College football's Position U 2022: Which schools produce the most talent at each position?

ByDavid M. Hale via ESPN logo
Monday, August 8, 2022
ESPN

Think your school has the best history of churning out star defensive backs? Elite receivers? The best QBs? Get in line, buddy.

Every year, fans rage on social media, players wear branded shirts and schools promote their teams as the top producer of talent at a given position, and every year, another fan base chimes in to offer a compelling counterargument. The problem is, there's no set formula for who gets to be Quarterback U or Linebacker U. Success is in the eye of the beholder -- or at least on the thumbs of the tweeter.

But ESPN Stats & Information has tried to add some method to the madness and come up with something that, if not entirely definitive, at least offers some data behind the bragging rights.

Here's how it works:

We're counting players since 1998 only. Why 1998? It seemed a good breaking point, as it was the start of the BCS era that best represents modern college football. We know Notre Dame would love to claim Paul Hornung in the race for, um, Halfback U, but we're trying to keep it to the era of players today's recruits might be most familiar with.

What counts as success? We narrowed it down to a few key categories. Schools got points for all-conference and All-America selections, along with points for being drafted (weighted by round) and for success at the next level. For that last category, we looked at only the first four years of a player's career (beyond that, the NFL should get credit for development) using Pro Football Reference's weighted career value.

Dealing with transfers is tricky, too. When Jordan Addison gets drafted next year, will he count for Pitt or USC? Sorry to add some more salt to the wounds for Panthers fans, but we've made the call that NFL data counts only toward the school a player last suited up for.

Got all that? Let's get on to the rankings.

Jump to a position: QB | RBWR | TE | OLDL | LB | DB | Kicker | Punter

QBU is Oklahoma

Oklahoma remains QBU for the third straight year, but the Sooners are now treading into uncharted waters. Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams have both transferred, and Lincoln Riley -- the QB whisperer who helped build Oklahoma into QBU -- is off to USC (which, it should be noted, is a close second on this list). Will Dillon Gabriel add to Oklahoma's long tradition of elite QBs? Can Brent Venables keep recruiting future stars? Or will Riley not only stun the Sooners' fan base by leaving but also by stealing their crown as the top producer of quarterback talent?

The top 5

1. Oklahoma

2. USC

3. Oregon

4. Alabama

5. Louisville

Best by conference

ACC: Louisville

Big 12: Oklahoma

Big Ten: Ohio State

Pac-12: USC

SEC: Alabama

Non-Power 5: Fresno State

Biggest mover: Alabama

When ESPN ran its first Position U numbers four years ago, the Tide ranked 33rd at QBU, a number reflective of their rather mundane quarterback performance in spite of all the national championships. Now? The Tide are No. 4 on the list, thanks to a run of greats, including Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones -- all NFL starters now -- and last year's Heisman winner, Bryce Young.

Who's missing: NC State

Yes, Wolfpack fans, we know. The formula for our position rankings isn't giving NC State proper credit for Russell Wilson, because he transferred, and that approach might need to be reconsidered in the coming years as the portal has made player movement far more common. In the meantime, we'll be sure to get NC State into our top five in time for Devin Leary's induction in Canton.

On the recruiting trail: No team has scored more quality QB recruits since 2006 than Florida, which has inked 16 quarterbacks with a recruiting grade of 80-plus, according to ESPN. Still, the Gators rank 11th on our QBU list, falling out of the top 10 for the first time this year. Meanwhile, North Dakota State -- which has never inked a blue-chip QB recruit -- cracked our top 25 thanks to Carson Wentz and Trey Lance both blossoming into first-round draft picks.

RBU is Alabama

It's tough to argue with the numbers here. Since 2011, 10 Tide running backs have been selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, including Brian Robinson Jr. in the 2022 draft. Two have won Heisman trophies. Four of the NFL's top 15 rushers in 2021 came from Alabama. And because Nick Saban isn't interested in resting on his laurels, he went out and brought inGeorgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs this offseason, adding arguably the most dynamic running back in the country to the mix for 2022.

