December 8, 2022

College Football’s 20 best wide receivers of 2021

College Football best returning wide receivers of 2021

Texas wide receiver Joshua Moore. Photo courtesy of the Alamo Bowl

After DeVonta Smith won the Heisman last season it put the wide receiver position back on the map.

With wideouts in the spotlight, everyone will be looking for that next player to contend for the hardware. However, being successful at this level traces back to fundamentals. Catching is the easy part, but route-running, blocking and gaining separation is just as vital.

If the hands touched the ball it needs to be caught, especially in the clutch. Reading corners and safeties is always beneficial on key possessions. Last year these 20 receivers were battle-tested and proved why they belong. Now it’s all about capitalizing on the momentum. There’s a player on this list who’s going to win the Biletnikoff this fall.

20. Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama: He’s coming off a monster year and finished seventh in the FBS, with 1,085 receiving yards. Tolbert had 169 yards through the air and two scores against Southern Miss. The Alabama native also hauled in a touchdown catch against UAB, Texas State and Georgia Southern. However, his best performance came on the road against Arkansas State. The six-foot-three, 195-pounder caught 10 balls for 252 yards and three touchdowns. Tolbert has come a long way from being a former two-star prospect, to becoming one of the most productive receivers in the country. Now he has momentum approaching the fall and poised for another 1,000-yard campaign.

19. Jaivon Heiligh, Coastal Carolina: The Florida native was clutch for the Chanticleers all of last season. Heiligh tied for seventh in the FBS with 10 touchdown catches. He also racked up 998 receiving yards, which ranked 12th in the FBS. Heiligh’s numbers were impressive, considering Coastal Carolina was one of the nation’s best rushing teams. The former three-star prospect had a touchdown catch through the Chanticleers first four games. He went over 100 yards receiving against Louisiana, Georgia Southern, Troy and Liberty. Heiligh ended 2020 on a high note, with double-digit receptions over his team’s final two games. Now he’ll be attempting to capture his first 1,000-yard season this fall.

18. Erik Ezukanma, Texas Tech: The former four-star prospect finished third in the Big 12, with 748 receiving yards last season. Ezukanma led the Red Raiders in receptions and touchdown catches. He used his elite size at six-foot-three, 220 pounds, to catch touchdowns against Oklahoma State, Houston Baptist, Texas, Iowa State and TCU. He caught seven passes in three different Big 12 tilts, including an 183-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Cowboys. Ezukanma had at least two catches in every game and earned first-team All-Big 12 in 2020. Texas Tech is still trying to become bowl eligible for the first time under Matt Wells, so Ezukanma will push himself harder to reach that goal.

17. Romeo Doubs, Nevada: The Los Angeles native finished eighth in the FBS after he averaged 111.3 receiving yards per game last season. Doubs caught 58 passes and had nine receiving scores in nine games. The former three-star prospect went over 100 receiving yards against Wyoming, Utah State, New Mexico and San Diego State. Not to mention Doubs had seven catches and 219 receiving yards against UNLV. The former three-star prospect had a touchdown catch in each of Nevada’s first five games. He also had three touchdown receptions apiece against the Aggies and Lobos. Despite scoring no touchdowns over Nevada’s final five games, he’s one of the best returning Group of Five receivers.

16. Drake London, USC: He led the Trojans in receiving yards and caught at least three balls in every game as a true sophomore last season. London started off hot, with eight catches, 125 receiving yards and a touchdown in the opener against Arizona State. The California native caught five or more balls in four games. Not to mention he had two touchdown catches in the win over UCLA. London used his six-foot-five, 210-pound frame to haul in eight passes against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. The former four-star prospect earned second-team All-Pac-12. He’s also a two-sport athlete and plays basketball. With Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns gone, he’ll be the go-to receiver.

15. Calvin Austin III, Memphis: The hometown kid finished sixth in the FBS in touchdown catches and eighth in receiving yards last season. Austin caught a touchdown pass in nine of the Tigers’ 11 games. The former three-star prospect went over 100 yards receiving against Central Florida, Temple, Cincinnati, South Florida, S.F. Austin and Tulane. Not to mention Austin returned a 64-yard punt for a touchdown against the Lumberjacks. He averaged 95.7 receiving yards per game, which ranked 23rd in the FBS. The five-foot-nine, 162-pounder also used his track speed to catch a pass in every game. He ended 2020 on a high note, with 1,053 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns.

