Look big picture at Lincoln Riley’s QB résumé, and it’s close to impeccable. In each of his five seasons coaching at Oklahoma — two as a coordinator, three as head coach — his quarterbacks have finished in the top five in Heisman balloting. Of the three different starting QBs Riley has had, two were drafted with the No. 1 overall pick (and the other, Jalen Hurts, went in the second round). He also has managed to snag the top QB recruit in both the 2019 and 2021 classes.
“There’s been quality QB play here for a long time, and certainly the recent success that some of these guys have had has helped,” Riley said. “It’s proof. So much in recruiting is hype and promises without results to really back those up.”
The unique skill sets of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Hurts have all contributed to the Sooners’ QBU repertoire, and Riley’s flexibility in making the most out of each QB has set the tone for the entire program.
“[Riley] has been through Baker, Kyler and Jalen, and all three had different body types, throwing motion, minds, favorite throws, speed and more,” said Caleb Williams, the top 2021 QB recruit, who is committed to Oklahoma. “So him being able to adjust to those other quarterbacks and have great success every year has been one of the biggest impacts on me.”
The legacy began long before Riley, as quarterbacks Jason White and Sam Bradford won Heisman trophies under former coach Bob Stoops, but the current run of success has taken the Sooners to another level. Mayfield, Murray and Hurts now give way to Spencer Rattler and, eventually, Williams.
“I feel like it’s been understood here,” Riley said. “We don’t talk about it, the legacy part. The guys know how the positions been played here. The expectations aren’t an All-American or a Heisman Trophy or a first-round pick. The expectation is to play to a level we expect.”
The QBU legacy has a broad impact, Riley said, from the school to the recruiting trail to the larger community. So it’s no wonder that schools like Oklahoma are eager to assume the mantle and promote the label — be it QBU, DBU, O-line U. Getting everyone else to agree on just who deserves the title, however, isn’t always easy.
For Oklahoma, the math is pretty convincing. For others, ESPN had to dig deeper — with data from our Stats and Information group and numbers from Pro Football Reference helping us calculate the true winners.
Defining Position U is hardly a cut-and-dried discussion, so ESPN’s Stats & Info group had to come up with some parameters. First, we limited our scope to only seasons from 1998 on — the BCS era forward. Second, we wanted to measure both quantity and quality, so rather than just a tally of NFL players from each school, we leveraged Pro Football Reference data to weight our findings based on draft round and average NFL value during their first four seasons. (Beyond four years, the value of the college’s contribution is far outweighed by NFL development.)
Lastly, we wanted to include college performance, too, so we gave additional points for all-conference and all-America awards. We also had to solve “The Jalen Hurts Problem,” where a successful player attended multiple schools. For this, we awarded points for college accomplishments to the school they attended when those awards were received, while all NFL performance was credited to the last school they attended.
6. Florida State
10. Ohio State
The biggest question about Oklahoma is how long its dominance here can last. With Rattler poised to become the next superstar, and Riley’s contract secured through 2025, there’s plenty of time for the Sooners to pad their lead as QBU.
Notable: USC fell from the No. 1 spot in last year’s rankings, and the big climber was Louisville, which earned plenty of points as Lamar Jackson dominated NFL defenses in 2019. Add in Teddy Bridgewater‘s move to Carolina this offseason, and the Cardinals have two NFL starters to go with the emerging talent of Micale Cunningham on the current team. Ohio State checks in at No. 10, but its legacy at QB is dubious. The Buckeyes have produced tons of elite college QBs from Troy Smith to Braxton Miller to J.T. Barrett. Problem is, they haven’t had a successful pro. Perhaps Justin Fields will be a turning point.
Who’s next: Clemson
For the bulk of the time period included in our Position U analysis, Clemson’s QB claim to fame was career NFL backup Charlie Whitehurst. But with Deshaun Watson already a superstar, Trevor Lawrence poised to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, and former top recruit D.J. Uiagalelei waiting in the wings, few teams can compete with the Tigers’ recent run at the position.
