To make it to the national championship game last year, both Alabama and Notre Dame relied on key contributions from true freshmen. For the Tide it was wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon, two of A.J. McCarron’s best weapons all season who dominated in the title game. For the Irish it was cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who started the entire season, and defensive lineman Sheldon Day, who contributed to one of the best defensive line rotations in the country.
As we look forward to the season, which schools have a youth movement capable of making an impact on the BCS title hunt?
Note: We’re only counting true freshmen.
Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard, Alabama – The Tide are stacked at running back with a lot of talented depth behind Yeldon, but Henry is a special talent that is the most prolific high school rusher of all time. I would guess that Nick Saban will be able to find a place for him near the top of the depth chart, especially with Eddie Lacy heading to the pros. In Howard you have the best tight end in the nation and Rivals’ No. 16 overall recruit. (Henry and Howard were both early enrollees and participated in spring practices, another advantage for the two heralded recruits.) A potential offensive set with Yeldon, Henry, Cooper, Howard and incoming blue-chip receiver Robert Foster should terrify opposing defenses.
Thomas Tyner and your choice of a Robinson twin, Oregon – When you rush the ball as much as the Ducks do, it’s nice to have backfield depth. Tyner is Rivals’ No. 17 overall recruit with a highlight reel that is just silly. He’ll presumably work into the rotation with Byron Marshall and De’Anthony Thomas. Tyrell and Tyree Robinson are both incredibly versatile athletes (they were also top basketball prospects), and it feels safe saying at least one of them will find his way into the rotation on defense. If you think the Robinsons are perhaps a little too raw, Texan pass rusher Torrodney Prevot could find some snaps getting after the quarterback in defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s scheme.
Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian Larue, Texas A&M – The Aggies bring back Johnny Manziel to orchestrate Kevin Sumlin’s offense, but they’ll need to replace a lot of production on the outside, as receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu have moved on to the NFL. Enter Seals-Jones and Larue, among a few options arriving in College Station that could find themselves as targets for Manziel. Seals-Jones, a 6-5 Texas native, is the big outside presence while the 5-10 Larue, a Los Angeles prospect, could be devastating in the slot.
Kelvin Taylor and DeMarcus Robinson, Florida – The Florida offense was not aesthetically pleasing last year, but no one could deny the effectiveness of workhorse tailback Mike Gillislee. Gillislee is gone, meaning the door is now open for Taylor, one of the top running back prospects in the nation and the son of former Gator and NFL star Fred Taylor. A potential blessing for the woeful passing attack (118th in the country last year) comes in the form of Robinson, a Georgia native and one of Rivals' top five wide receiver prospects. You could also easily go with cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, the No. 2 two prospect in the nation, but focusing on the renovation of the Gator offense seems like a safe bet.
Greg Bryant and Malik Zaire, Notre Dame – With Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood graduating, the Irish have a hole at running back. If George Atkinson III (a converted wide receiver who sometimes struggles as a true tailback) or Amir Carlisle (who may end up in the slot and has been plagued by injury issues since transferring to South Bend) can’t lock down the starting gig, there will be an opportunity for Bryant, a five-star recruit from Florida. Zaire is an early enrollee at quarterback who could be thrust into the starting role if Tommy Rees struggles. Zaire may also get some playing time even if Rees is playing well, as his mobility will allow Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin to open up the playbook and tailor some packages to his skillset. Five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith and five-star safety Max Redfield will also be on the field, but the depth chart is more crowded at their positions.
Mike Mitchell and Vonn Bell, Ohio State – Urban Meyer continues to recruit nationally from his post in central Ohio, getting two prized defenders out of Texas and Georgia. Mitchell, an inside linebacker, is the best recruit out of the Lone Star State and is capable of stepping into the Buckeyes' rotation. Bell is a freak safety who could find himself starting in the nickel sooner rather than later, perhaps finding himself entrenched at the “star” (linebacker/safety combo) position. Also receiving strong consideration? Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, who are both being buzzed about as potential Percy Harvin clones.
Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III, Southern Cal – The Trojans' recruiting class started to fall apart before Signing Day, but Lane Kiffin was able to keep the commitments of the two best safeties in the country. Both Cravens and McQuay enrolled early, increasing their odds to immediately replace departing Trojans Jawanza Starling and T.J. McDonald. Incoming five-star quarterback Max Browne could jump both of them if he ends up being the starter, while five-star defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow is also very good at football. As you can see from the multitude of options, some very capable players are coming to help USC after last season’s debacle, even after some late attrition.
Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss – While Ole Miss would need an almost miraculous leap to be in contention for the national title, the fact they take on both Alabama and A&M means their collection of shiny new blue-chip talent will have two chances to alter the national scene with major upsets. Nkemdiche is a monster, a 6’5” defensive end out of Georgia who doubles as the No. 1 overall recruit in the country. Can we expect him to flirt with Jadeveon Clowney's rookie numbers (eight sacks, five forced fumbles, 12 tackles for loss), or is that a little too ambitious? On the other side of the ball is Treadwell, the best receiving prospect in the nation, who should add another dynamic to Hugh Freeze’s hurry-up offense.
What freshmen from your favorite team are looking like difference-makers in the fall?