Athlon pinpoints who could be National Freshman of the Year this fall.
The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability and volatility.
Roster turnover is largely responsible for the tremendous amount of variability from year to year within the sport. Key graduations, early entries into the NFL Draft, dismissals and a massive influx of tomorrow's stars in the form of bright-eyed freshmen create more personnel turnover in college football than any other major sport in the country.
It's these (relatively) unknown commodities that offer fans a renewed hope of future success. Who are the top freshmen to watch this fall?
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The conversation about 2014's top freshmen not only in the SEC but in the nation begins with the No. 1 prospect in the class. From a power and speed standpoint, Fournette might be the closest thing college football has seen Adrian Peterson began his career at Oklahoma over a decade ago. He is a 6-foot-1, 230-pound sure thing and is likely a front-runner for national freshman of the year.
2. Cam Robinson, OL, Alabama
The mammoth 6-foot-6 freshman from West Monroe (La.) High School was the No. 1 offensive line prospect in the nation. He enrolled early and has already been working with the first team offense for most of the summer. How many national title contenders will have a true freshman anchoring the left tackle position?
3. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
The uber-recruit from Immokalee (Fla.) High redshirted a year ago and is ready to fulfill his lofty recruiting expectations. He’s gained some weight and will be charged with protecting the back end of a defense littered with seniors.
4. Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State
After experiencing some speed bumps in the recruiting process, Thomas is finally ready to contribute in Tallahassee. He has freakish ability and is slated to start alongside Terrance Smith. Jimbo Fisher has proven he will ask big things of first-year starters and Thomas is the next in line.
5. Adoree Jackson, ATH, USC
For lack of a better term, Coach Steve Sarkisian adores his true freshman, do-everything dynamo. Jackson is penciled in as the star kick returner but will also get carries as a running back, catch passes as a receiver and could even get reps as a defensive back. Coach Sark will use Jackson in any and all ways this fall because it looks like the freshman can handle it.
6. Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
This list has to begin with the Charles Woodson clone in Ann Arbor. He will begin his career as the nickelback but could easily work into a starting role on defense. Peppers, in true Woodson fashion, is a dynamic return specialist and don’t be surprised if he gets some snaps on offense as well. He was the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2014 class for a reason.
7. Khaliel Rodgers, OL, USC
Rodgers, a four-star member of the 2013 class, has been through two springs and was considered the best center in the nation two years ago. He is penciled in at the pivot currently. Toa Lobendahn was a four-star early enrollee this spring and is currently holding the starting left guard position. The Trojans' front line is extremely talented, but also extremely inexperienced.
8. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
The five-star safety from Virginia Beach (Va.) Bayside is slotted to start the moment he steps onto a college field for the first time. He has veterans to learn from but the 6-foot-4, 210-pound dynamo could be a savior at the back end of the Cavaliers' defense.
9. Ricky Seals-Jones | Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M
Seals-Jones was a five-star top 25 prospect in the 2013 class. He redshirted last year after catching three passes in two games early in the year. His massive frame is a mismatch nightmare for most SEC defenses. Packaged with the smaller, more explosive and versatile Noil, this duo could easily develop into one of the SEC's best.
10. Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
A man among boys, McDowell has rare size (6-6, 295) and quickness for such a young player. With an injury to Damon Knox, Pat Narduzzi needs McDowell to be ready to start sooner rather than later. He may not start the opener but he will be major factor for the Spartans this fall.
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11. Dravon Henry, S, West Virginia
There was a reason Henry was the No. 1-rated player in the state of Pennyslvania last year. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety has been working with the starters at free safety before camp even opened. He can cover a lot of ground and has proven he should be on the field as much as possible early on in his career.
12. Myles Garrett | Justin Manning, DL, Texas A&M
The only player rated ahead of Garrett in the national recruiting rankings was Fournette. The freakish 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is set to carve out a critical role for a defensive line in desperate need of development. Garrett and former four-star redshirt freshman Justin Manning are two names who should establish themselves as future All-SEC types in 2014.
13. Damian Prince | Derwin Gray, OL, Maryland
Both Prince and Gray are in the heat of two position battles for starting time up front for the Terps. Prince (6-5, 295) was recently moved to guard and is the odds-on favorite to earn the starting job. Gray (6-5, 295) is battling Ryan Doyle for the starting right tackle spot. Both Prince and Gray are dramatically more talented options but need to catch on quickly to start all year.
