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College Football's Top 25 Impact Freshmen of 2012


Actual college football games are taking place this week!

And while National Signing Day 2012 seems like ages ago, thousands of freshmen (and redshirt freshman) will take their first steps onto the hallowed grounds of stadiums all over the nation this weekend. Most won't even dress for the varsity squad this season and many won't ever play. But a select few uber-recruits will have the chance to make an immediate impact on the college football landscape. 

Last week, Athlon Sports highlighted the biggest name and biggest impact freshman in each BCS conference. If you want to dig deeper into the 'by-conference' rankings, they are linked below. And since hundreds of names will make big impacts across the nation, it is virtually impossible to rank the Top 25. Names like Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, Dan Voltz, DJ Foster, Carlos Watkins and Leonte Carrou just missed making this list, but are expected to make some impact in year one.

The Top 25 Impact Freshmen for 2012 (listed alpabetically):

* - indicates redshirt freshman

Arik Armstead, DL, Oregon
The 2011 cycle featured De'Anthony Thomas. This season it's the massive (6-7, 290) defensive end-offensive tackle two-sport star from Elk Grove, Calif. He will be a key reserve and pass-rush demon for Chip Kelly to begin. Don't be shocked if the nation's No. 3 prospect is a starter by year's end.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State*
The massive redshirt freshman receiver could be a game-changer for EJ Manuel and the Florida State passing game. At 6-foot-5 and 240-pounds, Benjamin may be the most talented FSU pass-catcher since the deep collection of NFL talent of the late 90s and early 00s. 

Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan
Few players have entered college with greater expectations than the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cincinnati prospect. The true freshman enrolled early and made a big name for himself in spring ball with incredible instincts, physicality and explosiveness. He could force Kenny Demens to outside linebacker at best and will be the top reserve at worst. Bolden will be an All-Big Ten player very soon.

Evan Boehm, OL, Missouri
The coaching staff in Columbia has been full of praise for their star prospect at guard. He has been battling for the starting spot and Gary Pinkel has stated the Lee’s Summit, Mo., native has the size and maturity to play right away. He would be the only the third true freshman offensive lineman to ever play under the Mizzou coach.

Sheldon Day, DL, Notre Dame
An early enrollee, the massive defensive lineman from Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central has already proven he belongs on the field. And in a defensive front that is stacked with young talent, it is even more impressive the impact the 6-foot-2, 290-pound freshman has had up front. He should be a household name in short order for Irish fans.

Stefon Diggs, WR/RS, Maryland
The in-state speedster was the No. 5 overall prospect in the nation last fall and was a recruiting coup for the embattled Randy Edsall. The 6-foot, 185-pound dynamo will touch the ball in the passing game, ground game and return game. He should start right away and should be a close friend of unexpected new starting quarterback and fellow freshman Perry Hills.

Ereck Flowers, OL, Miami
If the big local product from the city of Miami continues to play like he has in camp, he could very well be the starting right tackle at The U. His work ethic and size – at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds — will provide much needed help along the offensive front for Al Golden.

Perry Hills, QB, Maryland
When C.J. Brown tore his ACL, one of two freshmen were going to get the call to start for new coordinator Mike Locksley. Caleb Rowe appears to have lost the job to the Hills, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound signal caller from Pittsburgh. On a team that won two games a year ago and features huge amounts of roster turnover, Hills has been thrust into the most important starting position on the field. Should he adapt quickly, he could easily be in contention for ACC Freshman of the Year. If he struggles, Randy Edsall could be looking for work.

Jonathan Gray, RB, Texas
No high school running back has ever been as productive as Gray was at Aledo High School. He sits behind two elite sophomores in Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, but Gray could see upwards of 100 touches this fall. He has the power, the speed, the receiving skills, the upside, the toughness and the agility. There is nothing he cannot do on a football field and it should make him an All-American in short order.

Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston
The star wide receiver from California was a top 100 recruit who was set to sign with Notre Dame. His 11th hour NSD switch to Houston was highly-publicized and has created added pressure to succeed. From all accounts, however, Greenberry is set to earn a starting spot for Houston as a true freshman. He is easily the highest-rated recruit in Cougars history and will fit perfectly in the pass-happy system Tony Levine wants to run.

Dorial Green-Beckam, WR, Missouri
The most prolific high school receiver in American prep history will suit up for Mizzou this fall. The nation’s No. 1 overall prospect can expect to see a lot of passes throw his way. His 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame creates match-up issues all over the field and will be impossible to cover, both vertically and in the slot. DGB will be a big star in the SEC.

Darius Hamilton, DL, Rutgers
The prized gem of the most heralded Knights class in school history was 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive lineman from nearby Don Bosco Prep. He began camp as an end, but after excelling in camp already, he has been shifted down to tackle. He knows the 3-technique from his prep glory days and should be an instant impact player for what should once again be the league's top defense.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA*
This move had to be made. Hundley is the most talented and has the highest upside of any quarterback on the roster (he also has yet to miss a start due to injury). In all seriousness, though, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder from Chandler, Ariz., gives new Bruins head coach Jim Mora Jr., offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and the rest of the coaching staff a chance to succeed longterm in Westwood.

