The Athletic College Football
Oct. 18, 2023
The college football regular season has reached the halfway point, and a lot has changed since we picked preseason All-America teams in August.
So who have the best college football players been thus far? The Athletic solicited nominations from across its staff and picked 50 players to fill out two teams, based on 2023 production in the first seven weeks. The midseason selections come from 34 schools, led by three each for Ohio State and Notre Dame and two each from Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Louisville, LSU, Missouri, Oregon, Oregon State, Penn State, Texas and Utah. The SEC leads all conferences with 11 picks, followed by 10 for the Big Ten, nine for the Pac-12, five for the Big 12, five for the ACC, three for the Sun Belt and one each for the Mountain West, Conference USA and MAC.
Here’s who made the cut in mid-October. What will change by December? There’s still a lot of meaningful football to be played before we select our final 2023 All-Americans.
QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington: Any midseason debate about the top choice at quarterback ended Saturday when Penix led Washington to a dramatic win against Oregon and Caleb Williams threw three first-half interceptions in a loss to Notre Dame. Penix is the midseason Heisman Trophy frontrunner — he received all 34 first-place votes in The Athletic’s straw poll — having completed 72.1 percent of his passes for 2,301 yards, 20 touchdowns and three interceptions for an offense that leads the nation with an average of 8.5 yards per play. When Washington needed a late touchdown to beat Oregon, Penix needed only two passes to go 53 yards for the win.
RB Jonathon Brooks, Texas: The Longhorns lost arguably the nation’s best running back in Bijan Robinson — plus a fourth-round pick in Roschon Johnson — and yet they might have the nation’s top back again. Brooks was relatively quiet in the win against Alabama, but he’s been on a tear since then and has rushed for 726 yards and six touchdowns on 108 carries, with 121 yards and a TD as a receiver. Per TruMedia, he averages 4.2 yards per carry after contact. In a year in which many of the most high-profile running backs entering the season have been relatively quiet, Brooks has earned a spot on the midseason list.
RB Ashton Jeanty, Boise State: The sophomore from Texas has been one of the most important players in the country to a single team. He has 151 carries for 868 yards and 11 touchdowns and 30 catches for 396 yards and four touchdowns, averaging a national-high 180.6 yards from scrimmage per game — including 153 yards against Washington and more than 200 against UCF, San Diego State and Colorado State. He leads the country with 42.5 percent of his team’s scrimmage yards, per TruMedia. Only seven other players are above 30 percent.
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WR Malik Nabers, LSU: Jayden Daniels has been electric at quarterback — making him our second-team quarterback selection — and Nabers is his go-to weapon. He’s caught 52 passes for 860 yards and seven touchdowns, a fine season’s worth of production in seven games. He’s had 36.5 percent of his catches go for at least 20 yards and 80.8 percent go for either a first down or touchdown, according to TruMedia.
Malik Nabers leads the nation with 860 receiving yards. (Matthew Hinton / USA Today)
WR Luther Burden III, Missouri: The five-star 2022 recruit caught 45 passes but averaged just 8.3 yards per catch as a freshman. This season, he’s broken out as one of the most dangerous playmakers in the country. He’s up to 14.4 yards per catch, with 56 receptions for 808 yards and five touchdowns. Burden has been particularly dangerous after the catch, averaging 8.73 yards, and he had a streak of five consecutive 100-yard games.
TE Brock Bowers, Georgia: Though his status going forward is in doubt after an ankle injury, Bowers unsurprisingly left no doubt about who was the best tight end in the country in the first half of the season. He’s caught 41 passes for 567 yards and four touchdowns and almost single-handedly took over in the Bulldogs’ close win at Auburn with eight catches for 157 yards. He’s caught 80.4 percent of his targets and has 10 receptions of at least 20 yards.
OT Olu Fashanu, Penn State: The projected top-10 draft pick has allowed just one pressure and zero sacks in 175 pass block snaps, per PFF. In fact, he’s yet to allow a sack in his Penn State career, and his work at left tackle has helped new starting quarterback Drew Allar stay turnover-free in a Nittany Lions uniform.
OT Patrick Paul, Houston: Like Fashanu, Paul hasn’t allowed a sack this year. He also hasn’t allowed a single pressure, per PFF, in 272 pass-blocking snaps. The 6-foot-7, 315-pound left tackle shouldn’t be overlooked as a possible first-round pick. He’s earned this spot despite stiff competition from names like Notre Dame’s Joe Alt.
G Zak Zinter, Michigan: Michigan has won the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best offensive line each of the past two years, and it has a chance to play itself into the mix down the stretch. Leading the charge is Zinter, a second-team All-Big Ten pick in 2021, a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2022 and seemingly a surefire All-American in 2023. Per PFF, the left guard has allowed one pressure in 168 pass-blocking snaps.
G Cooper Beebe, Kansas State: The Wildcats rank eighth in yards before contact per rush (3.1), per TruMedia, with Beebe again standing out as the best of the group. The 6-foot-4, 335-pound senior was a first-team All-American last year and has a great chance to pull off a repeat.
