Which freshmen could have the biggest impact next fall?
College football’s 2017 National Signing Day is officially in the books. Every FBS program inked recruits to a National Letter of Intent on Wednesday, which means coaching staffs should have a good snapshot of how their program looks for the upcoming season. With spring practice just around the corner, the focus around the nation now shifts to the 2017 season. Some of the top names from 2017 signing classes included UCLA defensive end Jaelan Phillips, Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson, Florida State running back Cam Akers and Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses.
There will be several impact performers from the 2017 class this season, and it’s impossible to narrow the names down to just 15. However, now that signing day is complete, let’s take a look at 15 names to watch in 2017 and how they could impact their team in on-field action.
College Football's Top 15 Impact True Freshmen for 2017
Cam Akers, RB, Florida State
Dalvin Cook leaves big shoes to fill in Tallahassee, but Florida State isn’t hurting for talent at running back for 2017. Akers ranked as the top running back recruit and the No. 2 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite after a prolific high school career in Mississippi. The 5-foot-11 prospect won the U.S. Army Player of the Year Award in 2016 and ran for 2,105 yards and 34 scores as a senior.
A.J. Epenesa, DL, Iowa
Epenesa is the first five-star prospect since 2005 to sign with the Hawkeyes, and the Illinois native fills an immediate need in the trenches. Tackles Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie expired their eligibility following the 2016 season, and Iowa is looking for more of a pass rush after generating just 28 sacks last year. Epenesa recorded five sacks and 13 tackles for a loss as a high school senior. He should push for snaps right away at end.
Hunter Johnson, QB, Clemson
Replacing Deshaun Watson is no easy task for coach Dabo Swinney, but the Tigers have recruited well at the quarterback position. Kelly Bryant is slated to open spring ball as the No. 1 quarterback, with Zerrick Cooper likely slotted into the No. 2 role. However, Johnson will be afforded an opportunity to win the starting job. Johnson ranked as a five-star prospect and the No. 30 overall player in the 247Sports Composite and arrives on campus after throwing for 2,233 yards and 25 scores as a senior. Johnson is already on campus and will compete in spring practice.
Alex Leatherwood, OL, Alabama
It’s never easy asking a true freshman to start on the offensive line for a full season in the SEC. However, the Crimson Tide have experience in this area, as Jonah Williams anchored the right side of the line in all 15 games in 2016. Leatherwood – the No. 4 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – could do the same in 2017. The Florida product could fill the void at right tackle with Williams flipping to the left side to replace Cam Robinson.
Joseph Lewis, WR, USC
With JuJu Smith-Schuster off to the NFL, and Darreus Rogers exhausting his eligibility, the Trojans are losing two of quarterback Sam Darnold’s top targets. With the losses at receiver, Lewis should be able to crack the rotation right away. The California native was a five-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite and ranked as a five-star recruit. He averaged 26.4 yards per catch with seven touchdown receptions as a high school senior.
Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M
Texas A&M’s quarterback situation will be one of the most intriguing to watch in spring practice this offseason. Jake Hubenak is the team’s most-experienced option, but redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and Mond will compete for the job. Mond ranked as a four-star prospect and the No. 108 player in the 247Sports Composite for the 2017 signing class and enrolled in time to compete in spring ball. Mond threw for 1,936 yards and 20 scores and added 775 yards and 18 touchdowns at IMG Academy in 2016.
Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
The spotlight has been on Moses since he was offered a scholarship by LSU in 2012, and the Louisiana native finished his high school career as a five-star prospect at IMG Academy. Moses should fill an immediate need for help at linebacker, as the Crimson Tide lose Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams from a standout group. Moses is expected to help off the edge at outside linebacker in 2017.
Jeffrey Okudah/Shaun Wade, DB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes are looking for help in the secondary after losing a couple of key players here for the second year in a row. Safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore decided to leave Columbus for the NFL following the 2016 season. Coach Urban Meyer brought in a standout class to alleviate some of the losses, which includes Okudah and Wade – five-star prospects by the 247Sports Composite.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan
The Wolverines need playmakers to emerge this offseason after the departure of the top three targets from 2016. With Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson departing Ann Arbor, and Grant Perry’s status with the team unsettled, Michigan’s top statistical returning wide receiver is Eddie McDoom (five catches). Peoples-Jones – a five-star recruit – has already enrolled and is slated to push for time this spring.
Jaelan Phillips, DE, UCLA
Phillips ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 2017 247Sports Composite and fills an immediate need for the Bruins. At 6-foot-5 and just over 250 pounds, the California native should help a defense looking to replace standout linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley. In 2016 at Redlands East Valley High School, Phillips recorded 21 sacks, forced three fumbles and generated 142 tackles.
Foster Sarell/Walker Little, OL, Stanford
Stanford’s offensive line wasn’t as dominant in 2016 as it was in previous seasons. However, help is on the way for coach David Shaw. The Cardinal inked two out of the top three offensive linemen in the 2017 class according to the 247Sports Composite. Sarell – a Washington native – was the No. 5 overall prospect, while Little – a Texas native – ranked No. 10. Both are five-star recruits who could play right away in 2017.
Trey Smith, OL, Tennessee
Tennessee returns six players with at least six starts in the trenches last season, but it will be tough for the coaching staff to keep Smith on the sidelines. The Tennessee native ranked as a five-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite and was the No. 1 player in the ESPN 300. According to Tennessee’s Signing Day release, Smith did not allow a sack as a high school senior.
JaCoby Stevens, S, LSU
LSU reeled in a standout class of defensive backs, as four players headed to Baton Rouge ranked inside of the top 100 recruits in the 247Sports Composite. Stevens is the highest rated of the bunch, checking in at No. 18 in the 247Sports Composite. The Tennessee native could be an instant impact player for coach Ed Orgeron, especially after safety Jamal Adams left for the NFL.
Others to Watch
Christopher Allen, LB, Alabama
Jack Anderson, OL, Texas Tech
Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma
Baron Browning, LB, Ohio State
Navaughn Donaldson, OL, Miami
Trevon Grimes, WR, Ohio State
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
Anthony Hines, LB, Texas A&M
Joshua Kaindoh, DL, Florida State
Richard LeCounte III, S, Georgia
N’Kosi Perry, QB, Miami
LaBryan Ray, DL, Alabama
Shawn Robinson, QB, TCU
Trey Sermon, RB, Oklahoma
Aubrey Solomon, DL, Michigan
Jeff Thomas, WR, Miami
Marlon Tuipulotu, DL, USC
Isaiah Wilson, OL, Georgia
Marvin Wilson, DL, Florida State