Monday marked the early-entry deadline for underclassmen to enter the 2021 NFL draft, so we now have a better idea of who is staying or leaving, and which schools were most impacted.
The NCAA approved an eligibility freeze for all fall athletes, thus giving seniors the option to return for an additional season instead of going pro following the 2020 season. Those seniors have until March 1 to decide whether they will enter the draft, though some have already made the decision and are taken into consideration for this exercise.
Some teams are going to be the more obvious outliers here. Clemson, for example, falls in the middle and doesn’t even find itself on this list despite big departures from QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne. However, the Tigers will still emerge as a top team in 2021.
That all said, here are some of the most notable winners and losers:
Quarterback Desmond Ridder is coming back after finishing up a strong junior campaign that had Cincinnati looking like the best Group of 5 school we’ve seen in the College Football Playoff era, leaving many upset that the Bearcats didn’t get their shot as one of the top four teams. Ridder completed 66.2% of his passes for 2,296 yards with 19 touchdowns against six interceptions. He also ran for 592 yards and a whopping 12 touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman left for Notre Dame earlier this month, but with seven defensive starters returning, Cincinnati has to feel good about its 2021 outlook.
The Hoosiers’ lone early entry is RB Stevie Scott III, so they’ll be running it back in 2021. The 2020 season is one that few in Bloomington will soon forget, unless the Hoosiers are able to continue and surpass that success in 2021. The Hoosiers are returning 10 starters on defense and nine on offense, including one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten in senior Ty Fryfogle. Indiana will have a healthy Michael Penix Jr. back, and it will also have big “chip-on-their-shoulder” vibes the entire season after not participating in the Big Ten championship or being selected for a New Year’s Six bowl.
Iowa State Cyclones
Not many teams had a better offseason than Iowa State. After going 9-3 in 2020 and finishing the season with a 34-17 win over Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, head coach Matt Campbell somehow didn’t take another college or pro coaching gig, despite being one of the most attractive candidates on the market. The other good news for the Cyclones is that quarterback Brock Purdy, who was one of just two quarterbacks with at least 3,900 passing yards, 35 touchdowns and fewer than 10 picks in 2019 (along with Joe Burrow) is returning. Purdy had 2,750 passing yards, 382 rushing yards and 24 total touchdowns in 2020, and he will take another shot at a Big 12 title with running back Breece Hall, who finished with nearly 1,600 yards and 21 touchdowns, and star tight end Charlie Kolar. The cherry on top? Senior left tackle Sean Foster is taking advantage of that extra year of eligibility.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Justin Fields, Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis were all players whom Ohio State fans expected to lose on Monday, with the lone surprise being defensive tackle Tommy Togiai. However, the Buckeyes go in the winners section here because WR Chris Olave and TE Jeremy Ruckert are returning. Retaining those weapons in the passing game for a new starting quarterback next season is huge. In other good news: LT Thayer Munford and CB Marcus Williamson are both using an extra year of eligibility to play one more season for Ohio State. The Buckeyes are one of the few teams in college football that don’t leave fans sweating when guys declare for the draft; it’s just kind of what they do. But when you get a few who stick around, those small wins mean something.
Jimmy Lake’s team didn’t get any surprises at the deadline. CB Elijah Molden, who came into the season as one of the best defensive backs in the conference, joined Joe Tryon and Levi Onwuzurike, who both opted out in the preseason. Otherwise, a team that went 3-1 in a bleak and limited Pac-12 season returns most of its talent and will have a healthy quarterback competition between returning starter Dylan Morris, who completed 60.9% of his passes for 897 yards with four touchdowns and three picks; Sam Huard, the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2021 ESPN 300; and Colorado State grad transfer Patrick O’Brien. With no consistent power atop the Pac-12, there’s potential here for Lake and Washington to make strides.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Two things can be true about the Crimson Tide: The first is that they are not just losing some of the best talent they’ve ever had, but also an impressive amount of experience, even for them. As far as early entries go, Alabama is saying goodbye to QB Mac Jones, LB Dylan Moses, CB Patrick Surtain II, WR Jaylen Waddle and DT Christian Barmore. Some seniors are departing despite the option for another year of eligibility as well, most notably Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. The second is that Alabama will be more than fine with plenty of future NFL talent behind the recently departed. This is the script at Nick Saban’s Alabama. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s departure for Texas isn’t nothing, especially when we saw how methodical Alabama’s offense was in tearing defenses to shreds. But if history is any indicator, Bill O’Brien will step in and have success with that group and be the latest recipient of a Saban career refurbishment, before he too eventually leaves Tuscaloosa for a new gig. For now, though, Alabama is a loser because of the mass exodus of talent.
Things flipped for Georgia in comparison to last year. In 2020, the Bulldogs had five early entrants on offense that placed them in the losers section. This time around, there are key departures on a defense that finished No. 1 in defensive SP+, with linebacker Azeez Ojulari and cornerbacks Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes entering the draft. These losses are on top of departing seniors in DB DJ Daniel, LB Monty Rice, DE Jermaine Johnson, S Richard LeCounte and DE Malik Herring. The good news for Georgia is that the Bulldogs have been one of the best recruiting teams in college football since Kirby Smart arrived, and they have defensive replacements who could fill in nicely in Adam Anderson, Nolan Smith and Quay Walker. Offensively, JT Daniels had the Bulldogs looking like a completely different team at the end of the year, and they should take another leap in 2021. Regardless of the losses for UGA, the Sept. 4 game against Clemson in Charlotte, North Carolina, should be a fun one.
The Trojans have the most early departures of any team in FBS, and it is a talented bunch in CB Olaijah Griffin, S Talanoa Hufanga, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, DT Jay Tufele, DT Marlon Tuipulotu and OT Alijah Vera-Tucker. They’re are also losing WR Tyler Vaughns, who won’t take an extra year of eligibility, but the Trojans have depth at the position with All-Pac-12 wideout Drake London and former five-star recruit Bru McCoy ready to step into bigger roles. If you’re a USC fan who’s looking for a positive to take out of this, I suppose it should be that the Trojans are producing chunks of NFL talent again.
The Hurricanes are losing some serious power in their pass rush. Defensive ends Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau are two of Miami’s three early entrants (the third being TE Brevin Jordan), so the Hurricanes could be turning to incoming freshman Chantz Williams (No. 8 DE in 2020 class) and Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson to make up for some lost production. In 2020, Phillips had 15.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season after posting 19.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks and two forced fumbles as a sophomore in 2019. Rousseau’s replacement, redshirt senior Quincy Roche, also declared for the NFL draft after 14.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles on the year. Miami’s defense ended the 2020 season giving up 1,196 yards of offense and 99 points in its final two games, so that will be a concern going into the offseason.
New head coach Steve Sarkisian is going to inherit talent at Texas, and the Longhorns have lately had bigger problems developing talent as opposed to actually getting it. Still, Texas is one of the hardest-hit teams from the Big 12 as far as early entrants go with WR Brennan Eagles, DE Joseph Ossai, S Caden Sterns and OT Samuel Cosmi opting to go pro. Cosmi, Ossai and Sterns are all in the top five of Mel Kiper’s position rankings, so there aren’t any surprises there, and the Longhorns will feel those losses next season. But in Kiper’s top 10 wideouts, Eagles doesn’t make the list after only barely improving his stock in an abbreviated 2020 season. A year in a Sarkisian offense might have done him some good — just ask anybody who lined up for Alabama this season.