The deadline for college football players across the country to declare for the 2023 NFL Draft has come and gone. I’m sorry if you intended to throw your name into the mix but slept through your alarm (college kids, am I right?), but it’s too late. Your punishment is that you have to stay in school for another year.
The NFL’s loss is college football’s gain, however. Some players weren’t eligible for the draft — the NFL has a rule requiring all players to be at least three years out of high school before entering the draft — while others took advantage of name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities to return for another season. Players return to iron out some kinks in their game and to make actual, legitimate money — perhaps more than they would’ve made as mid to late-round picks.
Who are the players coming back for another season that will be the talk of the draft process a year from now? I’ve put together a list of 20 names to follow ordered by position. No, I did not include every player in the country, so I’m sorry if the player on your team didn’t make the list. It does not mean I hate them. But I do love these players, so let’s get to them.
Caleb Williams, QB, USC: If Williams was eligible to go to the NFL this spring, odds are he’d be the favorite to go No. 1 overall. NFL teams are always looking for comps with prospects, and Williams is truly the most Patrick Mahomes-like quarterback in the college game. That’s not to say he’s as good as, or will be as good as, Mahomes in the NFL. But Williams does a lot of similar things to Mahomes. Oh, and he won the Heisman while playing for a coach in Lincoln Riley who has helped mold multiple Heisman winners and No. 1 draft picks. Rest assured, NFL scouts will spend the next year picking him apart and looking for things wrong with him. They may even find some, but don’t let it distract you from the fact he’s the best NFL prospect in college next year.
Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina: Unlike many of the top quarterbacks in the country, Maye did not play on a team contending for anything significant. The Tar Heels finished the season 9-5 and won the ACC Coastal, but nobody considered them a real threat to do anything because of their poor defense. Maye was terrific, however. He has the size, athleticism and all those traits NFL teams love. Depending on who you believe, other schools love them too. That’s why there were some lucrative offers allegedly tossed Maye’s way in hopes of convincing him to transfer.
Bo Nix, QB, Oregon: I never thought I’d include Nix in a story like this, but here we are. In short, I wasn’t a believer in Nix during his days at Auburn. He showed flashes, but mistakes and lackluster play too often overshadowed them. Then, he transferred to Oregon and made me look like a damn fool. Nix was a stud for the Ducks in 2022, and getting him back for another season was a coup for coach Dan Lanning. Nix started to live up to his potential last season, and another strong year could have him entering the early-round draft discussion next spring.
Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington: Next spring, Penix will be one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the draft class. He has an otherworldly arm that sometimes lacks restraint. Some will look at this as a knock on him. Others will imagine the results if it can be harnessed properly. College football fans will just enjoy it. Honestly, there were a few throws Penix made with Washington this season that elicited strange guttural sounds from my mouth of which I didn’t know I was capable.
Blake Corum, RB, Michigan: Corum is only on this list because of a knee injury he suffered late in the season against Illinois. The timetable for his recovery lasts through the draft process and would’ve hampered his stock. That absolutely stinks for Corum, but it’s a win for the Wolverines and college football. I’d like to see an X-ray of Corum’s ankles because they cannot be built the same way as most humans. Some of the cuts he makes and the angles his ankles bend while making them do not seem physically possible, but he does them repeatedly. Running backs seldom go early in drafts these days, but if Corum works on his pass-catching out of the backfield, he could enter that conversation next spring.
TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State: Henderson is a similar case to Blake Corum. He was banged up in 2022 and limited to only eight games, but he was productive when played and is a home-run hitter at the position. I’d give Corum the edge in change of direction on Henderson, but Henderson has a higher top speed and gets to it quicker. He wasn’t used as much as a receiver in 2022 as 2021, but it’s a part of his game that NFL teams will appreciate.
Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State: Recognize the name? Anybody who watched Marvin Harrison play with Peyton Manning all those years with the Indianapolis Colts will not be surprised to learn that his son is a route tactician. In fact, the younger Harrison looks so much like his father on the field it’s uncanny, but there’s one glaring difference: At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, the son is much larger than the father, who was listed at 6-foot and 185 pounds. If you watched Ohio State’s loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff, it’s not a coincidence that the Georgia defense found it easier to slow down the Buckeyes’ offense after Harrison left the game with an injury. He’s the most talented wide receiver in the country and could be a top-five pick next year.
Emeka Egbuka, WR, Ohio State: Yes, that’s right, a third straight Ohio State player is mentioned in this list. You get the sense the Buckeyes could be good again next season. Spoiler alert: Egbuka is the third Buckeye mentioned, but he won’t be the last. While Harrison is the better overall prospect, there’s a strong argument that Egbuka is the second-best wideout prospect in next year’s class. He’s not quite the tactician that Harrison is, but he’s just as talented and a pain in the butt to cover.
