Projecting which freshmen will make an impact in any college football season is no easy task. But after nine weeks, there's enough data to know how the top newcomers are playing, so it’s time to examine how some of the top true and redshirt freshmen have performed this year.
Florida State’s Jameis Winston is a special talent that could have started right away but took a redshirt in their first season. Not only is Winston one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy, but the freshman is already one of the top players in college football.
Winston’s performance through nine weeks in 2013, along with Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel’s 2012 Heisman victory,illustrate what can happen when a special, elite freshman earns a starting spot under center.
But there’s another side to recruiting and incoming freshmen. Some players may take a couple of years to develop. And some players simply never live up to their lofty recruiting rankings.
Recruiting and talent evaluation is no exact science, which is why there are always a few names from outside of the top 100 or 200 of incoming freshmen that always seem to make an impact each year.
Athlon will update this list at the conclusion of 2013, but for now, here’s a look at the top freshmen nationally after nine weeks.
College Football's Top 25 Freshmen After Week 9
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Not only is Winston the top freshman in college football, he could make a strong case to be the No. 1 overall player. The Alabama native leads the ACC with an average of 311 passing yards per game, and his 11.9 yards per attempt ranks second nationally to Baylor’s Bryce Petty. Winston has tossed only four picks on 183 attempts and is completing 69.9 percent of his throws. Against ACC competition, Winston has thrown for at least three touchdowns in every game. As long as Famous Jameis continues at this pace, Florida State should finish unbeaten and in the mix for a spot in the national championship.
2. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
Considering Florida already had Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson at cornerback, Hargreaves wasn’t necessarily guaranteed a prominent role in Florida’s secondary this year. However, the true freshman has been one of the Gators’ top defenders through the first seven games, recording 19 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups. According to advanced data by GatorBait.net, Hargreaves has allowed just 10 catches on 36 targets this year. And another indication of how good Hargreaves has been this year was his recent selection as one of the 15 finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award.
3. Kendall Fuller/Brandon Facyson, CB, Virginia Tech
We usually list one player per slot, but Fuller and Facyson are almost interchangeable as key cogs in Virginia Tech’s secondary. With Antone Exum missing the first seven games recovering from knee surgery, the Hokies threw Fuller and Facyson into the fire. Both freshmen responded and played at a high level from the opening snap. Fuller has more tackles than Facyson (31 to 17) and owns a slight edge in interceptions (5 to 4). However, Facyson missed one game due to injury. Thanks in part to the performance of Fuller and Facyson, the Hokies rank second nationally against the pass and have allowed just six touchdown tosses in eight games. With Exum and Kyle Fuller expiring their eligibility at the end of the year, Fuller and Facyson will headline the secondary in 2014.
4. Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas
New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema brought the same run-first mentality to Fayetteville that he used at Wisconsin, and Collins has been a perfect fit in the new offense. The Florida native leads the Razorbacks with 797 yards and has four rushing scores on 141 attempts. Collins is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and his 797 yards rank third in the SEC. The freshman had four 100-yard efforts in his first five games and had a solid showing against Alabama (77 yards). Expect Collins to be one of the key pieces in Bielema’s rebuilding effort.
5. A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama
Robinson has quickly emerged as one of Alabama’s top defensive linemen this season. In eight appearances, the true freshman has 23 tackles (five for a loss) and four sacks. Robinson also has four quarterback hurries. In Saturday’s win over Tennessee, Robinson started at nose guard and started at end against Georgia State. At 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, the Texas native certainly doesn’t resemble a true freshman, and he will only get better with another offseason in Alabama’s weight room.
6. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
Hackenberg’s numbers aren’t as impressive as Florida State’s Jameis Winston, but the Penn State starter has been solid in his first season on campus. The true freshman has started all seven games for the Nittany Lions, throwing for 1,784 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hackenberg has eight interceptions but is averaging 254.9 passing yards per game. The Virginia native has not completed more than 54.5 percent of his passes in a Big Ten contest. However, Hackenberg will get better with more time under the tutelage of coach Bill O’Brien.