Jabari Hunt-Days, LB, Georgia Tech*
The younger brother of Tech quarterback, Snyjyn Days, could provide immediate help at inside backer. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Marietta, Ga., prospect redshirted last fall and knows Al Groh's system well enough to make a big impact this fall. Tech fans are hoping for some reinforcement for a defense that allowed 274 and 268 yards rushing in losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech respectively last fall.

Linebackers, LSU
Kwon Alexander, Ronnie Feist, Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Lorenzo Phillips could all see playing time this fall. It is anybody’s guess as to who will get the most playing time, but look for Alexander and the two spring enrollees, Louis and Feist, to get the first crack at contributing.

Wes Lunt, QB, Oklahoma State
There was a heated quarterback battle in Stillwater all spring and summer long. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the underdog from Rochester, Ill., was named the starter relatively early in the process by Mike Gundy. His 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame gives Gundy what he craves from a quarterback: a big, tall, accurate, pocket passer who makes quick decisions. There will be plenty of growing pains and learning experiences for Lunt, but this coaching staff clearly loves what they have in the true freshman.

Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State
Many around the Wazzu program are already claiming Freshman All-American status for the wideout from Los Angeles. He is a tiny slot sparkplug who is already wowing coaches in camp. In Mike Leach's high-flying offense, Marks can expect big numbers.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon*
He is still in a heated battle with Bryan Bennett that may last the entire season, but there is no doubt that the Dennis Dixon-clone will play a bunch in 2012. He has burst, explosiveness and speed like Dixon, but is also a much thicker athlete at nearly 200 pounds. He won the spring battle but is neck-and-neck with Bennett.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M*
Despite an immature physical dust-up that resulted in an arrest this summer, the talented dual-threat beat out Jameil Showers to earn the starting job for the Aggies. He posted huge numbers, both through the air and on the ground, as a high school senior two years ago, and in Kevin Sumlin’s system, fans can bet on big numbers from the redshirt freshman.

Trey Metoyer, WR, Oklahoma
This prep-schooler has fans in Norman boiling over with anticipation. He has drawn huge reviews in camp and could possibly overtake Kenny Stills as the No. 1 option. His all-around skillset fits better on the outside and, for a unit that played inconsistently in support of Ryan Broyles last fall, will be a welcome sight for Landry Jones. Freshman All-American status wouldn't be over-reaching.

Ondre Pipkins, DT, Michigan
The massive defensive tackle from Kansas City is expected to help plug the hole left by Mike Martin up the middle. A recent neck injury in practice put a scare into Maize and Blue nation and sent Pipkins to the hospital. All signs point to Pipkins being ready for the opener against Alabama, but how well an injured freshman's neck will be able to hold up against Barrett Jones, Chane Warmack and DJ Fluker remains to be seen.

Running Backs, Georgia
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have the chance to be a special freshman tandem this fall. These two are going to get tons of carries and Gurley has been the early star of camp for the Dawgs. Along with massive fullback Quayvon Hicks, Mark Richt has a more than enough talent to offset the loss of the aforementioned Crowell. Look for the burley Gurley and the speedy Marshall to compliment each other perfectly.

Isaac Seumalo, OL, Oregon State
It's all in the family for the locker prep blocker. His father, Joe, is the DL coach and his brother, Andrew, starts along the Beavers' offensive line. He was essentially pencilled into the starting line-up the second he committed to Oregon State, so don't expect to see him on the bench for a team that was pathetic in the running game a year ago.

John Theus, OL, Georgia
This big blocker from Jacksonville, Fla., could be the starter at left tackle from the second Georgia kicks off the 2012 season. He was the No. 2 offensive line prospect in the nation and the Dawgs are in big need of depth along the offensive front. Along with Zach DeBell, Theus will help stabilize the UGA front.

Shaq Thompson, S, Washington
This is a once in a lifetime type of player. And he will start from the first snap of the year — even if the new defensive coaching staff has to run five defensive backs out there. He can play in the box, can blitz off the edge, can play man-up in coverage and patrol the deep middle-third. Fans should be shocked if he isn't a Freshman All-American.

Other Names To Watch:

Ishmael Adams, CB, UCLA
The lockdown cover corner was arguably the top player at his position in the US Army All-American bowl and it hasn't taken long for him to fit in at UCLA. He is likely the most game-ready freshman in this class, so expect the Westlake Village, Calif., product to be in the line-up quickly.

Nelson Agholor, AP, USC
The speedster from across the country in Tampa, Fla., has big-play potential and a well-documented childhood. Expect the versatile back-receiver hybrid to be used all over the field, including special teams. He has proven to be a quick study this summer.

