Ranking College Football's Top 40 Freshmen After 6 Weeks

Danny FlynnSenior Analyst IOctober 10, 2012

Ranking College Football's Top 40 Freshmen After 6 Weeks

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    De'Anthony Thomas, Sammy Watkins, Marqise Lee, Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater were just some of the breakout star freshmen who made a name for themselves in 2011. 

    While it's certainly no easy task for a freshman to make a huge impact on a major college football program, that doesn't stop a special few from taking the sport by storm. 

    Here's a look at the 40 freshmen who have made the biggest impact through the first six weeks of the 2012 season. 

1. RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

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    Todd Gurley has only played six games, but already, it seems as if he's destined to become one of the SEC's next big offensive stars. 

    Gurley may have had his worst game this past weekend in a 35-7 loss to South Carolina, but that doesn't erase all that he accomplished in September. 

    The 6'1'', 218-pound freshman has rushed for 575 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. 

    Given his rare blend of size, speed, power and instincts, it looks like Gurley has the chance to be the best back that Georgia's had since Herschel Walker. 

2. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

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    Oregon's offense hasn't missed a beat without last year's starting quarterback Darron Thomas, who left Eugene a year early to enter the NFL draft. 

    Thomas' successor, Marcus Mariota, has played like a seasoned veteran in the Ducks' first six games. 

    He has completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,301 yards, added another 221 yards on the ground, and has accounted for 16 touchdowns. 

    The athletic 6'4'', 194-pound Hawaii native has proven to be a perfect catalyst for Chip Kelly's spread offensive attack. 

    With Mariota leading the way, the No. 2-ranked Ducks rank fourth in the nation in scoring offense and seventh in total offense, averaging 52 points and 541 yards per game. 

3. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

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    So far, Johnny Manziel has made first-year Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin look like a genius for picking him to be the team's starting quarterback. 

    Manziel is quickly developing into an electrifying must-watch player. 

    The 6'1'', 200-pound dual-threat signal-caller has completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,285 yards, rushed for 495 yards and has accounted for 18 touchdowns in five games. 

    Most importantly, Manziel has led the Aggies to a 4-1 start, which includes the school's first two SEC victories. 

4. RB Duke Johnson, Miami

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    The Miami offense has featured plenty of notable running backs in years past. There's been Lamar Miller, Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Edgerrin James. 

    Now, Duke Johnson is the back that everyone's getting excited about in Coral Gables.

    He was one of the most highly touted members of the Canes' 2012 recruiting class, and it hasn't taken long for him to live up to the hype. 

    The Miami native, who played for Miami Norland High School, is averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Plus, he's scored seven touchdowns in three ways (five rushing, one receiving and one on a kick return).

    The future is certainly bright for the talented 5'9'', 183-pound freshman back. 

5. QB Brett Hundley, UCLA

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    Jim Mora raised a few eyebrows when he chose unproven redshirt freshman Brett Hundley to be his starting QB, especially since he was competing against a pair of experienced seniors in Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut. 

    Hundley has certainly rewarded Mora's confidence in him, however, leading the Bruins to a 4-2 start. 

    The big, athletic former 4-star recruit has completed 66 percent of his passes, has 172 yards on the ground, and 17 touchdowns. 

    If Hundley can cut down on his interceptions, UCLA could challenge crosstown rival USC for the Pac-12 South title.

6. DE Devonte Fields, TCU

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    Stansly Maponga was expected to be TCU's top pass-rusher. Surprisingly, though, Maponga has been overshadowed thus far by true freshman Devonte Fields, who leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, which are also some of the highest totals in the Big 12. 

    The 6'4'', 240-pound freshman has displayed tremendous power, tenacity and explosiveness off the edge in his first five games. 

    TCU coach Gary Patterson is going to have a lot of fun figuring out all the different ways he can have Fields attack quarterbacks.  

7. WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland

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    Stefon Diggs was arguably the most highly touted high school football recruit to sign with Maryland. So he's had lofty expectations to live up to right from the start of his college career. 

    So far, he hasn't seemed to let the pressure faze him at all, though. 

    The 6'1'', 185-pound speedster is averaging 21 yards per catch, 26 yards per kick return, and 10 yards per punt return. Plus, he's found the end zone three times. 

    If Diggs can get more consistent play out of quarterback Perry Hills, he has the chance to have a freshman All-American campaign. 

8. RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama

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    The Alabama coaching staff knew that it would need more than just one back to replace a running back the caliber of Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. 

    Luckily, the Tide came into this season with one of the deepest and most talented backfields in the country. 

    Junior Eddie Lacy has been the player who's received the most carries so far. But the back that's been the most impressive is freshman T.J. Yeldon. 