The top 5

1. Alabama

2. Wisconsin

3. LSU

4. Miami

5. Oklahoma

Best by conference

ACC: Miami

Big 12: Oklahoma

Big Ten: Wisconsin

Pac-12: Oregon

SEC: Alabama

Non-Power 5: Memphis

Biggest mover: Iowa State

The Cyclones jumped from No. 42 in last year's rankings all the way into the top 25 thanks to another exceptional season from Breece Hall, who went on to be the top running back selected in the 2022 NFL draft, along with another strong year from David Montgomery, who racked up 1,150 yards from scrimmage for the Chicago Bears.

Who's missing: Syracuse

The history of the Orange is based around great running backs -- from Jim Brown to Ernie Davis to Floyd Little. But those all came before our data set for Position U begins, and the recent history of tailbacks at Syracuse has been sparse, to say the least. In the past 20 drafts, Syracuse has had just one running back selected -- Delone Carter in 2011, who started just three games in his NFL career -- and the Orange check in at No. 56 on our list. But that could change soon. Sean Tucker led the ACC in rushing in 2021 and was fourth nationally in rushing yards per game.

On the recruiting trail: Georgia recruits running backs as well as anyone else in the country, inking 20 blue-chip backs since 2006. What happens from there, however, has been something of a mixed bag. Some have blossomed into college superstars (Knowshon Moreno, Todd Gurley) whose NFL success was short-lived. Others, like D'Andre Swift, appear to have bright futures at the next level. And a handful -- Richard Samuel, Caleb King, Washaun Ealey -- washed out before they came close to reaching their ceiling.

WRU is USC

Even in a down year when the coach was fired and the offense struggled, USC managed to produce a star at receiver, with Drake London selected eighth overall in this year's NFL draft. USC's lead over LSU and Alabama -- two schools producing a torrent of top receiver talent lately -- actually grew from 2021 as recent drafteesAmon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman blossomed in the NFL. Now add Lincoln Riley's dynamic offense to the mix -- alongside defending Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison, who transferred from Pitt this offseason -- and odds are, the Trojans will be hanging on to the top spot for the foreseeable future.

The top 5

1. USC

2. LSU

3. Alabama

4. Oklahoma

5. Ohio State

Best by conference

ACC: Florida State (No. 7)

Big 12: Oklahoma

Big Ten: Ohio State

Pac-12: USC

SEC: LSU

Non-Power 5: Western Michigan (No. 19)

Biggest mover: Purdue

The Boilermakers aren't exactly knocking on the door of the top 10. They're still checking in at No. 29 overall -- but that's up 19 spots from a year ago. Credit the impact of Rondale Moore, who had a breakthrough rookie season in the NFL, and the stellar contributions of David Bell, who had 93 catches for Purdue in 2021 before being drafted in the third round by the Cleveland Browns.

Who's missing: Georgia

We mentioned the Bulldogs' rich history at running back. Receivers, though? Eh, not so much. Perhaps it's fitting that a school that won the 1980 national championship by completing just one pass in the Sugar Bowl and won last year's title on the strength of eight defenders selected in the NFL draft checks in at No. 20 here, but the truth is, Bulldogs receivers have been a mixed bag. BetweenA.J. Greenin 2011 and George Pickens (No. 52) this year, Georgia had just one receiver selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

On the recruiting trail: Florida State still owns the ACC's top spot at receiver -- just barely over Pitt, Clemson and Miami -- but the recent track record has been miserable. In the wake of their 2013 national championship, the Seminoles inked 11 blue-chip receivers in their next five classes. None were drafted. Once Jimbo Fisher left, the recruiting fell off completely. FSU has signed just three four- or five-star receivers since 2019, and just one remains on the roster. Mike Norvell has worked to fix the issue through the transfer portal, but the trend line among high school recruits is brutal for the Seminoles.