7. Su’a Cravens, S, USC
Cravens ranked as the No. 5 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100, and the California native is already one of USC’s top defenders. In eight games, Cravens has 37 tackles (1.5 tackles for a loss), three interceptions and one forced fumble. Cravens enrolled early at USC and the experience paid off, as he has started all eight games and will be one of the centerpieces for the Trojans’ new coach to build around in 2014.
8. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
Treadwell was the top wide receiver recruit in the 2013 signing class and has been as good as advertised. In eight games, Treadwell has 41 catches for 385 yards and two scores. The freshman is averaging only 9.4 yards per reception, but his emergence at the start of the season was valuable for an offense that was dealing with the absence of Vince Sanders. If Donte Moncrief leaves for the NFL after this season, Treadwell will be the Rebels’ No. 1 target in 2014.
9. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State
Ramsey’s versatility has already paid dividends for Florida State’s defense, as the Tennessee native started the season at cornerback and moved to safety after Tyler Hunter’s neck injury. In seven games, Ramsey has 29 tackles, one sack, one interception and a forced fumble. Florida State’s secondary boasts an impressive collection of speed, talent and athletic ability, and Ramsey has been a key reason why the Seminoles rank first nationally against the pass, allowing just 9.9 yards per completion this year.
10. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
Boyd has been the perfect complement to No. 1 receiver Devin Street in the Steel City, and the true freshman has added another big-play element to Pittsburgh’s offense. Through seven games, Boyd has 34 catches for 526 yards and five touchdowns. The Pennsylvania native also has 106 rushing yards and one touchdown, while averaging 20.3 yards on kickoff returns. Boyd had three consecutive 100-yard games in September but has not topped 46 yards in each of his last three contests.
11. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
With Anthony Barr and Jack anchoring the outside linebacker spots in UCLA’s 3-4 scheme, the Bruins have a dynamic duo capable of getting to the quarterback on any play. Jack has six starts this season and has recorded 45 tackles (four for a loss), one interception and six pass breakups. The freshman had a strong performance in the Bruins trip to Oregon, forcing one fumble and blocking a punt in the first half. With Barr expiring his eligibility at the end of 2013, Jack will become an even bigger part of UCLA’s defense next year.
12. Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU
LSU returned a veteran core for its offensive line this year, but this unit was forced to shuffle its starting five after guard Josh Williford ended his career before the 2013 season started. Hawkins has been a steady presence on the right side for coach Les Miles, starting all eight games, including one at left tackle against Furman. Hawkins played 87 snaps in the opener against TCU and has at least 60 in every SEC game this year.
13. Addison Gillam, LB, Colorado
The Buffaloes are in rebuild mode with first-year coach Mike MacIntyre, and Gillam should be one player Colorado’s new staff can build around. In six games, Gillam leads the team with 67 tackles (five for a loss), has two sacks and three pass breakups. If he continues at his current pace, the California native will set a Colorado record for tackles by a freshman. Gillam has been a key force on third downs and has started all six games at middle linebacker.
14. Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss
There’s no denying Nkemdiche’s talent. The true freshman was the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and was pegged for a huge role in Ole Miss’ defensive line rotation before the season started. Injuries have plagued the Rebels’ defense, including Nkemdiche, who suffered a hamstring injury in the narrow loss to Texas A&M. In six games, Nkemdiche has 15 tackles (four for a loss), two pass breakups and one quarterback hurry. Stats are always a misnomer for defensive players, and Nkemdiche’s impact goes beyond the box score. And when healthy, the freshman lineman would rank higher on this list.
15. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
The Rebels were forced to shuffle their offensive line after guard Aaron Morris was lost for the season in the opener against Vanderbilt. Tunsil was slated for a key role before Morris’ injury, but the coaching staff needed an even bigger contribution from the freshman. Tunsil has started five out of the last six games at left tackle and has been stellar in pass protection. Tunsil should anchor Ole Miss’ line for the next three seasons.
