Power Ranking the 25 Greatest Freshmen Seasons in College Football History

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistMay 14, 2012

Power Ranking the 25 Greatest Freshmen Seasons in College Football History

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    Only a select few athletes have the necessary abilities to take a collegiate sport by storm during their very first season as a competitor.

    Indeed, when an individual can make a significant mark as a freshman on a talent-stacked sport such as college football, they are bound to be remembered for decades to come.

    The following slideshow identifies and then power ranks (for your pleasure) 25 of the greatest freshman seasons in college football.

    The task itself is daunting and though our list is chock full of greatness, it’s difficult to be completely comprehensive when plucking a mere 25 fantastic frosh from 143 years of football history.

    You might notice that the list has a modern feel to it and if so, it’s important to keep in mind that freshman eligibility in college football was not fully restored in college football until 1972.

    Before then, college football flip flopped on the issue of freshman eligibility due to a wide array of circumstances, most notably two World Wars and the conflict in Korea, which dramatically drained the pool of available upperclassmen who now had a war to fight.

    Fewer freshmen are included on our list because, very simply, freshmen were less likely to be allowed to start, and therefore flourish before 1972.


25. Dion Lewis, Pitt, 2009

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    Dion Lewis’ 1,799 rushing yards as a freshman at Pitt in 2009 mark the best rookie performance by a back since North Texas’ Jamario Thomas reeled off 1,801 yards back in 2004.

    Lewis tacked on 1,061 yards as a sophomore, which was enough to launch him to the fifth round (No. 149 overall pick) in the 2011 NFL draft.

    Lewis, who picked up National Freshman of the Year honors in 2009, will play his second campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles this upcoming season.

24. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma, 2008

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    OLB Travis Lewis registered 144 total tackles (70 solo) as a freshman at Oklahoma in 2008, which earned him the No. 4 spot nationally (among all age groups) in take downs.

    Lewis led the entire Oklahoma team in tackles as a freshman, a feat which he repeated each of the four years he was a Sooner.

    Travis Lewis was selected by the Detroit Lions in the seventh round (No. 223 overall) in the 2012 NFL draft.

23. Ron “Po” James, New Mexico State, 1968

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    Perhaps a bit of an unknown, Po James held the NCAA record for rushing yards by a freshman for five years until his 1,291-yard mark was busted by Pitt’s Tony Dorsett in 1973, who posted 1,586.

    James scampered for more than 100 yards in each of his first eight games as a starter, and though his numbers might not look obscene by modern standards, his stats were huge at the time.

    James received All-American honorable mention recognition as a frosh and was selected in the fourth round of the 1972 NFL draft.

    Po James made NFL stops at Philadelphia and Seattle before leaving the game in 1976.



22. Chad Henne, Michigan, 2004

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    It’s tough to find a guy who can come in as a freshman and have the stuff to start at QB at a big school in a major conference.

    Chad Henne did just that at Michigan in 2004, where he also racked up his best statistical season as a Wolverine by going 240-of-349 (60.2 percent) for 2,743 yards, 25 TDs and 12 picks.

    The young Henne led Michigan to a 9-3 record, a shared Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, where the Wolverines narrowly lost to Texas 38-37.

    Henne went No. 57 overall in the 2008 draft, and after a four year stint with the Dolphins is set to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012.

21. Greg Hill, Texas A&M, 1991

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    Texas A&M’s Greg Hill rushed for 1,216 yards and 12 TDs as a freshman back in 1991 on the way to a 10-2 season and a Southwest Conference title.

    Impressively, Hill holds the NCAA FBS all-time mark for most rushing yards gained by a freshman in the first game of a career with 212 yards.

    Even more impressively, the mark was set in the Sept. 14, 1991, opener not against North Texas, Wyoming or the Citadel but instead against LSU in 30 grueling carries in the steamy heat of College Station.

    Greg Hill was selected No. 25 overall in the 1994 NFL draft and spent six up-and-down seasons in the pros.