TEU is Miami

Sure, other schools have made a recent run at this honor -- from Iowa to Stanford to UCLA. But even if Miami hasn't produced anyone of the caliber of George Kittle in recent years, the run of talent at this position remains impressive. The Canes have had 13 tight ends drafted since 2000, including first-rounders Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow, Greg Olsen and David Njoku. Will Mallory could be the next breakout star this season, or perhaps blue-chip 2022 signee Jaleel Skinner bursts onto the scene. Regardless, Miami's position as Tight End U isn't in doubt for the foreseeable future.

The top 5

1. Miami

2. Iowa

3. Stanford

4. Florida

5. Missouri

Best by conference

ACC: Miami

Big 12: Oklahoma (No. 8)

Big Ten: Iowa

Pac-12: Stanford

SEC: Florida

Non-Power 5: BYU (No. 14)

Biggest mover: Colorado State

What a difference a second-round draft pick can make. Trey McBride went No. 55 overall to the Arizona Cardinals after a stellar 2021 campaign for the Rams (90 catches, 1,121 yards receiving) and became the third Colorado State tight end drafted since 2005. That might not sound like much, but it was enough to push the Rams up 26 spots in our rankings, from No. 43 up to No. 17.

Who's missing: Alabama

Considering the Crimson Tide are among the leaders in nearly every other position group, tight end -- where they rank just 38th -- stands out. The Tide have had a few breakout stars, like O.J. Howard, but tight end hasn't typically been a critical piece to their offensive puzzle. Last year, most observers thought Jahleel Billingsley would be the next elite tight end at Alabama, but he got in Nick Saban's doghouse early and ultimately transferred to Texas.

On the recruiting trail: Want more proof that Miami is Tight End U? Since 2006, ESPN has given just 70 tight ends a recruiting grade of 80 or better. Eight have signed with Miami -- three more than any other school. Sure, not all of them panned out, but it's a reminder that a school's traditions make a real difference on the recruiting trail.

OLU is Alabama

And we're back to hyping Alabama, which tops our offensive line rankings after putting yet another big man into the first round, as Evan Neal went seventh overall in the 2022 draft. In fact, the Tide have seen an O-lineman selected among the first 34 picks in the draft in six of the past seven years. Overall, 20 offensive linemen have heard their names called in the NFL draft since Saban took over in 2007. It's even more impressive that Alabama has been so good on the offensive line, given that it's an area typically dominated by the Big Ten, which has four of the top eight schools in our rankings.

The top 5

1. Alabama

2. Wisconsin

3. Ohio State

4. Oklahoma

5. Michigan

Best by conference

ACC: Florida State (No. 11)

Big 12: Oklahoma

Big Ten: Wisconsin

Pac-12: USC (No. 7)

SEC: Alabama

Non-Power 5: Boise State (No. 23)

Biggest mover: Kentucky

Four schools -- Kentucky, Northwestern, Tulsa and NC State -- moved up at least 10 spots in our rankings, but none ended up better than 31st (NC State). The biggest mover, however, was Kentucky, which had two O-linemen -- Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard -- selected in the 2022 NFL draft. The Wildcats aren't exactly knocking on the door of OLU -- they're still 72nd nationally -- but the big jump from 2021 is another reminder of the impressive work Mark Stoops is doing in Lexington.

Who's missing: Texas

Texas has inked 40 blue-chip recruits on the offensive line since 2006, yet the Longhorns still barely crack our top 10. Texas hasn't had a first-round draft pick off its O-line since 2002 and has had just two offensive linemen drafted at any point since 2009. If Steve Sarkisian wants to keep his star QB recruits, like Quinn Ewers or Arch Manning, on their feet long enough to deliver wins, he might want to start fixing the downturn on the line.

On the recruiting trail: Let's just say Alabama's success in developing offensive linemen didn't come from finding a bunch of diamonds in the rough. The Tide have signed 40 different blue-chip OL recruits since 2006, tied for the most in college football (with Texas). If you're looking for cases of genuine development, however, look no further than Boston College, which has just three blue-chip OL signees in that time frame but has had 10 linemen drafted, including four in the first round (Zion Johnson went 17th overall this year). They'd likely have another first-rounder in Christian Mahogony in 2023, but a knee injury will cost him the season.

