Now that National Signing Day is over, these true freshmen are best positioned to blossom into stars in their first season on campus.
True freshmen Ed Oliver and Jalen Hurts were precocious stars in 2016, their first fall at the collegiate level. Who’ll be this season’s Oliver and Hurts, performing well beyond their years and limited experience?
For a variety of reasons, from improved preparation in high school to early enrollment before spring drills, rookies are far more ready to hit the ground running than they were a decade ago. And coaches are abundantly open to avoiding redshirt seasons for recruits who are physically and mentally prepared to earn a letter.
Every FBS program populated its roster with exciting building blocks for the future on Signing Day. However, these dozen players, in particular, have the talent and the opportunity to debut in 2017 as instant impact performers.
2017’s Instant Impact True Freshmen
12. RB Cordarrian Richardson, UCF
Scott Frost didn’t beat out some of the biggest programs in college football to sit Richardson this fall. Richardson is one of the highest rated players to ever choose the Knights, and his blunt force running style is that of a feature back. Frost is hungry for more punch after his first team in Orlando ranked 123rd nationally in yards per play. While Richardson is not a game-breaker, he’ll arrive this summer at the perfect time for a UCF team that hasn’t even produced a 700-yard rusher in any of the last three seasons.
11. DE A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
The Hawkeyes’ brand has long been built on the backs of underrated, try-hard kids, and it’s worked rather well over the years for Kirk Ferentz. Epenesa, though, is a different kind of cat. He’s the rare blue-chipper matriculating at Iowa, yet he also possesses the motor and the work ethic that are customary in these parts. And while the Hawkeyes used a deep rotation entirely comprised of underclassmen a year ago, Epenesa has the right makeup, size and overall skill set to weave through the depth chart later this year.
10. OT Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
The Crimson Tide have no aversions to starting true freshmen, mainly because of their tendency to attract and develop the right kids. Jonah Williams started at right tackle as a rookie in 2016, and a move to the left side to supplant Cam Robinson could create an opening. JUCO transfer Elliot Baker will be an option, as will Leatherwood. He’s the latest in a long line of Bama recruits who look and act the part the moment they get to Tuscaloosa. Leatherwood is already 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds, and there’s nothing sloppy or clumsy in which he carries that frame.
9. DT Marvin Wilson, Florida State
The Seminoles went into Texas and plucked out an absolute gem of an interior lineman. Wilson is the proverbial dancing bear, an uncommonly agile 6-foot-4, 329-pounder. He explodes off the ball with brute strength and suddenness, reminiscent of Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence in 2016. Wilson is undeniably gifted and will be ready to contribute immediately as a rookie. How much he pitches in, though, hinges on his ability to outplay starters Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas in the summer.
8. S Devon Hunter, Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente did very well to keep Hunter in-state, when so many other schools were gunning for his services. Hunter is ready to be a college producer right now, from his size and speed to the physicality he brings to the field. Moreover, the Hokies and defensive coordinator Bud Foster have had a long and distinguished history of developing topflight defensive backs. Hunter will be gunning this offseason for the free safety spot vacated by graduating standout Chuck Clark.
7. OT Walker Little and Foster Sarell, Stanford
Quarterback is a concern on The Farm. Protecting that quarterback, whoever it winds up being, will be less of an issue in the coming years. The Cardinal landed two of the nation’s premier tackles in Little and Sarell, both of whom had their pick of destinations across the college landscape. Stanford has become a pipeline to the NFL for pile-driving offensive linemen. But last year’s team failed to produce an All-Pac-12 blocker for the first time since 2007, so there’ll be no limitations on what Little and Sarell might achieve this fall.
6. ATH DeAngelo Gibbs, Georgia
The Dawgs are in the market for playmakers, which is why beating out Nick Saban and Alabama was so important to Kirby Smart. Gibbs is as fluid defending the pass as a safety as he is running routes as a wide receiver. He’s a multidimensional 6-foot-2 athlete, with the instincts to contribute to both sides of the ball if needed. And as good fortune would have it, Georgia needs to beef up both its defensive backfield and its passing game. Leading receiver Isaiah McKenzie left an unexpected void when he declared early for this April’s NFL Draft.
5. CB Jeffrey Okudah, Ohio State
In Urban Meyer’s world, there’s no rebuilding, just retooling. And he hopes to retool on the fly in a defensive backfield gutted by a spate of early departures for a second straight year. Starting corners Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore need to be replaced, which could potentially be handled by a pair of newcomers, Okudah and junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield. Okudah harbors the length, athleticism, maturity and ball skills to be NFL-bound in three years as well.
4. DE Jaelan Phillips, UCLA
Who replaces the enormous pass-rushing production of Takkarist McKinley, the star of a D-line that’s been hit hard by attrition? Phillips will have a chance to be that guy for Jim Mora and the Bruins for at least the next three seasons. At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, he has the long frame to add considerable girth and muscle without sacrificing athleticism. As an added bonus, Phillips is flush in intangibles, like smarts and a great work ethic. He’s on the runway, with a very high, yet-to-be-approached ceiling.
3. RB Najee Harris, Alabama
Harris is the latest in a seemingly endless procession of heralded backs to play for Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa. Harris runs like a quicker, more agile version of former Tide star Derrick Henry, who averaged 10.9 yards a carry in his 2013 debut and won the 2015 Heisman Trophy. Yes, Bama returns nearly everyone who logged a carry last fall, including leading rusher Damien Harris and postseason star Bo Scarbrough. But Harris is just too doggone talented and motivated to not have some role in a rotation that’s always looking to spread out carries.
2. RB Cam Akers, Florida State
For a rookie, Akers is stepping into a near-perfect situation. The Seminoles have an opening in the backfield now that Dalvin Cook is gone. Plus, everyone on offense ought to benefit from QB Deondre Francois’ second season as the starter. Akers must still get past Jacques Patrick and the rest of the holdovers from 2016. But no back on the roster is going to be more talented than a 5-foot-11, 212-pounder with the build-up speed to bust through the second level and take DBs for a ride.
1. WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan
Receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, and TE Jake Butt: gone, gone and gone. Without a single returning Wolverine who caught more than 20 passes a year ago, Jim Harbaugh needs targets for Wilton Speight, which is why the Peoples-Jones decision was so critical. The playmaker is already on campus, meaning he’ll begin his ascent up the depth chart in the spring. And if he can pack on some muscle and get comfortable within the offense, he’ll be afforded every opportunity to showcase in his debut.