Who’s under the radar: Cal
How many teams currently have two former No. 1 picks starting in the NFL today? That’d be two. The first is Oklahoma. The other is Cal, with Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff. Cal is arguably the most under-the-radar overall producer of NFL talent, too. Despite its last conference title coming in 1975, the Golden Bears had 30 players on last year’s NFL opening day rosters.
Who’s missing: NC State
We’re wearing protective gear and entering witness protection to avoid the NC State backlash this time around. Yes, the Wolfpack have the numbers to make their case as QBU with Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Mike Glennon and Ryan Finley all on NFL rosters. But remember how this formula works. For all of its NFL talent, NC State has never racked up many college awards, with Wilson’s lone season as a Heisman contender coming at Wisconsin. Moreover, only Rivers was a high draft choice. Then there’s the problem of Wilson’s transfer, which awards his NFL success to the final school he played at: Wisconsin. Yes, five future NFL starting QBs made their way through Raleigh during their college careers, but when it comes to identifying QBU — for NC State, it’s complicated.
Running Back U
It’s interesting that, about the same time the NFL moved away from an offensive model built around running backs, Nick Saban arrived at Alabama and turned the tailback position into the cornerstone of the Tide’s success. Before Saban arrived in 2007, Shaun Alexander had already won an NFL MVP, but that was about the extent of Alabama’s RBU résumé. Now, though? Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and Josh Jacobs are all NFL fixtures, and even Trent Richardson and T.J. Yeldon came with impressive pedigrees. Next up? Najee Harris could be in the Heisman mix for 2020.
Notable: The Badgers are right on Alabama’s heels, just a fraction of a point away from taking the top spot. Wisconsin and LSU both had star running backs drafted early in 2020, further burnishing impressive résumés for the title of RBU. Miami‘s biggest contributions came during its golden age in the late ’90s and early 2000s — though Frank Gore will certainly still be playing in 2050 — but it’s also worth noting the Hurricanes have had a running back selected in seven of the past nine drafts.
Who’s next: Georgia
How is it possible the Dawgs don’t crack our top five? Part of the issue is that, for all the talent produced by Georgia over the years, those players haven’t exactly racked up the awards. Additionally, the first half of our Position U era was pretty lean for tailbacks in Athens. Still, the sheer volume of talent is impressive, including 2020 second-rounder D’Andre Swift. If Swift breaks out as a star with Detroit this year, however, he’ll join Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and Todd Gurley among the league’s top runners. among the league’s top runners.
Who’s under the radar: Arkansas
You might be surprised to learn the Razorbacks cracked our top 10 — just a tick behind Georgia, by the way — but there’s ample history to support the ranking. Since 1998, Arkansas has seen 10 backs drafted, including No. 4 overall pick Darren McFadden in 2008. McFadden also had a host of All-SEC honors and was a Heisman finalist twice.
Who’s missing: Florida
Given the massive success the Gators enjoyed on offense under Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer and now Dan Mullen, it would be fair to assume they would have their share of big-name backs, but Florida has produced just one tailback taken in the first three rounds of the draft since 1998, when Fred Taylor went No. 9 overall.
Wide Receiver U
4. Ohio State
5. Florida State
6. Oklahoma State
9. Notre Dame
While the Trojans have had their ups and downs since their 2004 national championship, quality at the receiver position has remained one of the consistent bright spots. Michael Pittman Jr. was a second-round pick in this year’s draft, and he follows stars like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Nelson Agholor, Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and Dwayne Jarrett.
Notable: It’s fair to wonder if LSU might top the list as WRU if only the QB production had been better over the previous decade, because there was plenty of big-time talent in Baton Rouge that didn’t quite explode until reaching the pros. Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and D.J. Chark are all 1,000-yard receivers now, and the 2019 team featured first-rounder Justin Jefferson and likely future first-rounder Ja’Marr Chase. While Florida State still cracks the top five, the past decade has been awfully lean for the Seminoles, who haven’t had a first-team All-ACC receiver since Rashad Greene in 2014. Meanwhile, Alabama is coming on strong with five first-round selections since 2011.
