When the 2021 NFL season opens, three starting quarterbacks will be former Oklahoma Sooners.
Spencer Rattler is the odds-on favorite to win this year’s Heisman Trophy, which would make him the fifth Sooners quarterback to do so in the past 19 years.
Lincoln Riley and his staff just got a commitment from Malachi Nelson, the 17th-ranked prospect and No. 2 quarterback, according to ESPN, in the 2023 class.
These are heady times at QBU, a title Oklahoma has every right to claim. Indeed, ESPN’s numbers in our third annual Position U database show the Sooners’ lead over No. 2 USC has grown markedly in just a year. Greatness follows greatness. It’s the Oklahoma QB model.
But if Oklahoma is QBU, how would you rank QBU’s alumni? Does Jason White get credit for a national title? Does Baker Mayfield take the throne for kicking off this recent run of success? The only thing better than debating the best QB school is to debate the best QBs from the best QB school.
Think that’s tough? Try picking the best Ohio State defensive backs or the best Alabama offensive linemen. The options are vast.
For this year’s Position U countdown, we didn’t just tell you which schools churned out the most talent at each spot on the depth chart, we dug deeper to find out “Mount Rushmore” of alumni at each position — the best of the best.
How we calculated our results
There’s no set formula for calculating which school produces the best prospects at each position, which is why a dozen programs can claim to be DBU. But our Stats and Information team put some math behind the boasts. So, what makes a school Position U? It’s a combination of college success, draft stock and NFL success. Our formula awards points for all-conference and All-America selections, rewarding the best college performers. It awards points on a sliding scale based on where a player is drafted, rewarding impressive NFL evaluations.
Then, using data from Pro Football Reference, we add more points for production through the first five years of the player’s NFL career — beyond that, credit belongs to the NFL trainers and coaches — so that the draft busts and the late bloomers all get credit, too. Of course, we also need to account for the transfer portal, which is an increasingly big issue in the rankings. Our plan: Awards won in college belong to the school where it happened. The draft and NFL production get credited to the last school a player played for.
The winner: Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners’ QB Mt. Rushmore
Mayfield is one of college football’s greatest stories, becoming the only walk-on ever to win a Heisman Trophy. Named the greatest Sooner in history by The Oklahoman, he finished in the top four of Heisman voting three times, winning it in 2017. Mildren was the “Father of the Wishbone” under offensive coordinator Barry Switzer, who helped usher in a new era at OU, and Heupel similarly jump-started Bob Stoops’ Air Raid run, going from a junior-college transfer to a Heisman winner and national champion in Stoops’ second season. Bradford averaged 400 yards and four TDs over 21 games in an injury-shortened career and led the Sooners’ 2008 offense that averaged 51.1 points per game, allowing him to edge out several other truly great Sooners QBs, including Heisman winners Jason White and Kyler Murray, both who had legendary single seasons as starter. — Dave Wilson
6. Florida State
Big movers: Zach Wilson‘s big season helped BYU jump 24 spots, from No. 56 on our list to No. 32. Of course, if we went back beyond the BCS era, the Cougars have a rich history at the position, so it’s only right to see them climbing the list once more. Meanwhile, Alabama finally cracks the top 10 after Mac Jones followed in Tua Tagovailoa‘s footsteps as a first-rounder and Heisman finalist. If Bryce Young lives up to expectations, Alabama might be considered a QB school before too long.
Who’s missing: Yes, NC State fans, Russell Wilson still counts as a Wisconsin grad, so the Wolfpack didn’t land in our top 10 despite a strong pedigree of Wilson, Philip Rivers, Mike Glennon, Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Finley. On the upside, Devin Leary has a bright future, so there’s still hope for the 2022 list. Meanwhile, Ohio State ranks 11th, due in large part to its lackluster NFL track record. Perhaps Justin Fields will finally dispel the notion that the Buckeyes can’t produce a star at the next level.
