College Football's Top 25 Freshmen of 2012

Athlon ranks the top 25 true and redshirt freshmen from 2012.

With the 2012 college football regular season in the books, it’s time to take a look at the year in review. Several freshmen made an impact in the national and conference title races, including Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. The redshirt freshman wasn’t the only quarterback making a splash in their first season, as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley each averaged over 250 yards of total offense. Outside of the quarterbacks, TCU defensive end Devonte Fields and Georgia running back Todd Gurley were other impact freshmen.

College Football's Top 25 Freshmen from 2012

1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Manziel’s freshmen campaign will likely enter the record books as one of the best of the BCS era. The Texas native set a SEC record with 4,600 yards of total offense, while scoring 43 overall scores. Manziel claimed the 2012 Heisman Trophy and led Texas A&M to a 10-2 record in its first season of SEC play. With another offseason to work under coach Kevin Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, Johnny Football will be even more dangerous for opposing defenses to stop in 2013.

2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Despite having to replace quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James, the Ducks’ offense never missed a beat. The emergence of Mariota kept Oregon ranked among the nation’s best offenses, averaging 550.1 yards and 50.8 points per game. Mariota threw for 2,511 yards and 30 touchdowns, while recording 690 yards and four scores on the ground. The Hawaii native completed 69.9 percent of his throws and led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency. Even if coach Chip Kelly departs to the NFL, Mariota will be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman in 2013.

3. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
Although Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota should earn any freshman first or second-team All-America honors, Hundley’s 2012 season should not be overlooked. He was a key reason for UCLA’s improvement in the win column, as the redshirt freshman proved to be a perfect fit for coordinator Noel Mazzone’s spread offense. Hundley threw for 3,411 yards and 26 scores and recorded 365 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Hundley nearly led UCLA to a Pac-12 title, but helped the Bruins score key victories against Nebraska, USC and a 66-10 blowout win over Arizona.

4. Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
Fields was an absolute monster for the Horned Frogs this year, recording 49 tackles, 17.5 tackles for a loss and nine sacks. The true freshman also forced two fumbles and broke up three passes. Fields was named the Big 12’s Freshman of the Year and was arguably one of the conference’s best defenders. With another year to work with coach Gary Patterson and in the weight room, Fields should be a lock for All-America honors in 2013.

5. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Gurley and fellow freshman Keith Marshall combined to form one of the nation’s best one-two punches at running back. Gurley was the team’s workhorse, leading the way with 1,260 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also caught 15 passes for 113 yards. Gurley had six 100-yard performances in SEC play and rushed for 122 yards and two scores against Alabama in the conference title game. Georgia’s offensive line returns intact next season, which should allow Gurley to push his totals even higher in 2013.  

6. Isaac Seumalo, C, Oregon State
Lost in the huge seasons from quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota was a solid group of impact freshmen in trenches. Seumalo anchored a much-improved Oregon State offensive line this season, starting all 12 games at center and earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. The Beavers’ line allowed only 1.9 sacks a game, while paving the way for the rushing attack to score 23 touchdowns this season.  

7. John Theus, RT, Georgia
With the departure of Ben Jones and Cordy Glenn, Georgia’s offensive line was a question mark coming into this season. However, the line seemed to jell as the year progressed, largely due to Theus’ steady play on the right side. He started all 13 games and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. 

8. Leonard Williams, DT, USC
USC’s defensive line was arguably the team’s biggest question mark heading into 2012. However, thanks to the emergence of Williams and junior college recruit Morgan Breslin, those concerns were quickly erased. Williams recorded 50 stops, 13 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks and earned Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors.   

9. Shaq Thompson, S, Washington
Thanks to the arrival of coordinator Justin Wilcox and Thompson’s performance, the Huskies had one of the nation's most-improved defenses. The true freshman recorded 66 stops, two sacks and three interceptions this season. Thompson earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors.

10. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
No Trent Richardson? No problem for Alabama. Despite losing a first-round pick at running back, the Crimson Tide averaged 224.6 rushing yards per game, which ranked second in the SEC. Eddie Lacy shouldered the bulk of the workload, but Yeldon finished with 1,000 yards and 11 scores on 154 attempts. The true freshman also caught 10 balls for 131 yards and one touchdown. Yeldon’s best performance came in the SEC Championship, gashing Georgia for 153 yards on 25 attempts.

11. Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame
Golson didn’t post flashy numbers like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota but had a solid all-around season. The redshirt freshman finished with 2,135 passing yards and 11 touchdowns and added 305 rushing yards and five scores. Golson’s play picked up as the season progressed and is one win away from leading Notre Dame to a national championship. 

12. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
With Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks expiring their eligibility at the end of 2011, Alabama’s receiving corps needed a big year from its incoming freshmen. In addition to becoming the go-to target for quarterback AJ McCarron, Cooper emerged as one of the SEC’s top receivers. The true freshman caught 53 passes for 895 yards and nine scores. Cooper failed to record a catch against LSU but produced three 100-yard efforts over the final four games.

13. Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
Despite a ban on postseason play, the Nittany Lions didn’t have a problem with motivation. Penn State finished 8-4 and knocked off Big Ten champ Wisconsin 24-21 in the regular season finale. Defense is usually a strength in Happy Valley and 2012 was no different under first-year coach Bill O'Brien. Barnes recorded 26 tackles, six sacks, 10 tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. With Jordan Hill and Sean Stanley departing, Penn State needs Barnes to have an even better season in 2013. 

14. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
Johnson was expected to make an immediate impact with the Hurricanes and the Miami native didn’t disappoint. He opened the year with 135 yards and two touchdowns on seven attempts against Boston College and finished the year with three 100-yard efforts in his final four games. Johnson recorded 2,060 all-purpose yards in 2012 and was picked as the ACC’s rookie of the year.  

15. Tyler Johnstone, LT, Oregon
Johnstone was a key cog in Oregon’s offensive line, starting all 13 games and helping the Ducks lead the Pac-12 in rushing, total and scoring offense.

16. Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
With a handful of quarterback injuries, Maryland never had a chance to establish any consistency in the passing game. When you consider four quarterbacks saw snaps in regular season action, Diggs’ numbers become even more impressive. The true freshman led the team in receptions (54), receiving yards (848) and touchdown catches (6). He was also a weapon on special teams, averaging 28.5 yards per kickoff return and taking two back for scores. Assuming Maryland finds some stability under center next year, Diggs will easily surpass his all-purpose yardage total from 2012 (1,896).  

17. KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame
Not many true freshmen are thrown into a starting role at cornerback, but that’s exactly what was asked of Russell this season. The Washington native started all 12 games for the Fighting Irish, recording 50 tackles and two picks. Russell had plenty of help with one of the nation’s best defensive lines and linebacking corps putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, Russell held up just fine under the pressure and should be a standout player for Notre Dame next season.

18. Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
Dixon set a FBS freshman record with 27 rushing scores, while adding 1,194 yards on 200 carries. He also earned WAC Freshman of the Year honors and was a first-team all-conference selection. 

19. Denzel Nkemdiche, LB, Ole Miss
Nkemdiche’s emergence played a huge role in the improvement of Ole Miss’ defense. The Rebels ranked last in the SEC in total defense last season and improved to seventh in the conference in 2012. Nkemdiche was active around the line of scrimmage all year, recording 78 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions.

20. Jalen Mills, DB, LSU
Without Morris Claiborne or Tyrann Mathieu patrolling in the secondary, the Tigers needed a big season from Mills and fellow freshman Jalen Collins. Mills started all 13 games at cornerback, recording 52 stops and two interceptions. He should be in the mix for All-SEC honors next year.

21. Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State
With Jalen Saunders transferring from Fresno State in spring practice, the Bulldogs needed a new No. 1 receiver to emerge for quarterback Derek Carr. Adams became the go-to guy, nabbing 89 receptions for 1,168 yards and 13 touchdowns. 

22. Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia
West Virginia ranked as one of the worst defenses in the nation this year, but Joseph’s play shouldn’t be overlooked. Joseph led the team with 95 tackles and recorded two interceptions and three forced fumbles.

23. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Evans emerged as the No. 1 target for quarterback Johnny Manziel, catching 75 passes for 1,022 yards and five scores. 

24. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
Boykin was forced into action after starter Casey Pachall was suspended for the year. The redshirt freshman finished with 1,853 passing yards and 15 scores, while adding 380 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Although Boykin’s numbers weren’t huge, his steady play was crucial to TCU’s 7-5 finish in its first season of Big 12 play. 

25. Jake Brendel, C, UCLA
After struggling to find consistency on the offensive line over the last few seasons, UCLA found something to build on for 2013. Brendel anchored the Bruins’ line this year, starting all 13 games at center. UCLA allowed 3.5 sacks a game, but the offensive line helped to clear the way for the rushing attack to average 202.9 yards per contest.

Honorable Mention:

Jack Allen, C, Michigan State
Austin Blythe, OG, Iowa
Evan Boehm, OG, Missouri
Keith Brown, LB, Louisville
Kyle Carter, TE, Penn State
Le’Raven Clark, OL, Texas Tech
Dan Feeney, OG, Indiana
D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State
Landon Foster, P, Kentucky
Dante Fowler, DL, Florida
Jaxon Hood, DT, Arizona State
Jabari Hunt-Days, LB, Georgia Tech
D.J. Hunter, LB, Marshall
Keith Marshall, RB Georgia
Ross Martin, K, Duke
Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
Ethan Perry, P, TCU
Joel Stave, QB, Wisconsin
Trevon Stewart, FS, Houston
Nick VanHoose, CB, Northwestern
Cody Whitehair, OG, Kansas State
Jaime Wilson, WR, Western Michigan

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