14. Kayshon Boutte, LSU: He stepped onto the scene last season as a five-star prospect and led the Bayou Bengals in receiving yards. Boutte was a late bloomer, but caught a pass in every game. He finished 2020 strong after he went over 100 yards receiving against Alabama and Florida. However, he hauled in a career-high, 13 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns in the season-finale win over Ole Miss. The Louisiana native made four of his five touchdown catches over LSU’s last two games. Boutte earned Freshman All-SEC honors and will be one of the most explosive receivers in the league this fall. He’s proof that All-SEC caliber wideouts grow on trees down in Baton Rouge.

13. Xavier Hutchinson, Iowa State: The former junior college transfer made a name for himself in the Big 12 last year. Hutchinson led the Cyclones in receptions and receiving yards, plus he caught a pass in every game. The Jacksonville native went over 100 yards receiving against Kansas State and Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship. The six-foot-three, 203-pounder had four games of eight catches or more, including 10 in the rematch against the Sooners. Hutchinson was named the Big 12’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year. He also earned first-team All-Big 12. This fall he’ll be Brock Purdy’s No. 1 target again and the offense is loaded, which means his numbers should improve.

12. George Pickens, Georgia: The former five-star prospect has led the Bulldogs in touchdown receptions for the past two years. In eight games last season, the true sophomore caught a touchdown against Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State and Cincinnati. Not to mention he had two touchdown catches at Missouri. Pickens closed out the season strong after he went over 100 receiving yards against the Tigers and Bearcats. The six-foot-three, 200-pounder caught at least two passes in every game he played in. Pickens has racked up 85 receptions, 1,229 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches over the past two seasons. The Alabama native will be a veteran wideout this fall and JT Barrett’s top target.

11. Zay Flowers, Boston College: Last season he finished first in the ACC in touchdown catches and third in receiving yards. As a true sophomore Flowers led the Eagles in both categories, and scored nine touchdowns in 11 games. He went over 100 receiving yards in three different ACC clashes. The 5-foot-11, 178-pounder caught a touchdown against Duke, Clemson, Syracuse and Notre Dame. Not to mention the Florida native had three touchdown receptions in the win over Pittsburgh and two in the season finale against Virginia. The former three-star prospect was rewarded first-team All-ACC for his production. Flowers will be the Eagles No. 1 target this fall after tight end Hunter Long bolted to the NFL.

10. Garrett Wilson, Ohio State: The former five-star prospect is one half of a deadly two-headed monster at receiver for the Buckeyes. Wilson averaged 90.4 receiving yards per game as a true sophomore. He went over 100 yards receiving in three different Big Ten matchups. The Austin native also caught a touchdown against Nebraska, Rutgers, Michigan State and Alabama. Not to mention Wilson had two receiving scores against Indiana. The six-foot, 193-pounder had 43 catches and 723 receiving yards in eight games. Wilson’s big-play ability didn’t go unnoticed, and he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. He’s just an example of the embarrassment of riches Ohio State has at wide receiver this fall.

9. Joshua Moore, Texas: He led the Longhorns in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches last season. The Texas native caught nine touchdowns in 10 games, which tied for first in the Big 12. Moore started off 2020 on fire and went over 100 receiving yards against UTEP. He followed up that performance with three touchdown catches in the shootout win over Texas Tech. In a three-game stretch that included Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State, Moore combined for 11 receptions, 143 receiving yards and three touchdowns. The six-foot-one, 169-pounder caught two touchdowns in the bowl win over Colorado. Moore is arguably the most explosive returning receiver in the Big 12.

8. Jahan Dotson, Penn State: The Pennsylvania native led the Nittany Lions in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches last season. Dotson had eight receiving scores in nine games, which tied for first in the Big Ten. He also averaged 98.2 receiving yards per game, which ranked third in the league. The former four-star prospect scored five of his eight touchdowns through Penn State’s first three games. Dotson went over 100 yards receiving in five different matchups and caught eight or more balls in four. The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder had three touchdown receptions against Ohio State and two in the season-finale win over Illinois. Dotson also earned third-team All-Big Ten in 2020.

