In 2020, players like DeVonta Smith, Patrick Surtain, and Jaycee Horn among many others were must-see TV at their respective programs. Each of these players were selected in the first round of this year’s draft for a reason. The second installment of The 33rd Team’s 2021 College Football Players to Watch will focus on the wide receiver and cornerback positions. Along with the top-three players at both of these positions, we will also be including two players who could break out into the national spotlight in 2021.
1. Chris Olave, Ohio State
2020 Stats: 50 REC, 729 YDS, 14.6 Y/R, 7 TDS
Despite only playing in seven games in 2020 due to the Big Ten opting back into the season late, Chris Olave was one of the hardest players to match up with in 1-1 coverage last season. In fact, only two teams were able to keep Olave under 100 yards receiving in 2020 (Rutgers and Alabama). Still, Olave had at least five receptions in every game and totaled over 60 receiving yards in every game. Even when Olave was not having his most productive game, he was still able to find a way to make an impact. He has solid run after the catch ability and knows how to create a lot of separation from his defenders while also boasting good instincts to read zone coverages. He has the ability to take the top off of the defense while also being exceedingly effective in short to intermediate receptions. Ohio State will be relying heavily on Olave and Garrett Wilson to make huge plays this upcoming season as they look to usher in a new quarterback after Justin Fields left for the NFL.
2. Justyn Ross, Clemson
2019 Stats: 66 REC, 865 YDS, 13.1 Y/R, 8 TDS
Justyn Ross did not play a single snap in 2020 after it was discovered that he had a congenital fusion condition of his neck and spine; however, Ross is a player that you have to game plan for every single week due to his rare combination of size, speed, and athleticism. Although his sophomore year was a slight downgrade from his true freshman season, Ross was still able to have a good season, compiling 865 yards and 8 touchdowns on 66 catches. There was a clear reason why teams had an extremely difficult time covering both him and Tee Higgins in 2018 and 2019. With new QB D.J. Uiagalelei starting under center in 2021, Ross will look to become his security blanket in a new era for Clemson football. If he can show that he is still every bit of the player that he was in 2018, then Ross should be one of the best receivers in college football this upcoming season.
3. John Metchie III, Alabama
2020 Stats: 55 REC, 916 YDS, 16.7 Y/R, 6 TDS
Heading into the 2020 season, John Metchie III was expected to be Alabama’s primary third option after Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. He only had 4 receptions for 23 yards in 2019, and he was a relatively unknown player. But the Crimson Tide needed a player to step up in the absence of Jaylen Waddle, and Metchie did not disappoint as he quickly became one of the better up-and-coming receivers in the SEC. Including the matchup against Tennessee where Waddle suffered his ankle injury, Metchie totaled 41 receptions for 568 yards and 3 touchdowns. In his first full year of play, and dealing with an all-conference schedule nonetheless, these were important numbers that helped Alabama to make another National Championship run. Coming into this season, Metchie is the clear No. 1 option for Alabama, and he will not have to compete for targets with Smith and Waddle. He has the deep threat ability to help Alabama continue to assert its dominance over the SEC, which should make him one of the best receivers in the country in 2021.
1. Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama
2020 Stats: 64 REC, 1,085 YDS, 17.0 YDS, 8 TDS
Jalen Tolbert had a great campaign that flew wildly under the radar in 2020. He is a player who is going to be extremely difficult to contain thanks to the variety of ways that he can beat coverage. Averaging 17 yards per reception, Tolbert proved that he was incredibly useful in taking the top off defenses, while also doubling as a trustworthy option over the middle. There aren’t many teams in the Sun Belt who can defend Tolbert well, and he certainly has a chance to prove himself against teams like Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, and Tennessee this year. Furthermore, Tolbert should be able to have an even better season this year as he is the clear No. 1 option, like Metchie, with teammate Kawaan Baker getting drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 2021.
2. David Bell, Purdue
2020 Stats: 53 REC, 625 YDS, 11.8 Y/R, 8 TDS
David Bell is a player who should have more recognition from college football fans at this point. He is not nearly as flashy as Arizona Cardinal second-round pick Rondale Moore, but Bell is certainly a player who brings a ton of consistency to the Boilermakers. He was a 1,000 yard receiver in his freshman season for a reason, and he is certainly somebody that defenses need to account for this upcoming season. He was a first team All-Big Ten in 2020, and he should be in the national spotlight more this season thanks to his physicality and his ability to make tough catches against 1-on-1 coverage or over the middle. This is somebody who will be able to make Purdue competitive on the offensive side of the ball.
