For literally hundreds of true freshmen in every corner of the map, last season was likely the most trying one of their athletic careers. Of course, there was plenty of development and maturation taking place, both physically and intellectually, but there were no games to be played, no popping of pads on Saturdays and no box scores containing their names. For myriad reasons, these idle warriors were redshirted in 2014, with the expectation that they’d return this year a little thicker, a little stronger and a lot better prepared to begin paying dividends for all of those recruiting trips, phone calls and text messages during the courtship process.
Redshirt freshmen are college football enigmas, unopened packages brimming with possibilities. While hardly the same young men they were on Signing Day well over a year ago, have they truly blossomed enough to be every-down contributors this fall? As is often the case, so much hinges on the athlete under the microscope and the openings on the depth chart.
15. QB Will Grier, Florida
Jim McElwain remains coy about his quarterback situation. But there’s little doubt Grier was the Gators’ best passer this spring, or that he gives the program its best shot of finally snapping the five-year slump at the position. He was one of the nation’s most prolific high school passers two years ago, delivering the ball with accuracy and a quick release. And now he gets to develop under McElwain, who just got done transforming unheralded Garrett Grayson into the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year and a third-round pick of the New Orleans Saints.
14. WR Ishmael Zamora, Baylor
The Bears return three of last year’s top four receivers, so it’s not as if they need the services of Zamora in 2015. But why wouldn’t the team try to utilize the freakish physical gifts of a 6-4, 220-pound with 4.47 speed and the hops to jump out of McLane Stadium? Raw? Sure, especially when it comes to his hands and his routes. But on size and explosiveness alone, Zamora will create mismatches with opposing defensive backs. Although he’s behind Corey Coleman on the depth chart, Baylor will find ways to get the ball in Zamora’s mitts this fall.
13. WR Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
Remember Jace Amaro at Texas Tech? Andrews could be a poor-man’s Amaro in the new offense being installed by former Red Raider assistant Lincoln Riley. Prospective Sooner QB Baker Mayfield knows what a big insider receiver, what other programs refer to as a tight end, can mean to a passing game after the pair played together in Lubbock in 2013. While the Sooners harbor plenty of outside speed, the 6-6, 247-pound Andrews can create matchup problems with linebackers. And the team believes he also has the quickness to split outside on occasion.
12. LB Dillon Bates, Tennessee
Bates was on the verge of lettering last season, when a torn labrum necessitated a medical redshirt year. And while he wasn’t fully recovered this spring, that didn’t stop the staff from moving him from weakside to middle to help beef up an obvious need area. Bates, whose dad, Bill, was a former Vol and Dallas Cowboy, has the pedigree, size and athleticism to be an important contributor early in his career. Now, he just needs to get back to 100% and outplay the likes of ballyhooed rookie Darrin Kirkland for the starting nod.
11. DT Taven Bryan, Florida
Will Muschamp’s staff went all the way to Wyoming to land Bryan, because they knew he was going to be something special. Jim McElwain’s staff is about to reap the benefits. Bryan has turned a lot of heads from the moment he stepped foot on campus. Country strong and growing at now 280 pounds, he possesses the agility and the versatility to help Florida this fall at either tackle or end. Plus, the Gators love the motor and the infectious energy that he brings to the rest of the team’s defenders.
10. OG Damian Prince, Maryland
After keeping their heralded young blockers—Prince, Derwin Gray and Brendan Moore—on ice in 2014, the Terps are set to begin reaping the benefits this season. Prince has shown early signs of being the best of the trio. Last fall was one of change for the 6-3, 325-pounder, including a crash course in proper technique, a body transformation and a switch from guard to tackle, where he plans to start on the right side. The Big Ten is a lineman league, and Randy Edsall has been amassing some promising ones in College Park.
9. CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
Humphrey didn’t plan on redshirting in 2015. Five-star recruits rarely do. But he wasn’t ready to contribute, so Nick Saban tapped the brakes on his blue-chipper. Now, with a full season—and offseason—to prepare, Humphrey is in a much better position to help bolster the Tide secondary. He literally has track speed to go along with the physicality that Saban covets from his defensive backs. Cyrus Jones and Tony Brown are the likely starters at corner, though Humphrey will have a central role in the rotation.
