National Signing Day is essentially Christmas morning for college football coaches. The first Wednesday in February officially marks the addition of 20-30 new players for each roster, which is the result of nearly a year of work on the recruiting trail. And of course, coaching staffs are relieved just to get the class on campus and not have to worry anymore about a player changing his mind at the last minute or wondering if the parents will agree to sign the letter of intent.
Recruiting evaluations and rankings are an inexact science. Some five-star players won’t pan out into All-Americans, while a handful of two or three-star recruits will develop into some of the top players in the nation.
But while there are misses in recruiting evaluations, some of the star ratings do turn out to be accurate. And with that in mind, it’s time to take a look at which players could make an impact in their first season on campus.
It’s never easy to predict which freshmen could make an early impact in 2014. However, here’s a quick look at 10 players that can make a splash on the gridiron next season, along with a handful of names to watch this preseason.
10 True Freshmen Likely to Make an Impact in 2014
Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
After two prolific seasons in College Station, Johnny Manziel decided to leave for the NFL. Manziel leaves big shoes to fill, but the Aggies seem to have three capable options waiting to battle for the starting spot. Sophomore Kenny Hill and senior Matt Joeckel have an edge in experience, but Allen’s talent and upside will be tough to keep off the field. The Arizona native was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the 247 Composite rankings, finishing his high school career with 8,201 yards and 86 touchdowns. Allen doesn’t have Manziel’s mobility, but the 6-foot-3 freshman has a quick release and is one of the most accurate passers in the 2014 signing class. Enrolling in time to participate in spring practice will help Allen’s development, and he is expected to push Hill and Joeckel for the starting job.
Tony Brown/Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
We will cheat just a bit in this space and list two players instead of one. Although Alabama finished No. 2 in the SEC in pass defense, the Crimson Tide need immediate help in the secondary. Deion Belue and John Fulton expired their eligibility, and the cornerback play wasn’t quite up to Alabama’s usual standards last year. Even though it’s tough for true freshmen to make an impact at cornerback in the SEC, Brown and Humphrey should help right away. In the final 247Sports Composite rankings, Brown ranked as the No. 9 recruit, while Humphrey was No. 12. Both players have the athleticism and talent to make an immediate contribution in the secondary. And it’s likely Brown and Humphrey will find their way onto several future All-SEC lists.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Running back is arguably the easiest position to play as a true freshman in college, and Cook is just one of a handful of incoming recruits that will likely make a significant impact on the 2014 season from this position. Cook is the No. 13 recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings and is regarded as a five-star prospect by Rivals. Playing time in the Florida State backfield is available right away, as James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman left early for the NFL. Karlos Williams converted from safety to running back during the 2013 season and is expected to open the year as the No. 1 option. However, Cook should see plenty of action. The Miami native has excellent speed and elusiveness and has the size (5-foot-11, 196 pounds) to be more than a specialty player for the Seminoles. Expect Jimbo Fisher to get Cook involved early and often in 2014.
Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU
With Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry off to the NFL, the wide receiver position is a glaring need for LSU. Travin Dural is the team’s top returning statistical option at the position, catching only seven passes for 145 yards last year. Dural and Avery Peterson provide a solid foundation for new quarterback Anthony Jennings, but Dupre is a big catch on the recruiting trail. The New Orleans native turned down an opportunity to play at Florida State and committed to the in-state Tigers. Dupre was the No. 17 recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings and averaged 17.9 yards per catch as a high school senior. Expect Dupre to be prominently featured in LSU’s passing attack next year.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
As the No. 1 rated recruit in 247Sports Composite ranking, it should be no surprise Fournette makes an appearance on this list. The New Orleans native committed to LSU in early January and is already slated for a big role in the backfield in 2014. The Tigers lost Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue to the NFL Draft, leaving Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard as the top returning rushers. Magee and Hilliard are capable options, but Fournette is a special talent. At 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, Fournette has the size to be an every-down back, while also possessing good speed to break big plays on the ground. Look for Fournette to emerge as LSU’s No. 1 back (and a potential All-SEC player) in 2014.