Xavier Worthy, WR, Texas: Worthy is a deep threat who has excelled at Texas despite playing with multiple quarterbacks in his first two seasons. He burst onto the scene with 981 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman playing with Casey Thompson and Hudson Card. In 2022, he played with Card and Quinn Ewers, finishing with 760 yards and nine touchdowns. The numbers dropped a little, but it was largely due to the availability of better second and third options. He’s not the biggest kid in the world, but he has the kind of deep speed every team at every level covets.
Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia: Bowers is a freak. When you watch the Georgia offense, you wonder why the Bulldogs don’t give him the ball on every play because it would probably be an efficient plan. Bowers led the Dawgs in receiving this season with 942 yards and seven touchdowns. He was also an effective ballcarrier, rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns on only nine carries. He’s a matchup nightmare that can be used all over the field. My sympathies to any linebacker who gets stuck with him one-on-one in coverage.
Olu Fashanu, OT, Penn State: I was legitimately surprised Fashanu returned to Penn State, but he’s young and his family felt it was best for him to develop physically for another season. Penn State’s certainly happy with the decision. Fashanu may have been the No. 1 tackle in the 2023 class had he entered the draft, and he’ll enter next season considered by many the top in the class.
Joe Alt, OT, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have sent quite a few excellent offensive linemen to the NFL in recent years, and Alt looks and plays every bit the part of a top-10 pick. The Irish offensive line took some time to gel in 2022, but Alt was outstanding all season long. He’s huge at 6-foot-7 with long arms and quick feet, making him impossible to get by. When he does get his hands on you, it’s a wrap.
JC Latham, OT, Alabama: Truth be told, I haven’t been as impressed with the Alabama offensive line over the last two years as I had been in years prior. It’s a unit that is regressing a bit, but I love Latham. He’s the one player on the unit that consistently stands out. He played right tackle for Alabama in 2023, and I don’t know that there are plans to move him to the left side. That could keep him from being a top pick in the draft, but it isn’t stopping me from including him here.
Jared Verse, DE, Florida State: I don’t know that Verse would’ve been a first-round pick like some have claimed had he entered the draft this year, but I don’t think he’d have made it to the third round. Verse was a massive win for the Seminoles in the transfer portal. He came to Tallahassee from Albany and finished with nine sacks and 16.5 TFLs. He’s already polished for a pass rusher.
JT Tuimoloau, DE, Ohio State: Finally, another Buckeye! Tuimoloau is one of my favorite players to watch because he does everything. He can get after the quarterback as a rusher. He can plug the gap as a run stopper. He can even drop in coverage and do a decent job, and he has excellent hands. He picked off two passes this season and broke up four passes. He is the very definition of a disruptive force.
Dallas Turner, DE, Alabama: Will Anderson will be a top-five pick in the spring. He was one of the most productive pass rushers in the college game over the last few seasons, and he had an epic 2021 season. How will Alabama replace him? It’ll simply throw Dallas Turner out there every snap. Turner is a little undersized for what you’d ideally like at the position, but he makes up for it with his speed. Any tackle that’s slow out of the gate is beat. Period. Once he learns how to use his hands a little better, there will be no stopping him.
Maason Smith, DT, LSU: Maason Smith missed most of the 2022 season due to a torn ACL he suffered in the season-opener against Florida State as he celebrated a tackle for loss. It robbed LSU of a disruptive force for the season, but he will be back to full health for 2023, and that’s a huge boost for the Tigers defense. Players who can blow up an offensive line from the interior are always appreciated, and that’s precisely what Smith can do.
Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB, Alabama: I have a feeling this will be a somewhat controversial choice because some of the folks I talk to aren’t as bullish on McKinstry. I am not in their camp. I love the kid and think he can be the first corner in the draft next spring. I love his demeanor and knack for finding the ball, and I love that he is a contributor on special teams.
Kamari Lassiter, CB, Georgia: Speaking of discord in the evaluations of corners, there’s plenty of it when it comes to Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, who is expected to be a top pick in the draft this year. Well, some will tell you that Ringo wasn’t the best corner on the Georgia defense this season — Kamari Lassiter was. I think they were both pretty great, and Lassiter is a good bet to get even better in 2023.
James Williams, S, Miami: In a season of few silver linings for the Miami Hurricanes, Williams was a beacon of hope. He was tied for the team lead with 59 tackles and was all over the place. The question will be whether Williams projects as a safety or linebacker at the next level. He’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 224 pounds. His stock suffered this year, but I suspect a lot of it was due to what was around him. If Miami rebounds in 2023, don’t be surprised if he enters the first-round conversation next year.