1. Derek Stingley Jr, LSU
2020 Stats: 27 total tackles, 19 solo tackles, 2.5 TFLS, 5 PDS, 1 FF, 1 FR
2020 was not nearly as good of a year as it was in 2019 for the Louisiana State University Tigers. This team has a chance to rebound from a rough campaign in 2021, however, especially on the defensive side of the ball. This is due to star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Wearing the number seven jersey, Stingley is a high character player who will be the leader of LSU this upcoming season. He was a huge reason for the 2019 LSU Tigers being one of the best teams in the 2010s, even if the offensive side of the ball garnered more of the spotlight. As a freshman, Stingley showed that he had a nose for the ball as he had 21 pass breakups to go with 6 interceptions. Stats like these were a huge reason for Stingley being a consensus All-American and the 2019 SEC Newcomer of the Year. Last year, Stingley wasn’t nearly as prolific from a statistical standpoint, but he still left his mark on opposing offenses. He is somebody that quarterbacks do not want to go after too many times, as he will make them pay. Moreover, he is somebody that should elevate LSU past its struggles from a year ago and will most likely be a high pick in next year’s draft.
2. Kaiir Elam, Florida
2020 Stats: 39 total tackles, 28 solo tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 INTS, 13 PDS, 1 FR
Kaiir Elam is another SEC corner who should be one of the best in the country. If the Elam last name sounds familiar, it is due to the fact that Elam’s uncle, Matt, was a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. Additionally, Kaiir’s father, Abram, played seven seasons in the NFL. Kaiir Elam may very well be the best player out of the three. After a solid freshman season, Elam broke out in 2020, helping Florida to rank seventh in the country in scoring defense (15.5 PPG). Elam is a big corner at 6-2, and he uses his size effectively as he is a tremendous tackler in the open field. He can outmuscle nearly every wide receiver that he goes up against, which should make him a player that offenses need to watch when playing the Gators. Being in the SEC, Elam will see top talent almost every week at the receiver position. It did not stop him from having a great 2020 campaign, and it shouldn’t stop him this year if everything goes according to plan.
3. Tiawan Mullen, Indiana
2020 Stats: 38 total tackles, 27 solo tackles, 4.5 TFLS, 3.5 sacks, 3 INTS, 7 PDS, 1 FF
Tiawan Mullen had an outstanding 2020 season that saw him become the very first Indiana Hoosier to become a first team All-American from the cornerback position while also being the first IU corner to make first team All-Big Ten since 2007. Despite being only 5-10, Mullen still has the ability to get physical with receivers in order to break up passes while also being a sure tackler. Another thing that makes Mullen stand out in comparison with some of the other corners in this article is his ability to get after opposing quarterbacks. He had 3.5 sacks in 2020 due to the way that Indiana’s coaching staff was able to utilize his great tackling ability. This will certainly make him a player that offenses have to keep an eye on in 2021, especially with the Hoosiers expected to be a top-25 team once again. Although Michael Penix Jr. and the IU offense may garner a lot of the national spotlight, it is Mullen and the defense that may help to take this team to a higher level than it reached last year if he is able to replicate his 2020 performance.
1. D’Jordan Strong, Coastal Carolina
2020 Stats: 30 total tackles, 23 solo tackles, 2.0 TFLS, 5 INTS, 12 PDS, 1 FF, 1 TD
Coastal Carolina is projected to be a top 25 team for the second consecutive year, and one of the players to keep an eye on is cornerback D’Jordan Strong, who should be in a great position to break into the national spotlight thanks to his great 2020 season. After transferring from Northeast Mississippi Community College, Strong was able to elevate the Chanticleers’ defense into one of the best in the Sun Belt Conference. This helped him to earn Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year and first team All-Sun Belt honors in 2020. After an exceptional campaign and another year of development, it would not be surprising to see Strong help CCU to do even better this season thanks to a physical style that makes him one of the best shutdown corners in the Sun Belt.
2. Coby Bryant, Cincinnati
2020 Stats: 35 total tackles, 31 solo tackles, 1.0 TFL, 4 INTS, 11 PDS, 1 FF
While his teammate Sauce Gardner may garner most of the attention in the secondary for the Cincinnati Bearcats this upcoming season, Coby Bryant certainly has a great chance to become one of the better corners in the nation. Bryant was a first team All-AAC selection, and his talent was evident with his huge performance in the Peach Bowl against Georgia – Bryant had 3 tackles and a huge interception while also ensuring that Georgia’s offense was stalled for the majority of the game. He has tremendous athleticism for the cornerback position, and he should be a huge reason for Cincinnati being a top team in America once again. Bryant will be a huge leader in the locker room for this team as the Bearcats look to avenge a tough loss to Georgia last season.
Stats from: Sports-Reference