The top 10 players in the country include the only 2017 Heisman Trophy finalist back for another season in college, a quarterback who spent last September on the bench and three defensive linemen from the same school. The group comprises former No. 1 overall recruits but also a few late bloomers, and with the exception of one sophomore, most of the names below could be called early on in the 2019 NFL draft. When the 2018 season begins in earnest on Labor Day weekend, they all will be expected to deliver dominant, productive seasons that lift their teams to their full potential.
A reminder about our process: In constructing our rankings, the most important factor we assessed was how significantly each player’s production will impact his team’s success this season—not how valuable he was to 2017’s team, where he sits on statistical leaderboards or what type of NFL draft prospect he is (although those other things often have a way of lining up). Put another way, this list is forward-looking, but not too forward-looking. If you don’t see your team’s rising star on this list, check out our breakdown of this year’s toughest snubs before you head for our mentions, and keep an eye out all week long as our countdown continues. And if you want some perspective on how accurate last year’s list was, take a look at our self-audit of the 2017 rankings.
10. DEXTER LAWRENCE, DL, CLEMSON
Watch Lawrence shed a blocker, rumble into the backfield and drag down a quarterback as he tries to scamper to safety, and the first thing you’ll think to yourself is, No person that large should be able to move that fast. At 6’4″ and 340 pounds, Lawrence is a mountain-sized presence in the middle of Clemson’s defensive line who can bull-rush blockers, crunch ballcarriers and eat space, a chaos agent who routinely blows up run-blocking schemes and implodes pass protections. Were he at literally any other program in the country, Lawrence would be a no-doubt-about-it superstar. At Clemson, he’s not even the best player in his own position group.
That reality shouldn’t obscure everything Lawrence has done in two previous seasons and will do for the Tigers this fall. His production actually dipped from his freshman to his sophomore year, and given he will be surrounded by three potential early-round draft picks (redshirt junior end Clelin Ferrell, senior end Austin Bryant and senior tackle Christian Wilkins), it feels unlikely that Lawrence will be able to put up gaudy sacks and tackles for loss numbers this fall. Don’t let the stats skew the picture: Lawrence is a valuable cog in college football’s most terrifying defensive line in recent memory.
9. RASHAN GARY, DT, MICHIGAN
The consensus No. 1 recruit three cycles ago would be even higher in these rankings if he wasn’t joined by a once-in-a-decade crop of defensive line talent set to dominate college football this year. (Just imagine if he had committed to Clemson, the other finalist in his recruitment, over the Wolverines.) The 6’5″, 281-pound rising junior has the quickness to finish plays that stretch near the numbers just as often as he wreaks havoc in the backfield, and the other studs within Michigan’s defense like linebacker Khaleke Hudson and end Chase Winovich benefit from the attention paid to him. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has to hope that Gary’s two sacks in the regular season finale against Ohio State (followed up by a sack in the Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina) are a sign of what’s to come as Michigan braces for a brutal schedule.
8. JAQUAN JOHNSON, DB, MIAMI
No player was more closely associated with Miami’s glorious turnover chain last season than Johnson, a 5’11”, 190-pound safety who donned the garish sideline talisman six times, more than any other player on the team. Johnson could have capitalized on a stellar junior season by declaring for the NFL draft this offseason: Over 13 games in 2017, he picked off four passes, recovered two fumbles and recorded a team-high 96 total tackles. Johnson ultimately decided to put off the start of his professional career for a chance to help Miami build on its breakout 2017 season, when it fell short of the College Football Playoff after being upset by Pittsburgh and getting blown out by Clemson in the ACC championship game.
An instinctual playmaker who lurks as a constant takeaway threat for opposing quarterbacks and ballcarriers, Johnson will head the back end of what should be another smothering Hurricanes defense despite major turnover on the line, including the losses of draft picks Chad Thomas, Kendrick Norton and R.J. Mcintosh. Whether or not Johnson gets to wear the turnover chain as many times as he did last season, Miami will need his production and leadership as it tries to take the final steps it couldn’t last fall.
7. CLELIN FERRELL, DE, CLEMSON
Ferrell emerged from the 2017 season with statistical bragging rights over his esteemed teammates along the Clemson defensive line, leading the Tigers in tackles for loss (18) and sacks (9.5) and tying Austin Bryant (No. 33 on our list) for the team lead with 12 quarterback pressures. His return for a redshirt junior season was one of the bigger surprises among Clemson’s 2018 draft decisions after he joined Deshaun Watson and Sammy Watkins as the only Tigers to earn first-team AP All-America honors as a freshman or sophomore. On the lone off night of Clemson’s regular season at Syracuse, Ferrell was the bright spot for the defense, with eight tackles, 3.5 sacks and a pass breakup. He’s far from the only Tiger who can take games over up front, but he may be the first defensive coordinator Brent Venables turns to.
6. JONATHAN TAYLOR, RB, WISCONSIN
Wisconsin has earned its reputation as a running back factory, but Taylor didn’t even need to spend one season with the program to prove he is one of the best players at his position in the country. When he arrived at Wisconsin last year after setting the South Jersey rushing record previously held by former Badgers running back Corey Clement, Taylor was rated the No. 24 running back in the class of 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite, and the Wisconsin State Journal wrote that, as of Aug. 12, Taylor “appeared a certainty to redshirt in his first year with the Badgers.”