8. OG Michael Dieter, Wisconsin
Gary Andersen’s staff would have had no reservations using Dieter in 2014 had it become necessary. It didn’t, allowing the team to redshirt a player who could go on to become a four-year starter at right guard. Dieter has done nothing so far this offseason to dispel the notion that he’ll be one of the Badgers’ three new starters up front in 2015. The 6-5, 317-pound Ohioan was physically ready to compete from Day One, and his ability to also play center provides a safety net in the event Dan Voltz is injured.
7. RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
Mixon made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2014, serving a yearlong suspension for punching a female student. But he’s back, reportedly more mature and eager to make amends for his transgressions. And for all that transpired off the field a year ago, this is the same five-star athlete that was the centerpiece of Bob Stoops’ recruiting class. Samaje Perine ended up filling the void in the backfield, but Oklahoma likes to rotate backs, and Mixon’s speed at 6-2 and 217 pounds will be especially valuable in the team’s new up-tempo offense.
6. OG Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
Now that veteran Matt Hegarty has transferred to Oregon, the Irish are looking for interior help from their young linemen. Nelson, as a prime example. At 6-5 and 325 pounds, with a nasty streak, he’s an absolute mauler, which explains the offseason relocation from left tackle to left guard. Nelson was physically ready to compete in 2014, and the sky is the limit once he improves his technique and mobility. If Nelson isn’t atop the depth chart for the Texas opener, it’ll mean he was beaten out by another greenhorn, athletic big man Alex Bars.
5. RB Jeff Jones, Minnesota
For head coach Jerry Kill, landing Jones in 2014 was meaningful on many levels, including keeping in-state stars from signing with another Big Ten school. Academics shelved Jones last year, but he got of the gate quickly this offseason, impressing the staff with his ability as a playmaker and his dedication to the game. The Gophers are hungry for RB David Cobb’s successor and weapons on the edge. Jones is capable of filling both roles, but Kill employ him as a slot receiver, while allowing Rodrick Williams and Rodney Smith to shoulder the load on the ground.
4. LB Gerri Green, Mississippi State
Long. Athletic. Physical. Precocious. Green isn’t Benardrick McKinney, but he sure looks an awful lot like his predecessor at similar stages of their careers. The 6-4, 243-pound Green played like a veteran throughout the spring, wrapping up no less than a pivotal spot in the rotation this season. And the 20 pounds of muscle he added during the offseason did nothing to limit his range or explosiveness. Green is the next Bulldog in line to enhance Mississippi State’s evolving reputation as a breeding ground for next-level linebackers.
3. LB T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin
Here we go again. Few schools do a consistently better job of coaching up overlooked high school talent than the Badgers, with Edwards about to become the latest example. It was just a little over a year ago that he was a quarterback and part-time safety, earning offers from MAC schools. Now, he’s on the verge of becoming the quarterback of the Wisconsin D following a breakout spring at inside linebacker. Edwards has the athleticism, instincts and drive to become an instant leader for a unit looking to replace Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch.
2. DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford
Thomas figures prominently into a Cardinal D-line that’s been retooling this offseason. Fresh off a breakout spring, the noticeably bigger and stronger lineman is already eyeing a starting job on the outside. Thomas was a handful for the experienced Stanford linemen, showcasing toughness and more violent hands than when he arrived from Coppell, Tex. as a leaner 244-pounder. The ends will be new on the Farm, but Thomas, fellow redshirt freshman Harrison Phillips and Cal transfer Brennan Scarlett are determined to flatten the learning curve as quickly as possible.
1. DB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
You’ve undoubtedly heard the Charles Woodson comparisons. Hyperbole or not, Peppers is ready to make a splash in the Big Ten. In fact, he was ready as a true freshman, but a September ankle injury forced a medical redshirt year. Peppers used the time wisely to get bigger, stronger and better acclimated to college life. He’s the dynamic playmaker and catalyst that the Michigan D is craving, and he’s versatile enough to play any secondary position. Peppers is flush in star power, from his physical skill set to his approach to the game.