s sole defensive coordinator in 2018 and 2019. In 2020 under Mel Tucker, he coached defensive backs. Despite 2020 looking like Cincinnati’s year to be the G5 to break through and make the Playoff, they’ll have to try again in 2021 with two Power 5 road games on their schedule against Indiana and Notre Dame. Tressel will be a big factor in whether or not they’re able to keep up their 2020 pace. — Lyles Jr.
It will probably take awhile to see the results, but Iowa signed ESPN 300 offensive lineman David Davidkov in this 2021 cycle. He’s the No. 244 recruit overall and he’s 6-foot-5, 290 pounds. Davidkov is widely regarded as an elite offensive line prospect and the Hawkeyes have had quite a bit of success with their recruits along the offensive line. It’s not the flashy position group, but Davidkov could be a solid anchor on the line in the future for Iowa and considering the staff signed three other offensive line recruits, including ESPN 300 guard Connor Colby, this could be a class to remember at the position. — VanHaaren
Oregon is starting to turn into a factory for head coaches. A year after losing offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo to UNLV, defensive coordinator Andy Avalos jumped to become the head coach at Boise State, which led coach Mario Cristobal to hire Cal’s Tim DeRuyter to handle the defense. DeRuyter, the former Fresno State head coach, helped transform Cal into one of the toughest defenses in the Pac-12 and could end up proving to be an upgrade than his predecessor. — Bonagura
The Huskies’ biggest score in their incoming recruiting class is quarterback Sam Huard, the nation’s top-ranked quarterback. The son of former UW quarterback Damon Huard, he has the profile of a player who could step into the starting lineup on Day 1, but faces an interesting competition with Dylan Morris, who was solid as a freshman starter in 2020. — Bonagura
The Irish are bringing in some top-end talent in recruiting, including ESPN 300 quarterback Tyler Buchner, tight end Cane Berrong and some excellent linemen and are even bringing in Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan at quarterback. But the most intriguing newcomer is a coach instead of a prospect. Adding Marcus Freeman at defensive coordinator to replace Clark Lea was an important addition for Brian Kelly’s staff. Freeman has had a lot of success at Cincinnati, is a younger coach and an excellent recruiter. He has ties or experience recruiting in most of the areas Notre Dame recruits and he should be able to help elevate the recruiting efforts. On top of that, the defense on the field should be in good hands considering what Freeman was able to do at Cincinnati. — VanHaaren
Coach Dan Mullen has been doing work in signing a multitude of transfers who could make an impact, including a major area of need along the defensive line in tackles Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn). Perhaps the biggest newcomer to watch is cornerback Jason Marshall, the top-rated recruit the Gators signed in the 2021 class. An ESPN 300 prospect, Marshall fills a major need in the secondary. It is no secret that Florida struggled on defense a year ago, especially against the pass – ranking No. 100 in the nation in passing yards allowed – so an influx of young talent at the position will be hugely beneficial. — Andrea Adelson
The Badgers boast massive levels of returning production on both sides of the ball, but they do have a hole to fill at left tackle. And while losing a player as good as Cole Van Lanen would be a concern for just about any team, right tackle Tyler Beach is back, and Wisconsin has over a half-ton of recent blue-chippers who will vie to replace Van Lanen. Former star recruits Logan Brown (2019 class) and Jack Nelson (2020) each saw a few snaps last fall, but three more towering four-stars — Nolan Rucci, Riley Mahlman and J.P. Benzschawel — signed on in Paul Chryst’s most recent recruiting class. Whoever ends up lining up on the outside of the Badger line will have massive upside. — Connelly
Maryland graduate transfer Chance Campbell can’t get on Ole Miss’ campus soon enough. He will almost certainly be the Rebels’ starter at middle linebacker next fall, and it goes without saying they need more playmakers on defense. The 6-3, 235-pound Campbell provides that after leading the Terps with 43 total tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in just four games last season. An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection a year ago, Campbell finished 12th among FBS players with an average of 11 tackles per game. Campbell will graduate from Maryland in May with a degree in finance and will have two years of eligibility remaining at Ole Miss. — Chris Low
The return of Levi Lewis was huge. With an extra year of eligibility, coach Billy Napier believes he can become an NFL-caliber quarterback. But don’t sleep on the addition of LeGendre. He may only provide depth in 2021, but he’s the future of the position. The former four-star prospect originally signed with Maryland, where he appeared in six games and made one start over the last two seasons before transferring. Returning to his home state of Louisiana, he’ll garner plenty of attention whenever he sees the field. — Scarborough
