Even though the opening kick-off for the 2020 NCAA football season is many months away, the time for student-athletes to declare for this April’s NFL draft has passed. We now know who is going, and more importantly for us college football diehards, we know who is staying. Below are the top-10 returning seniors for the upcoming season. Could one of these players walk off to the 2021 draft with a Heisman Trophy under his arm?
DeVonta Smith (WR, Alabama)
It was almost a given that Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III were going to the draft, but Smith was always very quiet on his 2020 season. It didn’t come as a surprise that he is returning, but without his quarterback in Tuscaloosa, the offense will lean on Smith more as a route runner and possession receiver than ever before. He will always be etched in CFP history for his game winning overtime score against Georgia three years ago in the National Championship, but now he has a chance to climb the Alabama record books and become an All-Time great Tide player. Coming off a 1,256-yard season, which included a 274-yard and 5 touchdown game against Ole Miss, Smith will be the Alpha on the offense for whoever ends up as the starting quarterback. He is without a doubt the most important senior on his team in 2020.
Travis Etienne (RB, Clemson)
Uh, what? This was quite the surprise to hear that Etienne was returning to Clemson for his 4th year in the orange and purple. Possibly the most elite pass catching running back we have seen in the CFP era, Etienne will make some GM very happy on draft day next April, but in the meantime, head coach Dabo Swinney is smiling as if he just landed the top recruit in the country. Etienne already has the ACC and school record with 4,038 career rushing yards and 56 touchdowns, so he isn’t come back for records. He has two things on his mind, winning his 2nd national championship and earning his college, and knowing the way Swinney teaches his players, the degree is top of his list. Expect him to play in his fourth consecutive playoffs this December.
Najee Harris (RB, Alabama)
Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, from the University of Alabama, Najee Harris. While it’s quite early to make predictions, I’m very confident in this one. Coming off a 1,224-yard season where he scored 13 touchdowns, Harris is poised to have one of those Alabama-type season where the running back puts up north of 2,000-yards and runs away with the award for the country’s top player, joining Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry on stage with a Crimson jacket. Knowing that there is uncertainty under center, the running game will be heavily relied on in Nick Saban’s offense. Keep in mind, in the 4 games where Mac Jones started for an injured Tua Tagovailoa, Harris rushed for 436 yards and 7 touchdowns. Stretch that out over a 12-game span in 2020 and look out SEC. Harris will be a work horse and his trip to New York at the end of the season will reflect it.
Tylan Wallace (WR, Oklahoma State)
They are bringing a national championship to Stillwater. Those are running back Chuba Hubbard’s words, not mine, but that belief throughout the ‘Poles is why significant players on this team are coming back for a senior season (mainly Wallace). Although a title seems to be a lofty goal, winning the Big-12 is within their reach, and that might come with a CFP birth as it recently has for whoever wins that conference. Wallace saw his junior season cut very short due to injury, but there were certainly enough scouts to have already seen him to know he is one of the top pass catchers in the country. In 2018 he had 1,491 yards on 86 catches, and last season had 903 yards on 53 grabs, in just 8 games. He is a possession monster and combined with a top-back like Hubbard, look for Mike Gundy to be smiling all season as his team celebrates in the endzone often. Big-12 champs? They have a real shot this season.
Big Kat Bryant (DL, Auburn)
There is a theme going on down in Auburn for these defensive linemen, and Big Kat is following exactly what his teammates, and line mates, Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson did last year by returning for his senior season and getting his college degree. For all the grief Gus Malzahn takes in the media, he has installed something special in these young men who care as much, if not more, about their degree and teammates than leaving early for the draft. Bryant might not have been a 1st round pick in April anyways, but a solid 2020 season puts him right there next spring.
Tyler Vaughns (WR, USC)
He wasn’t the best receiver in the Pac-12 last year, but he wasn’t far off either. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is back with the Trojans and he has quite the quarterback battle on his hands between JT Daniels, Kedon Slovis and Matt Fink. Who does this contest benefit most? The wide receivers. They will get a lot of work throughout the spring and by the team QB1 is selected, expect the full offense to be ready. They have an aggressive schedule, opening up with Alabama and ending the season with Notre Dame, so all eyes will be on USC. In 2019 he grabbed 74 passes for 912 yards and 6 scores, all career highs, and I expect year 4 to be even better.
Kylin Hill (RB, Mississippi St)
Perhaps it was the hire of Mike Leach that convinced this 1,350-yard back to return for a 4th go-around. After finishing 3rd in the SEC in rushing, he announced his draft declaration only to retract that 3 weeks later with a return to Starkville. While Leach’s famous ‘Air Raid’ offense generally means a pass-heavy scheme, Hill could really benefit his draft stock by becoming that duel-threat player in the back field. Leach has already stated that he “Hopes Hill leads the SEC in all-purpose yards. In the Air Raid, one thing everybody forgets is the running back position gets most of the yards and gets most of the touches” Could this new offense help Hill show GMs that he can be that pass catching running back that is becoming more and more popular and necessary in the NFL?
CJ Verdell (RB, Oregon)
He was not a 1st round pick, and likely not a 2nd either, so the decision to not enter the draft wasn’t such a surprise, but with Mr. Oregon Duck Justin Herbert graduating, Verdell is going to be called on to be a work horse for Mario Cristobal in 2020. Coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Verdell is back in Eugene to rejoin an offense that will certainly center around him. There are 5 quarterbacks battling it out to replace Herbert, all either Freshmen or Sophomore, and none with real game experience, so Verdell will get the ball early and often to start the season.
Marvin Wilson (DL, Florida State)
Out of any team in the country, you expect players to be leaving the Seminoles locker room in a hurry. They are coming off a 2nd disappointing season and now have a new coach in Mike Norvell who is stepping into his first Power-5 head coaching job. Wilson is the leader on the defense and while his stats and game film have already shown us that he is capable of playing on Sundays, Wilson opted to return for his senior season to be a part of the rebuild. More than anything else, that has to show FSU fans there is reason to believe in a turnaround down in Tallahassee.
Richard LeCounte III (DB, Georgia)
It is widely believed that Kirby Smart will have the top defense in 2020, and the return of LeCounte is one of the top reasons. He dominated the Sugar Bowl with two interceptions off Baylor’s Charlie Brewer and will head into his senior year as the centerpiece of the defensive scheme. He makes big hits when receivers are brave enough to go across the middle, and he forces turnovers. Smart will not worry about any play going LeCounte’s way, in fact he probably prefers it. When the ball goes over the middle, usually good
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