While Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons both opted out of last season due to concerns over the pandemic, there were still plenty of players from both of these position groups that gave their teams plenty of production. While players like Tulsa LB Zaven Collins, Virginia Tech OT Christian Darrisaw and Missouri LB Nick Bolton played and then became 2021 NFL draft picks, there are plenty of quality players at these positions returning. Here are the top three players at the offensive tackle and linebacker positions as well as two potential breakout players in both of these position groups:
Thayer Munford, Ohio State
Career: 46 games played, 33 games started
Ohio State came oh, so close to getting back to the top of the college football world last season, and a lot of it had to do with the tremendous play from its offensive line. One of its top contributors, left tackle Thayer Munford, is back for his senior season. In 2020, Munford had a PFF grade of 91.8. This was the fourth-highest among offensive tackles in the FBS last season as well as the highest grade of a returning offensive tackle. Munford has been a key contributor to the Buckeyes’ offensive line since the first day he stepped onto the gridiron. In fact, Munford was a huge reason for Ohio State finishing the 2019 season fourth in yards per game nationally (529.9) and third nationally in points per game (46.9). He has incredible intelligence at the next level and a knack for being in the right place at the right time in order to make a key block for his teammates. He should be a huge reason projected starting QB C.J. Stroud won’t have to worry about pressure coming from his blindside.
Evan Neal, Alabama
Career: 26 games played, 26 games started
Alabama has been known for having tremendous offensive linemen. Whether it was Landon Dickerson or Jedrick Wills, Alabama has always been able to put their offensive linemen in the best positions to succeed. Evan Neal is another player who will join this conversation. Neal has versatility that you love from an offensive lineman as he has played right tackle and left guard through his first two seasons with the Crimson Tide. Furthermore, Neal brings a physicality to the position that makes him extremely difficult to take advantage of, especially in a conference as strong as the SEC. His frame and size certainly play a role in his physicality as Neal is listed at 6-7, 360 pounds. The junior was a part of an offensive line in 2020 that only gave up 11 sacks on the season for an average of 1.46 sacks per game (25th in the country for the 2020 season). Neal will have big shoes to fill as he is projected to move over to left tackle for this season and will be taking over for 2021 first round pick Alex Leatherwood. Knowing Neal’s resume, it seems like this switch will go flawlessly.
Jack Snyder, San Jose State
Career: 45 games played, 40 games started
One of the best offensive linemen from the Group of Five conferences in 2020 was San Jose State left tackle Jack Snyder. Not only is he capable of playing both tackle positions, but he has also been on an upward trajectory since he first received playing time. In his sixth year of eligibility due to the new eligibility rule implemented from the pandemic, Snyder is somebody that opposing defenses may have a tough time taking advantage of once again. Snyder was named PFF’s Mountain West Player of the Year for the 2020 season, and he is certainly building a lot of momentum for a team that was undefeated until the bowl game. Furthermore, Snyder has been praised for his prowess in all facets of blocking while also being a player who helped the Spartans to only give eight sacks a year ago. This was tied for the eighth-least amount of sacks allowed in the FBS last season. With Nick Starkel back under center, it will be up to Snyder to continue playing superb football in order to get San Jose State back into the spotlight for the 2021 season.
Courtland Ford, USC
Career: 1 game played, 1 game started
A year ago, USC had one of the best offensive linemen in the country at its disposal in the form of Alijah Vera-Tucker. AVT was a versatile player who played so well at USC that he was able to get taken at 14th overall in this year’s draft by the New York Jets; however, Vera-Tucker’s departure to the NFL left a huge hole at left tackle. Now, the projected starter is redshirt-freshman Courtland Ford who has only played in one game where he started at left guard against Washington State. Just because Ford has not played many games in his young career as a Trojan does not mean he won’t be able to contribute right away. Ford is currently listed at 6-5, 305 pounds, and his versatility should be of good use for a young USC offensive line this season. If he can play as well as he did in high school, USC could have a great player for the foreseeable future — Ford made all-state second team in his senior season for Cedar Hill High School in Texas.
Sam Vaughan, Miami-Ohio
Career: 6 games played, 0 games started
In 2020, Miami-Ohio had one of the biggest offensive linemen in the country in the form of Tommy Doyle; however, Doyle was another player who was selected in this year’s draft. Now, the RedHawks of Miami-Ohio will be tasked with filling a huge hole at the left tackle position. Doyle’s replacement is currently projected to be redshirt-freshman Sam Vaughan. While Vaughan may lack the necessary experience to make him one of the better offensive linemen in the MAC like Doyle was in 2020, he certainly has the physical makeup to eventually look like a carbon copy of the new Bills offensive tackle. Vaughan is currently listed at 6-7, 306 pounds, and he should be somebody that will get better as he gets more reps at the left tackle position. While it may be a rough start due to his inexperience, Vaughan could eventually grow into a player that opposing defenses will have a tough time getting past by the middle to end of this upcoming season.
