Non-quarterback group that will define the top 25 teams' seasons

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Friday, March 3, 2023

When it comes to football, quarterback is obviously the star position.

Seasons can be made or broken with one failed pass or a missed audible in the biggest game, so it makes sense that the position is constantly in the limelight. But the quarterback is also just one player at the end of the day, and the position groups that surround him will be crucial to make a run to the College Football Playoff for teams in the top 25.

With that being said and spring practice right around the corner, it's time to look at the position groups that will be key in the 2023 season for each ranked team in ourWay-Too-Early college football top 25.

1. Georgia Bulldogs: outside linebacker

Replacing starting quarterback Stetson Bennett is obviously going to be Georgia's primary focus in spring practice, but it will also need to identify difference-makers at outside linebacker. The Bulldogs got a head start last season after star Nolan Smith suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in late October. Smith and senior Robert Beal Jr. departed for the NFL draft, and MJ Sherman transferred to Nebraska. Chaz Chambliss and Jalon Walker, who was recruited as an inside linebacker, had increased roles on the outside after Smith was hurt. Marvin Jones Jr. also played at the position as a true freshman, but he'll miss spring drills with a shoulder injury. The Bulldogs have plenty of former ESPN 300 recruits to work with, including Darris Smith and C.J. Madden and freshmen Damon Wilson, Samuel M'Pemba and Gabriel Harris, who were all early enrollees. "When we've been at our best, we've had a lot of speed and athleticism in that [outside linebackers] room, and we're trying to get back to it," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "We hope these guys can do that and provide some defensive end help as well when it comes to playing 4-3 and having two guys out there." -- Mark Schlabach

2. Ohio State Buckeyes: defensive line

Any group of Ohio State's defense could fit here, but the Buckeyes really need their defensive line to become a disruptive force again. The group has lacked a true superstar since Chase Young in 2019, and didn't rise up enough in big moments last year. Ohio State always has the talent, including third-year end J.T. Tuimoloau, who had a record-setting performance in the team's win at Penn State but not many other impactful outings in 2022. Defensive end Jack Sawyer, ESPN's No. 1 overall recruit in the 2021 class, has just 27 tackles and 7.5 sacks in his first two college seasons. Tyleik Williams is a gifted interior lineman who had five sacks in 2021 but only one last season. Veteran line coach Larry Johnson has enough to mold a consistently productive group, which could go a long way toward helping the overall unit improve in the second season under coordinator and playcaller Jim Knowles. -- Adam Rittenberg

3. Michigan Wolverines: pass rush

The pass rush encompasses several positions, but mainly defensive end and outside linebacker, which are two groups to watch for Michigan. Although the Wolverines' defense shined for the second straight season, the team didn't have a standout pass-rusher other than Mike Morris, whose 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss led the team in both categories. Morris is bound for the NFL draft, and Eyabi Okie, who finished second on the team with four sacks, transferred to Charlotte. Michigan's overall line depth should be fine, especially with Kris Jenkins returning at tackle. But second-year coordinator Jesse Minter needs speedier and more explosive options on the edge. Derrick Moore, ESPN's No. 20 overall recruit in 2022, had two sacks as a true freshman and should be ready for a bigger role. Outside linebacker Jaylen Harrell also could be a bigger factor in the pass rush. Michigan also hopes Braiden McGregor, ESPN's No. 32 overall recruit in 2020, will finally become a major contributor. -- Rittenberg

4. Florida State Seminoles: offensive line

It is hard to pick a team that has made more significant strides on the offensive line over the past three years than Florida State, which has turned that unit from a weakness into a strength heading into what should be a huge 2023 season. The Seminoles do have to replace left guard Dillan Gibbons, the unquestioned leader of that group, but they also return experience and add three transfers to bolster the depth and competition of the group. Florida State ended up as one of the best rushing teams in the country (averaging 214.1 yards per game) and has vastly improved its pass protection as well. But for Florida State to live up to the expectations it has -- particularly on offense -- the offensive line is going to need to continue on its upward trajectory. -- Andrea Adelson

5. Alabama Crimson Tide: wide receiver

Bryce Young wasn't the reason Alabama's offense struggled at points last season. Sometimes the offensive line let him down. Sometimes the running game went missing in action. And a lot of the time it was the receivers who didn't live up to expectations. With Young gone and a new quarterback getting ready to take the reins, it's the receivers who need to show the most growth. They can't fail to create separation, as they did last year. There's a reason a running back --Jahmyr Gibbs-- led the team in catches. And they can't drop 25 passes -- second most in the SEC. Jermaine Burton, Ja'Corey Brooks, Isaiah Bond, Kendrick Law and Kobe Prentice are back. But JoJo Earle and Tyler Harrell are gone. Someone needs to step up. Perhaps it will be tight end CJ Dippre, who transferred from Maryland and could figure prominently into new coordinator Tommy Rees' offense. -- Alex Scarborough