Who’s next: Clemson
Rod Gardner was a first-round pick out of Clemson in 2001, but aside from that, the NFL track record was a bit spotty until Dabo Swinney overhauled the offense in 2011. Since then, Clemson has churned out top-tier receivers annually, with DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, Mike Williams and Tee Higgins among the nine receivers drafted in the past eight years (to go with six former ESPN 300 recruits on the current roster).
Who’s under the radar: Oklahoma State
The Cowboys don’t exactly have a rich history at the position, but recent years have provided some genuine stars, including first-rounders Rashaun Woods, Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon, while Tylan Wallace looks poised to be the next great prospect to come out of Mike Gundy’s system.
Who’s missing: Oregon
Few teams have enjoyed such consistent offensive success since 1998 as Oregon, and the litany of star QBs — Joey Harrington, Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon, Marcus Mariota, Justin Herbert — is among the best in the country. So, who were all those great QBs throwing to? The Ducks astonishingly rank 74th in our WRU list. They’ve had just one receiver drafted in the first three rounds since 1999 (Josh Huff, third round).
Tight End U
5. Notre Dame
10. Arizona State
No position (aside from kicker) is more clear-cut than tight end, where Miami is hands down the best producer of talent in college football. The Canes have had 10 tight ends drafted since 2000, including five in the first round. There’s a good chance Miami adds to that total next year, too, as Brevin Jordan appears a lock as an All-ACC first-teamer and future early draft pick.
Notable: Iowa had two first-rounders in 2019 with T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, and they produced arguably the best tight end in the league in George Kittle, a former fifth-round pick. Add in Dallas Clark, and that’s quite a run. Stanford has had eight tight ends drafted since 2010. Notre Dame‘s Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in this year’s draft, and the Irish have had a tight end selected for three straight years.
Who’s next: Virginia Tech
The Hokies had just two tight ends drafted between 1994 and 2016, which helps explain their No. 68 position on our TEU list. But Bucky Hodges was taken in the sixth round in 2017 and Dalton Keene went in Round 3 this year, and the best of the bunch might be rising junior James Mitchell, who could blossom into a star in 2020.
Who’s under the radar: Wisconsin
For a school so adept at finding stars on the O-line, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Badgers do a nice job at tight end, too. Wisconsin ranks seventh in our analysis, having produced seven draft picks since 2000, including Lance Kendricks and Owen Daniels.
Who’s missing: Ohio State
The Buckeyes crack our Position U top 12 at every position except tight end. For a team that doesn’t need to punt often, the former makes sense. The lack of real tight end talent, however, comes as a bit of a surprise. Yes, five tight ends were drafted since 1998, but none have had even 300 yards in a season. Perhaps former ESPN 300 recruit Jeremy Ruckert will start a trend, but even he finished with just 14 catches last year.
Offensive Line U
4. Ohio State
7. Notre Dame
10. Florida State
It’s only fitting that the school that gets the RBU tag also wins OLU, and Alabama’s crew up front certainly earned the moniker. Eight Alabama linemen have been selected within the first 50 picks of the draft, and seven earned All-America honors during the past decade, while Chris Samuels, Evan Mathis and Ryan Kelly have all become Pro Bowlers during the Position U era. Current tackle Alex Leatherwood looks like a lock to be the next high draft choice coming off Alabama’s offensive line in 2021.
Notable: Wisconsin gets plenty of points for producing Joe Thomas, but Gabe Carimi, Kevin Zeitler, Peter Konz, Travis Frederick, Rob Havenstein, Ryan Ramczyk and Michael Deiter have all been selected in the first three rounds of the draft in the past decade. Michigan‘s alumni roster is impressive — Jon Hansen, Jake Long, Steve Hutchinson, Taylor Lewan and Jeff Backus among them — and center Cesar Ruiz became the Wolverines’ latest first-rounder in 2020. In all, the Big Ten owns four of the top nine spots. They build ’em bigger in the Midwest.
Who’s next: Notre Dame
There’s a strong case to be made that Notre Dame has produced the NFL’s best current tackle (Ronnie Stanley) and guard (Quenton Nelson) over the past five drafts. Add in Pro Bowler Zack Martin, and NFL starters Nick Martin and Mike McGlinchey, and what the Irish might lack in quantity, they more than make up for in quality.