14. Ermon Lane | Travis Rudolph, WR, Florida State
There is plenty of space in the offense behind senior Rashad Greene and both Lane (6-3, 205) and Rudolph (6-2, 185) have been exceptional in fall camp. Greene and quarterback Jameis Winston have had glowing things to say about the two tall playmakers.
15. Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
The No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation is a tall, pocket passer from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Desert Mountain. The 6-foot-3 signal-caller is a student of the game and is battling Kenny Hill for full-time starting duties in College Station. Many believe Allen is the future and will eventually wrestle the starting job away from Hill permanently.
16. Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
The star tailback from Oakley (Calif.) Freedom is currently sitting on the sidelines in Norman but was the top-rated recruit in the Big 12 for a reason. He has special ability and would figure into the starting running back situation if he can get onto the field. He has been suspended indefinitely pending an investigation into an altercation that took place in late July.
17. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
In just a few trips to the practice field, Adams already has Les Miles raving about his overall ability. The big-time defensive back prospect is already working with the starting defensive unit for coordinator John Chavis and is set to become the next in a ridiculously impressive run of elite secondary players for LSU.
18. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
The Nashville product is every bit of 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds and he stands out on Tennessee's practice field. He's dealt with some health issues during his outstanding prep career, but if he can stay on the field, his rare combination of size and speed makes him an instant impact player for Butch Jones — both as a runner and pass-catcher.
19. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
The No. 2-rated recruit in the Big Ten was the top inside linebacker in the nation and he is already pressing for starting reps in Columbus. The 242-pounder is breathing down Curtis Grant’s neck at MLB and should see plenty of snaps all year long. The early enrollee is the next great tackling star for Ohio State.
20. Jermaine Kelly, DB, Washington
Baker is the highest-rated member of the 2014 Husky class and has already earned a spot in the two-deep at safety. Kelly, a redshirt freshman, is slotted to start at cornerback for new coach Chris Petersen and his reworked secondary. Look for both Kelly and true freshman Budda Baker to lead a group of defensive backs that could feature half a dozen young contributors.
21. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Arkansas State head coach and former UNC assistant Blake Anderson told me last week that Hood is as ready made as any true freshman in the ACC. There is a crowded backfield in Chapel Hill but the 220-pounder might be the most talented of the bunch.
22. Jalen Tabor, DB, Florida
Both enrolled early in January and both will compete for the starting spot opposite All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. The loser of that battle will likely be the top nickelback — a position that is almost a starter in the modern SEC. Tabor is slightly more talented and fits better as a corner, while the more physical Duke Dawson has the ability to make plays around the line of scrimmage. Florida is the LSU of the East in terms of producing defensive backs.
23. Chikwe Obasih | Alec James, DL, Wisconsin
The Badgers could feature two redshirt freshman starting defensive ends in Week 1 against LSU. Obasih (6-2, 245) and James (6-3, 239) are undersized but both bring a quickness off the edge Wisconsin hasn’t had in years. Obasih was the starter throughout spring camp and James, a converted outside backer, has risen quickly into a starting role. There will be a rotation up front this fall but expect both Obasih and James to finish the year as the starters.
24. JuJu Smith, ATH, USC
Who knows what side of the ball it will be on but Smith appears to be earmarked for a large role as just a true freshman. He’s already gotten rave reviews as a wide receiver but rumors are swirling about the electric player switching to defensive back to start at nickelback. Wherever he lines up, keep an eye on the explosive youngster.
25. D.J. Calhoun, LB, Arizona State
One of three ASU early enrollees, Calhoun has shot up the depth chart to earn a potential starting spot at outside linebacker. His quickness and size allows him to be moved all over the formation. He will battle all fall camp to hold onto that starting spot and will undoubtedly be a long-term contributor for Todd Graham.
26. Oren Burks, S, Vanderbilt
The redshirt freshman moved from linebacker to safety when new coach Derek Mason took over. Mason wants his size (6-2, 215) at the back end of his defense. He has a chance to be one of the most imposing playmakers in a totally rebuilt secondary.
27. Brandon Harris, QB, LSU
He is battling with Anthony Jennings but the 6-foot-2, 195-pound dual-threat signal-caller brings a new dimension to LSU's offense. He may not win the starting job right away but all signs are pointing to this dynamic freshman as the future for Cam Cameron and Les Miles in Baton Rouge.
28. Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky
The massive 6-foot-7, 350-pounder (depending on the time of day) is already entrenched as a starter for Mark Stoops' defensive line. The head coach can barely hide his excitement about injecting this talented in-state product into the heart of his developing defensive front. Elam will go through growing pains but has the astounding quickness and agility that NFL scouts drool over when it comes to guys his size.
29. Gyasi Akem, LB, Oklahoma State
The Pokes are thin at linebacker after the departure of Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey but Akem figures to help fill the void. The quick but undersized (6-1, 201) freshman is eyeing a starting spot right out of the gate alongside veteran Ryan Simmons. He uses his speed well both as a pass rusher and dropping into coverage. Look for Akem to see time very early and possibly start against Florida State.
30. Andrew Nelson, OL, Penn State
One of the biggest question marks in the Big Ten this fall is the Nittany Lions' O-line. Herb Hand is going to try everything to counteract the concerning lack of depth and that likely means a lot of young players getting reps this fall. Nelson is already slotted to start at right tackle and pretty much any other player on the roster should expect to see time for the depleted Lions.
31. Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
He is one of (if not the) highest rated players to ever sign with Iowa State and apparently he is worthy of the hype. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound wideout is already working with the second unit and will undoubtedly be a starter in no time. His talent is obvious and he could be a historic player for the Cyclones.
32. Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
The Horned Frogs normally are known for having tenacious and talented defensive backs and this redshirt freshmen fit that bill. Texada is already penciled in as the starter opposite All-Big 12 pick Kevin White while fellow redshirt Cyd Calvin is listed as the top backup to both. Look for Gary Patterson to develop these talented youngsters into the next wave of great TCU cornerbacks.
33. KC McDermott, OL, Miami
The Hurricanes have plenty of holes to fill and one should be plugged by the monster (6-6, 315) in-state blocker. He has been worked at right tackle with the first team and he could be just one of a few first-year blockers who contribute in a big way for Miami.
34. Wesley Green, CB, South Carolina
Few teams took a bigger hit at one position like the Gamecocks did at cornerback. Which is why Steve Spurrier signed five defensive backs in this class. Green and fellow freshman Chris Lammons will get every opportunity to land starting roles in Lorenzo Ward's secondary.
35. Chad Thomas, DL, Miami
It’s hard to hide Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s excitement about having Thomas on the roster. The local product checks in at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds with excellent burst and great agility. He is the type of South Florida defender the Canes have been sorely lacking.
36. Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona
The former standout from famed Bishop Gorman High School has been taking most of the first-team reps and appears to have a leg up on Jerrard Randall and Jesse Scroggins. His skill set fits Rich Rodriguez’ offense perfectly and he’s had a year to sit and learn the playbook. He was a big-time winner in high school and is one of the highest-rated QB recruits to ever sign at Arizona.
37. Tony Brown | Marlon Humphrey, DB, Alabama
One of the few weaknesses for Alabama is at cornerback where graduation and the NFL Draft have finally caught up with Nick Saban. Brown (6-fooot, 190) enrolled early and will be fighting for one of two open corner sports all camp long. He was the top defensive back signee in the SEC and was considered the No. 9 overall prospect in the nation. Humphrey is no less talented and he brings an equally impressive 6-foot-1 frame to a secondary in need of quick help (relatively speaking).
38. Curtis Samuel, AP, Ohio State
Fans have been pointing to Dontre Wilson as a guy who could fill the Percy Harvin role for Urban Meyer at Ohio State. And while Wilson is going to have an excellent sophomore season, it’s actually Samuel who is drawing the brightest reviews. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder is listed as a wideout but has been getting plenty of carries out of the backfield. Look for Samuel to play a lot in a variety of roles this fall.
39. Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
While twin brother Tyrell will be suiting up for Fresno State after being dismissed from Oregon, Tyree is set to take over as the starting strong safety. The long, rangy athlete has put in the work this offseason and is in line to become a breakout defender in his redshirt freshman season in Eugene.
40. Sean Welsh, OL, Iowa
The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder recently was moved into the starting lineup at left guard for Kirk Ferentz. Surrounded by seniors and juniors, the Ohio native is proving quickly that he belongs on the field for Iowa.