Looking ahead: The rich just get richer, as Oklahoma has this year’s favorite for the Heisman in QB Spencer Rattler and just got a commitment from five-star 2023 prospect Malachi Nelson. Clemson, too, continues to burnish its QBU résumé, with D.J. Uiagalelei poised to be the Tigers’ next star at the position, and 2022 commit Cade Klubnik taking home MVP honors at the Elite 11.
Running Back U
The winner: Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide’s RB Mt. Rushmore
Henry is a fairly easy choice at No. 1, but then things get tricky as Ingram, despite a Heisman Trophy in 2009, isn’t as memorable as other Crimson Tide running backs. Alexander had an amazing career with 3,565 yards and 41 touchdowns in Tuscaloosa, and Harris’ strong finish last season helps him edge other deserving backs such as Bobby Humphery, Trent Richardson, Johnny Musso and T.J. Yeldon. — Adam Rittenberg
8. Ohio State
Big movers: The combination of David Montgomery‘s NFL success and Breece Hall tearing up the Big 12 helped Iowa State jump 38 spots on our rankings, from No. 80 to No. 42. The Cyclones are still a ways from the top 10, but thanks to Ezekiel Elliott and J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State’s résumé is now enough to move four spots up to eighth position, dropping Arkansas out of the top 10.
Who’s missing: Notre Dame has as rich a history as any college football program, including at running back. But the best of the bunch — Ricky Watters, Jerome Bettis — just missed our Position U timeline. Since the advent of the BCS era, no Irish tailback has blossomed into a Pro Bowler in the NFL, with Julius Jones likely the most productive pro of that time frame.
Looking ahead: It’s hard to imagine Alabama losing the top spot any time soon. While Henry dominates defenses for the Tennessee Titans, the Pittsburgh Steelers took Najee Harris in the first round of this year’s draft, and the Tide have two running backs ranked in ESPN’s top 51 committed for 2022.
Wide Receiver U
The winner: USC Trojans
The Trojans’ WR Mt. Rushmore
With apologies to a handful of others who have valid claims for inclusion, this group represents the best combination of talent (Williams and Johnson) and sustained production (Jarrett and Lee) to have suited up for the Trojans. Williams caught an incredible 30 touchdowns in his two years, while Johnson parlayed his two-year stint into being selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. Lee was the only USC player to win the Biletnikoff Award, and with 41 touchdown receptions, Jarrett has nine more than any other Trojan in history. — Kyle Bonagura
5. Ohio State
6. Florida State
7. Oklahoma State
Big movers: DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown blossomed into legitimate NFL stars, while Elijah Moore enjoyed the fruits of Lane Kiffin’s offensive scheme in 2020, pushing Ole Miss up 12 spots, from No. 25 to No. 13. Given the prolific passing game Kiffin instituted last season, odds are high the Rebels will crack the top 10 before long.
Who’s missing: From 2009 through 2018 — a decade of draft-eligible signing classes — Texas inked 18 blue-chip receivers. None were drafted in the first or second round, none made a Pro Bowl. The last impact NFL receiver the Longhorns supplied to the pros was Roy Williams, who was drafted in the first round in 2004 and made one Pro Bowl.
Looking ahead: Alabama’s run of receiving dominance only increased in 2020 too, with DeVonta Smith‘s Heisman. The Tide jumped from No. 8 to No. 4 in this year’s rankings as a result. But that’s just the beginning. John Metchie looks like a star in the making, and the Tide inked a trio of blue chips, including five-star prospect Jacorey Brooks, in 2021.
Tight End U
The winner: Miami Hurricanes
The Hurricanes’ TE Mt. Rushmore
Shockey has the ultimate college and pro resume: Winning both a national championship in college, and two Super Bowls in the NFL — in addition to the personal accolades that came his way, from All-America honors and Pro Bowl selections to his induction in the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame. Olsen recently retired after a 14-year NFL career, while Franks arguably started the Miami TEU tradition — he starred in the late 1990s, just before Shockey. — Andrea Adelson
8. Notre Dame
Big movers: Kyle Pitts might be the best tight end prospect in years, and he did a lot for Florida’s positioning in this year’s ranking. After turning in an All-America season, the Atlanta Falcons drafted Pitts No. 4 overall, making him the seventh Gators tight end drafted since 1998. Pitts’ success pushed Florida from No. 12 on the 2020 list all the way up to the No. 4 spot this year.
