The college football world was put on notice in 2020 with Kyle Pitts’ electric campaign, helping him become the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft — the highest a tight end has ever selected. Meanwhile, Trevon Moehrig became the second safety in the past two years to win the Jim Thorpe Award. With both of these fantastic players off to the next level, it is time for a new crop of players to shine this upcoming season. In addition to discussing the top three players at the tight end and safety positions, we will also discuss two potential breakout candidates.
Charlie Kolar, Iowa State
2020 Stats: 44 REC, 591 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 7 TDS
Charlie Kolar was certainly a player who had a good enough resume to be selected with a high pick in this year’s draft. He had already been an All-American twice, a Mackey Award finalist and a first-team All-Big 12 tight end; however, he decided to return to Iowa State, where he will easily be a player that defenses have to account for in order to throw off the Cyclones’ rhythm. QB Brock Purdy has shown an inclination to target Kolar early and often, particularly in critical situations. This is due to Kolar’s size (6-6), but more specifically his incredible route running and instincts. He is a very intelligent tight end who knows how to read zones properly while also being able to use his size to wall off defenders and make difficult catches at the high point. Kolar has been on notice for the past two seasons, and Big 12 defenses have still had a difficult time containing, especially when it matters most. This should be a trend once again this season.
Trey McBride, Colorado State
2020 Stats: 22 REC, 330 YDS, 15.0 Y/R, 4 TDS
Trey McBride was another player who could have gone into this year’s draft but decided to return to school after a 2020 campaign that was only four games due to the pandemic. Many people believed going into the season that McBride had a legitimate shot to be one of the top three tight ends off the board in this year’s draft. Instead, McBride will look to improve and get back to his form prior to the shortened 2020 season. In 2019, McBride was a first-team all-Mountain West player, and there was a lot of hype about him going into 2020 – he was a preseason first team all-Mountain West along with making it onto the preseason Mackey Award watch list. Not only is McBride able to punish defenders with his size and contested catch ability, he also excels as a blocker and does a lot of the little things that are needed to help a team win. McBride is the security blanket for the CSU Rams, making more of an impact in any given game than in just the boxscore.
Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina
2020 Stats: 30 REC, 601 YDS, 20.0 Y/R, 5 TDS
While Grayson McCall and C.J. Marable garnered a lot of the attention for the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers on offense last season, tight end Isaiah Likely was also a huge reason why they were one of the top offenses in the country last season. Likely’s 2020 campaign was so impactful for the Chanticleers that he was voted a second-team All-American according to Pro Football Focus. The 6-4, 245-pound tight end runs routes like a wide receiver, which really helps to stretch the field offensively for the Chanticleers. Despite only being 245 pounds, Likely is hard to bring down, which makes him even more of a matchup nightmare. His speed is very difficult for secondaries in the Sun Belt Conference to contain, especially with his size. He is certainly a player that will be in the spotlight early and often as Coastal Carolina looks to build on its tremendous 2020 season.
E.J. Jenkins, South Carolina
2019 Stats: 39 REC, 779 YDS, 20.0 Y/R, 13 TDS *Transferred from St. Francis (Pa.)*
St. Francis (Pa.) transfer E.J. Jenkins was not a tight end at the FCS level, as he played wide receiver for the Red Flash. Despite only having 39 receptions in his last season of play, Jenkins flashed a lot of potential as he had 779 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019. A lot of this was due to the mismatch that Jenkins created with nearly every defensive back due to the fact that he is listed at 6-7. With South Carolina losing top wideout Shi Smith, the Gamecocks could be looking for a player to help keep some of the load off star running back Kevin Harris while also helping out the rest of their veteran receivers. Even though Jenkins will be playing in one of the best conferences in America, he will still be in a position to succeed thanks to his vertical threat ability, physicality and tremendous size for the position.
Ben Sims, Baylor
2020 Stats: 14 REC, 164 YDS, 11.7 Y/R, 3 TDS
Prior to missing the final two games due to injury, Baylor tight end Ben Sims looked like a potential spark plug for an offense that struggled for a plethora of reasons. Sims was the first Baylor tight end to have a touchdown since 2017 while also being the first tight end to have multiple touchdowns in a season since 2007. Despite only playing in six of nine games, Sims was still tied for the team lead in touchdowns with three. As long as Sims can stay healthy, he should be in line for a bigger role, especially if Baylor moves to more of a pass heavy offense under new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and projected signal caller Jacob Zeno. Sims flashed tremendous run after the catch ability along with being a strong vertical threat for Baylor that makes him a player who could help the Bears to not be as one-dimensional as they were a year ago.
Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
2020 Stats: 63 total tackles, 51 solo tackles, 4.5 TFLS, 1 INT, 7 PDS
Notre Dame had a tremendous season in 2020, as the Fighting Irish were able to make their second College Football Playoff appearance in the past three years. Notre Dame was also able to make headlines this past year in the ACC, and some of that had to do with the play of safety Kyle Hamilton. The junior safety certainly has great size for the position as he is currently listed at 6-4, but he also excels for the Irish due to his explosiveness. His speed and explosiveness are so impactful for the Fighting Irish that he has only given up three plays of 15 or more yards in his career at Notre Dame according to Pro Football Focus. With Notre Dame expected to be in the spotlight once again, there will be many opportunities for Hamilton to continue to get his name out there in order to build off a 2020 campaign that saw him become a first-team all-ACC selection and a third-team All-American. Notre Dame will be relying on Hamilton to be one of its leaders on defense to exceed expectations once again in 2021.
Brandon Joseph, Northwestern
2020 Stats: 52 total tackles, 28 solo tackles, 1.0 TFL, 6 INTS, 8 PDS
Northwestern had a tremendous defense a year ago, which helped to cause havoc on Ohio State QB Justin Fields in the Big Ten Championship Game. This game was regarded as Fields’ second-worst game of the season. Pat Fitzgerald’s ball club is expected to have another strong defense and a lot of that could be attributed to the expectations set for safety Brandon Joseph. Not only was Joseph a ball hawk in 2020, compiling six interceptions in nine games, he also gave up just one play of over 15 yards last season. This was absolutely huge for Northwestern in order to keep opposing offenses at bay. Joseph was a first-team All-American last season for good reason. With Northwestern expected to be a tough competitor once again in the Big Ten, Joseph will be tasked with being just as good in 2021 as he was in 2020 to ensure Northwestern is able to get back to the top of the conference. Joseph is versatile enough where Fitzgerald can get creative with him to throw off opposing offenses. He will be crucial in Northwestern exceeding expectations for this season.
Tre Sterling, Oklahoma State
2020 Stats: 74 total tackles, 51 solo tackles, 11.0 TFLS, .5 sacks, 2 INTS, 4 PDS, 2 FRS, 1 TD
Tre Sterling had the best year in his career with the Oklahoma State Cowboys in 2020 as he had 11.0 tackles for loss while also having four pass breakups to go with two interceptions. It is for this reason many people are expecting Sterling to have an even better year in 2021. Not only does Sterling show tremendous instincts and intelligence for the safety position, he also has the seventh most combined pass breakups and interceptions at safety with 14, per Pro Football Focus. An honorable mention All-Big 12 for the 2020 season, Sterling is regarded as one of the premier safeties in the Big 12. With Oklahoma State looking to take a step up from 2020, it will be up to Sterling to lead this defense to a new level after the Cowboys had a tough end of the season defensively.
Keon Voisin, South Alabama
2020 Stats: 12 total tackles, 9 solo tackles, 3 PDS, 1 FR
Despite not being projected as a starter currently, Keon Voisin is still expected to be a breakout player in the Sun Belt Conference due to his versatility. Per 247 Sports, Voisin is expected to play a number of roles for the Jaguars of South Alabama in 2021; he will not only be a safety, but he will also see time as a slot cornerback. Voisin was seen as a much improved player throughout the spring, setting him for potential success in 2021. Not only has Voisin’s versatility been a huge plus for the Jaguars, but he has also shown a huge improvement in his instincts. With South Alabama looking to build around some promising players this season, Voisin is another player that teams will need to watch out for.
Brandon Hill, Pittsburgh
2020 Stats: 27 total tackles, 17 solo tackles, 1.5 TFLS, 1 INT, 2 PDS, 2 FFS, 1 TD
After a tough 2020 season, the Pittsburgh Panthers lost two safeties by way of the NFL draft in Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford. This will open up plenty of opportunities for some new names to steal the spotlight as the Panthers look to get back to their former glory. One of the safeties to watch out for in 2021 is redshirt sophomore Brandon Hill. The 5-11, 195-pound safety from Apopka, Fla., only started two games in 2021, but he is currently projected to replace Ford at strong safety. Despite only starting two games, Hill still played in 10 out of Pitt’s 11 games in 2021, compiling 27 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for losses and an interception. Hill burst onto the scene in 2020 thanks to his performance against Florida State, a game that Pitt won by a score of 41-17, where Hill had eight tackles, a forced fumble and a pick six that helped to put the Seminoles away. He is a hard hitter who is able to put himself in the right place at the right time. For a Pitt team that lost a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball to the NFL, Hill will certainly have many opportunities to put his name out there.
Sources: Football-Reference, 247 Sports (Jags Jungle), Pro Football Focus