College football players to watch in 2023: Heisman candidates, freshman phenoms and surprises

In two seasons, Brock Bowers has 119 receptions for 1,824 yards and 20 touchdowns. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

We might have just wrapped up the 2022 college football season and crowned Georgia national champions for the second year in a row, but it's never too early to start thinking about all the things we're excited for in the 2023 season.

Our college football reporters discussed their picks for the Heisman Trophy, top defensive and offensive players, under-the-radar names and freshmen worth knowing about.

Who will be college football's best player next year?

Adam Rittenberg: Georgia tight end Brock Bowers. He won't be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 draft -- that will be USC quarterback Caleb Williams or North Carolina QB Drake Maye -- but think about what Bowers already has accomplished in his career. In two seasons, he has 119 receptions for 1,824 yards and 20 touchdowns, helping Georgia to consecutive national championships. He's almost impossible to stop on a consistent basis despite being the most consistent receiving option for the Bulldogs. Bowers strikes me as a player who should already be in the NFL but has to stick around the college level for another season. He'll be working with a new quarterback this fall, but I expect another huge season for the Mackey Award winner.

Chris Low: What about the big guys on offense, the guys who make it possible for the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers to win the Heisman Trophy? One of the biggest surprises this offseason was that Penn State offensive tackle Olu Fashanu didn't turn pro, especially considering he might have been the top offensive tackle. It was great news for the Nittany Lions, who will be laden with offensive talent in 2023. Fashanu missed the final month of the 2022 season with an injury, but will be ready to go this fall from his left tackle position. He's agile, has great size (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) and didn't allow a sack in 280 pass-block situations a year ago. He's probably not going to score any touchdowns next season (unless he lines up in a tackle-eligible formation), but he'll clear the way for quarterback Drew Allar and running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen to score enough touchdowns that Penn State will be squarely in the Big Ten race.

Alex Scarborough: Speaking of a player who could be in the NFL right now, I present to you Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. Just look at how he torched eventual national champion Georgia during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: five catches, 106 yards and two touchdowns. If he didn't get injured in the second half, the Buckeyes might have hung on to win the game. All told, Harrison had 14 touchdowns as a sophomore. He's a gifted route-runner and catches everything -- just like his father. Whether it's Kyle McCord or Devin Brown who ends up replacing C.J. Stroud at quarterback, he'll have it made with Harrison to throw to.

Tom VanHaaren: I like the Bowers and Harrison picks from Adam and Alex. I think Williams is an obvious choice, but I'm going to go with Maye. I feel like he's going to take another step forward and get more national recognition. He threw for 4,321 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2022. North Carolina lost offensive coordinator Phil Longo to Wisconsin, but Chip Lindsey is coming in, add in a few transfer receivers, and I'm betting on Maye to thrive in that offense and have a big season.

Paolo Uggetti: I'll take the obvious answer in Williams. The incumbent is almost never the favorite when it comes to player accolades and honors in college football, but Williams has everything set up to put together another great statistical season. Despite losing Jordan Addison to the draft, USC has replenished its wide receiver room with Arizona's Dorian Singer as well as two highly-ranked prospects in Makai Lemon and Zachariah Branch. With another year in Lincoln Riley's offense, everything is set up for Williams to put together an encore performance fitting for a Heisman winner.

Bill Connelly: I was about to default to Michigan's Blake Corum, assuming a return to full health, but I feel like we should have more defensive representation. There's not a slam-dunk candidate, so give me the best returning defender from the best team in college football. Georgia's Jamon Dumas-Johnson fits that bill. He's strong against both run and pass, and with more pass-rushing opportunities he could become one of the nation's sacks leaders. On a per-rush basis, he was brilliant. With an offseason to bulk up a bit (and therefore stand up to run blocking a bit better), I could see LSU's Harold Perkins Jr. fitting this bill as well. We know what he can do rushing the passer.

Can Williams actually repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner? Who's best suited to win the award if not him?

David M. Hale: The answer on repeat Heisman winners should be "no" by default, but in this case ... there might be a realistic chance. Typically the Heisman winner sets a bar so incredibly high, he falters under the weight of his own lofty expectations, but for Williams, it feels like there may still be new heights left to explore. He was excellent last season, of course, but so much of what he did came in spite of a battered backfield, a shaky defense and entirely new surroundings at USC. Moreover, USC faltered in its biggest games. It's not unreasonable to think that Williams and the Trojans could be better in 2023 than they were in 2022. Still, the Heisman voters have been loath to vote for a player twice, so it remains an uphill battle. Should Williams take even a small step back, the list of alternatives is long -- Maye, Jordan Travis, Michael Penix Jr., Bo Nix, among others -- but if a repeat winner is ever going to happen again, Williams may have as good a shot as anyone.

