[Editor's note: All stats used are from ESPN unless stated otherwise]
1. Sam Howell, QB -- UNC
The best true sophomore heading into the 2020 college season is North Carolina's Sam Howell and boy is he a great one. Howell was by far the best true freshman quarterback last season and that is high praise considering Kedon Slovis, Dillon Gabriel and Jayden Daniels were all in the same class as him. The Tar Heels signal-caller took the AAC by storm, throwing for 3,641 yards, 38 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. He completed passes at a rate of 61.4% and a clip of 8.6 yards per attempt. Whether it is short, intermediate, or deep, Howell can make every throw on the football field and proved that, despite his receivers dropping a significant amount of passes last season.
He led his squad to a 7-6 record which is not so awe-inspiring upon first glance, but understand UNC had gone 3-8 and 2-9 in the two years prior. To further showcase Howell's talent, he nearly upset the Clemson Tigers in a Week 5 matchup but fell just short in a nail-biting 21-20 defeat. He will only improve in his second year as a starter and it is safe to say he will be among the top 5 QBs in the nation.
2. Derek Stingley Jr., CB -- LSU
I have Stingley coming in at 2 on the list, but he is more of a 1B to Howell's 1A. The LSU cornerback was sensational last season, playing a pivotal role in the team's championship run. As a true freshman, the Baton Rouge product snatched an impressive 6 interceptions, as well as another 15 deflected passes. Stingley was simply a playmaker in the Tigers secondary, forming a deadly duo with Kristian Fulton who would go on to be drafted in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans.
He possesses elite athleticism, change of direction speed and coverage ability, making life difficult for opposing offenses. Stingley can match up with any wide receiver who is unfortunate enough to line up against him. A big possession receiver? He will position his body and use his length to bat down, if not intercept, passes. A receiver with speed to spare? He can stay right in his hip pocket and beat him at the catch point. Whatever is thrown his way, Stingley will have his hands on it one way or another in 2020 and beyond.
3. Kedon Slovis, QB -- USC
One of the biggest surprises last season was the unfortunate fall of JT Daniels and the ascension of Kedon Slovis. He was thrust into the starting role when Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury in a Week 1 contest against Fresno State. In his first career start, the very next week against Stanford, Slovis lit up the scoreboard and the Cardinals defense alike, completing 28 of 33 passes for 377 yards and 3 touchdowns. After a not-so-great game against BYU, Slovis would be knocked out USC's bout with Utah in Week 4, sidelining him with a concussion for a few weeks. Once he returned, the offense put their foot on the gas pedal and never let off.
Slovis would finish the season with 3,502 passing yards and 30 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. While those numbers are impressive on their own, what really differentiated the Trojans star from his cohorts was his 71.9% completion percentage, which ranked third behind only Joe Burrow (76.3%) and Tyler Huntley (73.1%). The future is bright in Southern California so make sure to keep your eye on Slovis and the USC passing attack next season.
4. Dillon Gabriel, QB -- UCF
The Knights have found their starting signal-caller in a six-foot quarterback out of Hawaii. Gabriel received his first start of the season in Week 2 against FAU, needing just 7 completions to throw for 245 yards and 2 touchdowns, going along with an additional score on the ground. That game seemed to be foretelling the rest of the season for Gabriel, as he would go on to perform at a level no other true freshman quarterback was able to reach.
He finished the year with top-20 marks across a plethora of statistics— his 3,653 passing yards ranked 13th, his 9.1 yards per attempt are 8th and his 29 touchdown passes are tied for 17th. After a stellar first season, it can be expected that Gabriel will only continue to improve and develop into a more lethal passer in year two. With the star QB at the helm of the offense, UCF will be in perennial contention for the American Athletic Conference championship, a mark they fell just short of this year.
5. Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE -- Oregon
The Ducks have an emerging young defensive disruptor along the defensive line in Thibodeaux. Oregon had a strong season, finishing with a 12-2 record that was capped off with a 28-27 hard-fought victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. A lot of praise and hype will be attributed to the secondary, but do not sleep on Thibodeaux in the trenches. He did not truly start to contribute until midseason but once he got going he was tough to stop.