6. Penn State Nittany Lions: offensive skill players

If we can't pick the quarterbacks, I'm going to pick the offensive skill players, specifically the running backs and receivers. Penn State lost just two games last season, one to Michigan and one to Ohio State. The game against the Buckeyes was decided by seven points, and the Nittany Lions scored just 17 points against Michigan. Quarterback Sean Clifford is gone, as are leading receivers Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley. That's a lot of production to replace at receiver while breaking in a new quarterback in Drew Allar. The staff added Kent State transferDante Cephas and Florida State transfer Malik McClain, which will help the receiving corp. The coaches return KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who was third on the team in receiving yards last season, and their breakout freshmen running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. If that group can find success with a new quarterback, Penn State could be looking at another great season and have a shot at pushing for a Big Ten title game berth. -- Tom VanHaaren

7. USC Trojans: defensive line

After a Heisman-winning season, everyone knows what Caleb Williams can do. Likewise, it was clear last year what the USC defense couldn't do. Even though there's improvement to be had at nearly every position group on that side of the ball for the Trojans, it feels like the front line will be crucial to determining their success. After losing All-America defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu to the NFL, USC dipped deep into the portal to shore up the entire defensive front. Lincoln Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch added Kyon Barrs from Arizona as well as Anthony Lucas from Texas A&M and Jack Sullivan from Purdue. All were highly coveted in the portal and should bring enough talent to give USC a good chance to turn that position group from a one-star unit last year into a potential strength that becomes the foundation for a defense that was abysmal at stopping both the run and the pass. -- Paolo Uggetti

8. LSU Tigers: wide receiver

Getting Jayden Daniels back for another season at quarterback was huge for LSU. But getting him help at receiver is another matter. Kayshon Boutte was originally planning on coming back for one more year, but then the first-round talent with late-round production changed his mind and left for the NFL. And then the sure-handed Jack Bech decided to transfer to TCU. That leaves a thin receiver room with breakout star Malik Nabers looking for a sidekick or two. Aaron Anderson, the former Alabama receiver and top-100 prospect, could be an option. So too could Brian Thomas Jr. or Kyren Lacy. Whoever it is, the Tigers need to open up the passing game in 2023, and it will take more than just one standout receiver to get the job done. -- Scarborough

9.Oregon Ducks: running back

Bo Nix's ability to make things happen with his feet was perhaps the key to the Ducks' offense in 2022. But running backsBucky Irving and Noah Whittington provided a reliable duo in the backfield, combining for 1,837 yards rushing. Both of them will be back next season, giving the Ducks a fearsome ground game to contend with. If Jordan James continues to develop, as expected, then the Ducks should be even better offensively next season despite losing offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham to Arizona State. -- Kyle Bonagura

10. Tennessee Volunteers: secondary

The Vols were second in the SEC in rushing defense last season and gave up only 3.28 yards per carry. The flip side was that they were next to last in the SEC in passing defense and gave up 300 or more passing yards in four of their SEC contests. They were especially vulnerable to giving up big plays in the passing game, which means the onus will be on the defensive backs to be more consistent in coverage in 2023 and tackle better in the open field. Of the six defensive backs who played the most snaps last season, all but safety Trevon Flowers are set to return. Across the board, Tennessee needs to improve in defending the pass, and that includes rushing the passer better. BYU transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally should provide immediate help at cornerback. Three true freshmen who are already enrolled and set to go through spring practice could also factor in at cornerback -- Cristian Conyer, Rickey Gibson III and Jordan Matthews. -- Chris Low

11. Washington Huskies: wide receiver

Washington's resurgence in 2022 was one of the better stories in college football last season, and while quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was the on-field face of that, his receiving corps deserves much of the credit. Rome Odunze (75 catches) and Jalen McMillan (790 catches) both went over the 1,000-yard mark, while Ja'Lynn Polk had a big year as the No. 3 option (41 catches, 694 yards). All three are back in 2023, with Odunze and McMillan both opting not to enter the NFL draft. If they can simply maintain their levels of production, UW will remain one of the most explosive offenses in college football. -- Bonagura

12. TCU Horned Frogs: wide receiver

Wide receiversQuentin Johnston and Derius Davis were potential game-breakers when the Horned Frogs needed it most, such as Johnston's 78-yard catch and run against Michigan in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl. But both are gone to the NFL draft along with Taye Barber. With TCU breaking in replacements for stars Max Duggan at quarterback and Kendre Miller at running back, the Horned Frogs will need reliable playmakers on the edges. Jordan Hudson and Savion Williams have the most experience among returners, but the Frogs also landed some transfers at the position, including JoJo Earle from Alabama and John Paul Richardson from Oklahoma State, along with top-100 national recruit Cordale Russell. There will be options, but there will be new faces all over the offense who could take some time to mesh. -- Dave Wilson