Rittenberg: Defending Heisman winners start at a disadvantage, as voters naturally want to find someone else to get behind. But Williams only emerged as the Heisman frontrunner down the stretch in 2022, amid injuries to other contenders (Hendon Hooker, Corum). This year, he will be in the spotlight from the start and have more national showcase opportunities. Big performances in consecutive games against Notre Dame and Utah could propel him to the front. He also will need to distinguish himself from the other quarterback candidates in the Pac-12, namely Penix and Nix. I can see Penix in particular pushing for the Heisman, but others like Maye, Travis and Corum could make a run. You also never want to count out the starting quarterbacks at Georgia, Ohio State or Alabama.

Low: In Lincoln Riley's offense, the quarterback is always going to put up big numbers, and in what will be Williams' third season with Riley, Williams is looking at another one with Heisman Trophy-esque numbers. He won it a year ago even with the Trojans losing twice to Utah and not winning their conference championship. That speaks to the kind of gaudy numbers he put up, but it's difficult to see him winning a second straight Heisman unless USC wins the Pac-12 championship in 2023 and gets into the College Football Playoff. Aside from obvious candidates in Maye and Corum, why not a receiver? DeVonta Smith won it in 2020, and Harrison is equally dynamic.

Scarborough: Of course I can see Williams repeating as the Heisman winner. But I felt the same way about Bryce Young, Tim Tebow and so many others. So I'm not holding my breath. Hale and Rittenberg point out some good candidates to make it to New York, but I'll add one more: Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III. While it's too soon to say that Milton will have the same poise and accuracy as Hooker, one thing he has going for him is arm strength. And in that offense, which spreads the field, pushes the tempo and puts the ball in the air, he could amass a ton of highlight reel throws. He's off to a good start, too, having thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions in a Capital One Orange Bowl win over Clemson.

Uggetti: The odds say no. Recency bias and history are not the only factors working against Williams this coming season. Given that USC finished a remarkable turnaround season with a bowl loss to Tulane that exposed the flaws they'd had all season, next year will be a test in improvement across the board. Even if Williams will likely improve, the bar has been set extremely high. It feels like next season sets up nicely for Corum to make a run at the award and break the quarterback streak. Corum chose to return to Ann Arbor for one more season, and at the risk of uttering the phrase "unfinished business," Corum could be the player who gets the Wolverines over the hump.

What freshman is worth following?

VanHaaren: I'm going to cheat and name a few, because there are so many storylines with this year's recruiting class. I want to see if five-star quarterback Dante Moore can push for playing time right away at UCLA. The Bruins brought in transfer Collin Schlee, but are looking for a new signal caller. Moore flipped from Oregon and could be an immediate contributor. Five-star defensive tackle Peter Woods is going to be dominant up front for Clemson. He is exactly what you picture when you think of Clemson linemen. He's powerful, has speed and is ahead of most prospects his age. I also think five-star corner Cormani McClain is someone who could make waves at Colorado. He flipped from Miami and is going to be paired with Travis Hunter in the Buffs' secondary. The other one I would note is quarterback Nico Iamaleava, the Tennessee signee. There were reports from The Athletic and CBS Sports of a multimillion-dollar NIL deal, and I think he's going to be an interesting case study for how those deals work in the future.

Blake Baumgartner: Like VanHaaren, I'm also curious to see what Moore can do within Chip Kelly's offense at UCLA. It wasn't really much of a surprise Moore would reevaluate his options after former Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham left to take the job at Arizona State. With UCLA and USC a year away from joining the Big Ten, can the Detroit native, while battling former Kent State QB Collin Schlee, bring a little Midwest vibe to Westwood?

Hale: This may not be a battle for superstardom in 2023, but with the arrival of freshman Arch Manning, boy, the Texas QB situation will be interesting. Quinn Ewers has the pedigree as a five-star recruit, and there were times early in the 2022 season when he looked more than capable of meeting those lofty expectations. Had he not gotten hurt in the first half, he may have toppled mighty Alabama in Week 2. He missed three games after that, but he seemed to largely pick up where he left off upon his return. Through mid-October, he'd started four games and had compiled an impressive stat line: 68% completions, 8.6 yards-per-dropback, nine TD passes and just two picks. After that, however, the wheels came off. Over his final six starts, Ewers completed just 54% of his throws, averaged 6 yards-per-dropback, had just six touchdowns and turned the ball over five times. Now, Texas welcomes another superstar recruit in Manning who, like Ewers, arrives with a ton of hype but also his share of questions about whether the hype is entirely deserved. Can the two talented QBs co-exist? Can Ewers hold off the freshman? Can the freshman become the latest Manning to dominate college football? Can either of them get Texas over the hump and into playoff contention? This may be the most fascinating depth-chart drama in the sport in 2023.

