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College football’s most versatile players for 2021

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We generally talk about football players and positions in the simplest way possible. You’re a rushing quarterback (or maybe a “dual-threat”) or a pocket passer, a between-the-tackles runner or an all-purpose back, a wideout or a slot receiver, etc. Some of the most fun players in the sport, however, blur the lines, bringing unique skill sets to the table. The best coaches then figure out how to use those unique talents to great advantage.

For a given team, then, you might find a player or two who can create matchup advantages in a few different ways. They are worth watching and enjoying. So here’s a list of 50 college football Swiss army knives for 2021, broken into 10 different categories.

Good running QBs who can throw when they need to

Malik Willis, Liberty. Projected as a first-rounder by ESPN’s Todd McShay, Willis is the “it” QB of the moment. He certainly still needs to grow as a passer to live up to NFL hype, but he’s just about everything you could want from a college quarterback.

Willis completed 64% of his passes last year with a 20-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio, and he is hypnotic with his legs: not including 19 sacks, he rushed for 1,059 yards (8.7 per carry) and 14 TDs. He may be the single-most exciting quarterback in the country with his legs, and he has a cannon arm to boot.

Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina. Coastal went to a different level in 2020 in part because of McCall’s ability to not only fulfill his role in a delightful run game (9.1 non-sack rushes per game, 6.2 yards per carry) but also catch the Chanticleers back up to the chains when necessary (69% completion rate, 2,488 yards).

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA. Projected over 12 games, DTR’s per-game pace last year put him on track for nearly 2,700 passing yards and 900 non-sack rushing yards. He’s streaky and enigmatic, but when he’s dialed in he can do it all.

Hendon Hooker, Tennessee. The Virginia Tech transfer runs the ball on 25% of his snaps, and at 6.8 yards per carry, but for his career he’s also completed 63% of his passes with a 159.8 passer rating. Can Josh Heupel unlock his full potential?

Brennan Armstrong, Virginia. The junior easily led UVA in rushing last year, and while he was inconsistent through the air, he completed 65% of his passes for 270 yards per game during the Cavaliers’ four-game win streak late in 2020.

Good pocket passers who pick their spots well with their legs

Matt Corral, Ole Miss. Lane Kiffin’s latest protege almost runs too much to qualify for this list (9.4 non-sack rushes per game), but we’ll put him here because less than half of his rushes are designed — he mostly just scrambles really well. And when you throw for 334 yards per game with a 71% completion rate, your legs are forever going to be your secondary weapon.

Ole Miss is a fascinating team this year. Corral needs a new No. 1 receiver after slot man Elijah Moore’s departure for the New York Jets, but he’s still got Jonathan Mingo, Dontario Drummond and the absurdly explosive Braylon Sanders, and if you turn your back on him in man coverage, he’s going to steal 10 yards here and five yards there.

Tyler Shough, Texas Tech. His production at Oregon last year faded as the year went on, but his skill set is tantalizing: he completed 64% of his passes at 14.7 yards per completion, but he also ripped off runs of 33, 25, 24 and 23 yards over seven games. Can new Tech coordinator Sonny Cumbie unlock his full game?

Dustin Crum, Kent State. Crum completed 74% of his throws last year in Sean Lewis’ quick-passing attack, but not including three sacks he also ran the ball on 15% of his snaps, and with a 61% success rate. He keeps the Golden Flashes always moving forward, one way or another.

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma. He doesn’t run nearly as much (or as well) as predecessors Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts, choosing primarily to utilize the hand cannon attached to his right shoulder (3,031 yards, 68% completion rate as a redshirt freshman in 2020). But he still averages 4.9 yards per carry on the 9% of snaps he chooses to tuck and run.

Sam Howell, North Carolina. The 225-pounder does not shy away from contact and averages 6.1 yards on about five non-sack rushes per game. He might take on a heavier load in that regard with UNC replacing two stud RBs, but he’ll always be a passer first. He’s quite good at it.

Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan. Maybe the most watchable player in the MAC, Eleby completed 65% of his passes at more than 17 yards per completion, and he’s an automatic chains-mover in short-yardage situations, generating a 52% success rate over four to five carries per game.

Running backs who are dangerous in the passing game

Ainias Smith, Texas A&M. A&M’s new starting quarterback, presumably precocious freshman Haynes King, will have maybe the best group of RBs at his disposal, and in Smith, he’s also got a destructive slot receiver. King averaged 4.9 carries and 4.3 receptions per game for a combined 9.3 yards per touch and a touchdown per game.

Head coach Jimbo Fisher and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey lined Smith up nearly everywhere but right guard last year — of his 43 receptions, 67% came when he was lined up in the slot, while 21% came lined up wide, 9% out of the backfield and 2% in-line with the line. Isaiah Spiller is A&M’s primary running back, but the first thing opponents have to do is figure out where No. 0 is.

Calvin Turner, Hawaii. If you watched last year’s New Mexico Bowl, you know Turner’s name. The Jacksonville University transfer rushed 12 times for 60 yards, caught a 75-yard touchdown pass and returned a kickoff 92 yards for the game-clinching score in a 28-14 win over Houston. He averaged 9.4 yards per touch, and he’ll probably get a lot more touches this fall.

Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State. A freshman in 2020, Vaughn became an almost immediate household name in Big 12 country after catching four passes for 129 yards in an upset of Oklahoma. He ended up with three 100-yard rushing games and three 80-yard receiving games and averaged 7.3 yards per touch over nearly 15 touches per game.

Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech. The Tech offense remained a work in progress last year, but you couldn’t blame Gibbs. In seven games, the blue-chip freshman averaged 16 touches for 109 yards per game. Tech averaged 27 points per game when he played and 16 when he didn’t.

Kyren Williams, Notre Dame. The sophomore was both a load-carrying running back (more than 17 carries per game at 5.3 yards per carry) and a brilliant safety valve in 2020, catching 80% of his passes for a 63% success rate. He’s a great weapon for a new starting QB.

Wide receivers and tight ends who line up everywhere

WR Marvin Mims, Oklahoma. As a freshman, Mims quickly became the scariest weapon in an always-scary Sooner offense. He caught 37 passes for 610 yards and nine touchdowns, and he did it from everywhere: 51% of his receptions were from the slot, 46% from out wide and 3% in-line.

Mims and another line-him-up-everywhere weapon, tight end Austin Stogner, give the Sooners the ability to create endlessly problematic matchups for virtually any defense in the country. That’s a fun thing to have when you’ve also got a quarterback who can make every pass.

TE Josh Whyle, Cincinnati. Florida’s Kyle Pitts was almost the most perfectly versatile tight end college football has seen, and he’s an Atlanta Falcon now. The versatility mantel might go to Whyle, then — he’s not as explosive as Pitts, but he’s a guaranteed first down (73% success rate), and while he caught 54% of his passes in-line like a traditional TE, the other 46% came from everywhere else on the field.

WR Khalil Shakir, Boise State. BSU had to bounce between three quarterbacks in seven games last year, but they all had a star to work with out wide … or in the slot … or wherever. Shakir caught 52 passes for 719 yards — 44% from wide, 42% from the slot, 4% inline and even 10% from the backfield (where he also rushed 17 times for 148 yards). Watch this dude.

WR Jack Sorenson, Miami (Ohio). We only got to see the Redhawks three times in 2020, and that’s a damn shame because while the Miami offense wasn’t particularly consistent, it was crazy-explosive. Sorenson — 19.7 yards per catch, 56% from the slot, 39% from wide, 6% in-line — was the primary source of explosions.

WR Devon Williams, Oregon. The 6-5 former blue-chipper started as a backup last fall, then missed most of the last three games. But against UCLA and Oregon State he caught 10 passes for 224 yards, and his damage was distributed almost equally between the slot and wide positions. Hopefully we’ll see a lot more of Williams in 2021.

