Top 100 College Football Players of 2018: Nos. 100–51

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There’s no perfect way to recognize individual achievement in college football. Last fall Lamar Jackson improved upon his numbers from a Heisman Trophy–winning 2016 season but played out the final few games of his Louisville career in relative obscurity as the Cardinals limped to a middling finish. Baker Mayfield earned every ounce of last year’s postseason hardware, but this fall we may get another reminder that the awards circuit will never give defensive superstars the same attention it gives stat-stuffing quarterbacks like him. Luckily, no matter where your team finished in ’17, the dog days of the college football offseason are a time for optimism and extrapolation, where even one player’s breakout performance is enough to sustain hopes of a surprise bowl bid, conference contention or a playoff run.

That’s why we set out on the annual impossible task of projecting the 100 best players in college football ahead of the upcoming season. In constructing our rankings, the most important factor we assess is how significantly each player’s production will impact his team’s success this season—not how good he was last year, where he sat on 2017 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.

Without further ado, let’s kick off this year’s top 100 with … a kicker:

100. Rodrigo Blankenship, K, Georgia

Anyone who hadn’t caught wind of Blankenship’s internet fame before last season probably got to know him during the national championship game, when he knocked in a 51-yard field goal in overtime to put Georgia up by three against Alabama moments before the Crimson Tide’s winning touchdown. The leg strength and accuracy that ‘Hot Rod’ demonstrated on that kick helped him connect on 20 of his 23 attempts for the Bulldogs in 2017. — Chris Johnson

99. Joe Giles-Harris, LB, Duke

After taking a redshirt year in 2015, Giles-Harris has led the Blue Devils in tackles in each of his two seasons of action, and his team-leading 16 tackles for loss last fall put him fourth in the ACC behind some marquee disruptors: NC State’s Bradley Chubb, Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. He is the cornerstone of Duke’s sneaky-good defense. — Eric Single

98. Ben Banogu, DT, TCU

The Horned Frogs’ plan for replacing 2017 Big 12 sacks leader Mat Boesen begins with Banogu, a 6’4″, 249-pound force who has clearly established himself as one of the conference’s best pass rushers. After sitting out the 2016 season following a transfer from Louisiana Monroe, Banogu posted 8.5 sacks and a team-high 16.5 tackles for loss and earned the conference’s defensive newcomer of the year award. He’s the latest in a long line of defensive aces to develop under TCU head coach Gary Patterson. — CJ

97. Clifton Duck, CB, Appalachian State

Here’s the early favorite to force Trace McSorley’s first interception of 2018 when Penn State welcomes the Mountaineers to State College in Week 1. Duck is one of the Sun Belt’s leading ballhawks, sitting level with Troy’s Blace Brown for the national lead in interceptions over the last two seasons with 11. According to Pro Football Focus, Duck has allowed the ninth-lowest passer rating when targeted (35.5) of any returning FBS corner. — ES

96. Ugochukwu Amadi, DB, Oregon

Amadi’s experience and versatility will stabilize a secondary projected to lean heavily on a pair of underclassmen (true sophomores Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir) at cornerback. In his second season working under esteemed defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who opted to stay on with promoted head coach Mario Cristobal rather than follow predecessor Willie Taggart to Florida State, Amadi should be a big difference maker for an Oregon defense looking to build on last year’s improvement. — CJ

95. TJ Edwards, LB, Wisconsin

A versatile, sure-tackling inside linebacker at Wisconsin? Wonders never cease. Edwards tied for the team lead with four picks as a junior and will be called upon again to be a primary playmaker for a defense that has to replace seven starters yet is still being relied upon to backstop the Badgers’ playoff hopes. — ES

94. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

A quarterback competition between senior Kelly Bryant and true freshman Trevor Lawrence may be the biggest story at Clemson’s preseason camp, but it shouldn’t obscure Etienne’s importance to the Tigers’ offense. After outplaying his recruiting ranking—he was the class of 2017’s No. 15 running back, according to the 247Sports Composite—as a true freshman last season, Etienne will spearhead a powerful ground game alongside junior Tavien Feaster. — CJ

93. Caleb Wilson, TE, UCLA

Wilson was well on his way to becoming Josh Rosen’s favorite target in 2017—he caught 15 passes for 208 yards against Texas A&M and 11 for 145 against Stanford—before surgery on a forefoot injury ended his sophomore season after just one month. If the offense Chip Kelly installs in Westwood is anything like what it was at his past stops, the Bruins’ top tight end is in line for plenty of playmaking opportunities. — ES

92. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

After earning Pac-12 offensive player of the year honors and placing sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2016, Browning faded from the national spotlight last season. He is primed for a senior-season resurgence despite the departure of No. 1 wide receiver Dante Pettis. Browning’s experience and accurate arm could give Washington the edge over Stanford in what should be a heated race for the Pac-12 North crown. — CJ

91. Isaiah Buggs, DL, Alabama

Alabama’s defensive line got a boost in the winter when Buggs, who joined the loaded unit before the 2017 season as a junior college transfer, announced he was returning for his senior season. After losing several members of the front seven to the NFL, the Crimson Tide need Buggs to be an anchor and a playmaker among the highly-touted returnees stepping into larger roles. In the national title game against Georgia, Buggs logged five tackles as Alabama held the Bulldogs’ two star backs to just 123 total rushing yards. — Joan Niesen

90. Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU

Reagor hinted at his potential in TCU’s wild, comeback win over Stanford in the Alamo Bowl last season by breaking free for a 93-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter and totaling 169 receiving yards on five receptions. Reagor will need to adjust to a new quarterback this season—sophomore Shawn Robinson is the leading candidate to succeed two-year starter Kenny Hill—but that shouldn’t stop him from driving Big 12 defensive coordinators mad with his big-play burst. — CJ

89. Jalen Jelks, DE, Oregon

Quarterback Justin Herbert won’t be the only Duck drawing NFL decision-makers to Eugene this fall. Oregon’s leader in sacks and tackles for loss a year ago, Jelks is lanky and lightning-quick off the edge, which makes the Leonard Floyd comps come easy and gives Jim Leavitt a powerful weapon to deploy on the Pac-12’s best passers. — ES

88. Nate Herbig, OL, Stanford

Running back Bryce Love’s thrilling bid for the Heisman Trophy last season was boosted by Herbig’s consistent interior mashing. If Herbig and the rest of Stanford’s imposing offensive line can clear enough running room for Love to make another push for the bronze trophy this season, the 6’4″, 348-pound Kalaheo, Hawaii, product should be in line for his second consecutive first-team All-Pac-12 spot. — CJ

87. L.J. Scott, RB, Michigan State

After leading the Spartans in rushing in each of the last three years, Scott is the key to what many in East Lansing believe could be a special season. With so many pieces back for Michigan State—SB Nation’s Bill Connelly found that no FBS team returns more—including dangerous dual-threat QB Brian Lewerke, Scott should have little trouble topping the 1,000-yard mark for the first time. That milestone is a baseline requirement for the Spartans to consider Big Ten title contention. — ES

86. Derrick Brown, DL, Auburn

There may be no team other than Clemson that rolls out a more imposing defensive line than Auburn this season. Brown could be the Tigers’ standout performer up front: a 6’5″, 325-pound junior who’s big enough to eat up space and nimble enough to get after the passer. He shouldn’t be overlooked in what’s shaping up to be a loaded class of prospects at his position group for the 2019 NFL draft. — CJ

85. Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri

The Tigers’ remarkable midseason revival was ignited by an offense that scored at will, and no one found the end zone more often than Okwuegbunam. The towering true freshman caught just 25 passes last year, but he scored 10 of his SEC-best 11 touchdowns from mid-October on as gunslinging quarterback Drew Lock began to look his way over the middle. — ES

84. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

Tagovailoa may have won the Crimson Tide their fifth national championship in nine seasons when he came off the bench to throw for 166 yards and three touchdown passes against Georgia in January. Yet that performance didn’t win Tagovailoa Alabama’s starting quarterback job for 2018. Assuming he prevails over junior Jalen Hurts, Tagovailoa—with help from a trio of gifted sophomore wideouts (Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III)—has the potential to grow into one of the most effective passers Nick Saban has coached in Tuscaloosa. — CJ

83. Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn

Stidham’s first season on the Plains was (almost) everything Tigers fans could have asked for out of the Baylor transfer: balanced distribution to Auburn’s many receiving options, a sterling 17–4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a win over Alabama to clinch the SEC West. He’s the first 3,000-yard passer to return for a second season at Auburn in school history, and his consistency and aversion to mistakes edges him in front of his Crimson Tide counterpart. — ES

82. Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo

There’s a good chance you haven’t seen Johnson play, heard his name mentioned on a preview show or read his name on many major sites. That ought to change this fall, because Johnson is one of the most productive pass catchers in the country. Last season he ranked sixth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 1,356 receiving yards, and his 14 receiving touchdowns ranked second in the Group of Five behind Memphis’s Anthony Miller, who had 18. — CJ

81. Lil’Jordan Humphrey, WR, Texas

He scored just twice as a sophomore while serving a utility role within Tom Herman’s first offense in Austin, but the 6’4”, 220-pound Humphrey is in line to make a leap—along with towering leading receiver Collin Johnson—if the Longhorns can straighten out their quarterback situation. Herman would be best served getting the ball in Humphrey’s hands in a wide variety of ways. — ES

80. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan

It wasn’t that long ago that Patterson felt like a long shot to gain immediate eligibility at Michigan. Now he’s being touted as the potential savior for a bumbling offense that finished 101st nationally in yards per play last season. As long as there are no lingering effects from the season-ending knee injury he suffered at Ole Miss last October, Patterson could provide the offensive spark the Wolverines need to rise to the top of a daunting Big Ten East division. — CJ

79. Azeez Al-Shaair, LB, Florida Atlantic

The hype surrounding Lane Kiffin’s inaugural season in Boca Raton focused on the Owls’ dynamic offense at the expense of a surprisingly serviceable defense that played a big role in turning shootouts into blowouts. Al-Shaair was the tackling machine at the center of it all, leading the Owls with 146 total stops, including 10 tackles for loss. — ES

78. Lavert Hill, DB, Michigan

An unspecified injury sidelined Hill for much of Michigan’s spring, but it’s not expected to set him back this season as he looks to build on a second-team All-Big Ten campaign. At full strength, Hill is an elite cover man capable of spooking opposing quarterbacks out of making contested throws in his vicinity. He and fellow junior David Long have a strong case as the conference’s premier cornerback duo. — CJ

77. Jeffery Simmons, DE, Mississippi State

Simmons’s five-star talent began to show through in his sophomore year, when he blocked three kicks and put up five sacks and 12 tackles for loss. With the secret out on linemate Montez Sweat’s abilities as a difference-maker in the backfield, conditions are perfect for Simmons to put up a breakout season surpassing what Sweat turned in last year. With luck, he could parlay a gaudy junior season stat line into a first-round pick in the 2019 draft—if some NFL team makes peace with the simple assault arrest and video of him striking a woman that nearly ended his college career before it started. — ES

76. Jordan Ta’amu, QB, Ole Miss

Ta’amu offered a preview of a potential breakout campaign when he took over as the Rebels’ starting quarterback after Shea Patterson went down with a season-ending knee injury in October. Now entrenched as Ole Miss’s No. 1 passer, Ta’amu is set to spend the fall carving up opposing defenses by spreading the ball around to a dangerous receiving corps fronted by Biletnikoff Award candidate and potential first-round draft pick A.J. Brown. — CJ

75. Devin White, LB, LSU

Speed, speed, speed. Like Deion Jones before him, White brings closing ability in the middle of LSU defense that most inside linebackers can’t dream of, leaving him in the thick of nearly every stop the Tigers make. He led the team with 14 tackles for loss as a sophomore, and his exceptional athleticism will set the tone for a unit that should again be asked to keep the offense in games. — ES

74. Beau Benzschawel, OL, Wisconsin

Benzschawel is entering his third full season as Wisconsin’s starting right guard (with 36 starts in a row overall), and he has a chance to cement himself as one of the nation’s most formidable interior linemen while aiding a Big Ten championship run. One of five starters returning for the Badgers up front, Benzschawel will be tasked with opening up running lanes for Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor. — CJ

73. Jonathan Ledbetter, DE, Georgia

With Davin Bellamy, Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and more standouts off to the NFL, Ledbetter and linebacker D’Andre Walker are the elder statesmen of Georgia’s front seven and will be expected to produce at the rate their old teammates did. Now that the depth chart is clear and the off-field troubles that checkered his first two years in Athens behind him, Ledbetter has a sky-high ceiling. — ES

72. Sutton Smith, DL, Northern Illinois

No front-seven defender was more productive than Smith last season. The converted running back led the country with 29.5 tackles for loss and tied Central Michigan’s Joe Ostman for the sacks lead with 14. He’ll spend most of the fall terrorizing MAC offensive linemen, and he’ll get a chance to test himself against three Power 5 opponents: at Iowa (Sept. 1), at home against Utah (Sept. 8) and at Florida State (Sept. 22). — CJ