20. LSU Tigers: Defensive coordinator Daronte Jones
The offense wasn’t the problem for the Tigers last season. The defense was. The grand Bo Pelini experiment failed spectacularly and was met with a thorough house-cleaning on the coaching staff. Hiring Andre Carter to coach the defensive line and Blake Baker to coach linebackers was big, but no personnel move was bigger than bringing in former Minnesota Vikings assistant Daronte Jones as defensive coordinator. Jones has significant ties to the state of Louisiana, which will certainly help in recruiting, but more significant is his expertise coaching the secondary, which was routinely out of position and clearly lacked direction last season. If he can revamp the secondary quickly – and he certainly has a star to build around in Derek Stingley – then we could see LSU turn things around after an abysmal 2020 season. — Scarborough
Like former teammate Billy Bowman Jr., now at Oklahoma, Ja’Tavion Sanders has both offensive and defensive coaches clamoring for him. As a senior at Denton (TX) Ryan, he caught 63 passes for 1,161 yards and 16 TDs, becoming social-media famous for his one-handed catches. But as a junior, the 6-4, 220-pounder had 11 sacks, 24 pressures and 20 tackles for loss as a defensive end. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian — an intriguing newcomer in his own right — said Sanders obviously has ability at both tight end and defensive end, but he’ll evaluate the roster in the spring, then when Sanders arrives in the summer, he’ll have a better idea of how he’ll be utilized. “I’m not discounting that he won’t have a role on both sides of the ball,” Sarkisian said in his signing day press conference. — Wilson
James Franklin took one of the boldest risks of his PSU tenure when he fired offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca after one season and replaced him with former Texas and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator (and, in between, Ohio State passing game coordinator) Mike Yurcich. The Ciarrocca offense improved late in the year, and Ciarrocca himself tends to grow into jobs pretty well, improving each year. But with elite college football being ruled by the more vertical, high-upside and occasionally high-tempo offense Yurcich oversees, PSU is swinging big. How much can quarterback Sean Clifford’s output improve in a single offseason? Do receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington and tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson give Yurcich the upside and verticality he needs in his receiving corps? — Connelly
No one player is going to replace Tarron Jackson, who earned All-America honors last season and heads to the NFL as Coastal Carolina’s all-time sacks leader. But the Chanticleers will be looking for disrupters off the edge in 2021, and one of the new faces to watch is Georgia Tech transfer Emmanuel Johnson. The 6-6, 265-pound defensive end played in seven games last season as a freshman for the Yellow Jackets and has shown enough during spring practice with the Chants that coaches think he can make an impact next season as both a pass-rusher and run-stopper. The other transfer to watch is Tre’ Douglas, who comes over from Vanderbilt and will push for a starting safety spot. — Low
The Flames hope Utah transfer TJ Green will bolster an already potent rushing attack that ranked ninth nationally a year ago with an average of 252.3 yards per game. Green, a 6-foot, 205-pound redshirt junior, is a do-it-all running back capable of catching the ball out of the backfield, pass protecting, making defenders miss in space and getting the tough yards. He’s also a mid-term enrollee and will benefit from spring practice. Originally from Chandler, Arizona, Green sat out last season after playing in 25 games during the 2018 and 2019 seasons at Utah. He wound up getting stuck behind Zack Moss on the Utes’ depth chart. A state champion in the 110-meter high hurdles in high school, Green should be a nice complement to returnees Joshua Mack and Shedro Louis, not to mention quarterback Malik Willis, who led Liberty in rushing last season with 944 yards and 14 touchdowns. — Low
Manny Diaz revamped his entire defensive coaching staff in the offseason, and will now call plays on defense in 2021. It should help that he just signed the top players in Miami-Dade Broward counties. Defensive tackle Leonard Taylor, No. 6 in the ESPN 300, is the highest rated defensive lineman the Hurricanes have ever signed, from Miami Palmetto. Miami is in need of a disruptive presence on the interior of the defensive line, and Taylor will certainly have the opportunity to prove himself. He will not arrive until the summer, so his progression in the weight room and practice will go a long way toward determining what type of impact he will have right away. Then there is James Williams, an ESPN 300 safety from Fort Lauderdale. Williams won’t be there until the summer, either, but there is large significance to the Hurricanes bringing in the top recruits in their area in the hopes of building a championship team