Travis Blanks, DB, Clemson
The Tigers' defensive woes are well documented. Prospects like Blanks should help new defensive coordinator Brent Venables attempt to improve a unit that was abused in the second half of the 2011 season. The hybrid talent, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, should be used all over the field in various roles after enrolling early last January.

Austin Blythe, OL, Iowa
The Williamsburg, Iowa, product will be the baby of the All-Iowa starting offensive line in Iowa City. All five starters hail from the Hawkeye State and this redshirt freshman will lock down the right guard position. This is a unit under heavy scrutiny, however, as it finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last fall and 78th in the nation in sacks allowed.

Jaxon Hood, DL, Arizona State
The big fella from Chandler, Ariz., is currently atop the depth chart along the interior of the ASU defensive line. Hood checks in at 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds and has proven to the staff he is capable of playing at a high level right out of the gate.

Tracy Howard, CB, Miami
This talented defensive back might be the biggest impact freshman in the ACC this season. Miami fans can expect the speedy coverman from Miramar, Fla., to be on the field from the first snap of the ball. Miami will play a lot of young players, and the No. 2-rated defensive back prospect in the nation has already drawn excellent reviews in camp for his play and leadership. 

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
The tiny tailback from Miami has speed to burn and will make some big plays this fall in a variety of ways. His 4.4 speed, to go along with the ability to catch the ball and make big plays on special teams will force Al Golden to get Johnson into his game plans. He may not have the size to unseat Mike James, or even be a 25-carry per game back, but Johnson will drop his fair share of jaws.

Mekale McKay, WR, Arkansas
The massive 6-foot-6 hoops star has made an immediate impact on the Hogs offense as he could very well start opposite Cobi Hamilton. With the very talented Tyler Wilson at quarterback, McKay has a chance to do his best DGB impersonation this fall. Few veteran cornerbacks will be able to match up with his raw leaping and overall athletic ability that earn him Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky last year.

Offensive Line, Kansas State
The right side of the Wildcats offensive front will feature a pair of freshman starters. Cody Whitehair is a 6-foot-5, 300-pounder from Abilene, Kan., and appears to be locked into the right tackle spot while the right guard spot will be manned by Andover, Kan., prospect Boston Stiverson, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 306 pounds. Look for KSU's strength on offense to be the left side until these two can pick-up the speed of the game.

Jordan Rigsbee, OL, Cal
The redshirt freshman offensive lineman will have the chance to lean on his big brother and fellow starter along the offensive line, Tyler. The younger Rigsbee earned a starting spot out of spring and has kept that job through camp. He is bigger than his brother at 306 pounds (Tyler is only 290).

Shaq Roland, WR, South Carolina
Alshon Jeffery is gone and Steve Spurrier is hoping his new toy from Lexington, S.C., will help fill the void. The speedy pass-catcher was the No. 5 wideout prospect in the nation, the top prospect in the state, and has wowed the coaching staff since stepping on campus.

Rushel Shell, RB, Pitt
There is a very small chance Shell is redshirted, but his obvious talent and recruiting hype will make it hard for Chryst to keep the uber-prospect on the bench. He's the Keystone State's all-time leading rusher with 9,078 yards and scored a WPIAL record 110 career TDs. He also owns the national prep mark for consecutive 100-yard games with 39 — breaking the great Billy Sims' mark. Chryst will have fun using this dynamo.

Noah Spence, DL, Ohio State
Spence was the No. 1 defensive line prospect in the nation for a reason. He is an absolute monster. His size, strength, explosiveness and speed may force Urban Meyer to shoehorn him onto the field as a true freshman. This team is loaded with defensive line talent and there doesn't seem like a clear spot for Spence. But his raw physical skills might be too much for Meyer to ignore. Aldophus Washington might not be too far behind either.

Jordan Thompson, WR, West Virginia
This little guy has speed to burn and has proven he belongs on the field as a freshman. In a four-wide receiver set, Thompson has earned a starting spot on the inside. He is as small a football player as there is — he is listed at 5-foot-7 and 167 pounds — but is also as dynamic as any athlete in the league. The Katy, Texas, product could post big numbers as a freshman.

Nick VanHoose, CB, Northwestern
The scout team super star from last fall nearly got his redshirt pulled halfway through the season. Yet, Pat Fitzgerald resisted and the result will be a polished all-league-type of player stepping into a starting role in his first year on the field. He has speed and quickness to burn — as his role as Denard Robinson on the scout team will attest to — and should be able to lock down one half of the field.

TJ Yeldon, RB, Alabama
The twisting, turning, gyrating, impossible-to-tackle running back from Daphne, Ala., will have a shot to play early and often this fall. Eddie Lacy has a toe issue and Dee Hart is returning from a torn ACL, so the door is open for the big powerback.

- by Braden gall

Follow @bradengall

Top Impact Freshman to Watch By Conference 2012:

ACC's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012
Big 12's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Big East's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Big Ten's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Pac-12's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

SEC's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012