20. Sammy Watkins, Clemson, 2011

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    "Super" Sammy Watkins did it all as a freshman at Clemson in 2011 and ultimately racked up 2,297 yards in total offense on the way to an ACC championship and an Orange Bowl berth.

    Watkins gained 1,219 yards as a receiver, 231 yards on the ground, 826 yards as a kick returner and then went 1-for-1 and nine yards as a QB.

    Watkins may not have set any new records last season, but he was as outstanding as any freshman in recent history.


19. Tom Tupa, Ohio State, 1984

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    A bit of a wild card on our list, Tom Tupa played punter at Ohio State from 1984-87 and holds the all-time NCAA FBS record for the highest average yards per punt by a freshman with a minimum of 40 punts.

    Tupa reeled off 41 punts for 1,927 yards as a frosh, earning him a mark of 47.0 and a place in the record books.

    Punters and kickers might not seem that important—that is, until you need them—but as a freshman Tupa helped Ohio State win a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth under then coach Earl Bruce.

    It’s all about field position.

    Tupa also played QB for the Bucks and was ultimately a third round selection in the 1998 NFL draft.

    Tupa’s seven stops in the NFL were highlighted by Pro Bowl honors in 1999 (as a NY Jet) and then a Super Bowl ring with Tampa Bay in 2002.

18. Emmitt Smith, Florida, 1987

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    Emmitt Smith’s 1,341 yards and 13 TDs as a Gator freshman were so well thought of that he finished No. 9 in the 1987 Heisman trophy voting.

    Smith holds a tie for the NCAA FBS record of the earliest game by a freshman reaching 1,000 rushing yards, which he did in the seventh game of the year vs. Temple.

    Smith achieved his 1987 accolades on a 6-6 Gator team who went 1-5 down the stretch.

    Emmitt Smith went on to become one of the most celebrated backs in the history of the NFL and captured three Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys.

17. Alex Smith, Indiana, 1994

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    Another somewhat overlooked freshman superstar, Alex Smith racked up 1,475 rushing yards as a rookie at Indiana back in 1994.

    Yes, this is an Indiana team that went just 7-4, but Smith got it done behind an Indiana offensive line (not an Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State line) and achieved one of the largest yard totals in history by a freshman against the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State.

    Smith was named the UPI Freshman Player of the Year and was eventually signed as a free agent by the NFL Indianapolis Colts but never played a down in the pros.


16. Robert Griffin III, Baylor, 2008

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    Before the Heisman, before the injury in 2009 and before anyone gave a crap about his socks, Robert Griffin III was a freshman in 2008.

    Griffin blipped onto the national radar as a rookie (no small feat at Baylor) by throwing for 2,091 yards and 15 TDs and then rushing for 843 additional yards and 13 TDs.

    Even as a youngster Griffin was careful with the ball, and to illustrate this trait he holds the NCAA FBS record for most consecutive passes attempted without an interception at the start of a career by a freshman, with a whopping 209.

    Griffin went nine games as a rookie before throwing a pick in a season that featured only three INTs in 267 attempts.

    RGIII went No. 2 overall to the Washington Redskins in the 2012 NFL draft and is set to, once again, prove himself at the next level.

15. Chance Kretschmer, Nevada, 2001

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    Chance Kretschmer dashed for a whopping 1,732 yards and 15 TDs as a freshman back at Nevada in 2001, making him one of the top-five frosh backs of all time.

    After an injury-riddled sophomore campaign, Kretschmer rushed for 1,162 yards as junior, then 813 as a senior and never ascended to the NFL ranks.

14. Michael Vick, Virginia Tech, 1999

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    Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick holds the NCAA FBS mark for the highest passing efficiency rating points by a freshman in a season, with an impressive 180.4.

    Vick was 90-of-152 for 1,840 yards, 12 TDs and five TDs as a frosh and also rushed for an additional 585 yards and eight TDs on 108 carries.