Who’s under the radar: Boston College
It’s impressive that a school that isn’t traditionally among the top recruiters has a pretty strong history on the offensive line. The Eagles check in at No. 18 overall and are likely to climb the rankings in the next few years, too. The Eagles have five offensive linemen drafted in the first round during the Position U era, including Chris Lindstrom two years ago. Current linemen Tyler Vrabel, Zion Johnson, Alec Lindstrom and Ben Petrula could all land on NFL rosters, too.
Who’s missing: Clemson
For all of Clemson’s offensive success in recent years, the NFL’s focus has been almost exclusively on the skill positions. In the 2020 draft, John Simpson (fourth round) and Tremayne Anchrum (seventh) became the first Clemson O-linemen selected since 2014. Even former All-American Mitch Hyatt went undrafted. In fact, Clemson hasn’t had a single offensive lineman drafted in the first two rounds since Dave Thompson in 1971.
Defensive Line U
1. Florida State
3. Ohio State
5. Penn State
There’s certainly no arguing the impressive history of Florida State D-linemen, with 20 players selected in the first three rounds during the Position U era. Even amid a tumultuous past few years at FSU, the defensive line continues to churn out talent. Brian Burns was a first-round pick in 2019, two D-linemen were taken in the 2018 draft. Plus, DeMarcus Walker was a second-rounder in 2017. And while the rebuilding effort is far from complete in Tallahassee, the D-line still figures to put a few more big names in the draft with Marvin Wilson potentially the top interior lineman in the country entering 2020.
Notable: The margin between Florida State and Alabama at the top of our rankings is razor thin, with just a fraction of a point separating them. Even behind the Seminoles and the Tide, however, it’s a close call, with the top five all essentially within shouting distance. Clemson has had 13 defensive linemen drafted since 2012 and leads all of FBS with 384 sacks in the past decade.
Who’s next: Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ roster has included at least one future top-three overall draft pick every year since 2013. That’s pretty incredible, but that’s what comes with having Joey and Nick Bosa, followed by the dominant Chase Young. Don’t be too surprised if Tyreke Smith, Taron Vincent or Zach Harrison join that list of elite D-linemen in the next year or two.
Who’s under the radar: Missouri
The Tigers don’t immediately spring to mind as the home for top pass-rushers, even within their own conference. But Missouri’s recent history on the defensive line is pretty tough to argue. The Tigers have had at least one D-lineman selected in seven of the past eight drafts, and dating back to 2009, they’ve seen seven linemen taken in the first three rounds, including first-rounders Charles Harris, Shane Ray and Sheldon Richardson.
Who’s missing: Notre Dame
Where are all the Irish pass-rushers? Notre Dame shows up plenty in our Position U rankings, but when it comes to the D-line, they’ve had few alums play like a champion at the next level. Between Justin Tuck (2005) and Stephon Tuitt (2014), the Irish failed to produce a true impact player at the next level. Recent years have been a bit more promising, producing 2019 first-rounder Jerry Tillery, but there’s a reason Notre Dame ranks behind Kansas State, Syracuse and Maryland in sacks over the past decade.
Best outside the Power 5: Boise State (Curtis Weaver, Shea McClellin)
3. Ohio State
5. Penn State
No team comes close to producing the NFL talent at linebacker that Georgia has since 1998. In our weighted scale of NFL value, Georgia leads No. 4 USC by a margin that’s as big as the difference between USC and No. 11 Florida State. The litany of stars, including six All-America nods, is impressive: Roquan Smith, Leonard Floyd, Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree were all first-round selections, but the roll call also includes Will Witherspoon, Kendrell Bell, Boss Bailey, Odell Thurman, Rennie Curran and Lorenzo Carter.
Notable: Alabama’s second-place finish isn’t for a lack of résumé. The Tide have had seven All-Americans at linebacker since 1998, most of any school in the country, including first-rounders Reuben Foster, Reggie Ragland, C.J. Mosley and Dont’a Hightower. Penn State has produced some elite NFL talent, including Pro Bowlers NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny, Tamba Hali and LaVar Arrington. Michigan’s No. 7 ranking is its second-best position after offensive line.
