The NFL’s early entrant deadline for the 2022 NFL Draft came and went on Monday, and there were several stars who passed up massive paychecks at the next level to return to college football next season and compete for the national championship. Quarterbacks Spencer Rattler and Grayson McCall, linebackers Nolan Smith and Jack Campbell and running back Mohamed Ibrahim are just a few of the talented players who will play on Saturdays this fall.
This year’s list of the best players who spurned the NFL Draft not only includes juniors and redshirt sophomores but seniors who have taken advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver that gave players a free year of eligibility in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So who are the best college football players that made the decision to return? Let’s break them down.
1. Nolan Smith, LB, Georgia: Smith was one of the stars of a defense that paced the Bulldogs to their first national title since 1980. The former No. 1 overall player in the Class of 2019 had 56 tackles, 10 of which were for a loss, last season. He should play himself into the upper half of the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
2. Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa: The nation’s leading tackler will return for his final year after notching 143 tackles for the stout Hawkeyes defense in 2021. That play should continue in 2022, which would inflate Campbell’s paycheck once he decides to move on to Sundays.
3. Spencer Rattler, QB, South Carolina: The former Oklahoma quarterback has been a lightning rod for criticism during his three-year college career, but it’s not like he’s been a bust. He’s been far from it, actually. He had 40 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions through three seasons in Norman, and has the chance to develop into a star now that he’s more comfortable with the Gamecocks.
4. Mohamed Ibrahim, RB, Minnesota: Ibrahim was supposed to be one of the sport’s brightest stars in 2021, but a knee injury in the opener vs. Ohio State ended his season shortly after it began. With that said, he has 3,003 yards and 33 touchdowns in 28 career games for the Golden Gophers. As long as he’s healthy, Ibrahim is one of the best players in all of college football.
5. Will McDonald, DE, Iowa State: The Cyclones lost quite a few stars to the NFL Draft, but McDonald’s return should keep them in the Big 12 title hunt. McDonald had double-digit sacks and 13 tackles for loss in each of the last two seasons, and should be a preseason All-American candidate heading into the 2022 season.
6. Jordan Battle, DB, Alabama: Battle had three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, in 2021 in what was an All-SEC season for the junior. Alabama coach Nick Saban is accustomed to losing star players to the NFL Draft, but the talent and leadership Battle provides will go a long way toward the Crimson Tide’s return to glory in 2022.
7. Grayson McCall, QB, Coastal Carolina: McCall announced his return with one of the most epic quotes of the offseason. “When I say I piss teal, I mean it,” he wrote on Twitter. McCall finished with the nation’s best passer rating (207.6) and second in the nation with a 73.0% completion percentage.
8. Henry To’o To’o, LB, Alabama: The former Tennessee star had 111 tackles, 7.5 for loss and four sacks in his first season with the Crimson Tide. His return will bolster a defense that will be breaking in several new faces at all three levels, but has the talent to be one of the nation’s best in 2022.
9. Owen Pappoe, LB, Auburn: Pappoe was hampered by injuries last season but is one of the best linebackers in the country when he’s healthy. He had 93 tackles in 11 games in 2020, and had 23 in five games as a junior in 2021. The former five-star prospect should be a star for coach Bryan Harsin’s defense this fall, and could play his way into the first round of the NFL Draft.
10. Ainias Smith, WR, Texas A&M: Smith is one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football, and should make the 2022 Texas A&M offense one of the most dangerous units in the nation. He has 15 receiving touchdowns and a punt return for a touchdown through his first three seasons in College Station, and will have plenty of chances to make a name for himself in a variety of ways this fall.
11. Sam Hartman, QB, Wake Forest: It seems like Hartman has been with the Demon Deacons forever, but he will be back after throwing for 4,228 yards and 39 touchdowns in the high-octane offense under Dave Clawson in 2021. What’s more, Hartman is also a big threat on the ground after rushing for 364 yards and 11 touchdowns as well.
12. Nick Broeker, OL, Ole Miss: Broeker allowed just two sacks last season as a redshirt sophomore left tackle for the Rebels, and has a bright future at either tackle or guard at the next level. His return will provide stability to an Ole Miss offense that will be adjusting to life without star quarterback Matt Corral.
13. Riley Moss, DB, Iowa: Moss was named the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year in 2021 after a stellar campaign that saw him pick off four passes (two of which were returned for touchdowns vs. Indiana), notch 39 tackles and recover a fumble. He has 10 interceptions and three touchdowns in four seasons with the Hawkeyes.
14. Bumper Pool, LB, Arkansas: The veteran linebacker with a five-star name announced his return as a “super senior” after tallying 125 tackles for the Razorbacks last season. It was the second straight season that Pool has reached triple-digits in tackles, which should land him on multiple preseason All-American teams prior to the start of the 2022 season.
15. Brenton Cox, LB, Florida: Cox had 41 tackles, 14.5 for a loss and eight sacks for the Gators in what was Dan Mullen’s final campaign as Gators head coach. That followed a solid sophomore season that saw him notch 42 tackles, 10 of which were for a loss, in 2020 — his first in Gainesville after transferring from Georgia.
16. Phil Jurkovec, QB, Boston College: Jurkovec had an injury-riddled season in 2021, but has shown that, when healthy, he is one of the best signal-callers in the country. He threw for 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2020, and has received early first-round buzz in 2023 mock drafts.
17. Christopher Smith, DB, Georgia: Smith scored the only touchdown of Georgia’s season-opening win over Clemson — a 74-yard pick six in the second quarter. That set the tone for what was an amazing defensive performance for the Bulldogs, and the first of three interceptions Smith snagged in 2021.
18. Ji’Ayir Brown, DB, Penn State: Brown put together a stellar season in 2021, notching 73 tackles, six interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble for a team that relied heavily on its defense. If the Nittany Lions are going to contend for the Big Ten East title, it’ll be on Brown to be the leader of their secondary.
19. Brennan Armstrong, QB, Virginia: Armstrong developed into a superstar last fall when he threw for 4,444 yards and 31 touchdowns for a high-octane Cavaliers offense. He also has 901 career rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, which makes him one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.
20. Devin Leary, QB, NC State: The redshirt junior had 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns last season, and only tossed five interceptions in 12 games. The 6-foot-1, 212-pounder might not be known at a national level, but that should change in 2022 when he will prove to be one of the top quarterbacks in the sport.