He was able to generate 35 total tackles, 9 sacks, 3 deflected passes and even a forced fumble as a true freshman. The Oregon star was a menace rushing the passer and was no slouch against the run. With a year of experience at the college level as well as a year in a D1 weight room, PAC-12 offenses would be smart to prepare for the 6'5" 242-pounder rushing off the edge.
6. Ahmad Gardner, CB -- Cincinnati
If it were not for Stingley, Gardner would be in sole ownership of the best true freshman cornerback mantle. Although he is playing in the Group of Five, the Bearcats’ corner has received recognition from college media pundits and analysts because of his play on the field. Due to his elite ball-hawking skills, Gardner deflected 8 passes while also nabbing 3 interceptions, returning 2 of them for touchdowns. He did not allow a single touchdown into his coverage according to Pro Football Focus, meaning as a defensive player he scored 2 more times than teams targeting him all season long.
AAC quarterbacks would be wise to not throw in his direction in 2020, but if they do, expect him to capitalize on it. Cincinnati has a solid young core and will look to put themselves on the map next season. If they succeed in doing so, a great deal of credit will belong to Gardner in his cornerback position.
7. George Pickens, WR -- Georgia
The best non-QB offensive true sophomore is definitely Pickens. Despite being contained in a Georgia offense that leaned heavily on the running game, the Bulldogs wide receiver was able to haul in 49 receptions for 727 yards and 8 touchdowns. He was PFF's highest-graded true freshman offensive player in 2019, making plays in the open field and dropping zero targets thrown his way. His speed, route running and physicality make him a dangerous deep and red-zone threat already.
With Georgia bringing in former Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman via the transfer portal, it is easy to assume the offense will look to pass the ball quite a bit more. Pickens was Fromm's favorite target in his last season and there is no doubt he and Newman will build a rapport very quickly. SEC defenses will struggle with the deep connection between the two in 2020. Expect to hear Pickens' name in the "best wide receiver in college football" talks further very soon.
8. David Bell, WR -- Purdue
In his first season with the Boilermakers, David Bell put on a show. He finished with the most receptions (86), yards (1,035) and tied second in touchdowns (7) among all true freshman receivers in the nation as he was the focal point of the Purdue offense. He showed strong hands, dropping hardly any passes all season long, and was elusive once he received the ball, breaking quite a few tackles.
Three Purdue quarterbacks saw significant time under center last year, providing instability for their receivers. Even though consistency was not there for Bell, he still put up gaudy numbers and had each QB looking his way on what felt like every play. To our enjoyment and the displeasure of opposing defenses, we will have at least two more seasons of Bell in a Purdue uniform to set our eyes on.
9. Kyle Hamilton, S -- Notre Dame
Notre Dame landed one of, if not the best coverage safety in the entire 2019 recruiting class. Hamilton recorded 6 deflected passes and 4 interceptions, taking one to the house. He would not give anything up deep, allowing a long of just 34 yards. The Fighting Irish defense can play more aggressively with their front seven and their corners can have peace of mind knowing No. 14 has their backend.
He was weak against the run and missed quite a few tackles, but if he can tighten up those aspects of his game there is no doubt he will be one of the best overall safeties in the country. The Notre Dame offense will be solid next season, but their defense, with Hamilton patrolling the secondary, is nothing to scoff at in 2020.
10. Breece Hall, RB -- Iowa State
Quarterback Brock Purdy received most of the offensive recognition in Iowa State this year, but that does not take away from what Hall was able to do on the ground. He rattled off 897 yards on 186 attempts, finding the end zone on 9 occasions. The Cyclone did not fumble a single carry all year, building trust between himself and the coaching staff.
On top of his success running the football, Hall was solid in pass protection, not allowing a single sack on his QB. Though he was not featured too much in the passing game, Hall was still able to reel in 23 catches for 252 yards and another touchdown. The combination of Purdy, Hall and tight end Charlie Kolar will be a deadly one next season.
Honorable mentions: Re'mahn Davis, RB, Temple; Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State; Mykael Wright, CB, Oregon