Blockers who dominate against run and pass

OT Jaxson Kirkland, Washington. Even as more charting data comes available, it remains difficult to properly evaluate offensive linemen, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that this is probably good: In four games and 256 snaps, the 6-7 senior from Portland, Oregon, was credited by Stats Info Solutions with zero sacks allowed, zero pressures allowed and zero blown run blocks.

The Huskies might be a little light on known play-makers in 2021, but quarterback Dylan Morris and the Husky attack are blessed with the most mistake-free line in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country, and Kirkland is one hell of an anchor.

OT Jack Snyder, San Jose State. In playing with blocking data, I’ve generally derived that if your rate of blown run blocks is under 1% and your pressure rate allowed is under 2%, you’re probably good at your job. Snyder: 0.0% blown block rate, 0.6% pressure rate allowed. It probably goes without saying that he was first-team all-Mountain West.

OG Andrew Vorhees, USC. Vorhees was overshadowed a bit by battery mate Alijah Vera-Tucker, now a New York Jet, but the Trojans’ three-year starting guard returned from a 2019 ankle injury to produce a 0% blown run-block rate and 0.4% pressure rate. He starts at guard, but USC makes him available as a tackle, too.

OG Ed Ingram, LSU. A part-time starter during LSU’s 2019 national title run, Ingram stepped into the lineup full-time last fall and not only joined the 0% Blown Run Blocks club — maybe the most important thing for a guard — but also allowed only four pass pressures in 710 snaps.

C Jack Clement, Kent State. Granted, the Golden Flashes only played four games, but the senior recorded double-zeros — 0% blown run blocks, 0% pressures — for the most prolific scoring offense in the country. He and three all-conference teammates return up front.

Beefy dudes who can rush the passer

Demetrius Taylor, Appalachian State. Aside from the quarterback position, it’s hard to imagine too many players in this sport with more disruption potential than a 300-or-so pound tackle who can both blow up the interior of an offensive line with power and also shoot into the backfield with quickness.

Taylor might be the poster boy for this class of athlete in 2021. Signed as a 230-pound linebacker, the Miami native is now a 295-pound super senior who thrived in every possible way for the Mountaineers last year. He recorded 10 tackles for loss, made six run stuffs (stops at or behind the line) and, in 247 pass rush attempts, sacked the quarterback six times, recorded a 15% pressure rate — generally speaking, anything over about 9% is good for a defensive end — and forced 17 incompletions or interceptions. He’s a nightmare.

Jaxon Player, Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane have to replace one of the best players in college football in linebacker Zaven Collins, but they return one as well. Player, a 6’0, 290-pound bowling ball of fury, made 10 TFLs and 10 run stuffs and also sacked QBs three times with a 10% pressure rate and forced 13 INCs/INTs.

Brandon Dorlus, Oregon. Kayvon Thibodeaux may be the Oregon’s headliner up front — we’ll get to him — but Dorlus, listed at 295 pounds last year (he’s now at 285), is everywhere. He took part in 30 tackles in just 246 snaps (three were TFLs), and in 137 pass attempts he forced nine INCs/INTs and logged a 13% pressure rate, only one percentage point behind Thibodeaux.

Jaquelin Roy, LSU. LSU’s defense struggled in 2020, but you couldn’t blame Roy. In just 254 snaps, the 302-pound blue-chipper recorded two sacks, forced eight INCs/INTs and, with a 13% pressure rate, hinted at far more pass-rushing prowess in the future.

Dion Novil, North Texas. The senior from Abilene isn’t quite as prolific a pass rusher as the others in this section, but we’re grading on a sliding scale: he’s 6-4, 330. He made seven TFLs and 10 run stuffs and threw in 2.5 sacks with a 5% pressure rate to boot.

Strong pass rushers who disrupt the run, too

Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon. The No. 1 recruit in the ESPN 300 in 2019, Thibodeaux has lived up to every ounce of hype so far. His sack total dropped a bit last year — from nine in 14 games to three in seven — but his pressure rate actually increased, from 13% to 14%, and he both forced 13 incompletions and, per Sports Info Solutions, created the initial pressure on four of his teammates’ sacks.

