Talk of Georgia three-peating as national champion has become the topic du jour in college football.
Seems like just yesterday the Dawgs had gone four decades without a national title. Now they’ve won two in a row, and it’s never too early to look ahead in a sport that never sleeps.
We’ve already unveiled our Way-Too-Early Top 25, and up next is our Way-Too-Early All-America team. There are some recognizable names, as in USC Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, and then there are some names that might not be as recognizable — yet. Not that anyone should be surprised, but Georgia leads the way with four selections. Six of these players will be true sophomores in 2023.
QB: Caleb Williams, USC
As disappointing as the end to the 2022 season was for USC, it doesn’t diminish the greatness of Williams. He accounted for 52 touchdowns (42 passing and 10 rushing) and was third nationally in total yards (4,919) to become the eighth player in USC history to win the Heisman Trophy. The Trojans still lost their last two games, to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game and to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl, meaning the pressure to make the playoff will only ratchet up in Year 2 under Lincoln Riley. Having the best quarterback in the country returning helps combat that pressure.
The only thing that derailed Corum this past season was a torn meniscus and sprained MCL in his left knee, an injury he suffered against Illinois in the next-to-last regular-season game. Corum was right in the middle of the Heisman Trophy race when he was injured. His decision to return for the 2023 season was a huge coup for Michigan, which will again lean on Corum offensively. He rushed for 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games and averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
How good was Judkins a year ago? The only player in SEC history to rush for more yards as a freshman was Herschel Walker. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Judkins led the SEC with 1,567 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. He had eight 100-yard rushing games, including a pair of 200-yard performances, and ripped off 19 runs of 20 yards or longer in 2022. Lane Kiffin always has a potent running game, which means Judkins could be looking at 3,000 rushing yards before he reaches his junior season.
A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in college football last season, Harrison is what everybody is looking for at that position. He’s 6-4 and 205 pounds with the speed and skill to go up and get any pass in his vicinity. Harrison caught 77 passes last season, including 20 catches of 20 yards or longer. He’s hauled in 17 touchdown passes in his past 14 games, dating back to the final game of his freshman season, when he tied a Rose Bowl record with three touchdown catches.
Michael Penix Jr. throws 48-yard touchdown pass to Rome Odunze
Michael Penix Jr. throws 48-yard touchdown pass to Rome Odunze
The good news just keeps rolling in for the Huskies. Not only is quarterback Michael Penix Jr. back after leading the country in passing yards per game (357), but his top receiving target is also back after putting off the NFL for another year. The 6-3, 200-pound Odunze blossomed into one of the Pac-12’s premier receivers and has the size and speed to be a nightmare for any defensive back. And with Jalen McMillan also returning at receiver, Odunze is going to have plenty of chances to build on his 75-catch, 1,145-yard breakout junior season.
Bowers was the best (and most versatile) tight end in college football each of the past two seasons. Why not a third? He catches everything, can line up just about anywhere on the field and gains yards after the catch like a running back. Go watch him block, too. He’s relentless and can block inside or on the edge to spring a big play. The 6-4, 230-pound Bowers has a long career ahead of him in the NFL, and he has one more year of college ball remaining after scoring a total of 24 touchdowns (20 receiving and four rushing) his first two seasons.
As a sophomore, Alt was one of the most dominant and consistent tackles in the country. According to Pro Football Focus, he didn’t allow any sacks and allowed only five pressures all season. The 6-8, 317-pound Alt is extremely agile after playing tight end in high school and is following in the footsteps of his father, John Alt, who earned multiple Pro Bowl selections in the NFL. Alt will also have a new quarterback to protect from his left tackle position in 2023 with Sam Hartman transferring in from Wake Forest.
Michigan’s offensive line has earned Joe Moore Award honors each of the past two years as the top offensive line in the country, and the 6-6, 315-pound Zinter has been a key cog in those units. He announced last week that he’s returning for his senior season at his right guard spot, where he earned All-Big Ten honors as both a sophomore and junior. Zinter was rated among the top three guards in the NFL draft had he come out. His return means the Wolverines will have three of their five starting offensive linemen back in 2023.
