Top 25 Freshmen to Watch in the 2013 College Football Season

Jonathan McDanal@@jdmcdanalContributor IIIAugust 29, 2013

Top 25 Freshmen to Watch in the 2013 College Football Season

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    College football is full of surprises. One week, the national favorite is going down in flames, the next minute...well, the new favorite is crumbling under pressure. Fans expect to see their most experienced athletes vie for trophies and championships.

    Then, something happens. Players who haven't been thought about much since February create opportunities for themselves. Amari Cooper (Alabama), Todd Gurley (Georgia), Devonte Fields (TCU) and Duke Johnson (Miami Hurricanes) are just four players who immediately come to mind as impact freshmen from the class of 2012.

    This season, there are a ton of potential stars flooding the ranks of college football. From Oregon to Florida, here are 25 freshmen to keep an eye on. They'll make a headline or two before the season is over.

    This list is presented in alphabetical order by last name.

Andrew Billings (DT, Baylor Bears)

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    If there's one thing Baylor proved last season, it's that the Bears are one defense short of a national title. This was especially evident against the West Virginia Mountaineers.

    Andrew Billings has come to challenge Javonte Magee for some playing time this season. Billings is listed at 6'0" and 310 pounds on his Baylor profile. He was ranked 12th at his position in his recruiting class, and he'll bring much-needed size and skill to this defense.

    Billings may take some time to work his way onto the field, but he'll roll all over people when he does. Keep an eye on the Freshman All-America Team. He's got a great shot at getting there.

Max Browne (QB, USC Trojans)

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    With Matt Barkley gone, the best thing going on with USC is wide receiver Marqise Lee. Of course, the quarterback battle may rage well into the season, but expect Max Browne to get more than his fair shot at the spot.

    Browne could be the spark that ignites this offense back to championship contention. Granted, that's not likely to happen in 2013, but fans will definitely get a glimpse of what he can do at some point.

    In an ideal situation, Lane Kiffin would redshirt Browne and keep him off the field. However, 2012's struggle has put the head coach far short of the ideal situation. Expect to see Browne before the end of the season, and expect to see him shine, win or lose.

Greg Bryant (RB, Notre Dame Fighting Irish)

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    Greg Bryant is quite possibly the answer to the following question: "What is Notre Dame going to do now that Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are gone?" Success on the football field requires a balanced offensive attack.

    Even if your team favors the run, it has to keep the defense guessing by taking advantage of open receivers. If not, then the entire defense focuses on the run, and you never get anywhere. (Though it doesn't have to be 50/50 to be balanced.)

    Bryant was the No. 13 running back of his class, and he was heavily recruited by many SEC teams before picking Notre Dame. He's a 210-pound monster who should have little difficulty making teams pay for not respecting him.

    The Irish may or may not have a stellar season, but they have a stellar tailback ready to take the ball as far as they need him to.

Alex Collins (RB, Arkansas Razorbacks)

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    Arkansas had a terrible season last year, and the Razorbacks are eying a comeback. With Bret Bielema at the helm, this is quite possible. However, they are replacing their starting quarterback, Tyler Wilson, and Brandon Allen (Wilson's replacement) is going to need all the help he can get.

    Alex Collins has quite a few things working for him:

    1. Arkansas doesn't have a go-to running back yet.

    2. Collins is incredibly talented.

    3. Bielema likes running the football. (See Montee Ball's college recap.)

    Nobody knows if Collins can take the brutality of the SEC West schedule yet, but fans are about to find out.

Su'a Cravens (S, USC Trojans)

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    There is no doubt that USC has questions to be answered on offense, but the Trojans fielded the nation's No. 53 passing defense last season. That normally would be sufficient to make a run for the Pac-12 title, assuming the offense was unbelievably potent.

    With an offense that won't be able to carry the team, Su'a Cravens' presence in the secondary will be invaluable. Cravens is a top-tier talent, and he's already gunning for the starting job against Hawaii.

    If USC has a defense that's capable of stopping anyone like Oregon or UCLA, Cravens will be a large part of it.

Alex Figueroa (LB, Miami Hurricanes)

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    The Miami Hurricanes enter the 2013 season with high hopes and a potentially lethal offense. Last season, they finished 49th in scoring offense and 83rd in scoring defense.

    The Hurricanes need defenders badly, and Alex Figueroa is bringing his linebacking skills to the field in 2013. He is a true freshman, but he enrolled early at Miami in order to get a head start.

    A linebacker as good as he is plus a six-month head start equals an impact freshman. He could boost the Hurricanes' defense enough to put them in the ACC title game this December.

    Regardless of the outcome, he's definitely worth watching this fall.

Derrick Green (RB, Michigan Wolverines)

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    Michigan is in good hands when it comes to the quarterback position. Devin Gardner is a definite upgrade from Denard Robinson. (Robinson simply wasn't a passer, and the coaching staff made a habit of trying to force him into the role.)

    On the other hand, the ground game will be anchored by Fitzgerald Toussaint. He is returning from a broken leg he suffered during the offseason, and the Wolverines will be glad to have him back.

    Toussaint won't have to carry the load alone, though, as incoming freshman Derrick Green will take some of the pressure off the first-stringer. Green is the No. 1 running back of his recruiting class, and he is expected to perform as such.

