Matt Campbell and his assistants were not going to pitch for Iowa State. When the NCAA approved a blanket waiver in August allowing all athletics seniors from the 2020 fall season to return in 2021, Iowa State’s coaches went to the lectern.
None of us tried to say anything: We recruit guys here, or hope they come back, Campbell said. How? How can I give you the facts? I just wanted our team to make the best decision for them. They can come back and there are no guarantees. You can start training tomorrow and your career could be over.
We will get better and better at Iowa State as we age as a football team.
Fortunately for Iowa State, many key players chose to mature in Ames this fall. Not only did the Cyclones leave behind a number of draft-eligible juniors – quarterback Brock Purdy, tight end Charlie Kolar and linebacker Mike Rose, who will be a Big 12 quarterback in 2020 – but they also left behind a significant group of so-called super seniors who will play their fifth or sixth seasons in the fall.
The Cyclones, after their first Big 12 championship game and a 9th place finish in the AP poll, will benefit from a wave of experience in 2021. Iowa State’s super seniors are helping Campbell’s team become a real contender for what was once unthinkable: College Football Playoffs.
That’s the way it’s always been: Can we get guys who are going to be great juniors and seniors in our program, Campbell said. The situation that developed last year, and then of course with the change in that rule, I think our program has definitely benefited from having more mature players around our younger players to continue to have success.
Iowa State is among the FBS teams – for most rebuilding programs – that would benefit most from a full waiver in 2021. The return of super seniors gives some teams strength and others depth in key areas. Players who don’t normally participate in college football can play a crucial role in a championship run this fall.
Look at the Cyclones and 12 other teams with key super seniors.
Promising seniors who qualify for Cyclones awards are the biggest names. Purdy, Rose and Kolar are all candidates for national honors, but a group of super seniors could help the team take the next step. Defensive lineman Greg Aisworth II is the first Iowa State player to be named to the Big 12 first team three times. In his senior season, he had 199 tackles, 19 interceptions and three interceptions. He and Rose will lead a defense that ranked second in the league in points allowed last fall (21.4). UIS also finds linebacker Jake Hummel, who has the second most tackles behind Rose and has 148 career stops (12.5 for loss). Linebacker Eyoma Uwazurike, who had eight tackles for loss in 2020, will form a strong linebacker tandem with junior Will McDonald IV to make up for the loss of Jaquan Bailey (seven tackles, 13 tackles for loss).
The attack will be stopped by Sean Foster, who will defend Purdy’s blind side for the second year in a row and has 19 starts to his name in his career. Tight end Chase Allen, who was selected to the All-Big 12 second team the past three seasons, will complement Kolar, who is in his sixth year with the program. Connor Assaly is entering his fourth season as ISU’s leading scorer.
According to Campbell, these are people who have had to climb the hardest side of the mountain, and that has allowed them to tell their story and get people to join our story. The situation that came up last year, and then obviously with the change in that rule, I think it definitely helped our program to have older players around our younger players. You always want to know what story you’re coming from. Often it certainly teaches us how to move forward and that maybe we should appreciate what we have.
Having a living history in our team and in our program that still lives within our walls, those things are really powerful.
Especially as Iowa State gets ready to make history.
Greg Aisworth II will team up with Mike Rose to lead a formidable Iowa State defense. Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire
The Hurricanes don’t have as many super seniors as other teams, but their quality exceeds that of most teams. Quarterback D Eric King, who helped transform a failing offense with coordinator Rhett Lashley last season, will return after the ACL loss against Miami at Oklahoma State. King, who decided to take advantage of the cancellation for the game, provided Miami with 7,611 total passing yards, 73 passing touchdowns, 32 rushing touchdowns and nearly 2,000 rushing touchdowns. If King recovers from his injury and is at or near full strength, Miami could build an offense that improves 64 spots from 2019 to 2020. King will get help from receiver Mike Harley, who also returns after leading Miami in receptions (57) and receiving yards (799), while leading the team in touchdown receptions (seven). Starting right tackle Jarryd Williams, who transferred with King from Houston following the 2019 season, also returns for his seventh collegiate season after starting 10 games last fall.
Miami gets safety Bubba Bolden back, who led the 2020 team in both tackles (74) and forced fumbles (four). The USC transfer was named to the All-ACC second team. Veteran quarterback Zach McCloud returns for his sixth year and will be able to help at linebacker or defensive end. Although he played more for Miami from 2016-2018, McCloud enters the fall with 165 career tackles and 40 starts. Defender Jonathan Ford, who started nine games last season and had 19 tackles, is also back.
New coach Bret Bielema has inherited a very experienced team with some super seniors left over from regime change. Quarterback Brandon Peters, 20-time starter between Illinois (16) and Michigan (4), returns for his sixth year with 2,993 passing yards and 25 touchdowns. Senior offensive tackle Alex Palchevsky (40 starts) also returned midseason after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL in December. In addition to Palczewski, Illinois’ offensive line will benefit most from the return of center Doug Kramer and left tackle Wederian Lowe, both of whom will have 40 starts in their careers this fall. Wofford transfer Blake Jeresaty, an FCS All-America selection at center, rejoins the group after missing the entire 2020 season following shoulder surgery.