    As a freshman, Vick led the Hokies to an 11-0 regular season mark, a Big East title and an appearance in the BCS title game, which ultimately led to a 46-29 drubbing by Florida State.

    Vick was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft and is currently a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.

13. Tony Dorsett, Pitt, 1973

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    Tony Dorsett rushed for 1,586 yards as a freshman at Pitt in 1973, which was enough to earn him the first freshman All-American honors since Army’s Doc Blanchard pulled off the feat in 1944.

    Dorsett went on to lead Pitt to a national title in 1976 and is the first guy ever to have won a collegiate championship in one year and then a Super Bowl title in the next, which he did with Dallas in 1977.

12. Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech, 2009

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    Ryan Williams' numbers as a freshman RB at Virginia Tech are nothing short of gaudy: 1,655 yards and 21 TDs rushing and then 180 yards and an additional score as a receiver.

    Williams' 21 rushing TDs ties him with Marshall Faulk for the NCAA FBS record for most TDs scored by a freshman.

    Williams was the No. 38 overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2011 draft—unfortunately, he would blow out his knee in the preseason and miss his entire rookie campaign.

11. Jared Lorenzen, Kentucky, 2000

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    Jared Lorenzen’s 3,827 passing yards as a freshman at Kentucky in 2000 marks the NCAA-FBS record for most passing yards gained by a freshman in a season.

    This is a record that is even more impressive when you realize that the youngster set the mark on a 2-9 squad that played the likes of Florida, LSU, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

    Many folks will want to include an asterisk on Lorenzen’s achievement because he played for coach Hal Mumme, who ran the pass happy school that includes graduates such as Mike Leach, but this is still a young kid who put up some serious numbers (and, more INTs than TDs).

    Interestingly, Lorenzen went undrafted but played briefly for the Indianapolis Colts and the NY Giants, where he earned a Super Bowl ring as Eli Manning’s back-up during the 2007-08 season.

    Lorenzen is currently the commissioner of the Ultimate Indoor Football League (UIFL), a capacity he has served in since the 2011 season.

10. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin, 1996

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    Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson is the only guy who rushed for more yards as a freshman, in history, than did Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne in 1996.

    Dayne, who rushed for 1,863 yards and 18 TDs as a frosh, holds the all-time NCAA FBS career rushing mark with 6,397 yards from 1996-99.

    Ironically, Dayne’s supersonic freshman season provided the most yards of any of his four campaigns in Madison, with his 1,834 yards as a senior a very close second.

    Dayne was drafted as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2000 draft and went on to a somewhat muted pro career, which included whistle stops in New York (Giants), Denver and finally Houston, where his career ended at the conclusion of the 2007 season.

9. Herschel Walker, Georgia, 1980

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    Though other backs have rushed for more yards as a freshman, few have blitzed for 1,616 yards and a national championship under a coach who swore he wouldn’t ever start a freshman.

    Herschel Walker was responsible for 90 of Georgia’s 333 total points in 1980 in what has to be considered one of the greatest freshman performances of all time.

    Walker, the only player to ever finish in the top three of the Heisman race each time he suited up as a collegian, went on to a career in the USFL/NFL that included two Pro Bowl appearances.

8. George Shaw, Oregon, 1951

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    Perhaps the least recognizable name on our list, Oregon’s George Shaw holds a 61-year-old FBS record that seems almost unbreakable.

    Shaw registered 13 interceptions as a freshman Duck back in 1951, which is even more impressive when you consider that only one guy in the last five years, at any age, has matched the feat (NC State’s sophomore sensation David Amerson picked off 13 balls in 2011).

    Shaw’s 13 picks came in a less pass-happy world and were achieved on a team that went only 2-9 under coach Leonard J. “Len” Casanova.

    Ironically, Shaw went from playing DB as a freshman to playing QB, where he started for three seasons, leading to his becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 1955 NFL draft.

    Shaw, who also led the baseball Ducks to the College Baseball World Series in 1953 as a centerfielder hitting .348, went on to seven seasons in the NFL/AFL with the Colts, Giants, Vikings and Broncos.