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Even though Texas A&M has to replace Johnny Manziel, the defense is an even bigger concern for Kevin Sumlin. The Aggies allowed 6.4 yards per play in 2013 and finished last in the SEC by giving up 32.2 points a game. Youth and injuries played a role in the defensive struggles, but more talent and difference-makers are needed. That’s where Garrett comes into play. The 6-foot-4 defensive end registered 20.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as a high school senior. Most scouting reports believe Garrett has room to improve as a pass rusher, but he has excellent athleticism and has the upside to grow into a dominant defensive end. Garrett is the type of player Sumlin needs to turn Texas A&M’s defense into a strength.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
Not only is McMillan poised to claim a spot on the all-name team next season, the Georgia native is likely to be one of the top impact recruits in the nation. Ohio State had an uncharacteristic year on defense last year, finishing seventh in the conference in yards allowed per game and 11th against the pass. Urban Meyer wasn’t going to stand pat after 2013, and changes started on the coaching staff, with Larry Johnson Sr. joining from Penn State and Chris Ash coming from Arkansas to share the defensive coordinator title with Luke Fickell. The back seven of the defense will receive the most attention this preseason, especially after cornerback Bradley Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier left early for the NFL. McMillan is the No. 22 recruit in the 247Sports Composite ranking and is a five-star prospect by ESPN. The Georgia native is physically ready to play and can anchor the middle of the linebacking corps if he wins the starting job this preseason.
Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
With quarterback Trevor Knight coming off a strong performance in the Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma is a team on the rise for the 2014 season. Can the Sooners build on that momentum and claim a spot in the playoffs? Much will depend on Knight’s development, but Oklahoma also needs a go-to back to emerge. Enter Mixon. Brennan Clay and Roy Finch have expired their eligibility, leaving talented, but inexperienced options in Keith Ford and Alex Ross as the top two running backs. Mixon was rated as a four-star prospect by ESPN, while 247Sports Composite rankings placed the California native No. 21 nationally. Mixon checks in at a sturdy 6-foot-1, 209 pounds and is regarded as one of the top all-around backs in the 2014 signing class. If Mixon is as good as advertised, he might be the final piece in Oklahoma’s run to a Big 12 title next year.
Cameron Robinson, OT, Alabama
Offensive linemen can significantly benefit from a redshirt year to develop in the weight room, but Robinson may not have that luxury. Alabama loses two starters from last year’s line, including standout left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio. Robinson is the No. 4 recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings and is considered the top offensive line prospect in the 2014 signing class. The Louisiana native is a mammoth 6-foot-7 tackle prospect that has all of the tools to start for three years at tackle in Tuscaloosa. Although Robinson is eventually the answer to one of Alabama’s tackle spots, with Austin Shepherd returning after starting 13 games last year, and standout junior college recruit Dominick Jackson also on the way to Tuscaloosa, Robinson can ease his way into the starting lineup.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Replacing Tajh Boyd’s production will be no easy assignment for Clemson. That task is made even more challenging with the departures of receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. But the news in Death Valley wasn’t all bad so far this offseason, as offensive coordinator Chad Morris didn’t leave to be a head coach, and the receiving corps is still in good shape with Charone Peake, Adam Humphries and Mike Williams returning for next season. Watson enrolled early to compete with Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly this spring, and there’s a good chance the true freshman will win the No. 1 job. Watson accounted for 17,134 yards in his high school career and was the No. 41 prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings. The Georgia native is also a dual-threat option, and if he quickly picks up the offense this spring, Watson could have a huge freshman campaign under Morris’ direction.
Five More Names Likely to Make an Impact
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Evans is from Auburn, Ala., yet decided to sign with Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. The 6-foot-3 linebacker is a good fit as an edge rusher for the Alabama defense.
Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
Hurd is one of the top recruits in Butch Jones’ monster 36-man class. The Tennessee native is listed as a five-star prospect by 247Sports.
