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Returning seniors who are also elite, impact players are a dying breed in college football. If players are good enough to take their talents to the NFL, they normally bypass at least a year of eligibility.
The returning “gray-beards” for 2022 are plenty good enough to stake their claim as the sport’s stars, but they essentially said the pros can wait. They have the potential to contend for individual hardware and take their teams to greater heights.
From a couple of elite dual-threat quarterbacks to a trio of guys those signal-callers need run from, the list of top returning seniors has plenty of star power.
Plenty of players who fell just outside the top 10 were considered for this list. Among those, the following were the hardest decisions to leave off: Running backs Zach Charbonnet (UCLA), Travis Dye (USC), Chris Rodriguez Jr. (Kentucky) and Isaiah Spiller (Texas A&M), defenders Bumper Pool (Arkansas), Habakkuk Baldonado (Pitt) and Brenton Cox (Florida), receiver Cedric Tillman (Tennessee), and quarterbacks Spencer Sanders (Oklahoma State), Stetson Bennett (Georgia), Will Levis (Kentucky), Clayton Tune (Houston) and Brennan Armstrong (Virginia).
This year’s senior class is loaded.
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If you want a player on this list you can look back at, circle and say, “Wow, he should have been ranked higher,” Nolan Smith is your guy.
While he may be the least-proven player represented when it comes to game-changing stats and even production, the nation’s former top-ranked player has more potential than probably anybody else here. And he is going to have a lot of elite talent out of his way to make plenty of noise in 2022.
Think about how exceptional the national champion Bulldogs’ defense has been the past two seasons and remember Smith was just a role player. He’s going to take the reins and be a star for the Dawgs next year.
The 6’3″, 235-pound outside linebacker/edge-rusher registered 53 tackles, including eight for a loss and 4.5 sacks a season ago. He added an interception, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He is an emerging, disruptive force who has carved a role all three years he’s been in Athens, but he’s never really been the focal point.
With players like Travon Walker, Devonte Wyatt, Nakobe Dean, Quay Walker and Jordan Davis gone from UGA’s front seven, veteran leadership and talent are needed, and Smith has both of those attributes. He could surge to an All-American season.
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It’s not every day you see the nation’s leading tackler this low on the list, but that’s taking nothing away from Jack Campbell’s value to his Iowa Hawkeyes.
He is consistently around the football, a vital cog in one of the nation’s top defenses and a guy who has the potential to build on last year’s excellence. With other veterans Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs also back, the linebacking core will be Iowa’s strength.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Campbell led everybody with 143 tackles while adding 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. The media named him a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and the coaches granted him third-team honors.
At 6’5″, 243 pounds, Campbell has the size to play on the next level, and if he produces at the same level as he did a season ago, he could surge up draft boards. The Cedar Falls native finished his 2021 season with a 14-tackle performance in a 20-17 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, and he could be leading the class of the Big Ten West this year.
“Jack is a monster,” Jacobs told Hawkeye Insider’s David Eickholt. “He really embodies the standard. Like when you look at Jack, he’s always going 100 percent. He always knows what he’s doing, and he’s always trying to bring others along. I think when you have a guy like that on our defense, we don’t really have a limit because he’s just continuously pushing us.”
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Offensive linemen don’t get any of the glory, and they normally don’t want it. If a player at that position is being spotlighted, it’s normally because they did something wrong.
In this case, Notre Dame interior offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson has done a ton of things right in his career in South Bend, and the team captain returns to the Fighting Irish with a chance to help lead an offensive front that could be a team strength.
The three-year starter returns for a fifth and final season, and the rugged center is exactly what you want at a player in his position. Though the Irish will have young players alongside him (besides fellow graduate senior Josh Lugg), they are super-talented, and veteran line coach Harry Hiestand returns after a coaching the Chicago Bears’ offensive line in 2018-19 to lead the way.
Patterson had to think his development would be enhanced by learning under Hiestand for a year. With new coach Marcus Freeman starting his program in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, Patterson clearly wanted to be a part of it.