After starting his West Virginia career at guard and earning freshman All-America honors, the 6-3, 306-pound Frazier has transitioned into one of the top centers in the country. He enters the 2023 season with 34 career starts, including 25 consecutive starts at center. Pro Football Focus rated Frazier as the sixth-best center in the country last season, and four of the five centers with higher grades have declared for the NFL draft. Frazier was a four-year all-state wrestler in high school and plays center with that same intensity.
Already one of the top interior offensive linemen in college football, the 6-4, 322-pound Beebe is coming back for his fourth season as a starter for the defending Big 12 champion Wildcats. This will be Beebe’s fifth year on campus after redshirting his first season, and he’s proved he can be a difference-maker wherever he lines up. He was a right tackle his first season, then started 13 games at left tackle as a sophomore and moved to left guard last season on his way to earning Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year honors.
Penn State has a talented nucleus of returnees on offense, and the 6-6, 308-pound Fashanu will be back for his redshirt junior season at left tackle. He was in his first full season as a starter a year ago and blossomed as both a pass protector and as a run-blocker. There was some thought that Fashanu might turn pro, but he said he had unfinished business with the Nittany Lions. He gives quarterback Drew Allar much-needed comfort on his blind side as Allar takes over the starting quarterback duties.
Hunter was the nation’s No. 1 recruit coming out of high school and could have gone anywhere, but he followed Deion Sanders to Jackson State a year ago. He’s now following Sanders to Colorado with visions of being a rare two-way player in FBS football. Hunter has showed the skills to be a lockdown cornerback (just like his head coach) but is equally skilled when it comes to catching passes. Don’t be surprised if he scores on offense and defense in 2023.
One of Mike Norvell’s most important recruits this offseason was Verse electing to return to Florida State for another season despite being projected as an NFL first-round pick. This will be Verse’s second season in FSU’s program after starting his career at Albany and playing two seasons there. The 6-4, 248-pound Verse had 16.5 tackles for loss, including nine sacks, last season for the Seminoles and should be even better in 2023 after being slowed by injuries in a few games last year.
Illinois led the country last season in scoring defense (12.8 points per game), and a big reason was the 6-2, 295-pound Newton and his disruptive presence in the middle of that defense. His decision to return for a fourth season along with fellow All-Big Ten defensive lineman Keith Randolph — “The Law Firm,” as coach Bret Bielema calls them — was big news for the Illini, who won eight games in 2022. Newton was second nationally among interior linemen in pressures (55) and also had 14 tackles for loss.
From the time Williams set foot on campus, Georgia coach Kirby Smart was raving about his work ethic. And, yes, his talent. Williams didn’t disappoint as a true freshman and is next in line to be the dynamic front-seven defender everybody is talking about at Georgia. The 6-5, 265-pound Williams was a freshman All-America selection and led the Dawgs with 4.5 sacks. He tied with Jalen Carter for the team lead in quarterback hurries (31) and will be terrorizing opposing SEC offenses for two more seasons.
As one of the nation’s top freshman defenders a year ago, the 6-2, 220-pound Perkins will be an even better version of himself in 2023. He can make plays sideline to sideline, and with a year’s worth of experience in the SEC and a whole year in the offseason strength and conditioning program, he’s braced to become one of the most feared pass-rushers in college football. Perkins led LSU in tackles for loss (13), sacks (7.5), quarterback hurries (14) and forced fumbles (4).
They have great linebackers at Georgia, and Dumas-Johnson is the next one. He’s a 6-1, 245-pound run-stuffer and can also fly around and pressure the passer. As a true sophomore last season, Dumas-Johnson led the Dawgs’ national championship defense with nine tackles for loss. He was second in overall tackles (70) and third in quarterback hurries (24). Some have compared him to former Georgia great Nakobe Dean, who won the Butkus Award as the country’s best linebacker in 2021.
