We’re highlighting the top 50 players returning to college football in 2016. After the appetizer of Nos. 26-50, now here's the main course. These are the best players in the sport, closing with several Heisman Trophy finalists from a year ago.
But, a hint, No. 1 on the list was not in New York this past December.
First, though, some players who just missed the cut for top 50 ...
Honorable mention: Ronald Jones II, USC RB; Joe Mixon, Oklahoma RB; Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson CB; Marcus Williams, Utah S; Brad Kaaya, Miami QB; Cameron Smith, USC LB; Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee LB; Skai Moore, South Carolina LB; Orlando Brown, Oklahoma OT; Jahad Thomas, Temple RB; Soso Jamabo, UCLA RB; Josh Sweat, Florida State DE; Dan Skipper, Arkansas OT; Antonio Callaway, Florida WR; Cam Sutton, Tennessee CB
2015 stats: 45 tackles (3 for loss, 2 sacks), 2 interceptions (2 TDs)
Even though he had yet to play a college snap, Alabama coaches raved all spring and summer about a freshman named Fitzpatrick. They knew already they had someone to make Bama fans forget about corner coverage woes in recent seasons.
Fitzpatrick has the size (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) to play physical at the line, even as a young DB. He covers extremely well downfield, scouts say. He’s the total package and will only continue to develop on a loaded returning defense.
2015 stats: 4,653 passing yards (63.5 completion percentage), 36 TDs; 456 rushing yards, 10 TDs
Mahomes came into his own in his first season as a full-time starter, despite the fact that the Red Raiders are still searching for consistent vertical passing threats. That’s likely part of the reason he took too many chances, throwing 15 interceptions.
If the program has really addressed the need for physical skill players, Mahomes should find another gear in ‘16 and turn himself into a legitimate NFL prospect. He already has the arm, athletic ability and intangibles.
2015 stats: 45 tackles (5.5 for loss), 10 passes defended; 72 rushing yards; 79 receiving yards; 417 return yards
After an injury ended his first season, we learned in 2015 what all the fuss was about.
Peppers played in all three phases of the game, regularly making an impact for the Wolverines. But he returns with the sense that he has not yet reached his potential. For one, opposing coaches felt he hadn’t quite mastered the switch from corner to safety in terms of pass coverage.
Presuming that’s true, the addition of veteran coordinator Don Brown, whose defenses excelled at Boston College, will shore up the areas that need work. But let’s not gloss over Peppers’ natural ability to be a physical presence in the middle of the defense, while skilled and fast enough to play some receiver and handle return duties.
2015 stats: 414 receiving yards, 2 TDs; 36 rushing yards; 35 tackles, 1 interception (1 TD); 941 return yards, 2 TDs
When a player is as athletically gifted as Jackson, it forces coaches to compromise. Offensive and defensive coordinators have to find a way to share; that’s somewhat common. Occasionally, someone will play a second sport.
But this isn’t the norm: If things go Jackson’s way, he’ll miss USC’s spring practices and perhaps all of preseason camp in August. He’s chasing a dream of being an Olympic athlete. His goal is to be on the U.S. team in Rio as a long jumper.
The USC staff has said it supports the decision, even if it’ll take Jackson a little while to get in football shape once he returns. With someone like him, the coaches sense it probably will not take all that long, anyway.
2015 stats: 1,288 rushing yards, 12 TDs; 190 receiving yards, 2 TDs
At 6-4, 240 pounds, Hurd is built more like a linebacker -- or a train -- than a running back. With Alabama’s Derrick Henry gone, there’s no bigger runner at a major college. Intimidation is an edge.
Alvin Kamara (698 yards, 7 TDs) provided a nice 1-2 punch for Tennessee this season, allowing Hurd to be fresher later in games -- and later in the season. Rising junior Hurd rushed for 401 yards in the team’s final three games, which came against highly regarded defenses (Missouri, Vanderbilt and Northwestern).
With a more experienced line returning and a veteran QB, expect Hurd to take another step or two forward -- just the same as what’s anticipated with his team.