For proof that instant-impact college football recruits are more important now than ever before, look no further than the battle between true-freshman quarterbacks (Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm) at the end of the national championship game this past January.
Not every 5-star stud is destined for that type of immediate contribution. Heck, most of them are lucky to carve out a role in which they play 50 percent of possible snaps. But there are always a few freshmen who put up big numbers.
Let’s try to identify them.
The following players aren’t necessarily the nine most talented freshmen in the nation. In fact, by imposing a maximum of one player per team, that almost certainly is not the case. Rather, these are nine of the highly rated recruits who appear to be in a position to make a major impact in their first season.
Players are listed in alphabetical order by last name. Only true freshmen were eligible for this list. All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Justin Fields, QB, Georgia
Bold Prediction: Appears in every game, but never supplants Jake Fromm at starter
There might not be a dual-threat quarterback in college football who is better than Justin Fields. We aren’t just talking about incoming freshmen, either. Fields is gifted enough to immediately come in and outperform established run/pass-option studs like Kelly Bryant, Khalil Tate, McKenzie Milton and Brandon Wimbush.
Even though Georgia has a returning quarterback (Fromm) who just led the team to the national championship game, Kirby Smart would have a hard time redshirting a player with this much potential. Barring an injury during fall camp, expect to see Fields on the field early and often—especially in blowout wins.
Regardless of the speculations made before, during and after spring practices, though, this is still Fromm’s job to lose. He tied Ohio State’s four-year starter J.T. Barrett in passer rating last season, ranking eighth nationally. As tempting as it may be to hand over the keys to the new stud, benching that type of efficiency would be just plain wrong.
At the very least, it would be unprecedented. In the past decade, there hasn’t been one case of a quarterback posting a QB rating of 160 or higher, returning to school, staying healthy and getting anything less than the lion’s share of snaps the following year. Fields will get a good chunk of playing time—if only because he’s more mobile than Fromm—but he isn’t winning the starting job.
Bold Prediction: Does not take a meaningful snap unless/until Kelly Bryant suffers an injury
Whereas Jake Fromm versus Justin Fields is a debate Georgia may need to deal with through the 2020 season, Clemson’s QB situation is much different.
Returning starter Kelly Bryant only has one year of eligibility remaining, after which it is clearly Trevor Lawrence’s job regardless of what happens this season. This was probably already the case from the moment Lawrence signed with the Tigers, but it’s an undeniable truth now that both Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson have transferred out of the program.
This does create a bit of a Catch-22, though.
On the one hand, there’s no need for Lawrence to prove anything this year, nor a need for Dabo Swinney to rush him into the starting job. On the other hand, with Cooper, Johnson and Tucker Israel all gone, the depth chart is so shallow that redshirting Lawrence is effectively impossible.
But if it’s true that he’s a once-in-a-generation talent, it’s not like he would be staying in college for five years even if he did redshirt. Lawrence will get some garbage time throughout the season, but Bryant is going to be the guy the Tigers try to ride to the College Football Playoff once again.
Bold Prediction: Becomes Miami’s starting running back before the end of September
Though Miami lost one excellent running back in Mark Walton, it still has a great returning option in Travis Homer. The rising junior averaged 5.9 yards per carry and fell just shy of 1,000 rushing yards last season. He was also a key piece of the passing game, finishing fourth on the team with 18 receptions.
The Hurricanes will also have DeeJay Dallas in the mix for backfield touches. He had 309 total yards from scrimmage last season as a true freshman and had his best rushing performances at the end of the year against Clemson (ACC Championship Game) and Wisconsin (Orange Bowl).
Between his junior and senior seasons at University High School in Florida, Lingard averaged 9.3 yards per carry and scored 48 touchdowns, according to his Miami bio. To be sure, video-game prep numbers don’t always mean stardom in college, but Lingard is so fast that it should translate for him.
He probably won’t be the starter from day one, though. Miami opens the season against LSU in a game too important to disregard Homer’s experience and his proven value added as both a pass-blocker and a receiver. After three straight against Savannah State, Toledo and Florida International, however, it’ll be clear that Miami’s best chance to win the ACC is with Lingard as its bell cow.
Bold Prediction: Becomes LSU’s third 1,000-yard receiver of the past 15 years
This is the boldest prediction of the bunch, and there isn’t a close runner-up for that title.
For starters, there have only been nine freshmen in the past decade who racked up at least 1,000 yards for a program in a Power Five conference: Marquess Wilson, Sammy Watkins, Marqise Lee, Mike Evans, Tyler Boyd, Mike Dudek, KD Cannon, Calvin Ridley and Christian Kirk. Moreover, Ahmmon Richards (934 yards for Miami in 2016) is the only freshman to record at least 850 yards in a single season for any school over the past two years. It’s a rare feat that might be becoming extinct.
The other major factor working against Terrace Marshall Jr. is he’s playing for LSU. Not only have the Tigers only produced two 1,000-yard receivers in the past decade-and-a-half—Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry both did it in 2013—but they haven’t had a freshman record so much as 500 receiving yards since Michael Clayton got to 754 in 2001.
But if not Marshall, then whom? And why not Marshall, since he made 55 receptions for 1,250 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior in high school?
LSU lost leading rushers Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams, leading receivers DJ Chark and Russell Gage and quarterback Danny Etling. The Tigers do get Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles to become the likely No. 1 receiver, but he’s the only proven weapon in this offense. After all that roster turnover, there’s plenty of room for Marshall to become a star, if not the singular focal point of LSU’s attack.
Bold Prediction: Starts at weak-side linebacker and leads Penn State in sacks
The Nittany Lions lost most of their defense this offseason, which could be what keeps them from finishing in the top half of the Big Ten East standings. (Hey, some title contender has to finish in fourth in that seven-team division. Don’t shoot the messenger.)