Keeping him off the field would have been a huge mistake. Johnson’s 2017 rushing total of 1,977 yards (on 6.6 yards per carry) beat the Big Ten’s No. 2 rusher, fellow true freshman J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State, by 574 yards, and trailed only San Diego State senior Rashaad Penny (2,248 yards) and Stanford junior Bryce Love (2,118 yards) in the FBS. It also represented a freshman record, beating the 1,925 yards Adrian Peterson posted for Oklahoma in 2004. Taylor won’t catch any opposing defenses by surprise this season, but that doesn’t mean he can’t clear the ridiculously high bar he set for himself in 2017.
5. NICK BOSA, DE, OHIO STATE
At the height of Joey Bosa’s powers two years ago, it seemed impossible that his younger brother could duplicate the college production of the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft, and while Nick Bosa may not catch Joey on the statistical leaderboards by the end of this season, he will play a similarly central role for the success of the Buckeyes in his third year—and he may end up going higher in the 2019 draft. Despite cracking the starting lineup within Ohio State’s deep defensive line just seven times in the 27 games of his college career so far, Nick has piled up 13.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss as a member of a traditionally deep rotation. There will be no keeping him off the field now, after he led the Buckeyes in tackles for loss and sacks in ’17.
4. KHALIL TATE, QB, ARIZONA
Tate was not a one-season wonder. The Wildcats may have changed head coaches this offseason, with Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin replacing Rich Rodriguez, and defensive coordinators around the Pac-12 have plenty of tape on Tate now. But that doesn’t change what makes him such a devastating playmaker: the pinpoint passes into the outstretched arms of wide receivers, the searing sprints into open space, the ankle-breaking body feints in tight quarters.
When he captivated the college football-viewing masses by repeatedly shredding Pac-12 defenses last season, Tate was a revelation—an out-of-left-field jolt for a team that had dropped two of its first four games and looked destined for a dismal season. Once Tate took over under center, the Wildcats became appointment TV en route to a bowl bid, and Tate finished the season having set a new single-game rushing record for a quarterback (327 yards, against Colorado), totaled more rushing yards per game (128.3) than any other Power 5 quarterback and tacked on 1,591 passing yards. Tate’s assault on Pac-12 opponents will continue in 2018, and unlike last season, he’ll be leading Arizona’s first-team offense from the jump. The coaching swap shouldn’t be an obstacle, either; it wasn’t that long ago that Sumlin helped turn a gifted dual-threat quarterback in the SEC into a national phenomenon.
3. CHRISTIAN WILKINS, DE, CLEMSON
Wilkins leads the long list of Clemson defenders (six in all) on our countdown, primarily because of the multiple roles in which he can be a game-changing force. He’s a 6’4”, 300-pound defensive tackle on paper, but upon request he can be an end (where he started last season), a passing game disruptor (14 deflections in 30 starts), a field goal block artist, a fake punt secret weapon and even a safety. While some of his linemates may go a pick or two before him in next year’s draft or outpace him in the team’s major stat categories in 2018, there’s just no one else like Wilkins. He’s no slouch in the traditional stats, either—most defensive linemen would take the 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback pressures that he had as a redshirt sophomore in 2014.
2. BRYCE LOVE, RB, STANFORD
The sky-high expectations Love faces this season are a product of his success. A year ago, he was asked to step into the massive void left by 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up and 2017 first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey. Now, after deciding to pass on the draft in favor of a senior season in Palo Alto, Love is a virtual lock for preseason All-America teams and he is showing up as an early favorite on Heisman Trophy watch lists. He belongs there. Love is a 5’10”, 196-pound burner with the big-play pop and carry-to-carry consistency to deliver a prolific season to follow up the one that included a Power 5–leading 2,118 rushing yards on 8.05 yards per carry and 19 rushing touchdowns.
Love produced that output despite being limited by an ankle injury he suffered midway through last season (he missed one game) that reportedly kept him out of contact drills this spring. Unless the injury lingers into the fall, Love should be able to manage a heavy workload without issue. A seasoned offensive line that brings back first-team All-Pac-12 guard Nate Herbig plus three other conference honorable mentions will create ample space for Love to jet through, and head coach David Shaw can shift some of Love’s carries to a capable, change-of-pace power back in senior Cameron Scarlett. From the moment he takes his first handoff in Stanford’s Aug. 31 opener against San Diego State, Love shouldn’t have a hard time reminding us why he’s the premier rusher in the sport.
1. ED OLIVER, DT, HOUSTON
We’ve been waiting to unequivocally say “Ed Oliver is the best player in the country” for two long years, ever since he sacked Baker Mayfield twice in the first game of the 2016 season and it was pointed out that that was a true freshman out there, terrorizing Oklahoma and its future Heisman winner on national television in his college debut. After two years of watching the 6’3″, 290-pound former five-star recruit slice through offensive lines that spent all week worrying about containing him, swim through the backfield with the agility of a cornerback and rip down ballcarriers with one hand, it’s clear now that there’s no one else like Oliver in the country.
His 39.5 tackles for loss over two seasons (2017 included a knee injury that held Oliver back in a couple of games) can’t be chalked up to the quality of his regular competition. In fact, in one sense the AAC, with its abundance of quick-strike offenses and shifty playmakers, is the perfect setting to marvel at the way Oliver storms the pocket with no regard for who’s trying to block him, blowing up plays before they get off the ground.
His early-March announcement that he would declare for the 2019 NFL draft—before the 2018 draft had taken place—appropriately set the expectations for his junior season. Pull up his official player page on the Houston Athletics website here in mid-June and note that a UH sports information department staffer has helpfully listed no fewer than 54 honors bestowed upon him in the two years and change he has been a Cougar. Every p.r. flex has been deserved, and there will be more to come when the 2019 draft cycle begins in earnest and he finds himself on the short list for the No. 1 overall pick. But first, he has one last fall filled with superhuman highlights for college fans to enjoy.