16. John O’Korn, QB, Houston
Houston has experienced quite a turnaround in coach Tony Levine’s second season. After a 5-7 mark in 2012, the Cougars are 6-1 and will be in the mix for the American Athletic Conference title. O’Korn’s emergence has been huge for the offense, especially after starter David Piland was forced to retire due to concussions. In seven games, O’Korn has 1,858 yards and 19 scores, while tossing just four picks on 220 attempts. The freshman is coming off his best performance of the season, completing 24 of 30 passes for 364 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-14 win over Rutgers.
17. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish’s defense isn’t quite as dominant as the 2012 version, but Notre Dame is still holding opponents to just 21.6 points a game. Smith ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100, and the Indiana native hasn’t disappointed. Smith has started all eight games for the Fighting Irish, recording 39 tackles (4.5 for a loss), one interception and one forced fumble.
18. Alex Redmond, OG, UCLA
Injuries and roster turnover have prompted a handful of freshmen to see immediate playing time for the Bruins’ offensive line. Redmond ranked as the No. 228 overall prospect in the 2013 signing class by 247Sports and has started all seven games at right guard in 2013. UCLA’s line is anchored by standout Xavier Su’a-Filo, but Redmond has been a key cog in a unit that is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 469.1 yards per game this season.
19. Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders have been forced to start two true freshmen at quarterback this year, and both players (Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield) have performed well in their first collegiate action. Webb has started the last three games for Texas Tech, throwing for at least 385 yards in each start. The true freshman’s season high for yardage (462) came against West Virginia, but throwing for 385 yards and two touchdowns on the road against Oklahoma is a solid showing as well.
20. Steve Longa, LB, Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights have struggled to stop the pass this year, but largely due to the front seven, this defense ranks 12th nationally against the run. Longa leads all Rutgers defenders with 69 tackles, and the redshirt freshman has six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles. If Longa continues at his current pace, he could be a first- or second-team all-conference selection at the end of the season.
21. Montravius Adams/Carl Lawson, DL, Auburn
Adams and Lawson were two of Auburn’s top pickups on the recruiting trail and have combined for three sacks so far this year. With Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae expiring their eligibility at the end of 2013, Adams and Lawson should move into starting roles in 2014.
22. Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M
There’s a youth movement for the Texas A&M defense this season. The Aggies only list four seniors on the defensive two-deep, with two freshmen listed as starters for Saturday’s game against UTEP. Claiborne has made five consecutive starts at middle linebacker and ranks third on the team with 49 stops. The freshman also has six tackles for a loss and one interception. With all of the new faces stepping into key roles, Texas A&M’s defense has struggled, allowing four of its five SEC opponents to score at least 30 points. However, the experienced gained for Claiborne in 2013 should help this unit improve in '14 and '15.
23. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona
The Wildcats had one of the Pac-12’s worst defenses in 2012, ranking 11th or 12th in the four major categories. But with nearly everyone back from last season, and the emergence of young talent, Arizona has improved, ranking fifth in the Pac-12 in total defense. Wright has added athleticism to the linebacking corps and leads all Wildcat defenders with 49 tackles.
24. Tony Conner, LB/DB, Ole Miss
Conner is another true freshman with a prominent role for Ole Miss. In eight games, Conner has 40 tackles (two for a loss), one sack and one interception. Conner is also credited with two quarterback hurries and four pass breakups. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound hybrid safety/linebacker is improving with every snap, and his presence has been critical for a defense that is short on depth due to injuries.
25. Daquawn Brown, CB, Washington State
Mike Leach is in rebuild mode at Washington State, and the Cougars have promising young talent on both sides of the ball. Brown has already proven he is one of the key cogs for the future, starting three games this season, including on the road at USC and Oregon. In eight overall appearances, Brown has 45 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups. Look for Brown to emerge as one of the top cornerbacks in the Pac-12 over the next three seasons.
