My bosses here at CBS Sports came to me earlier this summer with the idea to create a set of rankings similar to our own Pete Prisco's Better-Than Team about college football players I like more than the average analyst or fan entering the season. The idea is to identify 20 guys -- after all, I wore No. 20 with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- who you need to watch beyond the more notable names on Preseason All-America teams and early NFL Draft boards.
The requirements I set were choosing only draft-eligible players (so I could check my work next spring) who are not projected first-round picks (on colleague Ryan Wilson's way-too-early 2022 mock draft). That meant guys I originally identified like Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson or Nevada quarterback Carson Strong were scrapped. I also tried to stay away from players who were earning a lot of preseason love and first-team accolades, which meant the boot for Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson and TCU cornerback Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.
After calling coaches and contacts across the country and watching so much film that my eyes hurt, I've whittled down my inaugural Need-to-Know 20 for the 2021 college football season. I even ranked them in order of just how good I feel about these guys. Check 'em out below.
1. QB Michael Penix Jr., Indiana: The best quarterback in the Big Ten, Penix is a proven winner (12-2 as a starter) with incredible, natural arm talent. He displayed great anticipation in 2020, flashing a knack for throwing the ball before his targets' routes were completed. Great in the roll-out game but also has smooth pocket presence. Coming off his second ACL injury, health is a concern for Penix, but he has the talent to be an early NFL Draft selection.
2. RB Chris Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky: The best SEC player whose name you don't know, Rodriguez is considered a power back but averaged over 6 yards per carry last season (785 yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games). At 5-foot-11 and 224 pounds, C-Rod's got sneaky quickness and speed.
3. EDGE Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati: A legit speed rusher with great length. Quick first step with a relentless attitude that keeps him around the football. Best pass-rusher in the Group of Five. Cincinnati has some dudes on defense.
4. OL Cain Madden, Notre Dame: A huge transfer win for Notre Dame after a lot of people thought Madden was bound for Florida State when leaving Marshall. He's a technically sound player who understands leverage and proper hand placement. He has what I call typewriter feet: They're always moving.
5. DB Brandon Joseph, Northwestern: Great ball skills. A sideline-to-sideline type of player who should be a pilot for Delta because he's always flying around. You won't question whether Joseph loves football because you see his love for the game when he plays. The Wildcats sent Greg Newsome off to the NFL as a first-rounder in 2021. Brandon's got next.
6. EDGE Jermaine Johnson II, Florida State: You know I had to get a 'Nole on this list, and everybody I speak with in Tallahassee is really high on this Georgia transfer. Johnson's a big-time athlete who plays with a nice bend when rushing the passer. Can be effective standing or with his hand in the dirt. I can see him being Florida State's best defensive player.
7. TE Cole Turner, Nevada: You need to be watching Nevada. QB Carson Strong is getting buzz as a first-round pick in 2022, and he gets to spread the love to guys like wideout Romeo Doubbs and Turner, a big-time red zone/goal line threat (nine touchdowns in 2020). Extremely soft hands, efficient in his routes and doesn't mind blocking. Will probably put up video game numbers again this year next to Strong.
8. QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA: A fringe five-star recruit, Thompson-Robinson has taken his lumps at times in Westwood (12 interceptions, seven lost fumbles in 2019) but is improving annually under Chip Kelly's watch. With turnovers getting under control in 2020, this could be the breakout season. He's matured so much in staying calm in the pocket when facing a free blitzer. I love his progression reads, and he's not afraid to attempt outside breaking routes.
9. RB Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama: It feels like Robinson has been in Tuscaloosa forever, so you know he's ready to be the featured guy after flashing in spurts. I love his burst and running style; he runs with bad intentions. His College Football Playoff National Championship performance (69 yards on 10 carries) was a sign of things to come.
10. WR David Bell, Purdue: Rondale Moore got all the attention in West Lafayette the last few seasons, but Bell's been a monster who led the Boilermakers in every receiving category last season. He's a smooth route-runner who plays through contact before and after the catch. Questionable quarterback play hasn't hurt his production. Bell's ball skills and body control is ideal. We'll be talking about this guy come draft time.
11. OL Jamaree Salyer, Georgia: Maybe we're breaking our rules here since Salyer has been a preseason first-team All-America pick for some publications, but he's still an offensive lineman -- those guys always need pub! -- and he's only a preseason second-team selection on the All-SEC team. The former five-star recruit has a massive body and plays with an attitude. He's played tackle and guard in his career, so there's plenty to like when you consider his versatility, wide base and good lateral movement.
12. DB Trent McDuffie, Washington: Say it with me: Huskies develop defensive backs, Huskies develop defensive backs. McDuffie is next, and at 5-foot-11, he's more in the prototype of a Budda Baker than a Kevin King. He's is an all-around player who tackles, covers and understands angles. Those who knew him in the recruiting process raved about his makeup.
13. TE Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina: Big play ability (20 yards per reception in 2020) is there. Likely is a former wide receiver who still has elite speed and competes in the run game with good effort and energy. He's one of the main draws of the fun Coastal Carolina offense, along with QB Grayson McCall.
14. WR Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama: Love this guy: 6-foot-3, smooth acceleration and deceptive speed. Good start-stop ability and bursts outta his routes. Tolbert's deep ball location allows him to secure and attack those opportunities.
15. LB DeMarvion Overshown, Texas: Former five-star safety prospect that has a nose guard attitude. He spun down to linebacker last year, and you could see him get more comfortable on a weekly basis. Moves well in space and plays with the right gap integrity in the run game. He's exactly what the NFL is looking for in a linebacker.
16. WR Khalil Shakir, Boise State: Shakir led the Broncos last season with 52 catches for 719 yards and six receiving touchdowns. He's a savvy route-runner who uses his head and feet to manipulate defensive backs while running his routes. YAC should be his nickname because, when the ball is in his hands, he's guaranteed to make a defender miss.
17. EDGE Keion White, Georgia Tech: An under-the-radar prospect who could take the ACC by storm after transferring in from Old Dominion. The Monarchs didn't play last season, but in 2019, White had 19 tackles for loss after switching positions from tight end. What I like is his impressive first step. He has a motor that never turns off. Turn on the tape and he jumps off; he's a natural football player who gets after it.
18. EDGE Tyreke Smith, Ohio State Smith's game is all about power and speed. He's strong against the run and has the versatility to play the 3- or 5-technique. The Buckeyes are always loaded on the defensive front, and Smith is a big part of that, but he's not getting as much acclaim as his teammates. Don't sleep on this guy.
19. OL Dylan Parham, Memphis: Three-year starter who profiles as a guard in the NFL. Good versatility. Shows solid hand placement when engaged with a defender. Smart football player who those in the know say is exceptionally coachable.
20. DB Joey Porter Jr., Penn State: He's only played in 12 games to date, but his potential slaps you in the face when you watch him play. Ideal size (6-foot-2), speed and pedigree. I played with his dad in the league! Junior has a chance to be one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten and could be a household name by November.