Ermon Lane, WR, Florida State
Lane is one of two elite receiver prospects to sign with Florida State. The Homestead native could be one of Jameis Winston’s top targets in 2014.
Travis Rudolph, WR, Florida State
Rudolph is the second of Florida State’s instant impact recruits at receiver. The West Palm Beach native is regarded for his excellent hands and speed.
Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford
The missing piece in Stanford’s offense last year? A tight end. Schultz should solve that problem in 2014.
Other Names to Know for 2014
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
LSU is loaded with talent in the secondary. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White anchor one of the top pass defenses in the nation next year, but safety Craig Loston must be replaced. Adams will likely find his way onto the field in some capacity in 2014.
Drew Barker, QB, Kentucky
Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith are back in the mix in 2014, but Barker will be tough to keep off the field. He ranked the No. 6 pro quarterback by 247Sports.
Saeed Blacknall, WR, Penn State
Blacknall was a late pickup in the recruiting process for James Franklin, and he could be one of Penn State’s key additions. With Allen Robinson off to the NFL, Blacknall will have an opportunity to earn immediate playing time.
Andrew Brown, DT/Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
Coming off a 2-10 season, it’s rare to see a program land a five-star recruit. However, the Cavaliers landed two five-star prospects, and Brown and Blanding should be on the field right away this year.
K.D. Cannon, WR, Baylor
Cannon could be Baylor’s answer to replacing Tevin Reese’s speed and big-play ability next season.
Lorenzo Carter, DL, Georgia
Even though the Bulldogs return nearly everyone on defense, Carter – the No. 18 prospect in the 247Composite rankings – will be tough to keep off the field for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky
Elam is one of the key recruits for Mark Stoops’ second class in Lexington. He should play right away on Kentucky’s defensive line, especially with Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble departing at tackle.
Will Grier, QB, Florida
Tyler Murphy transferred to Boston College, but Jeff Driskel is returning from a leg injury that forced him to miss most of 2013. Driskel is Florida’s likely starter, but Grier will provide competition.
Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama
Nick Saban reeled in another elite recruiting class, which includes one of the top defensive line hauls in the nation. Hand is the No. 5 recruit in the 247Sports Composite and should find his way into the rotation next year.
Brandon Harris, QB, LSU
It’s never easy to start as a true freshman in the SEC. But if Anthony Jennings struggles in his first year as LSU’s starting quarterback, will the Tigers let Harris play?
Drake Harris, WR, Michigan
Although Michigan’s offensive line is the team’s biggest concern this spring, the Wolverines also need to develop more weapons for quarterback Devin Gardner. Harris may provide a boost to the receiving corps right away.
Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Even with Khris Francis, T.J. Logan and Romar Morris already in place at running back, North Carolina will have to find a way to get Hood on the field.
Adoree’ Jackson, CB/WR, USC
The No. 7 prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings was a Signing Day pickup for Steve Sarkisian. Jackson could play on offense or defense.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota
The Golden Gophers held off a challenge from other BCS programs to land Jones in the 2014 signing class. Jones should team with David Cobb to give Minnesota an effective one-two punch.
Laurence Jones, S, Alabama
Landon Collins is set at one safety spot for Nick Saban, but who will replace the contributions from Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix?
Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
Stephen Morris has expired his eligibility at Miami, leaving Kaaya, senior Ryan Williams, redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen and sophomore Gray Crow competing for the No. 1 job.
Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
It’s rare for Iowa State to sign a top-100 recruit, so getting Lazard to Ames is a big deal for Paul Rhoads. The Cyclones return Quenton Bundrage and tight end E.J. Bibbs, but Lazard will be tough to keep off the field.
Damien Mama, OL, USC
The Trojans need bodies on the offensive line with two starters leaving. Mama will play for new coach Steve Sarkisian in 2014 and will take a two-year Mormon mission after his freshman season.
Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M
As his nickname would indicate, Noil is fast, athletic and a potential game-changer for Texas A&M’s offense. The Aggies have one of the SEC’s top receiving corps, but Noil will have a place on the field in 2014.
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
Wolverines appear to be set at cornerback with Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess, but Peppers will find a role in Greg Mattison's defense.
Damian Prince, OT, Maryland
The Terrapins have to upgrade their talent to compete in their new Big Ten home, and Prince – a five-star tackle – should help the offense in 2014.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
With Clint Chelf departing, the Cowboys will turn to J.W. Walsh and Rudolph to battle for the starting job this spring.
Foster Sawyer/Grayson Muehlstein, QB, TCU
Casey Pachall is gone, and Trevone Boykin will likely play in an athlete role on offense in 2014. Sawyer or Muehlstein have an opportunity to win the starting job.
David Sharpe, OT, Florida
The Gators need immediate help on the offensive line. Sharpe was selected to the 2014 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Arrion Springs, CB, Oregon
Could Springs help fill the void left by Terrance Mitchell’s early departure to the NFL?
Dylan Summer-Gardner, S, Boise State
Summer-Gardner ranks as the No. 87 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings and is the prize of Bryan Harsin’s first recruiting class at Boise State.
Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
The Gators got a huge contribution from one true freshman at cornerback last season (Vernon Hargreaves III). Could Tabor make the same type of impact?
Rod Taylor, OL, Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze and his staff wasted no time getting top recruit Laremy Tunsil into the mix last year. With that in mind, Taylor could be in the mix for playing time this fall.
Racean Thomas, RB, Auburn
Tre Mason emerged as one of the top running backs in the nation but chose to leave Auburn for the NFL. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are back, but there’s room for Thomas to find a role in 2014.
Casey Tucker, OT, Stanford
Another standout offensive lineman heads to Stanford. Tucker was the No. 82 prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Tyler Whiley, WR, Arizona State
Whiley was listed by some recruiting services as a cornerback recruit, but he appears ticketed for a spot at receiver in 2014.
Dexter Wideman, DT, South Carolina
Wideman flipped from Florida State to South Carolina on Signing Day. His commitment is huge for a defense that has to replace standout tackle Kelcy Quarles.
Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
Someone has to replace Ka’Deem Carey. Is this Fresno native the next star running back under Rich Rodriguez?
Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami
Duke Johnson is expected to miss spring practice recovering from a leg injury suffered in the loss to Florida State. The junior should be at full strength for the season opener, but Yearby gives Miami a good fallback option if Johnson needs a lighter workload early in the year.
File Away for 2015
Keller Chryst, QB, Stanford
Kevin Hogan still has two more years of eligibility remaining, but Chryst will be a name to watch in 2015 or 2016 as Stanford’s quarterback of the future.
David Cornwell, QB, Alabama
It’s not out of the question Cornwell wins the starting job this offseason, but with Jacob Coker transferring in from Florida State, it’s hard to envision the true freshman starting in Week 1.
J.J. Cosentino, QB, Florida State
When it comes to quarterbacks, there’s not a better evaluator of talent than Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. 2014 could be Jameis Winston’s last season in Tallahassee, and with a redshirt year ahead, Cosentino could be in the mix to start in 2015.
Morgan Mahalak, QB, Oregon
If Marcus Mariota leaves for the NFL after 2014, Mahalak will be in the mix to take over as Oregon’s starter in 2015. A redshirt year makes sense for the California native with Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues returning as backups next year.
Sean White, QB, Auburn
Is White the replacement for Nick Marshall in 2015?
Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
With Todd Gurley returning and Keith Marshall back from a torn ACL, playing time could be limited for Michel in 2014. However, Gurley isn’t expected to stick in Athens for his senior year, which leaves Michel in position to take the top spot in the Georgia backfield in 2015.
Jacob Park, QB, Georgia
Hutson Mason should be set as Georgia’s starter in 2014. Park seems destined for a redshirt and an opportunity to compete for the starting nod in 2015.