    Yeldon is averaging 5.8 yards per carry, 13 yards per catch and he's scored two touchdowns. 

    The well-built 6'2'', 216-pound playmaker should continue to thrive, running behind the best offensive line in the nation. 

9. RB Storm Woods, Oregon State

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    After suffering through an extremely disappointing 3-9 season last year, Oregon State has played a much different brand of football in 2012. 

    The Beavers are 4-0, and one of the key players to their early-season run has been freshman running back Storm Woods. 

    He is averaging 4.7 yards a carry. Plus, he's caught 14 passes for 116 yards and scored two touchdowns. 

    It may be too early to start calling the 6'0'', 202-pound Texas native the next Jacquizz Rodgers. Obviously, though, Woods has the potential to be one of the Pac-12's top rushers.

10. FS Karl Joseph, West Virginia

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    West Virginia's defense hasn't played all that great in recent weeks. Still, there have been a few Mountaineer defenders who have been playing at a high level this year.

    One of the most valuable contributors has been safety Karl Joseph. 

    There haven't been many true freshmen who have been able to crack the starting lineup in Morgantown. But this 5'10'', 197-pound first-year player has racked up 34 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Plus, he's also forced a fumble and notched a sack. 

    The physical ballhawk always seems to be around the football, and he always seems to be coming up with a key play when it counts. 

11. CB Jalen Mills, LSU

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    LSU lost not one, but two All-American cornerbacks this past offseason with the early departure of Morris Claiborne to the NFL, and the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu. 

    As a result, new starter Jalen Mills has had some big shoes to fill. But he's actually managed to do an admirable job. 

    Mills is fourth on the team with 25 tackles, and he's also picked off two passes and broken up another two throws. 

    The 6'0'', 185-pound freshman still has a long way to go before he can be considered the type of game-changer that Claiborne and Mathieu were. But he certainly has some intriguing ability.

12. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M

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    Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu were expected to be Texas A&M's top receivers this season. But so far, freshman Mike Evans has been the Aggies' most consistent pass-catcher. 

    Evans has hauled in a team-high 32 passes for 412 yards and a touchdown. 

    The athletic 6'5'', 218-pound target has quickly earned the trust of his QB, fellow freshman Johnny Manziel. 

    Judging from what we've seen thus far, the Manziel-Evans tag team could quickly become one of the most lethal passing combinations in the country. 

13. LB Jabari Hunt-Days, Georgia Tech

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    Unfortunately, the Georgia Tech defense lost its best player, LB Julian Burnett, to a career-ending injury last December. 

    With Burnett gone, that meant a linebacker would have to step up. So far, that player has been freshman Jabari Hunt-Days, who has given the Yellow Jackets exactly what they needed in the middle.

    Hunt-Days has racked up 37 tackles, and he's also proven to be a valuable presence in pass coverage, as he's picked off a pass and broken up another four throws. 

    The 6'3'', 252-pound freshman looks like he has the chance to be even better than Burnett. 

14. DT Leonard Williams, USC

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    The USC defense had to figure out how to properly replace last year's top pass-rusher, DE Nick Perry, who left Los Angeles a year early to become a first-round pick in the 2012 draft. 

    The Trojans have had a few players step up on the outside, including defensive ends Morgan Breslin and Wes Horton. However, the one lineman who has looked the most impressive, though, is Leonard Williams. 

    He has four sacks and six tackles for loss in just five games. 

    The 6'5'', 270-pound freshman may play a bit undisciplined at times, but he's still the type of difference-maker that the USC defense needs up front. 

15. RB Keith Marshall, Georgia

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    Todd Gurley isn't the only Georgia freshman back who has produced at a high level. Keith Marshall has also played a big role in the Bulldogs' powerful ground attack. 

    Marshall has totaled 496 yards of offense and scored five touchdowns in 2012. 

    It appears that Marshall and Gurley will form one of the best backfield duos in the nation for the next few seasons. 

    Isaiah who?

16. RB Rushel Shell, Pittsburgh

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    Senior Ray Graham has received the bulk of the touches at Pittsburgh. But new coach Paul Chryst has also shown that he trusts true freshman Rushel Shell.

    Shell has carried the ball 45 times for 231 yards. He's proven to be a perfect complement to the smaller, quicker Graham. 

17. WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State

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    Kelvin Benjamin has truly remarkable athleticism and speed for a player who's 6'5", 243 pounds. 

    Benjamin has shown off his physical ability in a variety of different ways, catching 14 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns while also running the ball twice for 33 yards.

    The big freshman receiver is certainly capable of causing matchup nightmares for an opposing defense.  

18. WR Jaime Wilson, Western Michigan

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    Western Michigan has a potent passing attack, which is averaging 274 yards a game. The featured player is WR Jaime Wilson. 