C Jackson Powers-Johnson, Oregon: The Ducks lead the country in yards before contact per rush (3.48) and pressure rate allowed (12 percent), according to TruMedia. Their offensive line is as good as any in the country, and Powers-Johnson is a star in the middle, allowing one total pressure in 242 pass-blocking snaps.
DE Jonah Elliss, Utah: The Utes rank fifth in points allowed behind a disruptive front led by Elliss, the son of former Utes great and current DTs coach Luther Elliss. He has 13 tackles for loss and has shown up in big games, with five TFLs in a 14-7 win against UCLA, 2.5 against Oregon State and two against Florida.
DE Jalen Green, James Madison: The undefeated Dukes average a national-high 9.67 TFLs per game behind a dominant defensive line. Green has been the best of the bunch, racking up 31 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and a crucial pick six in an eight-point win against South Alabama.
DT T’Vondre Sweat, Texas: A 362-pound fifth-year senior, Sweat is enjoying a breakthrough season as the key cog in a stout Texas defensive front. He has 18 tackles and four tackles for loss, but his impact stretches far beyond the basic stat sheet. As draft analyst Dane Brugler says, Sweat combines “brute power” with deceptive quickness.
DT Jer’Zhan Newton, Illinois: The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Newton has been as disruptive as advertised. He’s not an edge rusher, and yet he has generated 25 total pressures and two pass breakups. Though he may have only 3.5 tackles for loss, there’s no doubt about the mayhem he can cause at the line of scrimmage and the opportunities he can create for others to make plays. Even in a 17-point loss, he looked like the best player on the field against Penn State.
LB Edgerrin Cooper, Texas A&M: Cooper has made a big leap in his fourth season in College Station, leading the nation with 13.5 tackles for loss. He has 45 total tackles and six sacks and has been a hard-hitting force at linebacker for a Texas A&M defense that has allowed just 3.04 yards per carry and one rushing touchdown.
LB Dallas Turner, Alabama: The Crimson Tide may have lost Will Anderson, but they still boast one of the nation’s most disruptive groups off the edge. It’s led by Turner, who leads the nation with 35 total pressures, per TruMedia. He has 9.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles and forms arguably the best edge duo in the country with Chris Braswell, who’s also a strong All-America candidate.
LB Danny Stutsman, Oklahoma: Stutsman is the face of Oklahoma’s defensive resurgence under Brent Venables. He has 58 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a pick six for a defense that dominated in its first five games before causing enough havoc to beat Texas.
Danny Stutsman had a 30-yard pick six against Tulsa. (Nathan J. Fish / USA Today)
DB Denzel Burke, Ohio State: The Buckeyes have jumped from 68th to third in defensive pass efficiency, and a big reason is a breakthrough from Burke. Per PFF, he has allowed 16 catches on 32 targets for 184 yards and zero touchdowns in six games. Notre Dame threw his way only once in a game in which the Buckeyes shut down the Irish’s passing game. He leads the Big Ten with eight pass breakups and has one interception.
DB Malaki Starks, Georgia: Starks is the best safety in the country and has been the best player on another talented Georgia defense. He has 25 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions and has given up just 11 catches for 86 yards on 20 targets, per PFF.
DB Cooper DeJean, Iowa: DeJean could also be slotted in as the all-purpose selection, given his ability as a return man, headlined by his game-changing 70-yard touchdown against Michigan State. On defense, he’s allowed 18 catches for 171 yards on 35 targets and has two interceptions and three pass breakups.
DB Kris Abrams-Draine, Missouri: The FBS leader in passes defended, Abrams-Draine has nine pass breakups and four interceptions, including key picks in Missouri’s wins against Kansas State and Kentucky. According to PFF, he has allowed only 12 catches for 119 yards on 31 targets.
K Will Reichard, Alabama: Yes, it’s an unusual season in which the least of Alabama’s worries is the kicker. Reichard has been automatic, going 21-for-21 on extra points and 13-for-13 on field goals. He’s 6-for-6 from 40-plus yards, including three 48-yarders and a 51-yarder against Texas.
P Tory Taylor, Iowa: Iowa is 6-1, and we know it’s not because of the offense. Taylor is the best weapon the Hawkeyes have, ranking second in net punting average (44.5 yards) while pinning nine punts inside the 10-yard line (19.1 percent) compared to just one touchback. Despite Iowa’s offensive problems, opponents have the sixth-worst average starting field position, per TruMedia, and that’s in large part a credit to Taylor.
AP Ismail Mahdi, Texas State: Under new coach G.J. Kinne, Texas State has jumped from 111th to 11th in scoring and at 5-2 already has its most wins in a season since 2014. No player has been more valuable than Mahdi, the Houston Christian transfer who has 98 carries for 726 yards and eight touchdowns, seven catches for 183 yards and a touchdown and nine kickoff returns for 280 yards and a touchdown.
(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos of Luther Burden III and Michael Penix Jr.: Johnnie Izquierdo, Steph Chambers / Getty Images)