The start of the 2021 college football season is a little over two months away, but it’s never too soon to get reacquainted with some of the players that will be in the spotlight.
Here’s a look at three running backs and three edge rushers that opponents will need to game plan for every week. As a bonus, we’ve identified two potential breakout players at each position:
Breece Hall, Iowa State
2020 Stats: 279 carries, 1,572 yards, 5.6 Y/C, 21 TDs, 23 receptions, 180 yards, 2 TDs
Breece Hall was one of the best running backs in the country last season as he helped Iowa State to its first-ever Big 12 Conference Championship berth. Heading into the 2020 season, most eyes were on star Cyclone QB Brock Purdy. After a slow start to the season, it was Hall who helped the Cyclones get back on track thanks to some huge performances. In fact, Hall only had three games out of 12 in 2020 in which he did not rush for over 100 yards. Despite not being the flashiest player out of the backfield, Hall excels due to his ability to create separation from defenders and be a great runner downhill, especially at his size (6-1). He was a first-team All-American a year ago, and it would not be surprising if he garners even more attention this upcoming season as Iowa State looks to build off of a successful 2020 campaign.
Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota
2020 Stats: 201 carries, 1,076 yards, 5.4 Y/C, 15 TDs, 8 receptions, 56 YARDS
Despite Minnesota only playing seven games in 2020, Ibrahim was still one of the best running backs in the country while eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in his career. Minnesota struggled immensely last season with a 2-5 record and both Rashod Bateman and Tanner Morgan having down years in comparison to their 2019 campaigns; however, Ibrahim was one of the bright spots for this team, and he truly was a workhorse despite not playing in as many games as some of the other top running backs in the nation. In fact, Ibrahim received almost 29 carries a game, which could be the formula for Minnesota once again if the passing game does not get back to what it once was. Sometimes, the best defense is a good running game that is able to chew ample amounts of time off the clock while also giving the defense a much-needed rest. Ibrahim should be somebody that a defense has to worry about game in and game out due to his ability to grind out teams with his toughness and strength.
Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma
2019 Stats: 155 carries, 1,011 yards, 6.5 Y/C, 6 TDs, 10 receptions, 79 yards
Despite opting out in 2020, Kennedy Brooks should still be one of the best running backs heading into the 2021 season due to the system he is in along with his resume. He was extremely productive in his first two seasons at Oklahoma even when he wasn’t the only running back getting a lot of carries. Although Brooks lacks the proficiency out of the backfield, he will certainly be a welcome addition for a team that lost multiple running backs to either the draft or through the transfer portal this past offseason. Furthermore, fans saw an evolution in QB Spencer Rattler as the season progressed due to a strong running game, so Brooks should be somebody who helps Rattler to get to an even higher level this season. He would’ve been the go-to back a year ago, and that shouldn’t change in 2021.
Tank Bigsby, Auburn
2020 Stats: 138 carries, 834 yards, 6.0 Y/C, 5 TDs, 11 receptions, 84 yards, 300 KR yards
Tank Bigsby is a player that should be well-known in the ranks of college football going into this season. After winning SEC Freshman of the Year in 2020, many people are extremely high on Bigsby going into this season. Bigsby certainly lived up to his first name in 2020 as he was incredibly difficult to bring down, breaking .34 tackles per attempt according to PFF. With Auburn heading in a new direction with head coach Bryan Harsin, he may look to the sophomore back to alleviate some of the pressure from junior QB Bo Nix. Boise State produced a plethora of NFL running backs under Harsin (Alexander Mattison and Jeremy McNichols, for example), which should certainly make Bigsby a name to watch moving forward.
