The 2011 college football season was full of sensational, eye-opening breakthrough performances from breakout stars such as Robert Griffin III, Tyrann Mathieu, Trent Richardson, Montee Ball and Collin Klein.
However, it may have been the play of three young true freshmen—Oregon RB De’Anthony Thomas, Clemson WR Sammy Watkins and USC WR Marqise Lee—that was actually the most impressive.
Last summer, Thomas, Lee and Watkins arrived on the doorstep of college football as three unproven teenagers who had never taken a snap at the collegiate level, yet that didn’t mean that there wasn’t tremendous pressure and sky high expectations for them to deal with.
All three players were considered to be premier prospects of the 2011 recruiting class, and each of them had been tagged with the definitive “future star” label during their time as high school football celebrities.
We’ve seen enough 5-star blue chip recruits fail and flame out in recent years to know that there’s certainly no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to college football recruiting, no matter how highly-touted or celebrated a player may have been during his high school glory days.
Even for the elite “can’t miss” recruits who ultimately do find success at the college level, it usually takes at least a few years for them to get a grip on the complex schemes, get accustomed to the speed of play and get acclimated to the level of competition they have to face, not to mention just the general life transition that every college student goes through when they first arrive on campus.
Every now and then, though, there are a special few freshmen—those rare talents who come along so infrequently, who can walk out onto a college gridiron and immediately dominate. Last season, we came to learn that Thomas, Lee and Watkins were indeed members of that unique breed.
Thomas, who was rated as the No. 1 athlete in the 2011 class by Rivals and the No. 1 cornerback prospect by Scout, was a two-way star at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, and it almost seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would end up at USC. However, after de-committing from the Trojans, Thomas surprisingly pledged his services to Chip Kelly and the Ducks on national signing day.
In his first season in Eugene, the versatile 5’9’’, 173-pound speedster proved to be a perfect fit for Oregon’s spread offensive attack, and he showed that he could be a truly dynamic triple-threat as a runner, receiver and returner.
Last year, Thomas ran for 595 yards on just 55 carries (10.8 average YPC), hauled in 46 passes for 605 yards, averaged 27.3 yards per kickoff return and scored 18 total touchdowns.
The dangerous Duck saved his best performance for the biggest stage, as Thomas exploded in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin, when he broke off two huge runs for touchdowns and finished the game with a whopping 314 all-purpose yards.
In any other season, Thomas would have literally and figuratively ran away with the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award. However, one of his freshman conference counterparts was causing quite a buzz of his own down in Los Angeles.
Marqise Lee arrived at USC as a 4-star rated recruit out of California’s Junipero Serra High School, possessing the skill set and physical ability to play either wide receiver or defensive back at the college level.
After he wowed coaches in fall camp, though, it quickly became clear where Lee was meant to line up.
With Robert Woods leading the way, Lee had to settle for being QB Matt Barkley’s secondary target in 2011. But that definitely didn’t hinder his production, as the 6’0’’, 190-pound receiver still managed to catch 73 passes for 1,143 yards and score 12 touchdowns. His performance helped earn him a piece of the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award, which he shared with Thomas.
Lee’s reception total was the second most ever by a freshman at USC behind Mike Williams, who hauled in 81 passes in 2002. His 73 catches were also the second most by any freshman receiver in the country last season behind Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.
Unlike Lee, Watkins didn’t have to settle for playing second fiddle behind an older proven receiver at Clemson. The former 5-star recruit out of Florida’s South Fort Myers High School instantly became the go-to receiving weapon for the Tigers as soon as he stepped foot on campus.
It didn’t take long for the 6’1’’, 200-pound freshman sensation to make an impact on the college football world, as Watkins exploded out of the gate, catching a combined 28 passes for 433 yards and scoring six touchdowns in just the first four games of his career.
Watkins never slowed down or let up in 2011, and he ended up finishing the season with some supremely impressive stats—83 catches, 1,225 receiving yards, 231 rushing yards, a 25-yard average on kickoff returns and 13 total touchdowns.
The campaigns that these three gifted young players had last year were exceptional regardless of how old they were, but the fact that they made the type of impact that they did as just true freshman makes their feats even more remarkable.
To gauge just how explosive the trio of Thomas, Watkins and Lee was in 2011, all you have to do is look at the big-play numbers from last season.
Only 12 college football players had at least 15 individual plays that accounted for 30 or more yards in 2011, and all three players were in that group. Watkins had 17, Thomas had 16 and Lee had 15. Thomas also finished second in the country behind Houston WR Patrick Edwards with 12 individual plays that accounted for 40 or more yards.
That, my friends, is the true definition of a game-breaker.
It'll be interesting to see what the three of them will do for an encore in 2012 now that they’ve all proven their worth and shown what they’re really capable of.
Oregon, USC and Clemson will all enter the 2012 season ranked in the Top 20, and all three teams will have their sights set on winning a conference championship and making it to a BCS bowl. You can even make the argument that all three squads are legitimate national title contenders, even though the Trojans are the most complete and talented team of the bunch.
Thomas, Lee and Watkins will all play a pivotal role in their teams’ success this year, but the question is, which star sophomore will have the biggest season?
It remains to be seen, but I will say that if I was building a team from scratch, and I got to choose one of the three to be my featured offensive player, I would choose De’Anthony Thomas.
The Black Mamba may not be the biggest back on the block, but with his type of field-stretching speed, natural explosion and playmaking ability, he’s a constant threat to do major damage to a defense on any given play. Plus, he’s the most versatile of the three, and he can truly hurt you in so many different ways.
Even though he’ll have to defer carries to his backfield mate Kenjon Barner, and even though he’ll have to deal with defenses stacking the box and daring the Ducks to throw, I still think Thomas has the best chance out of the three to make it to New York City as a Heisman finalist this season.
Lee will simply have to be extraordinary if he wants to steal away the spotlight from his preseason All-American teammates, Barkley and Woods, who will both enter the season on the short list of Heisman favorites.
Watkins will have to deal with double-teams and increased attention from secondaries all year long, and it remains to be seen if he’ll get frustrated by it. Plus, I expect RB Andre Ellington and fellow WR DeAndre Hopkins to step up and play even bigger roles in the Clemson offense than they did last season.
When all is said and done, and the 2012 season is in the books, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if all three players found their way onto postseason All-American teams. But personally, the player I’ll be watching the closest this season will be Thomas.
Former Oregon RB LaMichael James may have come up short in his bid to win the Heisman Trophy, but I think Thomas possesses the type of elite talent to bring home the hardware that his predecessor never could.