7. Jeremy Maclin, Missouri, 2007

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    If you’ve ever wondered who holds the NCAA FBS record for all-purpose yards by a freshman, that man is Jeremy Maclin, who debuted for Mizzou in 2007.

    Maclin racked up 2,776 total yards as a frosh, a number that included 375 yards rushing, 1,055 yards receiving, 1,039 yards via kick returns and then 307 yards on punt return duty.

    Maclin, who just wrapped up his third season as a WR with the Philadelphia Eagles, also holds the NCAA FBS record for most all-purpose yards per game gained by a freshman, with a whopping 198.3.

6. Brad Smith, Missouri, 2002

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    Brad Smith holds the honor of being the only freshman QB in college football history to have gained both 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.

    Smith threw for 2,333 yards and ran for 1,029 in 2002, and his rushing mark is also an all-time high water mark for freshman QBs.

    Smith was drafted by the NY Jets in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft and currently plays the field as a QB, RB, WR and return man for the Buffalo Bills (who he has been with since 2011).

5. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, 2007

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    Sam Bradford threw for 3,121 yards, 36 TDs (an NCAA record by a freshman) and only eight picks during his freshman campaign at Oklahoma, but most impressive was his completion percentage.

    Bradford was 237-of-341 (69.5 percent accuracy) in 2007, giving him the FBS record for highest percentage of passes completed by a freshman in a season with a minimum of 200 attempts.

    The young Bradford led the 2007 Sooners to a 11-3 record that included a Big 12 title and a BCS berth.

    After being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Bradford will begin his third season as a member of the St. Louis Rams in 2012.

4. Jamario Thomas, North Texas, 2004

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    Jamario Thomas is one of the few guys on our list who didn’t go on to at least a brief interlude in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean that his performance in college, especially as a freshman, isn’t worth celebrating.

    Thomas holds three NCAA all-time FBS records that include most rushing yards per game by a freshman (180.1), earliest game by a freshman reaching 1,000 rushing yards (he got there in the seventh game, and is tied with others for the mark) and most games gaining 200 rushing yards or more by a freshman with six.

    All in all, Thomas rushed for a sizzling 1,801 yards and 17 TDs as a freshman, and though his performance as a sophomore and then upperclassman never matched his early numbers, he pulled off one of the best first-year rushing performances in college football history.

3. Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech, 2007

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    The most prolific freshman receiver in the history of the game, Michael Crabtree’s name graces the NCAA record book five times for his performance as a rookie in 2007.

    Crabtree’s 1,962 receiving yards is tops, as is his 134 total catches and his 22 TD grabs.

    In 2012, Crabtree will begin his fourth campaign as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.

2. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, 2004

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    Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson holds the honor of having earned the most rushing yards of any freshman in history with 1,925.

    Peterson also holds four additional NCAA records as a freshman including most games gaining 100 yards or more with 11, and most consecutive games gaining 100 rushing yards or more with nine.

    After being the selected as the No. 7 overall pick in the 2007 draft, Peterson continues to play for the Minnesota Vikings, where he has won a slew of awards thus far as a pro.

1. Marshall Faulk, San Diego State, 1991

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    Marshall Faulk holds 10 individual NCAA records as a freshman, making him hard to top as far as prolific college rookies are concerned.

    Faulk rushed for 1,429 yards and 21 TDs in his inaugural 1991 campaign, and tacked on an additional 201 yards and two scores as a receiver.

    Included in Faulk’s frosh landslide of record breakers are: the most rushing yards, most points, most all-purpose yards and most TDs by a freshman in a single game (386 yards rushing, 44 points, 422 all-purpose yards and seven TDs vs. Pacific), most rushing TDs scored by a freshman in a single season with 21 (tied), most points scored by a freshmen in a season with 140, and the most TDs scored in a freshman campaign with 23.

    Faulk went on to enjoy an award winning career in the NFL that included a Super Bowl ring with the 1999 St. Louis Rams.