Tyler Allgeier, BYU
2020 Stats: 150 carries, 1,130 yards, 7.5 Y/C, 13 TDs, 14 receptions, 174 yards
The star of the show for the BYU Cougars in 2020 was QB Zach Wilson, and for good reason. He had a very good season that helped him become the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. Next season may be a little bit different for BYU football, especially after losing offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes to Baylor this offseason. With redshirt-sophomore Jaren Hall projected to be the next starting QB at BYU, the Cougars may shift to more of a run-first offense in order to ease the quarterback into the flow of the offense. Allgeier was a former off-ball linebacker at BYU prior to 2020, so he boasts high intelligence for how a defense prepares against the run. This should help him to have an even bigger year in 2021 and to be one of the biggest names outside of the Power Five at the running back position.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
2020 Stats: 38 total tackles, 23 solo tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, 3 PDs
One of the biggest names in college football, especially in regards to the 2022 NFL Draft, is Kayvon Thibodeaux from Oregon. The former number-one recruit in the class of 2019 has been an absolute difference maker for Oregon these past two seasons, and he offers a diverse skill set that makes him the clear best defensive player heading into this season. Not only can Thibodeaux get after the quarterback (18 quarterback pressures combined in two Pac-12 Championship appearances), but he is also somebody who has shown an ability to drop back into coverage (six pass breakups in his first two seasons). Thibodeaux has the chance to create havoc whenever he is in the game, and he is somebody that you have to game plan for or else a whole offense can stall. Thibodeaux has the speed and frame to make him somebody who will have experts and fans alike gushing over him in 2021.
DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M
2020 Stats: 37 total tackles, 18 solo tackles, 7.0 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 4 PDs
Despite not having the speed or quickness that Thibodeaux exhibits off the edge, DeMarvin Leal is certainly an impressive player off the edge at 290 pounds. He is a player who can use his length to break up passes at the line of scrimmage and make it even tougher for offenses to get into the flow of the game. He is a powerful player who is extremely difficult to block. He also flashes a lot of potential in pursuit as he was able to make it difficult for teams to get their short passing game going when they were playing Texas A&M in 2020. Jimbo Fisher certainly has a player who should help to make this defense one of the better units in the SEC this upcoming season.
Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma
2020 Stats: 32 total tackles, 18 solo tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 8.0 sacks, 2 PDs
Nik Bonitto could very well be the best pure pass rusher on this list when considering how effective he was off the edge in 2020, as he recorded 8 sacks. Bonnito is a player that has a ton of quickness thanks to his smaller frame. This makes him extremely versatile and difficult to contain, as he can use his speed to win in different ways against the offensive tackles in the Big 12. Bonitto is a huge reason for Oklahoma’s defense continually improving under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch as the Sooners attempt to prove they are not just an offensive juggernaut in the conference. He is certainly a player to watch, especially since Oklahoma will be looking to bounce back after an uncharacteristic 2020 season (Oklahoma still managed to win the Cotton Bowl despite losing two games early in the season). With the Sooners losing a player like Ronnie Perkins to the draft, it will be up to Bonitto to handle the bulk of the attention heading into this season. Based on his resume (second-team All-American in 2020 by the Associated Press), Bonitto is somebody who is fully capable of dealing effectively with this added pressure.
Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
2020 Stats: 31 total tackles, 22 solo tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 7.0 sacks, 5 PDs
Myjai Sanders is already one of the best edge defenders in the American Athletic Conference, but he has a chance to breakout on a national level this season, especially after Cincinnati came extremely close to defeating Georgia in the Peach Bowl last season. Sanders is one of the longer players one will see coming off the edge, and he certainly uses that to his advantage in breaking up passes at the line of scrimmage while also disrupting run plays consistently. With Cincinnati projected to be one of the better Group of Five teams again this season, Sanders will be in the spotlight early and often, especially if he can improve upon his great 2020 season.
George Karlaftis, Purdue
2020 Stats: 4 total tackles, 3 solo tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks
George Karlaftis would have hit the national spotlight had his 2020 season not gotten derailed by COVID and injuries. Despite only playing in three games last season, Karlaftis was still able to make second-team All-Big Ten, which speaks to how impactful he is as a pass rusher. Despite Purdue not being projected to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten, Karlaftis could still help to make this team relevant thanks to his ability to get after the quarterback and be a general matchup nightmare. Moreover, he is another player that is able to use his size and length to break up passes, which is huge considering the talent at QB in the Big Ten this season. This is certainly somebody who can change the flow of a game with impactful plays.
Sources: PFF, Football-Reference, and 247 Sports