Other Top Freshmen
Dominique Alexander, LB, Oklahoma
Athletic, quick linebacker has 40 tackles in eight games.
Joey Bosa, DL, Ohio State
Has played in all eight games and recorded 18 tackles and two sacks.
Stacy Coley, WR, Miami
Will be a future star for the Hurricanes and has 17 receptions for 278 yards and three touchdowns in six games this year.
James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
Rushed for 326 yards through first three games but has just 56 in last three appearances.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
Pass-rush specialist for the Bulldogs, recording four sacks and 13 quarterback hurries in seven games.
Jacoby Glenn, CB, UCF
Tied for American Athletic Conference lead with 11 passes defended.
Jared Goff, QB, California
Goff has thrown for 2,592 yards this season, but the true freshman has tossed seven picks and has only one touchdown toss in his last three games.
Isaiah Golden, DT, Texas A&M
Never easy starting as a true freshman at defensive tackle in the SEC, but Golden has 19 stops in seven games.
Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas
Ranks second on the team with 17 catches for 318 yards and one score.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Has played in all eight games and has caught 10 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown.
Germain Ifedi, OG, Texas A&M
Ifedi has started eight games at right guard for the Aggies this year.
Eddie Jackson, CB, Alabama
Has played in nine games (with three starts), recording nine tackles and one interception.
Ryan Janvion, S, Wake Forest
Redshirt freshman leads the team with 59 tackles.
Chris Jones, DL, Mississippi State
Will be a future star for the Bulldogs. Has 17 tackles and five quarterback hurries in seven games.
Desmond King, CB, Iowa
True freshman has grabbed a starting role in Iowa’s secondary, recording 43 tackles and four pass breakups.
Hardy Nickerson, LB, California
Ranks second on the defense with 51 stops and has one forced fumble in eight games.
Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
All-name team selection and top backup to Lache Seastrunk. The freshman has 443 yards and seven touchdowns on 55 attempts.
Johnny Mundt, TE, Oregon
The Ducks haven’t missed a beat with Colt Lyerla’s departure, as Mundt has picked up the slack. Mundt has 12 catches for 216 yards and two scores in eight games.
Marquez North, WR, Tennessee
Already the Volunteers’ No. 1 receiver, made key grabs in the win over South Carolina.
Caleb Peterson, OG, North Carolina
Peterson has started all seven games for the Tar Heels in 2013.
Darius Philon, DT, Arkansas
Pressed into starting role after injury to Robert Thomas, recording 26 tackles (six for a loss) and three sacks in eight games this year.
Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
Redshirt freshman has started all eight games for the Sooners, recording 31 tackles and 10 pass breakups. Sanchez has been a key player in Oklahoma’s secondary, which ranks ninth nationally against the pass.
Dan Skipper/Denver Kirkland, OG, Arkansas
Freshmen duo has started in each of the last four games for the Razorbacks.
Sojourn Shelton, CB, Wisconsin
Has started all seven games for the Badgers, recording 20 tackles and three interceptions thus far.
Cam Sutton, CB, Tennessee
Sutton was only a three-star prospect but has been a key piece in Tennessee’s secondary this year. He returned an interception for a touchdown against Western Kentucky and has 25 tackles and five pass breakups in eight appearances.
Thomas Tyner, RB, Oregon
Tyner will be a standout performer for Oregon in time, but playing time is limited with Byron Marshall and De’Anthony Thomas ahead on the depth chart. The true freshman has played in seven games, rushing for 437 yards and eight touchdowns. Tyner also has nine catches for 105 yards.
Ben Weaver, LB, Boise State
Leads all Boise State defenders with 72 tackles.
Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
White could be the next in LSU’s run of standout defensive backs. The true freshman has 39 tackles, one interception and six pass breakups in 2013.
Dontre Wilson, RB, Ohio State
Dynamic playmaker averaging 9.6 yards per touch.