The good news for Penn State is that because of all that roster turnover, it won’t have any problem getting Micah Parsons on the field as a starter from day one. The only questions are where he starts and how quickly he masters that position.
Parsons is an elite edge-rusher who should fill the type of role that Arden Key played for LSU two years ago, when he finished second in the SEC in sacks before entering the following season as a near-unanimous top-10 draft prospect.
Save for Carl Nassib bringing down the opposing quarterback 15.5 times in 2015, Penn State isn’t typically renowned for its individual pass-rushers. No other Nittany Lion has recorded more than eight sacks in a single season since Aaron Maybin in 2008. But one of the few returning starters on this roster is last year’s sack leader, Shareef Miller (5.5). As a result, it’s at least a slightly bold prediction to say that Parsons will lead the team in that category.
Bold Prediction: All-Big 12 defensive back as true freshman
Only nine Big 12 players recorded more than two interceptions in 2017, and Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles is probably the most talented defensive back on what definitely should be the best team in the conference. Projecting him as a first-team DB might seem like more of a natural assumption than a bold prediction.
In reality, it’s extremely unlikely.
Steven Lassan of Athlon Sports recently published his preseason All-Big 12 rosters, and Radley-Hiles doesn’t appear on the first, second, third or fourth team. Nor should he, because it’s almost impossible to get that type of national attention as a freshman on defense. Even when Quandre Diggs recorded 19 passes defended as a freshman at Texas in 2011, he was merely a second-team All-Big 12 selection—and the only freshman on either the first or second team on defense.
To make the first team as a true freshman, Radley-Hiles would need to either immediately get a reputation as a lockdown corner—which will be tough as someone whose best path to the starting lineup is probably at nickelback—or lead the Big 12 in interceptions.
What should help him in both of those departments is his versatility. Cut from the same cloth as a guy like Jabrill Peppers, Bookie can fly around the field and make an impact regardless of where he initially lines up. Maybe it takes a year or two before he fully taps into his potential, but there’s a chance he becomes an immediate star.
Bold Prediction: Finishes first or second in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns among Trojans
Much of this projection for the stud wide receiver depends upon what happens in the battle for USC’s QB job. If it goes to sophomore Matt Fink or redshirt freshman Jack Sears, perhaps Amon-Ra St. Brown gets a bit lost in the shuffle. But if St. Brown’s high school teammate JT Daniels gets the gig, that pre-existing connection could mean St. Brown puts up some of the best numbers among all freshman receivers.
With Daniels as his primary passer, St. Brown made 132 receptions for 2,549 yards and 41 touchdowns over the past two seasons at Mater Dei. Best of luck trying to find a more lethal QB/WR combo during that time.
However, as previously mentioned when discussing Terrace Marshall Jr.’s potential at LSU, wide receivers who come in and dominate as freshmen have been few and far between. And where Marshall is one of the only viable threats in LSU’s offense, St. Brown has to contend with established WR Tyler Vaughns (57 receptions, 809 yards, five TDs last year) and a trio of quality running backs in Stephen Carr, Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai. As such, it’s unlikely St. Brown will lead the Pac-12 in anything this year.
But he should be USC’s primary slot receiver and either its best or second-best receiver. And when he finishes with something in the vicinity of 45 catches, 750 yards and seven touchdowns, prepare for a 2019 offseason wondering if he could become USC’s all-time leader in any or all of those categories. (Current marks: 252 catches by Robert Woods, 3,655 yards by Marqise Lee and 41 touchdowns by Dwayne Jarrett.)
Bold Prediction: Leads Big 12 in interceptions
Saying that Caden Sterns will lead Texas in interceptions as a freshman isn’t that bold of a prediction. The Longhorns do have Kris Boyd coming back, but they lost star defensive back DeShon Elliott. The Ravens’ 2018 sixth-round pick intercepted six passes last season, and his departure means there is no one left on the roster with more than three career interceptions at the FBS level.
Meanwhile, Sterns had four interceptions in each of his final two high school seasons in Texas and also made 32 receptions for 517 yards and seven touchdowns on offense, per MaxPreps. Provided he gets a fair amount of playing time, it’s hardly a stretch to think he should get a couple of picks.
To lead the conference in interceptions, though, would likely require at least five, possibly more.
Considering no Big 12 freshman has recorded more than four interceptions in a season in the past decade, that’s not a bold prediction. It’s a ludicrous one. But Sterns has the hands and the athleticism to possibly get it done.
Bold Prediction: Starts at cornerback in season opener and is regarded as Alabama’s best DB by season’s end
It has been brought up countless times this offseason, but it bears repeating once more: Alabama lost its entire starting secondary.
The only returning defensive back who recorded multiple passes defended for the Crimson Tide in 2017 was converted wide receiver Trevon Diggs—who got two of his three breakups in a 56-0 laugher against FCS opponent Mercer.
Enter Patrick Surtain Jr. The top defensive back in this year’s class chose Alabama, at least in part because it is his best chance at starting for a title contender as a freshman.
Just because there aren’t any returning starters doesn’t mean it’s Surtain’s job to lose, though. There is still a ton of talent on this roster. Deionte Thompson was an overall top-50 recruit in 2015. Saivion Smith, Nigel Knott and Shyheim Carter were all top-75 guys in 2016, and Xavier McKinney was rated in the top 60 last year. Surtain may be the only 5-star recruit in the bunch, but those more experienced options didn’t miss a 5-star rating by much.
Had Surtain been an early enrollee this spring or a player who had committed to Alabama before February, his odds of starting from day one would undoubtedly be higher. As is, he’s hoping to prove in the span of just a couple of months that he’s the right man for the job. But if any freshman has the talent and the pedigree to pull that off, it’s probably him.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.
Source: Bleacher Report