DLU is Alabama

Yawn. Another category dominated by the Tide. It's not as if they're primarily a 3-4 defense that should be at a disadvantage in this category as a result and -- oh, right, they are. Alas, Alabama has been particularly adept at developing NFL talent on the interior of late, with a defensive tackle going in either the first or second round of every NFL draft since 2016. In fact, Alabama is responsible for nearly 30% of all the defensive tackles taken in the first two rounds of the past seven NFL drafts. That's downright incredible. Oh, and the Tide haven't been too bad at developing ends either.

The top 5

1. Alabama

2. Florida State

3. Ohio State

4. Penn State

5. Clemson

Best by conference

ACC: Florida State

Big 12: Texas

Big Ten: Ohio State

Pac-12: USC (No. 8)

SEC: Alabama

Non-Power 5: Houston (No. 34)

Biggest mover: Oregon

The Ducks had only one player drafted in 2022, but he helped their ranking here significantly. Kayvon Thibodeaux was the fifth overall selection by the New York Giants, the fourth first-rounder off Oregon's defensive line in the past 10 years. Thibodeaux's stock helped move the Ducks from No. 29 in last year's rankings up to No. 18 in 2022. The second-biggest mover of the year was Georgia, and the Bulldogs' spot -- currently No. 13 -- figures to keep improving. Not only did UGA have three D-linemen taken in the first round of this year's draft (including No. 1 overall selection Travon Walker), the Dawgs' most talented DL might be coming next year, when tackle Jalen Carter is eligible for the draft.

Who's missing: Notre Dame

The Irish have churned out their share of elite defenders of late, particularly in the secondary, but up front has been tougher sledding. Jerry Tillery was a first-round pick in 2019, but he's the only Notre Dame D-lineman taken in the first three rounds in the past eight drafts. As it stands, Notre Dame checks in at No. 35 on our list, behind far less prominent schools, like South Carolina, Purdue and Syracuse.

On the recruiting trail: There's a good reason for Alabama's success on the D-line. Since 2006, the Tide have inked 61 blue-chip defensive linemen, an absolute wealth of riches. More recently, Clemson has been dominant on the recruiting front -- signing 27 blue chips since 2015 -- and has put its share of D-linemen into the league. The Tigers also return five defensive linemen in 2022 likely to be drafted, including Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas -- all potential first-rounders.

LBU is Georgia

The disrespect to Nakobe Dean -- the star linebacker at LBU -- was immense. Dean dropped all the way to the third round (No. 83 overall), where the Philadelphia Eagles nabbed him. Regardless, Georgia easily retains its crown atop our linebacker rankings. It has been a heck of a run for the Bulldogs, who've had 15 linebackers drafted, including five in the first round -- in the past decade. Georgia has had 15 All-SEC linebackers since 1998 and seven All-Americans. Alabama (eight All-Americans, including returning star Will Anderson) and Ohio State (19 All-Big Ten selections) are within striking distance, but the path to LBU figures to run through Athens for a while.

The top 5

1. Georgia

2. Alabama

3. Ohio State

4. Penn State

5. USC

Best by conference

ACC: Clemson (No. 8)

Big 12: Oklahoma

Big Ten: Ohio State

Pac-12: USC

SEC: Georgia

Non-Power 5: Temple (No. 36)

Biggest mover: Duke

Say what? Duke? The Blue Devils? Really? Yup. But it's complicated. Duke moved up 26 spots from 2021, thanks to Shaka Heyward picking up some ACC honors and Chris Rumph -- a defensive end in college but an outside linebacker in the NFL -- adding some juice in the pros. Still, the result is a No. 72 ranking for Duke. But hey, we should always reward progress. After the Blue Devils, the next-biggest mover was Utah, which jumped to the No. 35 spot on the heels of an All-American season by Devin Lloyd, who went on to become a first-round draft pick.