Low: Everybody will be watching Coach Prime this season to see what kind of difference he can make at Colorado, and one of Deion Sanders' "prime" recruits is McClain, ESPN's top-rated prospect from the state of Florida. Hunter followed Sanders from Jackson State to Colorado after coming in as the No. 2 prospect overall in the 2022 class, and the 6-2 McClain has the same kind of ball skills and playmaking ability as Hunter. McClain started his high school career as a receiver and is far from a finished product at cornerback, but he'll be playing for a guy who knows a thing or two about playing that position.

Rittenberg: The Peyton Bowen drama was one of the biggest stories around signing day, but we now know he will be an Oklahoma Sooner. Bowen, ESPN's No. 2 safety and No. 14 overall player in the 2023 class, should be an immediate factor on a defense looking for production and playmakers in the back end. His adjustment to Brent Venables' defense will be interesting, but Bowen is the type of elite-level recruit that OU needs. He will make the trip to Norman with his former high school teammate in Texas, quarterback Jackson Arnold, who is set to play behind Dillon Gabriel but also could see the field. Arnold is ESPN's top dual-threat quarterback and No. 8 overall player in the class.

Scarborough: The skill guys are getting enough love here. Let's talk about arguably the biggest flip of the early signing period, Kadyn Proctor. The 6-6, 315-pound offensive tackle was all set to play for his home state Iowa before Alabama swooped in, nabbing the five-star prospect. After a few subpar seasons from the Crimson Tide offensive lines, Proctor could be a step in the right direction and potentially a cornerstone to build around for years to come.

Andrea Adelson: Jaden Rashada, if only because I need to know how this entire situation is going to go. Every ESPN 300 quarterback is going to have an inordinate amount of pressure placed on him the second he enters college. But in his case, there might be just a tad bit more because of all the off-field headlines. If Rashada was worth a reported $13 million NIL deal, according to the Associated Press, clearly there is somebody who believes he has the potential to be a transformative figure. Much of that depends on where he lands, and how he handles what has already come his way. For better or worse, people will be watching to see what happens.

Who's an under-the-radar player worth keeping eyes on?

Scarborough: Is Graham Mertz really the answer at Florida? The former No. 1-ranked quarterback in the 2019 class played in a lot of games at Wisconsin and never quite lived up to the hype. While a fresh start could do him a lot of good, he's not exactly walking into an ideal situation in Gainesville. The Florida fan base is unsettled after a disappointing debut season for head coach Billy Napier, who struggled to turn Anthony Richardson's talent into touchdowns and wound up finishing 6-7 after a blowout loss to Oregon State in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl.

Low: Maybe it's not vogue to be pumping up offensive linemen as we peek ahead to a new season, but Alabama's Tyler Booker is one of the best young offensive linemen in college football. He earned Freshman All-America honors a year ago while rotating at both guard spots for the Crimson Tide and started in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at left guard. Be ready to count Booker's knockdown blocks next season, and don't be surprised if he's in the conversation for the Outland Trophy over the next two seasons as the top interior lineman in the country.

VanHaaren: Braden Fiske is a defensive lineman who transferred from Western Michigan to Florida State this offseason. He didn't get a ton of national attention, but he finished with 58 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss and six sacks in 2022. He's going to add to a Florida State defensive line that's returning Jared Verse and also added in Miami defensive tackle Darrell Jackson. I think Fiske is going to turn a lot of heads this season and get a lot more attention nationally on a bigger stage. The other name I would point out is USC wide receiver Dorian Singer, who transferred in from Arizona. He led the conference in receiving yards, but didn't get a lot of attention. He's now joining Williams and Riley and should be able to put up big numbers this season.

Adelson: Among the many reasons Duke put together a nine-win season in 2022 is the underappreciated play of Riley Leonard, who emerged as a top-tier quarterback in the ACC that few outside the conference probably even know. Leonard threw for 2,967 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions, while adding 699 yards rushing and 13 scores on the ground. Only Nix had more rushing touchdowns as a quarterback than Leonard, who became the first player in Duke history with 20 passing touchdowns and 10-plus rushing touchdowns. Duke has not had a 3,000-yard passer since 2012, but with another year in the offensive system, this is a benchmark that seems like a completely attainable goal for Leonard in 2023.

Which non QB offensive player is worth keeping eyes on?

