With the halfway point of the 2012 college football season approaching, it's time to take a look at some of the top freshmen performers so far this season. For the purpose of this article, Athlon included true and redshirt freshman, with an emphasis on the offensive and defensive performers. Quarterbacks grabbed three of the top five spots, as UCLA's Brett Hundley barely edges Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel for No. 1.
College Football's Top 15 Freshmen After Week 5
1. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
The Bruins are off to their best start since 2005, largely due to the play of running back Johnathan Franklin and the emergence of Hundley. The redshirt freshman has been the perfect triggerman for coordinator Noel Mazzone’s spread attack, throwing for 1,470 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hundley has recorded 165 yards and four scores on the ground, including 53 in a 36-30 upset win over Nebraska. With a favorable schedule that features home games against Arizona, Stanford and USC, the Bruins could push the Trojans for the Pac-12 South crown. It's a tossup between Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Hundley for the No. 1 spot. Although Manziel has the edge in completion percentage and has yet to throw an interception, Hundley has less of a supporting cast, which is the tiebreaker in this vote for No. 1.
2. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Aggie fans had high hopes for Manziel, and he hasn’t disappointed through the first four games of the season. “Johnny Football” has thrown for 1,094 yards and 10 touchdowns, while rushing for 366 yards and six scores. While those stats are impressive, Manziel has yet to throw an interception and is completing an impressive 70.2 percent of his throws. The competition will get tougher in the second half of the season, but Manziel is clearly a player Texas A&M will be able to build around over the next couple of seasons, and he could be one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks going into 2013.
3. Todd Gurley/Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia
For the purposes of this article, we will count the Marshall-Gurley duo as one player. This freshman duo has been dynamic for Georgia this season, with Gurley leading the team with 536 yards and nine touchdowns. Marshall ranks just behind Gurley with 428 yards and five touchdowns but leads the team with an 8.2 yards per carry average. Both players contribute in the passing game, while Gurley is averaging 34.7 yards per kickoff return and took one for a score in the season opener against Buffalo. Gurley and Marshall's numbers are even more impressive when you consider Georgia had a couple of holes to fill up front, and helping to lead the way for the rushing attack is true freshman right tackle John Theus.
4. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Thanks to Oregon putting most of their opponents away by halftime, Mariota hasn’t been called upon to do much in the second half. However, the redshirt freshman has shown flashes of ability when called upon, throwing for 1,103 yards and 11 touchdowns, while adding 181 yards and one score on the ground. Oregon has played in only one road game this year (Washington State), and even though he tossed two picks, Mariota showed poise and never seemed to get rattled. Expect the redshirt freshman to get more comfortable over the second half of the season, and his solid play could be crucial to helping Oregon reach a spot in the national title game.
5. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
With Lamar Miller leaving early for the NFL, Johnson was expected to immediately contribute and so far, he’s been one of the ACC’s top playmakers. The true freshman has recorded 359 rushing yards and five scores, while catching 15 passes for 147 yards and one touchdown. Johnson has been a factor on special teams as well, averaging 29.6 yards per kickoff return on 14 attempts. Through five games, he leads the ACC with 184 total yards per game. Johnson will continue to share carries with Mike James, but he should be a lock for ACC Rookie of the Year honors.
6. Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
All of the preseason hype on TCU’s defense centered on defensive end Stansly Maponga, but Fields has quickly emerged as one of the Horned Frogs’ top defenders. Fields leads the team with five sacks and ranks fourth with 17 tackles. The true freshman has also started all four games and leads the Big 12 with 8.5 tackles for a loss. Fields is a big reason why TCU ranks as one of the top defenses in the nation and could be in the mix for first-team All-Big 12 honors at the end of the season.
7. Wes Lunt/J.W. Walsh, QB, Oklahoma State
No Brandon Weeden, no problem for Oklahoma State. Wes Lunt started the first three games of the year for the Cowboys, but he suffered a knee injury in the first quarter against Louisiana-Lafayette. With Lunt sidelined, J.W. Walsh stepped up and threw for 347 yards and four touchdowns against the Ragin’ Cajuns and played well in the 41-36 loss to Texas. Oklahoma State may not repeat as Big 12 champions but the future looks bright with Lunt and Walsh competing for the starting job for the next couple of seasons.