Who's missing: Oklahoma State

The Pokes have been solid -- if not spectacular -- up front and in the secondary, but at linebacker, it has been a black hole. Oklahoma State checks in at No. 103 in our rankings, courtesy of just four all-Big 12 players since 1998 (compared to 18 from its in-state rival Oklahoma). The good news is that Oklahoma State did have two linebackers drafted this year (both in the sixth round). The bad news is that was the first time a Cowboys linebacker heard his name called on draft day since 1995.

On the recruiting trail: Clemson has signed eight blue-chip linebackers in the past four cycles, and with Trenton Simpson a potential All-America candidate, the Tigers could be a big riser in next year's rankings. Georgia is No. 1 for a reason. The Bulldogs have 30 blue-chip signees since 2006, including three from the 2022 class. The rich get richer. Penn State once owned this category -- and historically, the Nittany Lions might still hold the all-time LBU title -- but they've signed just 12 blue-chip recruits in the past 17 years.

DBU is Ohio State

The Buckeyes cling to the top spot by just a fraction of a point over LSU. For all the Position U discussions, this might be the most fun debate. Derek Stingley Jr. was the third overall selection in this year's draft, moving LSU up the rankings. The Tigers have seen eight DBs selected in the first three rounds of the past six drafts. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have had a whopping 31 All-Big Ten DBs since 1998, but just one DB has been drafted in the past two years. Even beyond the top two teams, there's plenty more intrigue down the rankings, as Florida, Miami and Florida State rank 4-5-6, respectively, making for some nice in-state hostilities.

The top 5

1. Ohio State

2. LSU

3. Alabama

4. Florida

5. Miami

Best by conference

ACC: Miami

Big 12: Texas

Big Ten: Ohio State

Pac-12: USC

SEC: LSU

Non-Power 5: UCF (No. 26)

Biggest mover: Baylor

The Bears moved up 25 spots to No. 52, which was nearly matched by the huge leap taken by Cincinnati, which jumped 24 spots from No. 68 to No. 44. Both teams deserved the upgrades. Baylor had three DBs drafted, led by second-rounder Jalen Pitre, who went to the Houston Texans. Cincinnati sent Sauce Gardner to the New York Jets with the fourth overall pick (the highest selection in school history) and also had Coby Bryant taken in the fourth round. Only one new school managed to jump into our top 20, however. Notre Dame moved up three spots from 21st to 18th.

Who's missing: North Carolina

The Tar Heels check in at No. 65, which has to be frustrating for a school that counts Dre Bly among its alumni. The Heels might be positioned for a big move if star corners Tony Grimes and Storm Duck can turn in a productive 2022 and force their way up draft boards. UNC isn't alone in its place in the doldrums of the DBU standings either. Arizona State (No. 61), Texas A&M (No. 50) and Penn State (No. 31) are among the big-name schools lacking a recent track record of success in the secondary.

On the recruiting trail: Ohio State might have edged LSU in the overall rankings, but no school is pulling in more DB talent than the Bayou Bengals. LSU has signed 41 blue-chip DBs since 2006 (and that doesn't include recruits designated athletes, who later converted to DB). Among the other notables, Virginia Tech has signed 15 blue-chip DBs and produced 17 All-ACC players at the position. TCU has just six blue-chip DBs signed in that span, but the Horned Frogs have racked up 20 All-Big 12 awards in the secondary.

Kicker U is Florida State

The Seminoles retain the top spot for good reason, given their long history of great kickers. The problem, however, is it has been a while since FSU had a good one. They're just 32-of-51 (63%) on field goals in the past four seasons.

The top 5

1. Florida State

2. UCLA

3. Iowa

4. Utah

5. Ohio State

Punter U is Texas A&M

The Aggies have taken the Punter U crown each of the past two years, thanks in large part to star Braden Mann, who was a sixth-round draft pick by the punt-first Jets. Still, Utah and Tennessee remain hot on the Aggies' trail. We still doubt that's enough to get fans to start rooting against going for it on fourth down.

The top 5

1. Texas A&M

2. Utah

3. Tennessee

4. Cal

5. Georgia Tech

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