The Illini also get help on defense and special teams. Linebacker Jake Hansen’s surprising turnaround – he entered the NFL Draft before returning earlier this month – gives the defense a productive playmaker with 10 career fumbles, three interceptions, six fumble recoveries and 26 tackles for loss. Defensive ends Owen Carney (five sacks, seven tackles for loss in 2020) and Isaiah Gay and defensive tackle Roderick Perry are back. So did defender Tony Adams and other injured players. Illinois also finds Blake Hayes, the 2019 Big Ten Player of the Year, averaging 43.4 yards per game with 55 punts of 50 yards or more and 91 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. James McCourt, who provided goals and starts the past two seasons, will also be back.
The Bears’ high hopes for 2020 were not realized as they played just four games, lost in heartbreaking fashion to rival Stanford and went down in the final against Pac-12 champion Oregon State. But Cal has a chance to be shaken up, thanks in part to the 10 super seniors. The Justin Wilcox-trained defense is bolstered by the return of linebackers Kuoni Deng and Cameron Hood, who earned All-Pac-12 recognition. Dan, a junior college transfer, had 119 tackles in 2019 and has 10 tackles for loss in two seasons at Cal. In four games last fall, Hood had eight tackles for loss and 14 sacks, along with 27.5 tackles for loss in his Cal career. Cal’s defense is also bolstered by the return of safeties Elijah Hicks (34 starts in his career, 141 tackles) and Josh Dryden (three interceptions, 12 pass interceptions).
Outside of linebackers, the offensive line is the position where Cal benefits the most from the super seniors. Three players with initial experience are back: center Michael Saffell, guard Gentle Williams and Valentino Daltoso, who played both tackle and right guard. Marcel Dancy provides depth at running back and wide receiver Kekoa Crawford, a pass rusher from Michigan, has 55 catches for 794 yards and five touchdowns in his career.
Coach Matt Wells needs a win in 2021 after going 8-14 in his first two seasons. His team again includes a few notable transfers and a group of seniors who will enjoy an additional year of participation. Among Texas Tech’s super seniors, there are five starters in the defensive front seven. Linebackers Colin Schooler and Riko Jeffers combined for 121 tackles in 2020 and have combined for over 600 tackles in their college careers. The versatile Jacob Morgenstern, who had 4.5 tackles for loss in his first season at Texas Tech, is also back. Texas Tech safety Eric Monroe, third on the team with 60 tackles in 2020, and cornerback DaMarcus Fields, who led the Big 12 in passes defended last fall (1.4 per game) and is entering his fifth season as a starter.
The offense brings back Josh Burger, who played 38 positions between Texas Tech and Wofford. Top tight end Travis Kuntz is back, while wide receiver McLane Mannix and defensive back Seth Collins are looking to get healthy after missing the 2020 season with injuries. Collins is a former starting quarterback at Oregon State who will be playing his seventh season at three different positions.
State of Oregon
The Beavers were 2-5 in 2020, but struggled in nearly every game, losing three times by six points or less. The influx of super seniors could help Oregon State take the next step under coach Jonathan Smith. Four starters return, including two on the improved offensive line, first-team All-Pac-12 center Nathan Eldridge and linebacker Nus Keobunnam. Top receiver Trevon Bradford is back, as is linebacker Andrzej Hughes-Murray (23 tackles, including four for a loss).
While the offense will undoubtedly help – Bradford has 109 catches in his career – Oregon State’s defense could use more support. Linebackers Jordan Whittley and Jerome Reichner can both be effective when healthy. The 358-pound Whittley, who did not play in 2020 due to a heart condition, recorded 3.5 points and started one game in 2019. Fullback Doug Taumoelau has started four times in 40 games and will enter 2021 with 122 tackles. Oregon State also picks up Caleb Lightbourn, who averaged 40.2 yards per punt in 2020 and also kicked.
The Lane Kiffin era has begun with many positives, especially on the offensive side. The Rebels have won four of their last five games, including an Outback Bowl triumph over No. 7 Indiana. Ole Miss now hopes to compete better in the SEC West and have an experienced group on both sides. Of the 10 returning super seniors, five were starters in 2020 and the other five started at least two games. Kiffin’s dynamic passing game will again feature receivers Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders, who were responsible for 40 receivers and 11 touchdowns last season.
But the biggest impact should come from a defense that ranks 117th in points and 126th in yards allowed. In 2020, linebackers Sam Williams and Lakia Henry combined for 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and 102 tackles. Safety John Haynes started 10 games in his first season after transferring from junior college. Jaylon Jones also returns to the second team. He has made 27 tackles in just 27 games this season due to injury. Jones has 127 career opportunities. Tariquius Tisdale (80 tackles) completes the defensive line, and Mack Brown has a career average of 43.6 yards.