Carter moved from the strongside linebacker spot to weakside linebacker late in the season and was a natural with his ability to do a little bit of everything. He’s versatile enough that he could probably play safety. The 6-1, 225-pound Carter returns for his junior season after playing a team-high 832 snaps a year ago and finishing with 10.5 tackles for loss, eight pass breakups, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He’s the ultimate big-play guy on defense and will team with Jeremiah Trotter Jr. to give Clemson two of its best linebackers in the Dabo Swinney era.
Playing opposite Will Anderson Jr. a year ago, Turner was primed for a big year. His numbers weren’t what he or anybody at Alabama expected, but there’s no denying his game-changing ability. The 6-4, 240-pound Turner has 18 tackles for loss in his first two seasons and is versatile enough to move around and wreak havoc no matter where he lines up. Entering his second season as a full-time starter, Turner has the kind of flexibility Nick Saban loves in his outside linebackers.
From his first career start in the second game he ever played at Alabama, McKinstry has just gotten better and more seasoned, and now enters his junior season as one of college football’s best cornerbacks. The 6-1, 188-pound McKinstry had a team-high 15 pass breakups last season and provides the kind of skill and experience that Saban has had at cornerback on some of his more dominant defenses. McKinstry is also one of the more accomplished punt-return specialists in the country.
Morrison is fresh off a splendid freshman season. His six interceptions were the most for a Notre Dame player since Manti Te’o picked off seven passes during the 2012 season. The 6-foot, 180-pound Morrison started nine games a year ago, and all six of his interceptions came in the final five games. His 96-yard interception return for a touchdown in the 35-14 win over Clemson was one of the plays of the year for the Irish. Morrison turned in a three-interception game against the Boston College Eagles and picked off his final pass in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl win over the South Carolina Gamecocks.
It was a rough first season for Mario Cristobal at The U. The Hurricanes finished 5-7 and didn’t make a bowl game. But Kinchens was one of the bright spots. He tied for first among Power 5 players with six interceptions, returning one of those 99 yards for a touchdown against Georgia Tech. His size (205 pounds) and instincts make him one of the country’s more complete defensive backs returning in 2023. Kinchens also led Miami with 59 tackles last season.
Georgia pounces on Rattler’s throw for an INT
Malaki Starks makes a great play on the ball and returns the interception 42 yards for Georgia.
The young talent on Georgia’s 2022 national championship team was impossible to miss. The 6-1, 205-pound Starks played well beyond his years as a freshman. He led all Georgia defenders with 847 snaps played and finished third on the team with 68 total tackles while starting in all 15 games. His ability to do so many things on defense makes him a perfect fit for Smart’s system. He can play the deep safety position, come up and cover inside receivers/tight ends and can also blitz.
Karty will be in his third season as the Cardinal’s starter and was perfect a year ago in being named a finalist for the Lou Groza Award as the country’s top placekicker. He was 18-of-18 on field goal attempts, and not only is he accurate, but he also has a big leg. His 61-yarder against Cal was the second-longest field goal in Pac-12 history. He had field goals of 45, 43 and 43 yards in the 16-14 win over Notre Dame and a career-high five field goals in the 15-14 win over Arizona State. First-year coach Troy Taylor knows he has Mr. Automatic any time he needs three points.
One of the big mysteries last season was how Kroeger wasn’t even a finalist for the Ray Guy Award as the top punter in the country. Some in and around South Carolina’s program thought he was a strong candidate for team MVP. Kroeger averaged 46.1 yards per punt and had 29 punts downed inside the 20-yard line (four inside the 10 in a 31-30 win over Clemson). He’s also a threat to throw the ball and was 4-for-4, including two touchdowns, as a trick-play passer.
A knee injury slowed Gould toward the end of last season, but he was a big play waiting to happen in the first 10 games. Gould led the country in punt return average (18.6 yards) and is the only FBS player returning who had two punt returns for touchdowns. His role is likely to grow for the Beavers in 2023 as they try to build on their 10-3 season. This will be Gould’s fifth season on campus. In addition to his punt return duties, he was third on the team with 27 catches, including three touchdowns.