Thibodeaux’s a pass-rushing load in all the ways a Jadeveon Clowney clone should be, but he also made six run stops and took part in over six tackles per game. He’s not just a pass rusher by any stretch of the imagination.

Khari Coleman, TCU. Listed at only 213 pounds in 2020 — as a defensive end! — Coleman earned Freshman All-American honors not because of his pass-rushing prowess (he had a decent three sacks and 8% pressure rate) but because no one could get a hand on him in the run game. He recorded 16 run stuffs, second in the Big 12 and fourth among all FBS D-linemen.

Cameron Thomas, San Diego State. Thomas is almost the perfect defensive end. He’s listed at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, and in eight games he produced a 14% pressure rate with four sacks and forced 13 incompletions. He’s also a sure tackler (94% tackle success rate last year) who has made 21 run stuffs in 21 games the last two years.

Amare Barno, Virginia Tech. Of the 724 defenders who recorded at least 400 snaps last year, no one produced a higher percentage havoc plays — TFLs, passes defensed, forced fumbles — per snap than Barno. The 6’6 converted linebacker led the Hokies with 6.5 sacks but also made 4.5 other TFLs and eight run stuffs.

Tre’Shaun Clark, Liberty. Undersized at 6-1, 235? Sure. But the sophomore from Cape Coral, Fla., is a pass-rushing ace (5.5 sacks, 13% pressure rate, 14 INCs/INTs created) who does almost as much damage against the run: he made 12 run stops and 20 overall tackles for zero yards or fewer last season.

Strong blitzers who can also beat you in coverage

S Jalen Pitre, Baylor. This is primarily a category for linebackers, but that just proves how much of a Swiss army knife the 6-foot, 197-pound nickelback prototype really is. The AP voted him first-team All-Big 12 as a safety, and Dave Campbell’s Texas Football named him first-team All-Texas as a linebacker. Just call him a play-maker.

In nine games last season, Pitre recorded eight tackles for loss and eight run stuffs and sacked the QB 2.5 times in just 43 pass rushes (pressure rate: 23%!). Meanwhile, in 12 passes as the primary defender in coverage he caught as many passes as the guy he was covering: two each. He was born to land on a list like this.

LB Darrian Beavers, Cincinnati. Strong blitzing? Check: Beavers had 2.5 sacks and a 13% pressure rate in 75 pass rushes last year. Coverage skills? Check: in 12 passes as the primary coverage guy, he allowed just four completions with two interceptions and allowed a raw QBR of 1.5. (A reminder: QBR is on a scale of 0 to 100.)

LB D’Marco Jackson, Appalachian State. Taylor, Jackson and solid safety play gave App State one of the best defensive spines in the sport last year. Jackson plays whatever role he needs to play: he made 11 run stuffs, recorded a 36% pressure rate in 33 pass rushes (2.5 sacks) and, oh yeah, picked off two passes and broke up seven more. Goodness.

LB Shaka Heyward, Duke. Duke has some serious play-making talent to replace on defense in 2021, but the Blue Devils still have Heyward, at least, and he’ll play whatever role is required: he made 8 TFLs and eight run stuffs, had three sacks and a 19% pressure rate in 68 rushes and allowed a 6.3 QBR on 12 passes in primary coverage.

LB Payton Wilson, NC State. Wilson is basically a nickel back shaped like a small defensive end (6-4, 235). In 10 games he combined seven TFLs and seven run stuffs with 3.5 sacks and an 18% pressure rate, and while QBs targeted him quite a bit in pass coverage, that was a mistake: 22 pass attempts produced just 98 yards, two INTs and a QBR of 10.9.

Sticky pass defenders who are at home near the line of scrimmage

CB Tiawan Mullen, Indiana. The junior from Fort Lauderdale has been one of IU’s best players since he first set foot in Bloomington. In two years and 59 pass attempts against him, he has allowed just 21 completions to 17 interceptions or breakups.