Though he has battled injuries in his past and is missing the spring with a torn pectoral muscle, Patterson is a leader, a valuable piece of the offense and will be the kind of cornerstone around which the Irish can build. Centers aren’t normally high-round draft picks, but Patterson could have been a Day 2 pick a season ago.
He has the chance to improve his stock even more while he tries to lead Notre Dame back to the College Football Playoff.
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When healthy, all Mohamed Ibrahim has done at the college level is produce incredible rushing numbers.
Unfortunately for him and his Minnesota Golden Gophers, he wasn’t healthy a year ago, suffering a season-ending Achilles injury early in the year, which cost him what would have been his final campaign playing for coach P.J. Fleck.
But he’s back to do it all again in 2022, and if he is fully recovered, he will be an elite, unstoppable force and the centerpiece of Minnesota’s offense. Of course, with a setback like he had, Ibrahim will need to show the NFL he’s ready. But don’t bet against him.
As a true freshman in 2018, he rushed for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns, and after a bit of a downward turn as a sophomore, he was one of the nation’s best players in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, running for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in only seven games.
Those numbers were good enough for him to be a first-team all-conference selection. In the opener against Ohio State last year, he had rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries before suffering his season-ending injury late in the third quarter.
Fleck told reporters this spring that Ibrahim was taking part in some drills, but wouldn’t be ready for full contact until the fall. Once that happens, he’s going to be a force once again.
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If Jayden Reed was only a wide receiver, he could still merit inclusion on this list. However, he may have just missed the cut if his receiving numbers were all there is to his game.
But Reed does so much more. In fact, the Michigan State Spartans star may be the most valuable all-purpose player in the country.
A season ago, he was named a first-team All-American as an all-purpose player by the American Football Coaches Association. Not only did he lead the Spartans with 59 catches for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns on their way to an 11-2 record, but he also gets his hands on the ball in other ways.
Reed ranked first in the Big Ten with a 19.8-yard average in punt returns. He took two of those to the house—tying him for the most in the nation last season—including a 62-yarder against Nebraska and an 88-yarder against Western Kentucky.
He returned 16 kicks for a 23.5-yard average and also added a rushing touchdown. Tucker obviously thinks highly enough as a playmaker that Reed is involved in every facet of the game but defense.
The 6’0″, 185-pound pass-catcher almost certainly would have been taken in this year’s draft, but instead he is going to come back and could be one of the best playmakers in college football for coach Mel Tucker’s blossoming powerhouse. He’s one to watch whenever he touches the ball.
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Malik Cunningham’s highlight-reel game against hapless Duke a season ago was one for the ages, arguably one of the best single-game performances ever for a Power Five quarterback.
He ultimately finished with 527 of Louisville’s 687 total yards and scored seven touchdowns in a blowout win.
Returning for his redshirt senior season for coach Scott Satterfield’s team, Cunningham has the knowledge, has spent time in the system and certainly has the skill set to be an even more electrifying player who could take the Cardinals to another level.
He has all the ability to be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender.
A season ago, he threw for 2,941 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he added 1,031 rushing yards, scored 20 touchdowns while averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He will need to continue to polish his passing skills to maximize his potential at the next level, but the 6’1″, 200-pound signal-caller is an elite college player.
He is a guy you need to stop and watch when you see the Cardinals on TV. With more offensive playmakers around him this year, like running back transfer Tiyon Evans, Cunningham could make an even bigger impact. He has as much upside as anybody on this list.
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It seems like the Alabama Crimson Tide load the NFL draft with star players every year. It almost makes you forget just how great they still are on both sides of the ball, even while losing so many players to the draft.
Bryce Young and Will Anderson, for instance, get so many headlines, but plenty of other returning players are worthy of marquee lists. The buzz for them, though, just isn’t as loud.
Jordan Battle played strong safety a season ago and was a Pro Football Focus first-team All-American. He made several other teams, too, including third-team honors from the Associated Press.