Who’s missing: Ohio State’s struggles to produce a great NFL QB are well documented. Less so is the Buckeyes’ issues at tight end. Luke Farrell went in the fifth round of this year’s draft, joining an ignominious list of predecessors, including Nick Vannett (third round, 2016), Jeff Heuerman (third round, 2015) and Ben Harstock (third round, 2004). On the upside, Jeremy Ruckert looks like a matchup nightmare in the Big Ten this season.
Looking ahead: Notre Dame ranks eighth on our list, but the Irish are climbing. Cole Kmet was a first-round pick in 2020, and Tommy Tremble went in Round 4 this year. But the best might be yet to come, with Michael Mayer poised for a breakout sophomore season. He’s already got the “Baby Gronk” nickname, and he could soon have Notre Dame pushing for the title of Tight End U.
Offensive Line U
The winner: Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide’s OL Mt. Rushmore
When Paul “Bear” Bryant called Hannah the best offensive lineman he ever coached, he meant it. Hannah was a two-time All-American and was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Stephenson isn’t far behind after two stints on the All-American team, two national championships and five Pro Bowl selections. While there are a handful of Nick Saban-era linemen to choose from, Jones’ résumé includes winning the Outland Trophy as a junior, switching from tackle to center and winning the Rimington Trophy the following year. — Alex Scarborough
3. Ohio State
7. Notre Dame
Big movers: Penei Sewell may have opted out in 2020, but his high draft stock — No. 7 overall — helped give the Ducks a three-spot boost, cracking the top 25. Brady Christensen became the first BYU O-lineman drafted since 2005, and that was enough to jump the Cougars 15 spots, from No. 73 to No. 58. Texas ticked up just one spot, but it brought the Longhorns into the top 10 — the lone newcomer in the group.
Who’s missing: When we first did this list in 2019, Florida State was well represented on the O-line, coming in at No. 8. The past few years, however, haven’t been good in the Tallahassee trenches. On the field, FSU has been dogged by terrible O-line play, and Mike Norvell is just beginning to turn things around. In this year’s rankings, the Seminoles fell out of the top 10 for the first time.
Looking ahead: For all of Clemson’s success over the past decade, the offensive line has been largely ignored. Jackson Carman was taken in Round 2 of this year’s draft, the highest a Tigers O-lineman has been selected since 1971, but the future looks far brighter. John Simpson and Tyler Shatley are now established NFL starters, and the Tigers inked eight blue-chip linemen in their past two recruiting classes, including five-star Tristan Leigh. They’ve got two more committed for 2022, too.
Defensive Line U
The winner: Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide’s DL Mt. Rushmore
Alabama has produced 10 defensive linemen selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft just since Nick Saban arrived in 2007. Allen was the most decorated defensive lineman in the country his senior season and has collected 16 sacks in his last three seasons in the NFL. It’s difficult to include Copeland without his sidekick, Eric Curry, from the 1992 national championship team, and Dareus and Williams were absolutely incredible at tackle. And how do you leave off Marty Lyons of the Jets’ famed “New York Sack Exchange?” Welcome to the riches of defensive line talent at Alabama. — Chris Low
2. Florida State
3. Ohio State
4. Penn State
Big movers: We have a new team atop the leaderboard here, as Alabama edged out Florida State to take the crown. It’s hard to argue with the Tide’s success, which includes seven defensive linemen selected in the first or second round of the past five drafts. Pitt has produced the best defensive lineman in a generation in Aaron Donald, but the DLU résumé increased in 2021 too, with three players selected in this year’s draft. It was enough to move the Panthers up 14 spots to No. 20 on our list.
Who’s missing: Miami checks in at No. 28 on our list, which might seem a bit surprising given that the Canes just had two D-linemen taken in the first round of this year’s draft (Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau). Before that, however, it’s a long way to find Miami’s last defensive lineman taken in the first two rounds (Calais Campbell, second-rounder in 2008).