71. Mark Gilbert, CB, Duke

Gilbert was one of just seven players with at least six interceptions in 2017, and his ACC-leading 21 total passes defended helped him earn him first-team all-conference honors. Duke surrendered fewer than 25 points 11 times in 13 games last season and will need a repeat performance on the defensive side of the ball to make it six bowl trips in seven years. — ES

70. Damien Harris, RB, Alabama

The Crimson Tide have opted for a by-committee approach at running back in the two seasons since Derrick Henry carried the ball 395 times during his Heisman Trophy campaign. Alabama seems likely to continue that approach this year. Yet for all that sophomore Najee Harris offers as a ballcarrier, the Crimson Tide probably would benefit from giving Harris more touches. Last season he led Alabama with 11 rushing touchdowns and 8.2 yards per carry. — CJ

69. Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson

Hunter Renfrow remains the primary chains-mover in the Clemson passing game, but with Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud off to the pros, Higgins becomes the Tigers’ leading downfield threat. He averaged a team-high 20.3 yards per catch as a freshman but struggled to get consistent touches and suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama. Whether it’s Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence throwing him passes this year, expect a breakout campaign. — ES

68. Andrew Thomas, OL, Georgia

It didn’t take long for Thomas to prove he had the potential to live up to his lofty recruiting ranking; the Pace (Ga.) Academy standout was rated the No. 9 offensive tackle in the class of 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite. Thomas started all 15 of Georgia’s games last season at right tackle, where he helped pave the way for the SEC’s leading rushing attack (5.79 yards per carry). His charge this season: Do everything in his power to ensure the Bulldogs maintain that distinction even without NFL-bound Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. — CJ

67. Joe Jackson, DE, Miami

In his first season as a full-time starter, Jackson led all Hurricanes D-linemen with 59 tackles. A relentless worker with great instincts off the edge, he finished with more sacks (6.5) than any other returning Cane. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has to know some sort of regression is coming for his group of turnover artists, but Jackson should be a reassuring constant as a backfield disruptor. — ES

66. Benny Snell Jr., RB, Kentucky

Snell’s 1,333 rushing yards in 2017 are the most of any running back returning to the SEC in ’18. The Wildcats should give him every opportunity to beat that figure—and make a run at the program’s career rushing record, which Snell trails by only 1,411 yards after just two seasons in Lexington—as they work in a new quarterback following the departure of senior Stephen Johnson. — CJ

65. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia

We may ultimately look foolish for leaving both quarterbacks from last year’s national championship game out of the top 60 on this list, and if Fromm replicates his 2017 effectiveness without Chubb and Michel alongside him in the backfield, he’ll find himself in next year’s top 10. As a true freshman starter, he stepped up in response to every challenge he faced during SEC play, roasting cocky corners with back-shoulder bullets and taking care of the ball for a loaded Bulldogs team that didn’t need him to throw for 300 yards a game. — ES

64. Collin Johnson, WR, Texas

Lil’Jordan Humphrey was the offensive star of Texas’s spring workouts, but Johnson is the most proven member of the Longhorns’ receiving corps, having led the team with 725 receiving yards last season. Regardless of whether Sam Ehlinger or Shane Buechele is under center this fall, Texas will need Johnson to produce to elevate a passing game that ranked ninth in the Big 12 in yards per attempt and efficiency last season. — CJ

63. Trayvon Mullen, CB, Clemson

That vaunted Clemson defense goes well beyond the future first-rounders in the trenches. Mullen tied safety Ryan Carter for the team lead in interceptions (three) and finished behind only Carter in pass breakups (seven). Carter, fellow safety Van Smith and backup corner Marcus Edmond are all gone, making Mullen the playmaking leader of the Tigers’ thinnest defensive position group. — ES

62. Khaleke Hudson, LB, Michigan

Ace defensive coordinator Don Brown has groomed Hudson, a former three-star safety/athlete recruit out of McKeesport Area (Pa.) High School, into a big-time playmaker at the Wolverines’ hybrid Viper position. On Nov. 4 Hudson set a single-game Big Ten record with eight tackles for loss in a 33–10 win over Minnesota, and the only player in the conference to beat Hudson’s 18 TFL last season was teammate Chase Winovich (18.5). — CJ

61. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

It’s been a long offseason of Herbert hype, and everyone knows by now how good the Ducks were when he was healthy (6–1 in the regular season on the strength of Herbert’s 13 passing TDs against just three interceptions) and how bad they were when he was recovering from a broken collarbone (1–4 in five straight Pac-12 games starting in October, averaging 8.25 points per game in those four losses). To send the 2019 NFL draft hype into overdrive, he will need to back up his sky-high upside against the Pac-12 North heavyweights who feasted on the Ducks when he was injured in ‘17. — ES

60. Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish lost highly regarded defensive coordinator Mike Elko to Texas A&M this offseason, but in Tillery they retained a key cog in their defensive front who could have left for the NFL draft. If Tillery acquits himself well after reportedly switching from nose guard to 3-technique in Notre Dame’s 4-2-5 scheme, it’ll go a long way towards helping sustain the progress the Fighting Irish made on that side of the ball last season. — CJ

59. Trey Smith, OL, Tennessee

Smith earned second-team All-SEC honors but did not participate in spring practice due to an undisclosed medical issue. If he’s back to 100% by the fall, he’s got a strong case to be the best player on new head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s first team. — ES

58. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington

Washington lost its most explosive playmaker and leading wide receiver this offseason in Dante Pettis, and it also could have lost its leading running back. Instead, Gaskin decided to return to Seattle as a senior rather than jump to the pros. After notching a career-high 6.2 yards per carry and 21 rushing touchdowns in 2017, Gaskin will team with fourth-year starting quarterback starter Jake Browning in a seasoned backfield capable of supporting a Pac-12 title bid. — CJ

57. Kendall Joseph, LB, Clemson

Joseph has finished second on the team in tackles each of the last two years, and unlucky injuries kept him from rising to a prominent role within Clemson’s front seven even sooner. As one of four Tigers with double-digit quarterback pressures a year ago, Joseph will be an essential leader within the front seven, even if the linemen in front of him continue to rack up the majority of the eye-popping stats. — ES

56. Chase Winovich, LB, Michigan

It’s not a huge stretch to suggest the Wolverines could field the No. 1 defense in the country this season, and Winovich is a major reason why. He is a 6’3″, 253-pound wrecking ball off the edge who is poised to spend his fifth year in Ann Arbor tormenting Big Ten offenses while functioning as one half of a frightening defensive end duo that also includes projected first-round draft pick Rashan Gary. —CJ

55. Taylor Rapp, S, Washington

Rapp made a significant impact as a freshman on a veteran Huskies defense and then followed it up with a first-team all-Pac 12 campaign as a sophomore. Washington has realistic College Football Playoff aspirations, just as it did in Rapp’s first year on campus, and he will be part of the last line of defense critical to keeping the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks in check. — ES

54. Lukas Denis, DB, Boston College

Denis was one of the main reasons the Eagles rated out as one of the stingiest pass defenses in the nation last season. Only Iowa’s Josh Jackson (eight) exceeded Denis’s seven interceptions, and among Boston College players, his 79 total tackles trailed only defensive end Zach Allen (91) and linebacker Ty Schwab (101). Denis is unlikely to record as many takeaways this season, but he and fellow senior Will Harris could form one of the ACC’s top secondary tandems. — CJ

53. Stephen Carr, RB, USC

With two touchdowns in the season opener against Western Michigan and 119 yards on 11 carries the next week against Stanford, Carr looked primed to match Ronald Jones carry-for-carry. But a sprained ankle put his sparkling freshman debut on ice as Jones put together a sparkling junior season, and back surgery has left Carr sidelined for most of offseason workouts. If he’s back to full speed by the fall, as head coach Clay Helton expects, Carr will be the centerpiece of a talented but unproven offense trying to fill the holes left by Jones and Sam Darnold. — ES

52. Michael Deiter, OL, Wisconsin

The highlight of Deiter’s 2017 season was the four-yard touchdown he scored on a screen pass late in the fourth quarter of Wisconsin’s Oct. 28 win at Illinois. When he wasn’t garnering consideration for SB Nation’s Piesman Trophy, Deiter was anchoring Wisconsin’s pass protection and clearing room for its running game as a 14-game starter at left tackle. Whether he stays at tackle or moves back inside this season, Deiter will be a pivotal piece of an imposing offensive front. — CJ

51. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama

The only Alabama player to have a spot to himself on the SEC’s all-freshman team last year, Moses was just coming into his own—having led all tacklers with 10 stops in the Iron Bowl—when a foot injury in practice left him watching the playoff from the sidelines. Moses and Mack Wilson are next in line to grow into dominant interior linebackers for the Tide. — ES

Check back later this week for the rest of the list.

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