Lane Kiffin will again be able to build a good passing game around Braylon Sanders. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
The Utes were a very experienced team in 2019 when they went 11-0 and won the Pac-12 title and were ranked #5 nationally. An exodus from the NFL followed after the season, but Utah picked up veterans, thanks in part to a general exemption. Only four of Utah’s 17 seniors on the 2020 team chose to continue. Among the super seniors is linebacker Max Tupai, who started one game in each of the last three seasons and enters the fall with 10.5 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Viane Moala, who started three of the team’s five games in 2020, will join Tupai on the front line. Utah’s secondary also gets a nice boost from safety Vontae Davis, who led the team in interceptions (2) last fall and was forced to pass.
LSU will always be known more for its players who leave early for the NFL Draft than for those who stay a few years longer. But a decent group of super seniors will stay at Bayou for 2021, increasing the Tigers’ chances of a successful season. LSU gets the biggest boost at the line of scrimmage. Andre Anthony, Neil Farrell and Glen Logan return to the defense, as do forwards Liam Shanahan and Austin Dekulus. Anthony led LSU in sacks (5.5) in 2020, while Logan and Farrell combined for 80 tackles in their careers and 194 tackles (22 for loss). Deculus, LSU’s only remaining starting lineman on the 2019 championship team, enters his fourth year as a starting lineman. Shanahan, a transfer from Harvard, is coming off an SEC season as a center.
Most of LSU’s receivers were replaced, but Jontre Kirklin returned to join rising star Keyshawn Butte. Kirklin finished second on the team with three touchdowns in 2020 and an average of 14.2 yards per catch.
Greg Schiano’s second stint as Rutgers coach got off to a promising start, as the Scarlet Knights won three Big Ten games after going winless the previous two seasons in the league. To keep the momentum going and eventually become more competitive, the Scarlet Knights will need to improve their defense, which has allowed over 32 points and nearly 450 yards per game in 2020. You’ll have the help of some amazing seniors. Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, who led Rutgers in total tackles (101) and tackles for loss (11), returns from the fall of 2021 along with linebacker Tyshawn Fogg (70 tackles) and quarterback Mike Tverdov, the team’s best pass rusher (4 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries). Lineman Julius Turner (137 career tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss) and linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams (179 career tackles) and cornerback Tre Avery (nine passes in 2020) return.
Rutgers also gets its most versatile offensive player in Bo Melton, who started games in each of the last four seasons (31 total players). Last season, he led Rutgers in receptions (47), receiving yards (638), total touchdowns (9) and total yards (942).
Part of the reason Billy Napier keeps saying no to Power 5 opportunities is because he knows how good his team will be in 2021. The Ragin’ Cajuns have a chance to become the first Sun Belt team to reach the New Year’s Six Bowl. After winning 21 games the past two seasons, Louisiana will return nine super seniors next season.
To be honest, they are the biggest acquisitions we have contracted this year, Napier told reporters last month.
Quarterback Levi Lewis is the biggest name. He enters his third year as a starter with 6,286 yards total and 63 touchdowns (54 passing, 9 rushing). Lewis will also pass to wide receiver Jalen Williams, who averaged 18 yards per catch and four touchdowns in 2020.
But the real work comes from the defense at all three levels. Ferrod Gardner, a second-year forward, returns after a team-high 4.5 sacks in 2020. Linebacker Chauncey Manack has 109 tackles in his career, including 19 for loss and nine sacks. Tayland Humphrey anchors the middle of the defensive line, while Blair Brooks and Cameron Solomon provide depth in the secondary.
Quarterback Levi Lewis will return to Louisiana. AP Photo/Matthew Hinton.
After a historic breakthrough season in 2020, the Chanticleers aren’t going anywhere. Coach Jamie Chadwell is back, as is quarterback Grayson McCall. Twelve super seniors are also not ready to leave Conway. Three key players from the #19 defense return: Linebackers Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher – two of the team’s best tacklers who combined to make 156 stops in 2020 – and inside linebacker C.J. Brewer, who had 11 tackles for loss, six sacks and six quarterback hurries on offense. Safety Kendricks Gladney Jr. and edge rusher Miles Olufemi provide depth.
Three super seniors return on the offensive line, including 6-foot-3, 290-pound center Sam Thompson, who has become one of the facets of Coastal’s meteoric rise. Wide receivers Cameron Brown and Greg Latushko, who accounted for 35 receivers and 538 yards as reserves in 2020, are back and should be in the starting lineup. Punter Charles Overson returns for his second year as a starter.
Andy Avalos received a nice gift upon his return to Boise State. The Broncos’ new coach has eight super seniors to guide him through his first season. Among the returnees is linebacker Riley Whimpey, Boise State’s all-time leader in tackles the past two seasons, who has 216 stops in his career in 42 appearances. CT Thomas, who averaged 17.4 yards per reception in 2020 and has 117 receptions and 10 touchdowns in his career, returns for his fifth year. The offensive line is bolstered by the return of starting quarterback Jake Stetz, as well as Uzo Osuji, a transfer from Rice who will likely start at the right time after splitting his time in 2020.
Boise State also retains nickel safety Kekaul Kaniho, a player who led the team in assists (seven) in 2020. Canijo has started each of the last four seasons and has had a great career (22.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions, 26 passes deflected, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries). Top player Joel Velazquez returns, as does linebacker Brock Miller, a 2019 NC State starter, and wide receiver Octavius Evans.
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