Who’s next: LSU
The Tigers check in at No. 12 on our list, which feels a bit low given their recent success. Patrick Queen and K’Lavon Chaisson were both taken in the first round of the 2020 draft, which followed Devin White as the No. 5 overall pick in 2019. Prior to that, however, LSU hadn’t had a first-round linebacker since Eric Hill in 1989.
Who’s under the radar: UCLA
The Bruins have had a nice run at linebacker over the years, with nine All-Pac 12 honors and two All-Americans, while Myles Jack, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Akeem Ayers have all been high draft picks in the past decade. What’s most impressive is UCLA players have produced the seventh-most value among linebackers at the NFL level in the Position U era, ahead of Florida, LSU, Penn State and FSU.
Who’s missing: South Carolina
The Gamecocks have developed some exceptional defensive talent over the past 20 years, which nabs them a top-20 ranking on both the defensive line (Jadeveon Clowney, Javon Kinlaw) and in the secondary (D.J. Swearinger, Stephon Gilmore), but linebacker has been a different story. South Carolina checks in at No. 84 on our LBU list, with John Abraham, a first-rounder in 2000, the last linebacker selected before Round 4. In all, South Carolina has had just four linebackers drafted since Abraham.
Defensive Back U
1. Ohio State
6. Florida State
9. Virginia Tech
Perhaps no position starts an argument more quickly than defensive back, where Ohio State, LSU, Florida, Florida State, Texas and Virginia Tech routinely tout the DBU moniker. Indeed, the margin between Ohio State and LSU is virtually zero, but the Buckeyes certainly deserve their ever-so-slight edge. Ohio State had two DBs taken in the first round this year — Jeff Okudah at No. 9 and Damon Arnette at No. 19 — bringing its total to eight first-round DBs in just the past seven drafts. The Buckeyes have a whopping 30 All-Big Ten performers during the Position U era and seven All-Americans (though LSU has more at 10). Shaun Wade will almost certainly add to that total in the 2021 draft, though LSU could still push ahead next year thanks to the dominance of rising sophomore Derek Stingley Jr.
Notable: Last season, Texas and LSU had a small DBU debate before their Week 2 battle, only to see the two QBs throw for a combined 872 yards and eight TDs in the game. They’re still two of the best at producing great DBs, with the Tigers seeing two players selected in the second round of this year’s draft. We also wrote about the tiff between LSU and Florida for DBU bragging rights, and the Gators added to their résumé when C.J. Henderson went No. 9 in this year’s NFL draft. Florida State has provided its share of DB greats in recent years, including Lamarcus Joyner, Ronald Darby, Derwin James and Jalen Ramsey, but that won’t appease angry Seminoles fans who will hate seeing Florida ranked ahead.
Who’s next: Virginia Tech
The Fuller family alone could put Virginia Tech on the list of great DB schools, but there’s plenty more on the Hokies’ résumé, including recent first-rounder Terrell Edmunds and NFL stars Kam Chancellor, Brandon Flowers and DeAngelo Hall. Last year, Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller were among the best cover corners in the nation.
Who’s under the radar: Nebraska
OK, you probably don’t think of Nebraska as the home of dominant defensive backs, and indeed, the Huskers’ draft history is a mixed bag. But Prince Amukamara and Fabian Washington offer some star power to the group, and Nebraska’s 12 all-conference selections during the Position U era match Michigan’s total. And while the Huskers certainly had some D-line talent with Ndamukong Suh and Adam Carriker, it’s at DB where they find their highest placement in our Position U rankings at No. 13.
Who’s missing: Penn State
Penn State shows well in our other defensive rankings, coming in at No. 5 for defensive line and linebacker. Get to the back end of the defense, however, and things look much different. The Nittany Lions place 35th at defensive back, where they’ve had just one player taken prior to the third round in the Position U era (Bryan Scott in 2003).
ESPN’s Stats & Information group contributed to this story.