We have a pretty good idea who college football's current stars are entering the 2021 season. But there are those who might not necessarily have brand-name recognition just yet but can play at a high level, nonetheless.
Here are 25 under-the-radar talents to keep in mind during the 2021 season.
We don't really know what to expect from Michigan at the quarterback position this season, but there's a good chance Bell could be the most consistent offensive performer for the Maize and Blue in 2021. In 19 games over the past two seasons, Bell has totaled 74 receptions for 1,159 yards. However, he has just four career touchdowns in three seasons, so Bell needs to hit pay dirt a little more often.
Brown finds himself on both the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch lists, and rightfully an honor bestowed. Amid the craziness of 2020, Brown enjoyed a breakout campaign, rushing for a career-high 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games for the Mountaineers. Brown ran for a career-best 195 yards versus Kansas on Oct. 17. His 31 receptions also ranked in the top-10 nationally among running backs.
If college football fans were asked to offer up a guess as to who shared the national lead in interceptions last season, would Canteen come to mind? Probably not. But that's one of the correct answers. Canteen might play at a smaller school from the Group of Five Sun Belt Conference, but he put forth a big-time performance in 2020 with six interceptions, tying Northwestern's Brandon Joseph for the most on the FBS level. Canteen also recorded 10 passes defended and ranked third on his team with 48 tackles.
Those outside of the N.C. State football bubble or the ACC probably don't realize that Emezie has been one of the most consistently productive wide receivers since 2017. In his previous four seasons, Emezie posted 169 receptions for 2,093 yards with 13 touchdowns for the Wolfpack. He gets one more collegiate run in 2021, that's if he can recover from the fall camp injury and stay healthy.
Forbes will look to build on quite the freshman season when he recorded five interceptions for the Bulldogs. However, that's not the most impressive part of his introduction to college football. Forbes returned three of those picks for touchdowns -- tying the all-time school record in that category. He also ranked among the team leaders with 44 tackles. Is it possible Forbes can be even more defensively productive in 2021?
Despite Illinois' lack of consistent success over the years, the program has produced some stellar individual talent on both sides of the ball. Hansen seems to be the next in line. He ranked among the Big Ten leaders with 68 tackles in eight games last season for another sub-par Illini squad. Ten of those tackles went for loss and Hansen also recorded 2 1/2 sacks, intercepted two passes, and forced two fumbles in 2020. In four collegiate seasons, Hansen has recorded 243 tackles and forced 10 fumbles.
Perhaps not completely under the radar, Johnson is taking his act from Georgia to Florida State in 2021. And, the Seminoles are pretty excited about that fact. In 21 games spanning two seasons at Georgia, Johnson recorded 36 tackles, eight for loss, and an impressive 7 1/2 sacks. Five of those sacks came last season. It will be interesting to see if Johnson can remain productive while a member of a less dominant defensive unit this year.
There is plenty of quality tight-end talent on the FBS scene in 2021. Likely needs to be mentioned among the best in the country, even though he's part of a Group of Five program. In three seasons with the Chanticleers, Likely has recorded 74 receptions for 1,138 yards with 15 touchdowns. With those numbers on a 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame, Likely is a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs of any caliber.
Liberty has a well-publicized star in quarterback Malik Willis. Yet, Mack has been highly productive in two seasons for the Flames, and two years prior at FCS Maine. In four collegiate seasons total, Mack's rushed for 3,636 yards, averaged 5.5 per carry, and scored 26 times on the ground. His breakout season came in 2019, first at Liberty, with 1,335 yards. He could be even better with a full 2021 season awaiting.
The Irish struck gold (pun intended) with the transfer of the 6-foot-3, 313-pound Madden from Marshall. He went from a walk-on to the second-team All-American from The Associated Press in 2020. Now, Madden, no doubt slated to be a starter on Notre Dame's offensive line, gets to potentially be in the hunt for a national championship in his final collegiate season. Seems like a good situation for both parties.
For the past three seasons, Marks had to share carries with the extremely talented Jaret Patterson. Now, with Patterson trying to build an NFL career, Marks should be the featured back for the Bulls in 2021. Marks enters his senior campaign with quite the resume -- 2,621 career rushing yards, a 5.1 yards-per-carry average, and 28 touchdowns on the ground. Is he ready for a potential spotlight all to himself?
Only Iowa State's Breece Hall rushed for more yards on the FBS level than McCormick's 1,467 in 2020. McCormick's 133.4 average rush yards per game were also among the nation's best. In two college seasons, McCormick has totaled 2,450 rushing yards, for a 5.8 average per carry, and 19 touchdowns. Though it might be tough to regularly catch McCormick and UTSA on television, there are obviously plenty of ways to keep up with his progress in 2021.