13. Utah Utes: wide receiver

For a team as solid across the board as Utah, it's difficult to find a positional group that is a weak spot. But if there's any room for improvement for the team that has won the Pac-12 two years in a row, it's in the receiving corps. Utah had the 10th-best passing offense in the conference in 2022 (50th in the nation), and while that's no knock on Cam Rising, who remains a force on the ground as well, the Utes could use more from their wideouts. Last year, their leading receiver was a tight end --Dalton Kincaid with 890 yards. So far, the Utes added Emery Simmons from Indiana at the position. --Uggetti

14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: wide receiver

Wide receiver has held back Notre Dame for quite some time and remains a crucial group to watch entering coach Marcus Freeman's second season. Notre Dame has produced more success and star power at every other offensive position in recent years. No Fighting Irish wideout eclipsed 30 receptions or three touchdowns last season, benchmarks that must be reached and easily eclipsed as the team loses All-American tight end Michael Mayer. There were promising signs late in the year from Jayden Thomas and Deion Colzie, and Lorenzo Styles has experience but must become a more consistent playmaker. Second-year receivers coach Chansi Stuckey has made some gains in recruiting, as Notre Dame adds top-60 prospect Braylon James and others. Veteran quarterback transfer Sam Hartman should help, too, but Notre Dame won't become a more viable national contender until the wideout group improves. -- Rittenberg

15. Clemson Tigers: wide receiver

The downturn in Clemson's offensive production over the past two seasons has not come just at the quarterback position. The wide receivers, as a whole, have generally underperformed as well. There is an obvious correlation there, but the truth is, the Tigers have not produced a receiver who could stretch the field and make 25-plus-yard catches at the drop of a hat since Tee Higgins in 2019. Last year, the Tigers' leading receiver was freshman Antonio Williams with 604 yards. In 2021, it was Justyn Ross with 514, and he played injured for most of the season. For quarterbackCade Klubnik to have the type of season many think he can have, his receivers will have to step up as well. Williams returns, but keep an eye on Adam Randall, Beaux Collins and true freshman playmaker Noble Johnson. -- Adelson

16. Texas Longhorns: running back

Texas' offense struggled with consistency at times last year, and that was with running back Bijan Robinson, who will go down as one of the all-time greats in Austin. Finding a replacement for Robinson, along with Roschon Johnson, another versatile back, will be a big task. Returner Jonathon Brooks, who had a 70-yard run last year, finished the season with 30 carries, while Keilan Robinson and Jaydon Blue both return. ESPN 300 freshman Cedric Baxter Jr.(No. 30)will get a long look as well after rushing for 1,395 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games during his senior season. -- Wilson

17. Oregon State Beavers: secondary

The Beavers led the Pac-12 in scoring defense last season (20.0 points per game), a stat that reflected outstanding play in their secondary. Rejzohn Wright (first team), Jaydon Grant (second team), Alex Austin (honorable mention), Kitan Oladapo(first team) and Ryan Cooper Jr. (honorable mention) all received all-conference honors, but only Cooper and Oladapo will return. That's a nice starting point, but replacing the outgoing talent points to regression in a position group that will be tested by the Pac-12's extraordinary group of quarterbacks. If the level of play can be nearly replicated, the Beavers should contend in the conference. --Bonagura

18. Kansas State Wildcats: secondary

The defending Big 12 champs have some shoes to fill in marquee places: Running back Deuce Vaughn and receivers Malik Knowles and Kade Warner are all gone, to name three. But with quarterback Will Howard, receiver Phillip Brooks and the entire line all back, the ceiling for the offense remains pretty high. Instead, the unit that could make or break the season is on the other side of the ball. The Wildcats' entire pass defense apparatus -- their top two corners, top two safeties and ace pass-rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah -- must all be replaced. There are plenty of intriguing candidates for filling these holes, from end Brendan Mott to sophomores VJ Payne (safety) and Jacob Parrish (corner), but turnover in the secondary correlates strongly to year-to-year regression, and K-State must combat quite a bit of turnover. -- Connelly

19. Tulane Green Wave: secondary

The departure of its five leading tacklers off a unit that was third in the AAC in scoring defense last season will lead to change. The back end was hit particularly hard because of graduation, with three safeties gone. Safety Darius Swanson, a former Division II All-American (2021), comes to the Green Wave from Nebraska-Kearney with 157 career tackles (106 solo) and six interceptions under his belt. Willie Fritz also secured a commitment from Northwestern cornerback A.J. Hampton Jr. in the transfer portal. In 44 career games for the Wildcats, he had 105 tackles (82 solo) with two interceptions and 21 passes defended. Tulane's pass defense (188.5 YPG) ranked 18th nationally, second in the AAC to Cincinnati, last year. -- Blake Baumgartner