Grant Morgan, Arkansas
2020 Stats: 111 total tackles, 40 solo tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PDs
Grant Morgan had an outstanding 2020 campaign where he posted a team-high 111 total tackles while also becoming the first Arkansas defensive player since Martrell Spaight in 2014 to earn All-SEC honors per both the Associated Press and the SEC coaches. Morgan was a tremendous leader under new head coach Sam Pittman, helping Arkansas to be more competitive in the SEC last season. The redshirt-senior was also named an All-American by Walter Camp and the AFCA, making him certainly a player that opposing offenses have to watch out for when playing the Razorbacks. Morgan accomplished all these honors while only being in his first year of starting. He is a player that flies all around the field, and he is fully capable of making big play after big play, particularly when dropping back into coverage. He has continually improved in the run game and should be in store for another big season with Arkansas while building upon an already incredible resume.
Micah McFadden, Indiana
2020 Stats: 58 total tackles, 44 solo tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 6.0 sacks, 2 INTs, 2 PDs
While not having nearly as many tackles as Grant Morgan had in 2020, Indiana senior linebacker Micah McFadden was a prolific player as a pass rusher as he became the first Indiana player to lead the Big Ten in sacks since 2007. This was a particularly impressive feat considering that McFadden is not an outside linebacker, but rather an inside linebacker who doesn’t have nearly as many opportunities to sack the quarterback. Furthermore, McFadden was also a player who could drop back into coverage and break up passes while also being a good pursuer who could make great plays in the run game. Indiana’s defense took a huge step up in its surge to one of the top teams in the country, and a lot of that can be attributed to the play of McFadden. He should be in store for yet another huge campaign if his resume is any indication. McFadden’s prowess as a pass rusher from the inside linebacker position should make him somebody that opposing offenses have to keep a close eye on or risk potentially having too many short possessions.
Terrel Bernard, Baylor
2020 Stats: 55 total tackles, 34 solo tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PDs
Terrel Bernard has been on an upward trajectory ever since he was tabbed to be the replacement for Clay Johnston in 2019 after Johnston’s season was cut short due to an ACL tear. In fact, Bernard was set to have his best season yet before a shoulder injury cut his season short after just five games. When one talks about a player who can make plays no matter where the offensive player is on the field, Bernard should be in that discussion. In fact, Bernard has already had two games with 19 total tackles the past two seasons, which are the most by any Baylor player since 2011. Baylor’s defense was a bright spot in 2020 under new head coach Dave Aranda, and Terrel Bernard had a lot to do with that. Bernard and teammate Jalen Pitre led the Bears to having one of the premier linebacker corps in the Big 12 conference. The senior’s hustle and motor have been a huge reason for Baylor being able to get timely spots as he is excellent in pursuit when the quarterback is able to scramble out of the pocket. He was able to make second team All-Big 12 despite only playing in five games, and he should be in for a bigger campaign in 2021 if he is able to stay healthy.
Jeremiah Gemmel, North Carolina
2020 Stats: 78 tackles, 50 solo tackles, 6.0 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PDS, 1 FF
Even though 2021 Minnesota Vikings third-round pick Chazz Surratt garnered a lot of the attention on North Carolina’s defense, Jeremiah Gemmel is a leader who has put together some terrific seasons the past two years. Now that Surratt is at the next level, Gemmel is in a fantastic position to break out and become one of the best linebackers in the ACC. Gemmel has been one of the leaders on UNC’s defense in part due to his ability to read holes properly and his motor around the field. Moreover, Gemmel is a sure tackler who makes sure that he is able to bring down opposing players before they can create a big play that could keep UNC’s defense on the field longer. Gemmel was voted a team captain in 2020, which proves that his character is huge for UNC being one of the top programs out of the ACC. North Carolina should be in store for another big season in 2021 with elevated expectations. Gemmel is certainly a player that everybody needs to be aware of when the Tar Heels take the field.
Edefuan Ulofoshio, Washington
2020 Stats: 47 total tackles, 31 solo tackles, 1.0 TFLs, 1.0 sack, 4 PDs, 1 FF, 2 FRs
Although the Washington Huskies will have to replace a number of players on their defense this upcoming season, redshirt-sophomore linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio should help immensely to ensure that head coach Jimmy Lake’s defense is one of the premier defenses out of the Pac-12. According to Pro Football Focus, since 2019, Ulofoshio has compiled a grade above 82.0 in the run game, as a pass rusher, and when dropping back into coverage despite only having seven career starts. Moreover, Ulofoshio has a missed tackle rate of 5.4%, which is the third-best rate for linebackers in the Power Five conferences. Defenses cannot afford to take this player lightly or the whole flow of an offense can get disrupted. Ulofoshio has been a tremendous story for the Washington Huskies as he was a two-star recruit who has managed to become one of the better players on Washington’s defense. The next chapter of his story should be even better than the last if his past is any indication.
Sources: PFF, Team Sites, OurLads