Looking ahead: Texas A&M just makes our top 20 this year, but that’s likely to change moving forward. In 2021, the Aggies inked five of the top 30 defensive ends as ranked by ESPN, which supplements an already impressive group that includes preseason All-SEC lineman DeMarvin Leal.
The winner: Georgia Bulldogs
The Bulldogs’ LB Mt. Rushmore
The Bulldogs have had eight linebackers drafted in the first two rounds since the start of the BCS in 1998, including four first-rounders. Smith was a consensus All-American and won the Butkus Award with 137 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 6½ sacks as a junior in 2017. Jones played only two seasons at Georgia after transferring from USC, but made them count with a combined 28 sacks. Justin Houston, a third-round selection in 2011, has 97½ career sacks in the NFL in 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts. Leonard Floyd, a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2016, had 10½ sacks with the Los Angeles Rams last season. Two of Georgia’s all-time great defenders — edge rusher David Pollack and safety Thomas Davis — played much more at linebacker, as well. — Mark Schlabach
3. Ohio State
5. Penn State
Big movers: The top of the rankings remained largely stable, though Notre Dame jumped three spots to No. 14, the biggest mover in our top 25. Looking further down the rankings, however, Zaven Collins managed to put Tulsa on the map. After an All-American season that culminated with Collins being drafted No. 16 overall, the Golden Hurricane rocketed from No. 111 in our rankings to No. 65.
Who’s missing: K.J. Britt was selected in the fifth round, No. 176 overall in this year’s draft, making him the highest-selected Auburn linebacker since Will Herring (161st overall in 2007). Of course, only one other Auburn linebacker was taken in that span, so it’s not saying much. For a school that gave us Takeo Spikes, Karlos Dansby and Aundray Bruce, the recent era of linebackers has been awfully disappointing.
Looking ahead: Clemson has had a terrific run at linebacker under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, including 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Simmons and third-rounder Tanner Muse, moving it up to No. 8 in our rankings. Overall, the Tigers have seen five linebackers taken in the past six drafts, and have inked blue-chippers like Trenton Simpson and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. in recent years.
Defensive Back U
The winner: Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes’ DB Mt. Rushmore
Tatum’s nickname in the NFL was “The Assassin” because he hit so hard. He was one of the great safeties for Ohio State, was an All-American twice in his career and was eventually a first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders. He is among a long list of outstanding defensive backs that have played for Ohio State, which made it difficult to land on these four. Shawn Springs, Mike Sensibaugh and a handful of others could have been considered. The DBU distinction is only from 1998 and forward, but Ohio State’s history with this position group is long and successful. — Tom Van Haaren
6. Florida State
10. Virginia Tech
Big movers: The only new team entering this year’s top 25 is Oregon, which jumped three spots from last year after seeing four DBs drafted this spring, including second-rounder Jevon Holland. Northwestern is still a long way from competing for the title of DBU, but thanks to a tremendous season from Greg Newsome, which ended with him drafted 26th overall, the Wildcats moved up 49 spots in our rankings, from No. 120 to No. 71.
Who’s missing: Texas A&M ranks in the top 25 at every position except running back and defensive back. The Aggies haven’t had a DB go in the first round since Sammy Davis back in 2003. Davis was out of the league after just five seasons, having started just six games from 2005 through 2007.
Looking ahead: Pitt checks in at No. 34 on our DBU list, but the Panthers are climbing fast. In the past three drafts, Pitt has seen five defensive backs selected, including Jason Pinnock and Damar Hamlin last year. Both 2018 picks — Jordan Whitehead and Avonte Maddox — have blossomed into starters, with Whitehead winning a Super Bowl with the Bucs last season. The pipeline looks promising for the near future too, with Marquis Williams among the ACC’s best corners returning for 2021.
The winner: Florida State Seminoles
4. Ohio State
The winner: Texas A&M Aggies
6. Georgia Tech
7. Michigan State
8. Ohio State
Special teams Mt. Rushmore
Sebastian Janikowski, FSU
Roberto Aguayo, FSU
Shane Lechler, Texas A&M
Braden Mann, Texas A&M