    He has caught 51 passes—a total that ranks fourth in the nation—and scored six touchdowns in the Broncos' first six games. 

    The 5'11'', 196-pound freshman didn't receive much attention from BCS schools when he was playing at Florida's Glades Central High School. However, he's proving early on that he's capable of producing in a big way at the college level. 

19. Safety Rohan Gaines, Arkansas

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    The Arkansas defense has shown glaring weaknesses early this season. Still, there have been a few individual defenders who have excelled.

    Freshman safety Rohan Gaines is one of them.

    Gaines was not a highly-touted recruit during his time at Georgia's Bainbridge High School, but he's still managed to play a major role right away for an SEC defense. 

    The 5'11'', 190-pound freshman is third on the team with 42 tackles.

20. RB D.J. Foster, Arizona State

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    Arizona State has surprisingly started the season 4-1 under new coach Todd Graham. 

    Quarterback Taylor Kelly has been the key to the offense's success. However, the Sun Devils have also gotten a big boost from the play of RB D.J. Foster. 

    He is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 16.1 yards per reception. Plus, he's scored three touchdowns.

    The 5'11'', 183-pound freshman is the type of versatile playmaker who can hurt a defense in a variety of ways. 

21. WR Davante Adams, Fresno State

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    There are a few really talented receivers in the Mountain West. However, none has been as productive as Fresno State freshman Davante Adams. 

    He leads the conference with 40 catches for 478 yards and five receiving touchdowns. 

22. LB Denzel Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

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    Denzel Nkemdiche may not be as well known as his younger brother Robert, who is considered the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2013 recruiting class. However, this year, Denzel is beginning to make a name for himself in college football's premier conference. 

    The undersized 5'11'', 203-pound "Stinger linebacker" leads the Rebels with 38 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and two sacks. 

    If Nkemdiche can bulk up a bit, he has the chance to develop into a star defender. 

23. LB Eddie Johnson, Miami

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    Linebacker Denzel Perryman may be Miami's defensive MVP. However, the Hurricanes linebacker corps also has another developing star in Eddie Johnson, who is second on the team with 35 tackles. 

    The 6'1'', 238-pound redshirt freshman is a smart, tough and instinctive outside 'backer who has proven to be a playmaker. 

24. WR Amari Cooper, Alabama

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    Going into the season, Alabama was loaded with talent at wideout. But it was also loaded with inexperienced and unproven pass-catchers.

    In fact, it did not feature a receiver who had ever had more than 20 catches in a season. 

    Out of that group, freshman Amari Cooper has been the most productive, catching 17 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns. 

    The 6'1'', 198-pound Miami native has some of the same rare physical attributes as former Alabama great Julio Jones. 

25. RB Jela Duncan, Duke

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    Duke is 5-1, its best start since it last made a bowl game in 1994. And one of the team's breakout stars has been freshman RB Jela Duncan. 

    He has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, caught five passes for 36 yards, and scored twice. 

    Since Duke averages 40 passes per game, the 5'10'', 200-pound freshman doesn't get to run the ball all that often. But when he does, Duncan makes the most of opportunities. 

26. LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State

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    One of the best-kept secrets in college football is the Mississippi State defense. Its stout and talented unit is giving up just 13 points and 325 yards a game. 

    Freshman linebacker Benardrick McKinney has been one of the most dependable of those defenders, leading the team with 36 tackles. 

    The big 6'5'', 235-pound freshman runs extremely well for his size. You can just tell that he's the type of player who has true star potential. 

27. RB Johnathan Gray, Texas

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    Johnathan Gray will be remembered as one of the most sensational players in Texas high school football history. 

    Now, the question is, can he replicate that success at the University of Texas?

    So far, Gray has shown plenty of flashes of his enormous potential, as he's averaged 5.2 yards on 47 carries. 

    Gray will have to defer to sophomore backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron this season, but he should still be able to leave his mark. 

28. DB Shaq Thompson, Washington

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    Shaq Thompson has predominantly been playing nickelback for the Washington defense, and he's doing a solid job. 

    He ranks third on the team with 28 tackles, including 17 solo stops, and he's also picked off a pass and blocked a punt. 

    The former 5-star recruit out of Sacramento should only continue to improve.

29. LB Nate D. Smith, Temple

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    As a whole, it doesn't look like Temple's defense is ready for the offenses that it will face in the Big East this season. However, there is one Owl defender, freshman LB Nate D. Smith, who looks like he should be able to handle the caliber of competition. 

    Smith has stepped into the starting lineup and instantly become the unit's leader.

30. LB Isaiah Bruce, West Virginia

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    West Virginia lost its most talented linebacker, Najee Goode, this offseason. But luckily, the Mountaineers have gotten solid play out of Isaiah Bruce and the rest of the four-man linebacker corps.