20. Ole Miss Rebels: wide receiver

There's no shortage of quarterbacks on the Ole Miss roster, but the question now becomes: Who are going to be the top receiving targets? The two leading receivers from last season, Malik Heath and Jonathan Mingo, are gone. Heath was especially good in the second half of the 2022 season. Louisiana Tech transfer Tre Harris is big, durable and experienced and should be a key part of the Rebels' offense. Texas A&M transfer Chris Marshall is a former 5-star recruit hoping a change of scenery will help after running into problems off the field last season. In the slot, the Rebels are hopeful that Jordan Watkins will take his game to another level; he caught 40 passes a year ago after transferring in from Louisville.And if you're looking for a breakout player in 2023, keep your eyes on Dayton Wade. He had 20 of his 27 catches in the last five games in what was his first season at Ole Miss a year ago after transferring in from Western Kentucky. -- Low

21. North Carolina Tar Heels: defense

It might seem a bit unorthodox to pick the entire defense, but given what we saw out of North Carolina last season, just go with it. The Tar Heels gave up 30.8 points per game, and that is not a stat that can be pinned solely to one group. The defensive line failed to get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks (17 sacks) and allowed 4.5 yards per carry and 29 rushing touchdowns. That lack of pressure, in turn, hurt the cornerbacks, who were asked to stay in coverage for far too long. North Carolina has hired Jason Jones as the new cornerbacks coach, and after multiple key players hit the portal in the offseason, including Tony Grimes and Storm Duck, the Tar Heels are going to have some fresh faces to rely on as they look to make a turnaround in 2023. -- Adelson

22. UTSA Roadrunners: offensive line

The offensive line will be looking for replacements for starting center Ahofitu Maka and guards Terrell Haynes and Kevin Davis. The good news is the Roadrunners are loaded on offense with the return of Frank Harris and his star wide receivers Joshua Cephus, De'Corian Clark and Zakhari Franklin. The bad news is the offensive line will have to hold it all together with a move to the AAC from Conference USA while it also welcomes in a new offensive coordinator. Justin Burke steps up to the fill the position after the departure of Will Stein to Oregon. -- Wilson

23. Texas Tech Red Raiders: offensive line

Quarterbacks Tyler Shough and Behren Morton both return, but the two combined to miss nine games with injuries last year. The Red Raiders tied for 114th in sacks allowed in 2022, giving up 41, or an average of 3.15 per game. They also rushed for just 3.9 yards per carry on the season. So the key to a breakthrough for head coach Joey McGuire is going to be an improved offensive line. It will definitely look different. The Red Raiders added Western Kentucky transfers Cole Spencer and Rusty Staats, and both should start, while returners tackles Caleb Rogers and Monroe Mills flip sides and Dennis Wilburn will move from center to right guard. -- Wilson

24. James Madison Dukes: offensive playmakers

There's a lot to like about the state of Curt Cignetti's roster as JMU takes on its second year in FBS. The offensive line returns virtually intact, while a dynamite defense returns seven starters and nearly every second-stringer; from the standpoint of experience and physicality, JMU will have plenty to offer. But while the quarterback position offers a major challenge -- Todd Centeio is gone, leaving a potential four-way race between sophomore Billy Atkins, redshirt freshman Alonza Barnett III and transfers Jordan McCloud (Arizona) and Brett Griffis (Wake Forest) -- whoever wins said QB job will need someone to pass to. And of the five guys who caught at least 19 passes for the Dukes last year, four are gone, including 1,000-yard receiver Kris Thornton. Senior Reggie Brown gives JMU one known playmaker, but Cignetti signed three transfer wideouts and two transfer tight ends, and at least a couple of them must produce immediately. -- Connelly

25. Iowa Hawkeyes: wide receiver

Incoming quarterback Cade McNamara is going to need some targets on the outside as he makes the transition from Michigan to Iowa. The presence of his former Wolverines teammate, tight end Erick All, helps, as does that of tight end Luke Lachey, who caught 28 passes for 398 yards and four touchdowns for the Hawkeyes last season. But the decisions Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV made to transfer out of the program limit some of the experience Iowa will have coming back. Sophomore Diante Vines (10 catches for 94 yards in 2022) and freshman Brody Brecht (nine receptions for 87 yards in 2022) are the team's two leading receivers. Three-star wide receivers Dayton Howard, Alex Mota and Jarriett Buie are all part of Iowa's 2023 recruiting class. Things can only get better for an offense that averaged 156.7 passing yards (123rd nationally) while averaging 17.7 points a game (123rd) in 2022. -- Baumgartner

Related Video