8. Isaiah Bruce, LB, West Virginia
Baylor gashed the Mountaineers’ defense for 700 yards and 63 points in Week 5, but it’s hard to overlook Bruce’s performance so far this season. The redshirt freshman leads the team with 43 tackles and has one fumble recovery. In the season opener against Marshall, Bruce recorded 16 stops and earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors. Bruce has good speed and athleticism, which allows him to be one of West Virginia’s most active playmakers on defense.
9. Isaac Seumalo, C, Oregon State
It’s not often a true freshman cracks the starting lineup at center, but that’s exactly what Seumalo has done this season. The Corvallis native was one of the nation’s top 150 recruits coming out of high school and is a big reason why Oregon State’s offensive line is improved from last season. The Beavers rank 97th nationally in rushing offense but that’s an improvement from finishing 118th last season. Seumalo is the first true freshman to start at center for Oregon State since Roger Levasa in 1978.
10. Leonard Williams, DL, USC
The defensive line was considered USC’s biggest weakness in the preseason, but thanks to Williams and the play of junior college recruit Morgan Breslin, the Trojans’ front four has emerged a strength. Williams has nine tackles and three sacks through the first four games and made his first career start against Stanford. With another offseason in the weight room, Williams could make a run at preseason All-American honors in 2013.
11. Jalen Mills, CB, LSU
Mills was thrown into the fire this season, as LSU’s secondary suffered a setback with the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu before spring practice. The true freshman has passed every test so far, ranking fourth on the team with 25 tackles and tying for the team lead with two interceptions. Mills has started all five of LSU’s games so far and will be a key cog in the Tigers’ run to repeat as SEC champs. The true freshman will take his lumps every now and then, but Mills looks like another star at cornerback for LSU.
12. Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
With a true freshman directing Maryland’s offense, it’s easy to see why Diggs has only 12 catches for 259 yards and three touchdowns. However, the numbers don’t really indicate how well Diggs has play, as he has 20 yards on rushing attempts and is averaging 11.8 yards per punt return and 26.6 on kickoffs. The true freshman also leads the team in scoring and all-purpose yardage this season. Expect Diggs to be a bigger factor in the offense in the second half of the year, especially as freshman quarterback Perry Hills gets more snaps under his belt.
13. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
The Crimson Tide has one of the deepest backfields in the nation, so the stat sheet doesn’t show just how effective Yeldon has been this season. The true freshman has one 100-yard effort, rushing for 111 yards and one touchdown against Michigan in the season opener. Yeldon has at least 10 carries in four out of the five games this year and ranks just behind Eddie Lacy in rushing yards (314 to 292).
14. Shaq Thompson, S, Washington
Thompson was practically handed a starting job when he committed to Washington and has played a key role in turning the Huskies’ defense around in 2012. The true freshman ranks third on the team with 20 tackles through four games and also has three tackles for a loss and one blocked kick. Thompson has started every game this year and ranked second on the team with seven stops in Washington’s upset victory over Stanford in Week 5.
15. Jaime Wilson, WR, Western Michigan
With the departure of All-MAC receiver Jordan White and two other key pass catchers, the Broncos were searching for new playmakers for quarterback Alex Carder this season. Wilson was a three-star recruit coming out of Glades Central and has been one of the conference’s top performers through the first five weeks. The true freshman has 47 receptions for 533 yards and five touchdowns and has four consecutive 100-yard efforts heading into Saturday’s game against Massachusetts.
Other Notable Freshmen
QB Perry Hills, Maryland
RB Storm Woods, Oregon State
WR Quinshad Davis, North Carolina
WR Amari Cooper, Alabama
WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M
OL Evan Boehm, Missouri
OL Le’Raven Clark, Texas Tech
OL John Theus, Georgia
DE Deion Barnes, Penn State
LB Jabari Hunt-Days, Georgia Tech
LB Sir Thomas Jackson, Arizona
LB Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB Eddie Johnson, Miami
LB Darryl Monroe, Washington State
LB Denzel Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
LB Nate D. Smith, Temple
CB Jalen Collins, LSU
CB De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M
CB Nick VanHoose, Northwestern
SS Micah Eugene, LSU
K Ross Martin, Duke
P Will Monday, Duke
by Steven Lassan
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