Even with 80-something underclassmen leaving school early for the NFL, college football has an abundance of returning talent. In the next couple of days, we’ll count down the top 50 players for 2016.
Spoiler alert: Half of the top 10 consists of players from this past season's Heisman Trophy race. Even so, there are bound to be surprises as to how those stars should be ordered.
Here are Nos. 50-26, with heavy representation from defending champion Alabama.
2015 stats: 8 tackles (2 for a loss)
The Bruins had absolutely terrible luck with injuries in 2015. It started with Vanderdoes, who tore an ACL in September. He was expected to have his biggest season yet after compiling 87 tackles (10 for a loss) in his first two years.
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound space-eater, who also moonlights as a blocker on offense, recently announced he will return to school. That’s a boost for a defense already losing NFL-bound tackle Kenny Clark and several other defenders.
2015 stats: 84 tackles (6.5 for a loss), 1 forced fumble
Edwards made an immediate impact as a freshman, finishing with a team-high 84 tackles ahead of senior leader Joe Schobert.
2015 stats: Clemson No. 30 in rushing, No. 27 in sacks allowed
There was suspicion that Hyatt, playing left tackle as a true freshman, would get dump-trucked by Alabama in the title game, but most observers felt he held his own against the Tide’s daunting front seven. That’s a promising segue into his second season at the valuable position protecting and blocking for Deshaun Watson.
2015 stats: 73 tackles (8 for a loss, 2 sacks), 9 passes defended
Foster is the first among Bama’s somewhat surprising returnees on defense. (More to come on that.) The linebacker was second on the team in tackles in 2015, trailing only All-American Reggie Ragland’s 102.
The 16th overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting class is making good on the hype. Safe to say by now that his Auburn tattoo isn’t holding him back in Tuscaloosa.
46. Eddie Jackson, S, Alabama Crimson Tide
2015 stats: 46 tackles (3 for a loss), 6 interceptions, 1 forced fumble
Jackson’s ball skills are the impetus for his inclusion; he tied for the SEC lead in picks and was two off the national lead.
As one of Mel Kiper’s top safety prospects, many thought Jackson would head to the NFL. Instead, he returns to anchor the middle of a sound and fierce Alabama secondary.
2015 stats: 27 tackles (8 for a loss, 3 sacks), 1 fumble recovery
Like Vanderdoes, Beckner is a defensive tackle returning from a serious knee injury. Beckner went down in November with a torn ACL and MCL. He is expected back by camp, where he’ll be greeted by some changes.
His defensive coordinator, Barry Odom, is now the head coach. And highly respected line coach Craig Kuligowski is now at Miami. But as long as the knee is good, do not worry too much about the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2015 class. Even as a freshman, the 6-4, 300-pounder was starting to really emerge at the time of the injury.
2015 stats: FSU No. 17 in rushing, No. 59 in sacks allowed
It’s hard to put too much into the numbers above since Johnson was the only returning starter from the 2014 playoff team. Johnson was the unquestioned leader this season and, at 6-7, 325 pounds, was the physical anchor for an offensive line as it steadily improved over the course of the season, opening holes for star back Dalvin Cook.
With much of the line returning, and standouts at myriad other positions, FSU is again becoming a posh pick in the ACC in 2016.
2015 stats: Ohio State No. 9 in rushing, No. 34 in sacks allowed
Elflein’s return was huge for a line losing three starters, including standout tackle Taylor Decker. Elflein could play either guard or center this fall for the Buckeyes. Either way, they’ll appreciate having a fifth-year guy on the interior of the line.
42. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
2015 stats: 2 receptions, 20 yards, 1 TD
Williams injured his neck scoring a touchdown in the season opener. He is expected to fully recover and be ready for 2016, which, alarmingly for the ACC, should only help the Tigers be even more explosive on offense. Watson adjusted, finding tight end Jordan Leggett and freshman receiver Deon Cain, but Williams is the big, physical, reliable target he often missed.
The 6-4, 220-pound Williams was the team’s leader with 1,030 receiving yards in 2014. The only question is whether he’ll play as aggressively in the wake of the injury. If so, No. 42 is far too low.
41. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
2015 stats: 602 receiving yards, 2 TDs
If only Bama threw him the ball, right? Well, Howard is no longer that much-discussed underutilized weapon in Alabama’s offense after he piled up 208 yards and two scores -- a third of his receiving yards and all of his TDs -- in the national title game against Clemson.
Coach Nick Saban said in the game’s aftermath that, yes, he and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin should probably get the ball more to Howard. You think? Howard, all 6-6 and 242 pounds of him, is going to test the coach: He announced Monday that he is coming back for his senior season.
40. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
2015 stats: 33 tackles (4.5 for a loss, 2 sacks), 31 receiving yards
Wilkins is a testament to how well Clemson, and particularly coordinator Brent Venables, is recruiting. The staff found Wilkins in Suffield, Connecticut, to help fill the void left by several departing linemen.
He was able to step in right away, even playing a role in coach Dabo Swinney’s game-changing touchdown call in the Orange Bowl. Wilkins, at 6-4 and 300 pounds, caught the equivalent of a go route from punter Andy Teasdall. The play led the Tigers to their first TD and stymied Oklahoma’s early momentum. The takeaway: You just know you’re going to see Wilkins again on offense.
2015 stats: 1,337 rushing yards, 20 TDs; 460 receiving yards, 6 TDs
In a breakout sophomore season, McNichols rushed for more than 100 yards in his final seven regular-season starts. He would have hit the number in the bowl game, too, if Northern Illinois had put up any fight at all. Boise State won 55-7, so McNichols made it to only 93 yards. But he did score twice on the ground and added another 96 yards and a TD as a target out of the backfield.
The 5-9, 205-pound Californian runs powerfully, providing something that the past couple of Boise teams had been missing, going back to first-rounder Doug Martin.
2015 stats: 32 tackles (9.5 for a loss), 1 forced fumble
Slowly and surely, A&M’s defense is coming around. The Aggies went from No. 97 to No. 51 in yards per play, and building a sturdy front is likely the biggest reason why. Mack provided an interior presence to go with talented rush ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall.
Heads-up for Mack on more offensive plays, too; he is even nimble and athletic enough to tote the ball, if called upon.
37. Daeshon Hall, DE, Texas A&M Aggies
2015 stats: 54 tackles (14.5 for a loss, 7 sacks), 2 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles
Speaking of Hall ...
Garrett, the opposite end, gets a majority of the attention, but Hall is a very good player in his own right. And they help one another by not allowing an offense to load up on one side or the other. Garrett, Hall and Mack all figure to benefit from a second season in John “Chief” Chavis’ defensive system.
Strangely, the A&M offense is the side with the far bigger questions to answer.
2015 stats: 61 tackles (7 for a loss, 2.5 sacks), 3 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble
With a wretched offense and an incredibly young defense, Texas’ ceiling as a team was only going to be so high in 2015. But Jefferson, as a freshman in the middle of the defense, did all he could on and off the field to get the Longhorns through the growing pains.
Watch out for Jefferson -- coach Charlie Strong’s best Texas recruit so far -- to take a big step as a sophomore.
2015 stats: 67 tackles (5 for a loss), 4 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble
The numbers above are striking, yet some close to the program hint that Adams had an underwhelming sophomore season.
Two reasons: One, the bar was set so very high after his prodigious freshman year. And two, some scouts see a guy who takes some plays off, which becomes almost more glaring when he looks like Superman for a series. Much is expected from those with as much ability as Adams possesses.
2015 stats: 49 tackles (1.5 for a loss), 2 interceptions, 7 passes defended
Nagging injuries derailed Baker’s sophomore season, though he still finished with more-than-adequate numbers in the time he was on the field.
Knowing the NFL carrot is on the line, Baker is in a de facto “contract year.” Expect big things -- he should get a chance to be involved in the Huskies’ special teams and offense, too, if coach Chris Petersen isn’t too gun-shy after last season's bumps and bruises. This is a player to watch on a team to watch: Washington is on the way up.
33. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama Crimson Tide
2015 stats: Alabama No. 46 rushing, No. 59 sacks allowed
Robinson has gone from necessary stopgap, when he started as a freshman at left tackle, to steady force on the Alabama offensive line. The 2015 group was far from Bama’s best, as evidenced by the yards-per-carry and protection numbers above, but Robinson holds his own more often than not. Clemson was the rare defensive line to give him fits, and Clemson did that to everyone.
