While preseason rankings and Heisman Trophy lists are commonplace this time of year, the college football staff at ESPN took a more unique route by selecting the most exciting player on 25 of the sport’s top programs earlier this month (subscription required).
The Clemson Tigers, winners of five-straight Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championships, took home the No. 1 spot. Handled by staff writer David Hale, junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence, long hailed as the likely top pick in the 2021 National Football League Draft, somewhat surprisingly did not receive the nod here.
Instead, it went to senior tailback Travis Etienne.
“We don’t want to shun Lawrence, but he gets enough attention,” Hale began.
“Instead, let’s put the focus on Etienne, who remarkably turned down NFL money and returns to Clemson for his senior season. Etienne has averaged 7.8 yards per carry for his career – a number that would dwarf the next-closest competitor in ACC history, but he added to his repertoire last year by catching 37 passes, too.
“In fact, Etienne is the leading returning receiver on Clemson’s roster from 2019.”
Ohio State, fresh off their third College Football Playoff appearance in school history, slotted in at No. 2. This time the standout junior gunslinger, Justin Fields, was the selection.
Hitting the ground running in head coach Ryan Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s system, Fields totaled 3,757 yards and 51 touchdowns (41 passing, 10 rushing) in his first year in Columbus, while piloting the Buckeyes to a 13-1 record and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
The third Southeastern Conference (SEC) program to appear on the list, the Florida Gators checked in at No. 7, with senior wide receiver Kadarius Toney being the honoree.
“Toney is often labeled as one of the most electric players on the Florida roster, but beyond a few big plays here and there, the consistency has been missing,” Andrea Adelson wrote.
“When Toney announced he would return for his senior season, the expectations soared once again for two main reasons. No. 1: The Gators are losing their top-four senior receivers from a year ago, opening a major opportunity for Toney to fill the void.
“No. 2: This is his chance to improve his draft stock, too, and nothing does that like a big year when the spotlight is on you.”
A quarterback during his days at Mattie T. Blount High School in Eight Mile, Alabama, Toney was listed as a three-star prospect in the 2017 class, per the 247Sports Composite, and committed to then-head coach Jim McElwain’s Gators on May 4, 2016.
Navigating the position switch to a hybrid wideout/running back, he saw immediate action as a freshman, tallying 272 yards (152 receiving, 120 rushing) and a score on the ground in McElwain’s final season at the helm.
Building off this solid debut campaign, he upped his yardage total to an even 500 (260 receiving, 240 rushing) in 2018 and recorded the first touchdown catch of his collegiate career under new head coach Dan Mullen.
Unfortunately, this progression did not continue as a junior, as Toney’s production slipped to 253 yards (194 receiving, 59 rushing). He was, however, hampered by a left shoulder injury that caused him to miss six games.
Now healthy by all accounts, Adelson alluded to the other reason for optimism entering Toney’s final year in Gainesville. Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond, Van Jefferson and Freddie Swain, four of the team’s top-five receivers a year ago, have all exhausted their eligibility, seemingly opening the door for Toney and classmate Trevon Grimes to establish themselves as the alpha dogs in Billy Gonzales’ meeting room.
Jim Nagy, the Executive Director Reese’s Senior Bowl/ESPN NFL draft analyst, tweeted this out Friday on UF’s receivers:
“The @seniorbowl has high grades on two more @GatorsFB wideouts this year. Kadarius Toney has been UF’s most electric playmaker since he was true frosh & we expect Trevon Grimes to be THE breakout WR of ‘21 class.”
Other SEC names to appear on ESPN’s list were junior wideout Jaylen Waddle for the No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide, sophomore George Pickens, another receiver, for the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs, yet another pass-catcher, junior Ja’Marr Chase for the No. 8 LSU Tigers, Demond Demas, an incoming freshman receiver, for the No. 11 Texas A&M Aggies, and one more wideout, junior Anthony Schwartz, for the No. 14 Auburn Tigers.
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