7. Marvin Mims, Oklahoma: Every season the Sooners seem to have an All-Big 12 caliber receiver and Mims is the latest version. As a true freshman last year he tied for first in the conference with nine touchdown catches in 11 games. The former four-star prospect went over 100 yards receiving against TCU and Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship. The Texas native caught a pass in every game. Not to mention Mims had six touchdown receptions through Oklahoma’s first five games. His 37 catches and 610 receiving yards earned him second-team All-Big 12 in 2020. With Spencer Rattler lined up behind center again, expect the young wideout to improve his production.

6. Jaquarii Roberson, Wake Forest: The former three-star prospect finished sixth in the Power Five and second in the ACC in receiving yards last season. Roberson averaged a conference-best, 102.8 receiving yards per game, and earned first-team All-ACC. He had eight touchdown receptions, which ranked third in the league. The six-foot-one, 182-pounder went over 100 yards receiving in five different games, including the Demon Deacons’ final four. He combined for 36 receptions, 566 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches during that span. Roberson caught three touchdowns against Wisconsin, two against the Tar Heels, plus one apiece against NC State, Syracuse and Louisville.

5. Ty Fryfogle, Indiana: He’s an athletic wideout, who makes difficult catches look easy. Fryfogle passed up on the NFL Draft at the last minute, and now he’s arguably the best returning deep threat in the country. The former three-star prospect caught seven touchdowns through the Hoosiers’ first five games last season. Fryfogle averaged 90.1 receiving yards per game, and tied for third in the Big Ten in touchdown receptions. The Mississippi native went over 100 yards receiving against Michigan. He also had over 200 receiving yards apiece against Michigan State and Ohio State. The six-foot-two, 214-pounder was named the Big Ten’s Receiver of the Year. Fryfogle also earned first-team All-Big Ten.

4. John Metchie, Alabama: Last season the Canadian stepped up his game and made his presence felt after Jaylan Waddle got injured. Although Metchie played alongside a Heisman Trophy winner as a true sophomore, he still finished with 916 receiving yards. The former four-star prospect had two touchdowns apiece against Texas A&M and Auburn. Not to mention he caught a touchdown against Georgia and Kentucky. Metchie also went over 100 yards receiving in two different games. The six-foot, 195-pounder looked like a man among boys in the National Championship, when he caught eight passes. Alabama has a pipeline for elite receivers under Nick Saban and Metchie is the latest version.

3. Chris Olave, Ohio State: The former three-star prospect led the Buckeyes in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches last season. Olave hauled in seven touchdown passes in the seven games he played in. The California native averaged 104.1 receiving yards per game, which ranked second in the Big Ten and 12th in the FBS. Olave had two touchdowns apiece in victories over Penn State, Rutgers and Clemson. He went over 100 yards receiving in five different games. The six-foot-one, 188-pounder caught eight balls in the National Championship against Alabama. Olave earned first-team All-Big Ten in 2020 and his numbers should flourish this fall with a full schedule.

2. Treylon Burks, Arkansas: He’s a receiver with a tight end frame, who contributes in the Razorbacks’ rushing and passing attack. As a true sophomore Burks finished fifth in the SEC in receiving yards per game. The Arkansas native hauled in 10 passes for 206 yards against Missouri. Burks went over 100 yards receiving against Georgia, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M. The six-foot-three, 232-pounder caught a touchdown in six different games, including two against the Aggies. Burks racked up 820 receiving yards in nine games last season and earned second-team All-SEC. The former four-star prospect will be vital for the Razorbacks this fall as they seek their first winning season since 2016.

1. David Bell, Purdue: The Indianapolis native is the most underrated receiver in the Big Ten. Bell averaged 104.2 receiving yards per game last season, which ranked first in the conference and 11th in the FBS. He also finished first in the Big Ten and fourth in the FBS in receptions per game. Bell went over 100 yards receiving against Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska. The former four-star prospect caught three touchdowns against the Hawkeyes. Bell tied for first in the Big Ten with eight touchdown catches through six games, including double-digit receptions in two. The six-foot-two, 205-pounder earned first-team All-Big Ten in 2020, and he’s poised for his first 1,000-yard season this fall.

Honorable Mention

Wan’Dale Robinson, Kentucky: As a true sophomore he caught 51 passes for Nebraska last season. Robinson also contributes in the running game. He transferred to Kentucky, his home state in January and is hoping for a fresh start.

Justyn Ross, Clemson: He’s still recovering from a serious neck injury he suffered last spring, but should be fully healthy by fall camp. Ross caught 66 passes and scored eight touchdowns for the Tigers in 2019.