As long as he remains healthy, Robinson will be a top-10 pick in next year's NFL draft.
32. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
2015 stats: 36 tackles (14.5 for loss, 12 sacks)
Allen received a second-round grade from the NFL’s draft board, but he let Alabama know this past weekend that he is staying for his senior season. It’s another boon for a defense that is bringing back more key pieces than many anticipated. With A'Shawn Robinson one of the few underclassmen leaving, Allen’s role as a pressure-creator on the defensive line will be even more vital.
2015 stats: 1,164 receiving yards, 11 TDs; 51 rushing yards
Of Ford’s receiving yards, 503 (and three TDs) came in the team’s final three games, including 227 in the bowl win against Tulsa.
Including Ford, the All-ACC selection in 2015, head coach Justin Fuente is inheriting a great deal of offensive skill. Wide receiver Cam Phillips, tight end Bucky Hodges and back Travon McMillian are all very capable with the ball in their hands.
Now, can the staff mold QB prospect Dwayne Lawson into someone who can distribute it to Ford & Co.? That will likely determine the 2016 Hokies’ ceiling.
2015 stats: 1,076 rushing yards, 7 TDs; 161 receiving yards, 1 TD
Barkley showed great potential as a freshman, rushing for 100-plus yards in five games. But he often disappeared, quite possibly a function of an intermittently sputtering offense -- one that got the coordinator replaced.
New playcaller Joe Moorhead left his head-coaching gig at Fordham, and the 5-11, 215-pound Barkley is his best new toy. He’ll be the engine as the team works to replace Christian Hackenberg at QB.
2015 stats: 4,561 passing yards (69.4 completion percentage), 38 TDs
No one in America slings the ball more than Falk, who attempted 71 more passes a year ago than Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes despite missing a regular-season game.
So the fact that Falk still completes nearly 70 percent of those passes is, one, a testament to Falk. The kid does have talent. It begins there. And two, it of course has something to do with coach Mike Leach’s system and manageable, quick throws.
Leach knew a big sophomore season was coming after seeing Falk go nuts as a freshman.
“If your starting point is 460 [passing yards per game], that’s a pretty good starting point,” Leach said last summer.
Sarcasm button: There was a dip, but not much of one. Falk averaged a measly 380 yards in 12 games last season, 17 more yards per game than anyone else in the FBS.
28. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
2015 stats: 992 passing yards (63.3 completion percentage), 11 TDs; 682 rushing yards, 11 TDs
What we knew in November is what coaches were telling me in June and July: Urban Meyer should have gone with Barrett in preseason camp and rolled with it, regardless of Cardale Jones’ feelings.
There’s no question who the guy will be this fall, now that Jones has turned pro a year too late, and there’s good reason to believe less returning experience and talent will cause less stress for OSU.
That’s most notably true at the QB position.
Barrett has 67 total TDs in what basically amounts to a little more than one full season; that’s a healthy foundation on which to build. You know there will be a lot to prove for him as a junior.
27. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
2015 stats: 1,009 receiving yards, 7 TDs; 2 special-teams TDs
Kirk was the best thing to come from a generally lousy year for A&M’s offense, one that ended with a coordinator change and the defection of the team’s top two QBs.
The murky quarterback situation doesn’t do much to aid the outlook for Kirk’s second season, but he has proven to be dynamic enough that he should thrive regardless. One of new playcaller Noel Mazzone’s axioms should be this: You put the ball in No. 3's hands, good things happen.
2015 stats: 4,042 passing yards (65.1 completion percentage), 31 TDs; 509 rushing yards, 10 TDs
Ole Miss desperately needed consistent and dynamic quarterback play, and it found it with the Clemson transfer Kelly. It now makes sense why Swinney would say he thought Kelly had NFL-level talent.
However, we’ll learn in 2016 just how much of his success was linked to having a reliable target such as Laquon Treadwell, potentially a top-five pick this spring.
But Kelly undoubtedly elevated the bar for the QB position in Oxford. Note, too, that he was regarded as a good citizen after an unceremonious dismissal at Clemson.