The 6’1″, 206-pound Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native is a prototypical, big-bodied NFL safety who is almost certain to be a future high draft pick. Still, he elected to return to Tuscaloosa to get a little more seasoning, learn more under guru Nick Saban and likely try to boost his pro status.
Winning another national championship wouldn’t be a bad side project, either.
A year ago, he recorded 86 tackles, intercepted three passes and deflected six more. He’s a major impact player on the back level of a defense that was much-improved a season ago and could be even better this year. If so, Battle will be a major part of it.
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Among the high-ceiling guys whose names you maybe haven’t heard of, Army’s Andre Carter II is perhaps the most physically gifted.
Playing for a service academy, you know Carter is rugged and tough. But he is also uber-talented, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s 6’7″ with a 250-pound frame. The outside linebacker was a force last year, and he returns this season to wreak more havoc.
With his size and ability, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he skyrockets up draft boards and is firmly in the first round come this time next year. His college production is already off the charts.
A season ago, he set a single-season school record with 15.5 sacks, good enough for second nationally behind only Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. (17.5). Both of those guys are back this season, and it’s going to be a joy watching them get after signal-callers.
The Texas native finished the season with 44 tackles, including 18.5 for a loss. He is an edge specialist, and you can bet he’s on the radar of most NFL teams. With long arms, terrific straight-line speed and another year of development, it’s possible he could wind up as a top-10 pick.
If so, third on this list would even be too low. He’s got star potential, but he needs a little more development, which is why he’s back for another collegiate season.
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Say what you want about Iowa State coach Matt Campbell’s inability to lure top-flight recruits to Ames, but he has done a brilliant job of identifying and developing talent since he’s been the head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones.
Guys like Breece Hall, Brock Purdy, Charlie Kolar and Xavier Hutchinson come to mind. One of the top players who often gets overlooked, though, is rising fifth-year senior Will McDonald IV, a 6’4″, 245-pound Wisconsin native who has quietly been one of the best pass-rushers in college football the past two seasons.
Thankfully for the Cyclones, he’ll be back again in 2022. He already has enjoyed a brilliant career and holds the school sack record (29.0). A season ago, he was named All-American by the FWAA and Phil Steele (first team), CBS (second team) and the Associated Press (third team).
Blessed with an extremely quick first step, McDonald has been unblockable at times throughout his career. He has amassed 13 tackles for a loss in each of the past two seasons, with 22 combined sacks over that time. He will join Carter and Anderson as college football’s top pass-rushers this season.
“I think we knew he was a dynamic playmaker of some sort, and it just so happened it’s going to be at defensive end,” Campbell told the Des Moines Register‘s Randy Peterson. “But to say, ‘Did you know what he was going to become?’ No.”
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What Hendon Hooker did a season ago—becoming an overnight, underrated star—is truly remarkable.
Hooker was essentially an afterthought heading into last season, and few gave the Virginia Tech transfer a second thought. First-year Tennessee coach Josh Heupel was set on Michigan transfer Joe Milton III as the Vols’ starting quarterback, and former top prospect Harrison Bailey was still on campus, leaving very little opportunity for Hooker.
When Milton got hurt against Pittsburgh in the season’s second game, though, Hooker replaced him and never looked back. He wound up producing some spectacular numbers in the Vols’ resurgent season, fueled by Heupel’s high-octane offense.
The 6’4″, 218-pound Greensboro, North Carolina, native completed 68.0 percent of his passes for 2,945 yards, 31 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He added 620 rushing yards and five more scores. Most importantly, he made everybody else around him so much better.
Once he emerged as the team’s starting quarterback, he immediately absorbed Heupel’s system, and guys like receivers Cedric Tillman and JaVonta Payton went from being so-so wideouts to serious downfield threats.
Hooker finished third nationally in quarterback rating, and he should be even better in 2022 with another year in Heupel’s system. He’s got the chance to be a top-five signal-caller nationally and a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.