Hale: It may be a long shot to assume he'll be a real Heisman contender, if only because he's not alone in his own backfield when it comes to high-level talent, but there may be no player more exciting in college football than Penn State's Nick Singleton. As a freshman in 2022, he tallied nearly 1,500 all-purpose yards, averaging nearly 7 yards per rush and finding the end zone as a runner, receiver and returner. He's lightning fast, extremely versatile, and he's just scratching the surface of what he can do. Yes, he'll share touches with another talented sophomore in Kaytron Allen, but that may actually make him even more of a weapon. He won't be worn down by a boatload of carries, and for fans, the dearth of touches only makes each one he gets even more rewarding.

Rittenberg: Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins became a must-see player in 2022, even though the team had added notable transfer Zach Evans. Judkins rushed for 1,567 yards and 16 touchdowns and logged an incredible 274 carries as a true freshman. He reached the 25-carry mark five times, twice hit 200 rushing yards and was held to fewer than 87 yards just once all season. Ole Miss is looking for more out of the quarterback position after adding transfers Spencer Sanders (Oklahoma State) and Walker Howard (LSU), but Judkins should remain the focal point of coach Lane Kiffin's offense for two more seasons.

Low: Dabo Swinney brought in Garrett Riley to jump-start Clemson's offense, and one of the more interesting subplots to watch will be how Riley utilizes Will Shipley. One of the country's most versatile running backs, the 5-11, 205-pound Shipley rushed for 1,182 yards and 15 touchdowns last season and also caught 38 passes for 242 yards. He's one of only four ACC players since 2000 to have rushed for 11 or more touchdowns in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. In other words, good things happen when Shipley touches the ball, and look for Riley to use him in a number of different ways next season.

VanHaaren: Wide receiver Devontez Walker just transferred from Kent State to North Carolina to pair up with Drake Maye. Walker led Kent State in receiving yards and touchdowns last season with 921 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 15.88 yards per catch. He's a 6-3, 192-pound receiver originally from Charlotte, North Carolina. He's going to be a big option this season for the Tar Heels and should put up big numbers with Maye throwing to him. I would also add Georgia State transfer Jamari Thrash to this list, who will now play for Jeff Brohm at Louisville. Thrash had 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns this past season and is joining an explosive Brohm offense.

Uggetti: The Raleek Brown hype train will take off eventually, but for now, Brown remains slightly under the radar as a luxury option for USC this past season. While behind Travis Dye and Austin Jones, Brown had bursts of speed that jumped off the field but understandably had to play third fiddle behind the aforementioned duo. Dye is headed for the NFL while Jones has opted to return for another season, so the pathway for Brown to get more carries and reps has opened up.

Adelson: Anybody who watched the Cheez-It Bowl had to come away amazed at the ridiculous one-handed catch Florida State receiver Johnny Wilson made, in perfect stride, with a defender hanging on him. Wilson is an absolute matchup advantage at 6-7, 235 pounds, and his decision to return to the Seminoles this season makes him the top returning receiver in the ACC after catching 43 passes for 897 yards and five scores. And he is only just scratching the surface. Wilson had his share of drops and inconsistent play in 2022, but that was also the most extensive action of his career after he transferred from Arizona State. With a full season under his belt and another offseason, Wilson could be poised to have a breakout year.

What defensive player should we be watching?

Scarborough: It took Harold Perkins Jr. a while to show up, but that's OK. Because once he did, he flashed Will Anderson Jr. type ability at outside linebacker for LSU, practically living in the backfield of opposing offenses. During his final seven games, the true freshman racked up 11 tackles for loss, six sacks and four forced fumbles. If he can create that kind of chaos throughout an entire season, he could be the best defensive player in college football this year.

Rittenberg: I've heard incredible things about Penn State linebacker Abdul Carter, who had a breakout freshman season with 6.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. He made six starts and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. At 6-3 and 233 pounds, Carter has excellent size and could emerge as a Micah Parsons-like star for the Nittany Lions this fall. There will be more attention on new starting quarterback Allar and a dynamic returning backfield of Singleton and Allen, but Carter will be the star of Penn State's defense and a potential national honors candidate.

Low: Washington and Kalen DeBoer got a double dose of good news when pass-rushers Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui elected to come back for 2023. They will complement each other well off the two edges and bring the kind of experience that coaches love. Trice had 12 tackles for loss, including nine sacks, last season and was brilliant in the Valero Alamo Bowl win over Texas. Tupuola-Fetui added 4.5 more sacks on the season. The 6-4, 270-pound Trice has the strength and quickness to become the Pac-12's most dynamic defender next season.

Adelson: There are some obvious choices here, such as Jared Verse at Florida State and Barrett Carter at Clemson. But for a defensive player who is more under the radar in the ACC, pay attention to Boston College linebacker Donovan Ezeiruaku, a bright spot for the Eagles last season as a second-team All-ACC selection with three forced fumbles, 8.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.