Overshown is certainly not overrated. In fact, some college football pundits believe he might be the most talented performer on the entire Longhorns' roster. He's certainly the most active. In 2020, Overshown totaled 60 tackles, eight for loss, a sack, forced two fumbles, and picked off two passes. That's a whole lot of athletic ability for a guy who seems to get better as his collegiate career progresses.
At 23-years-old, Oldroyd is all about experience and knowing how to handle pressure. Maybe that's why he was one of the top, yet unheralded, kickers in the country last season. A big part of BYU's 11-1 squad in 2020, Oldroyd converted all 13 of his field-goal attempts. That included an impressive 7-for-7 run on attempts of 40 yards or more. Interestingly enough, he missed two extra-point tries. Go figure.
Parham has been a model of consistency for the Tigers during his previous three seasons in the program. Entering his redshirt-senior campaign, the 6-foot-3, 285-pound Parham has started all 39 games Memphis has played the past three seasons. He's also pretty good. Enough for various NFL scouts to believe he'll be worthy of a first-round pick in the 2022 draft.
Kent State's Dustin Crum has earned plenty of love among Mid-American Conference quarterbacks entering the 2021 season. However, Plitt might be the star of the league. In 2020, he threw for a MAC-best 2,164 yards with 17 touchdowns and six touchdowns while completing 65.6-percent of his passes. Oh yeah, the Cardinals went 7-1, won the MAC title and a bowl game. Over 33 career games, Plitt has thrown for more than 6,500 yards with 50 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.
Rice will be playing for his third school in 2021. He started his career at Fresno State, where he was an All-Mountain West Conference selection while recording a team-high 112 tackles. Rice then enrolled at Arkansas State, and last season led that squad with 76 tackles and seven sacks. Now, Rice is back in the Mountain West , this time at Utah State, where his coach at Arkansas State Blake Anderson, is now running the program.
To those inside the SEC, Rodriguez is a known commodity, but since Kentucky is a mid-level program within the league, he's not necessarily a household name to the rest of the nation. However, Rodriguez might end up being the top running back in the conference this season after he allowed 785 yards with 11 touchdowns in nine 2020 games. There are also plenty of SEC pundits who believe the junior could have a nice career at the next level, too.
Having Sanborn back in the middle of the Badgers defense is obviously key for a program looking to challenge for a Big Ten West title -- and perhaps more. He's led Wisconsin in tackles each of the last two seasons, posting 132 with 13 for loss over that total span. Sanborn also recorded 6 1/2 sacks and four interceptions in 2019 and '20 combined. With a full season in '21, Sanborn might be in store for his best performance yet.
Let it be known that Strong is on plenty of radars when it comes to NFL scouts. Many in that profession believe he's got first-round talent. It's the casual football fan that probably is unaware of what Strong has done in two seasons at Nevada. He threw for 5,193 yards in 2019 and '20, and 27 of his 38 career touchdown passes came in just nine games last season. Now, Strong is dealing with a preseason knee issue, but the current concern level does not appear too high.
If the last name sounds familiar, it should. Tua's younger brother didn't think, or maybe it was his father, that he had a future at Alabama. But, he made enough noise last season in four games at Maryland (1,011 passing yards, seven TDs, seven INTs) it's worth keeping an eye on him in 2021. The Terps might not be in contention for a Big Ten title, but their offense should be fun to watch.
There might be some level of controversy as to why Thompson-Robinson missed more than a week of fall camp, but he's back and apparently focused on a strong senior season. DTR has certainly built up to this moment, throwing for 5,132 yards with 40 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, and 572 rushing yards covering 24 career games spanning three seasons with the Bruins. Whether UCLA is any closer to achieving its first bowl bid in four seasons remains to be seen.
Tolbert is one of the nation's top returning wide receivers from 2020 when he caught 64 passes for 1,085 yards with eight touchdowns in 11 games. It was a breakout effort that has many NFL scouts boasting about how much success the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Tolbert can potentially achieve at the next level. However, playing at a smaller FBS school like South Alabama, Tolbert is still somewhat unknown to a national audience.
One of Carson Strong's favorite targets in 2020 was Turner, whose 49 receptions, 605 yards, and nine touchdowns each ranked among the leaders for tight ends last season. Like Strong and receiver Romeo Doubs (145 career receptions, 2,213 yards, 15 TDs) Turner is also being mentioned by scouts and NFL executives as a high-round pick. It's easy to see why Nevada has an offensive machine and is expected to compete for a Mountain West Conference championship.
A graduate transfer from Old Dominion, White is expected to be a key defensive contributor for the Yellow Jackets this season. However, an undisclosed injury will keep the talented pass rusher out of Georgia Tech's first two contests of 2021. That should only add to the intrigue surrounding White, who ranked among the national leaders with 19 tackles for loss and recorded 3 1/2 sacks in 2019. Old Dominion did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.