Mullen’s listed at just 5-10, 175 pounds, but he plays like he’s 6-2, 200. He’s one of the more physical corners you’ll come across, and he’s more than happy to stick his nose in opponents’ business near the line of scrimmage. Seventeen of his 52 career tackles have come within three yards of the line of scrimmage, and seven were TFLs. He’s also one of the surest tacklers you’ll see: despite playing most of the time in wide open spaces, his tackle success rate is 89%. For DBs, anything over about 80% is quite good. He was a no-brainer All-American last season and will be a favorite to earn honors for a second time this fall.

FS Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame. One of the more renowned recruits of the Brian Kelly era, Hamilton fulfills two roles at once. Kelly’s defenses are typically predicated first around big-play prevention, and he’s quite strong at that in his free safety role (seven passes defensed last year). But he also recorded four TFLs, allowed only a 13.8 QBR as primary coverage guy and, in rare blitz opportunities, got home frequently: he recorded a 27% pressure rate and forced two INCs in 11 attempts.

FS Cedrick Cunningham, Army. The Black Knights had one of the most dynamic safety combos in the country last year in Cunningham and Marquel Broughton. The 215-pound Cunningham allowed a 14.6 QBR as primary coverage guy (10-for-23 for 99 yards and an INT), made six TFLs and six run stuffs and sacked the QB twice in just eight blitzes.

CB Roger McCreary, Auburn. The Auburn defense is in transition mode, with head coach Bryan Harsin bringing in coordinator Derek Mason and a truckload of transfers. The Tigers will have at least one constant, however, in McCreary, who managed to find time for four TFLs and three run stuffs while also picking off three passes and breaking up five more.

CB Jason Maitre, Boston College. BC head coach Jeff Hafley likes man coverage and physical corners, and he inherited a kindred spirit in Maitre. The junior from Orlando made five TFLs and got home twice in 12 blitz attempts, and he also allowed just a 47% completion rate and defensed six passes in coverage.

Good punters who are also good place-kickers

Cameron Dicker, Texas. We of course need to give special teamers some love here as well, and there’s no better place to start than with Dicker. The veteran made 15 field goals (five of 40+ yards) and was an automatic touchback on kickoffs (81% touchback rate). But then he took over punting duties late in 2020 and thrived at that, too: he averaged 43.6 yards per kick and a 43.4 net average. Only one of his eight punts was returnable, and two were downed inside the 20. He might be better at punting than place-kicking!

Jonathan Garibay, Texas Tech. Garibay spent most of 2020 as a backup but emerged as Tech’s best kicker late in the season, going 8-for-11 on FGs (4-for-7 over 40) and, when filling as punter for two games, averaged 47.8 yards per kick with a 46.0 net. He proved worthy of a larger role this fall.

Quarterbacks as quick-kick artists

Carson Strong, Nevada. The “quarterback lines up to go for it on fourth down in his opponent’s territory, then backs up, takes a long snap and punts” gambit is familiar to most college football fans, but Nevada has taken it to a different level. Strong has not only thrown for 5,193 yards and 38 touchdowns over the last two years, but he’s also punted 13 times, pinning opponents inside their 20 nine times and inside the 10 six times. His hang time probably isn’t going to get the attention of pro scouts, but he’s doing what’s asked of him.

Punters-turned-tight ends

Tyler Hunt, Michigan State. The goal of this piece is to celebrate versatile skill sets, and it’s hard to get more versatile than a guy who was brought to East Lansing to punt (he had 36 for a 40.1 average in 2018) and ended up making the rarest of position changes: he’s now a 6-foot-3, 220-pound TE who caught eight passes and scored on a one-yard run last year.

(The Spartans also just signed Hank Pepper, a long snapper/all-state linebacker from Chandler, Ariz. Sparty is trying to corner the market in both great on-campus dairies and unique special teamers.)

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