    Bruce has a team-high 53 tackles, and he's been one of the most active defenders in the country. 

31. RB Michael Holmes, Virginia Tech

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    Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas has been one of the most disappointing players in college football this season. However, the Hokies have gotten solid play out of Thomas' backfield mate, RB Michael Holmes. 

    Holmes has rushed for 230 yards and four touchdowns, and he's been a factor in the punt return game as well. 

    If Thomas starts to play better and Holmes continues to progress, Virginia Tech will have a dangerous backfield duo to rely on for the rest of the season. 

32. WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma WR Trey Metoyer was expected to be one of the Sooners' biggest breakout stars. The reality, though, is that Metoyer has been overshadowed by fellow freshman Sterling Shepard. 

    In the Sooners' last three games, Shepard has caught 14 passes, including one for a touchdown. 

    It's too early to start calling him the next Ryan Broyles, but Shepard appears to be the type of reliable receiver who quarterbacks love.

33. OT John Theus, Georgia

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    Georgia's offensive line needed to be rebuilt after losing three starters. At right tackle, the Bulldogs have turned to a true freshman, John Theus.

    He arrived in Athens as one of the top-rated offensive line prospects in the 2012 recruiting class, and he's already paying dividends. 

34. RB Romar Morris, North Carolina

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    The injury to North Carolina's top offensive player, RB Giovani Bernard, gave Romar Morris the opportunity he was looking for. 

    Morris has seized the chance and shown that he is a versatile playmaker.

    The 5'10'', 180-pound freshman has rushed for 235 yards and a touchdown, caught nine passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, and has averaged 24 yards on kickoff returns. 

    While he may have to live in Bernard's shadow for now, it won't be much longer before Morris is fully unleashed. 

35. QB Taysom Hill, BYU

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    Sadly, a serious knee injury will keep BYU QB Taysom Hill out for the remainder of the season. Still, you have to give Hill credit for the performance he had in the Cougars' first six games. 

    The dual-threat signal-caller threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns and also rushed for 336 yards and four touchdowns.

    BYU fans may not get to see Hill in action again in 2012, but they'll get to see plenty more of him in the years to come. 

36. RB Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech

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    Quarterback Colby Cameron and WR Quinton Patton have been the faces of the high-powered Louisiana Tech offense. However, RB Kenneth Dixon has also been a critical part of the unit's success.

    Dixon has rushed for 424 yards and eight touchdowns in five games.

    If the Bulldogs want to make a legitimate run at an undefeated season and possibly a BCS bowl game, they're going to need Dixon to continue producing at a high level. 

37. CB Nick VanHoose, Northwestern

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    Last year, Northwestern's defense had one of the Big Ten's best freshman in safety Ibraheim Campbell. The same is true again in 2012. 

    Cornerback Nick VanHoose has joined Campbell in the defensive backfield and has shown that he can handle himself rather well. 

    VanHoose has 18 solo tackles, the most by a freshman in the Big Ten. 

38. TE Kyle Carter, Penn State

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    Penn State has developed quite a potent passing game during Bill O'Brien's first season at the helm. The Nittany Lions are ranked second in the Big Ten in passing offense, averaging 251 yards per game. 

    One of the team's top receiving weapons has been TE Kyle Carter. He has hauled in 23 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown.

39. WR J.D. McKissic, Arkansas State

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    Arkansas State's offense hasn't been as productive as many were expecting it to be during Gus Malzahn's inaugural season. However, there has been one player, freshman receiver J.D. McKissic, who has surpassed expectations. 

    McKissic has already caught 39 passes for 452 yards and two touchdowns. 

    It's a shame that the freshman receiver plays in the most off-the-radar conference in college football, in the Sun Belt, because he deserves more attention than he's received. 

40. Safety Travis Blanks, Clemson

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    Clemson's defense has some dramatic improving to do if the Tigers hope to overtake Florida State and win the ACC again. The unit does, however, have intriguing players at all three levels. 

    One freshman who has stepped up is safety Travis Blanks. 

    Blanks arrived at Clemson as a highly touted high school recruit out of Tallahassee, Florida, and he's managed to make an immediate impact. 

    The 6'0'', 190-pound freshman has shown that he has the size, speed, range, coverage skills and tackling to develop into a difference-maker on defense. 

Honorable Mention

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    QB Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State

    RB Trey Williams, Texas A&M

    RB Byron Marshall, Oregon

    WR Alonzo Russell, Toledo

    DE Deion Barnes, Penn State

    LB Jalen Jefferson, California

    LB Jordan Jenkins, Georgia

    LB Sir Thomas Jackson, Arizona

    KR Demitri Knowles, Virginia Tech

    Punter Ethan Perry, TCU