    As soon as he adjusts to the collegiate game, he'll be splitting carries with the rest of the rushers. If Michigan's offensive line can do its job, Michigan may end up having one of the best offenses in the country.

Christian Hackenberg (QB, Penn State Nittany Lions)

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    Penn State's next quarterback is still unknown, though in all fairness, Bill O'Brien has said that decision will be made two weeks into the 2013 season. Christian Hackenberg could theoretically be the quarterback who escorts the Nittany Lions into their next era.

    Hackenberg is the second-best quarterback in his recruiting class, and he's a 5-star prospect. If he plays just as well as anyone else at the position, O'Brien would be wise to get him in early and let him learn the game more quickly.

    Since the decision won't be made before kickoff against Syracuse this week, there is a great chance that you'll see him play before the first in-season polls are released.

Derrick Henry (RB, Alabama Crimson Tide)

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    T.J. Yeldon (RB) and Amari Cooper (WR) burst on to the scene for Alabama last season as true freshmen. They proved that it could be done in Tuscaloosa and done extremely well.

    In 2013, Eddie Lacy is no longer with the Tide, but they are looking for a backup to Yeldon. Right now, it's halfback Jalston Fowler, but incoming freshman Derrick Henry already has a spot on the depth chart, even if it isn't at No. 1.

    Henry is the No. 4 running back of his recruiting cycle, and he's listed at 6'3.5" and 241 pounds. He's an every-down 'back who is simply waiting his turn.

    Don't expect him to wait long. The list of rushers at Alabama is long, and a No. 4 spot on the chart is nothing to sneeze at.

O.J. Howard (TE, Alabama Crimson Tide)

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    O.J. Howard plays a great position for Alabama. The tight end is used heavily in the Tide's scheme, and favorite Michael Williams is not returning this season. Howard has already earned the No. 2 spot behind junior Brian Vogler, and there is little standing between him and the field.

    Howard was the top tight end of the 2013 class, and he has already improved depth at his position immediately. He'll definitely see the field this season, and he will see a lot of it.

    Alabama will use its best weapons on any given Saturday, just like every other team in the country. Howard is one of its best.

Carl Lawson (DE, Auburn Tigers)

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    Auburn has its old offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, at the helm again, and expectations are growing for the Tigers. However, the truth is that you don't go winless in conference play simply by not having an offense.

    Auburn's scoring defense was 65th in the nation last season, and its rushing defense was 100th. This is where new recruit Carl Lawson comes into play. Lawson is the seventh-best defensive end of this class, and he's listed at No. 3 on the depth chart.

    He's currently behind senior Kenneth Carter and junior LaDarius Owens, but there will be plenty of opportunities for him to get action. Lawson will appear in more than a game or two, and he'll be worth watching when he does.

T.J. Logan (RB, UNC Tar Heels)

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    Giovani Bernard will not be coming out of the tunnel at any point during this season, and the quest to find his replacement will not be over anytime soon. Sure, there are named starters all over the field, but the Tar Heels aren't going to settle for less than the best.

    T.J. Logan is a 4-star prospect, and he's in the top 30 at his position. UNC needs him to be productive early and often. It may take him a few games to see the field, but he'll get there.

    If things don't go as UNC plans, he may show up against South Carolina in the season opener. Nothing's impossible.

Tray Matthews (S, Georgia Bulldogs)

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    Georgia faces Clemson in its season opener, and the Dawgs' defense will have to be firing on all cylinders to stop Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins from tearing them apart. Players like true freshman Tray Matthews are going to have to grow up fast if Georgia plans on gunning for the SEC and national championships.

    Matthews is the No. 9 safety of this class, and he is listed as the starter against Clemson. Hopefully, this is a case of pure skill and not one of last-ditch options. If Matthews is simply the best of a lot of good options, Georgia's defense could end up ranked in the top 10 at the end of the season.

    Matthews will be a key player in a lot of games, but his first attempt on the collegiate field is not a break-in game. It's against a premier team with realistic national title hopes.

Baker Mayfield or Davis Webb (QB, Texas Tech Red Raiders)

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    Baker Mayfield is one of two true-freshman options to start for Texas Tech in the season opener. (The other is Davis Webb.) At this point, it's too close to call which one will be the steadiest hand under center.

    Mayfield is the No. 39 quarterback of his rotation, and Webb came in at No. 37. Both have played similar styles of offense throughout high school, and that bodes well for the Red Raiders. In fact, if either of them snaps into the scheme like a LEGO, then Michael Brewer may be the backup after he heals.

    Texas Tech's entire season will hinge on the start that one of these two kids gives it. It's worth watching at least the SMU game just to see what will happen.

Taquan Mizzell (RB, Virginia Cavaliers)

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    Virginia had issues in the rushing attack last season, and there is a solution on the depth chart. Kevin Parks is the starter, and he is talented enough to keep the job if he works hard. However, someone else is talented enough to take the job away from him: Taquan Mizzell.

    Mizzell is the No. 16 running back of the class, and he's already listed third on the chart for the Cavaliers. He can work on his game and become a contributor by Week 2. He may not look like a superstar, but he can be one if the offensive line breaks open some gaps in front of him.

    Mizzell is on a short list of tailbacks who could make a huge difference in Virginia's offensive quality. It's a safe bet that you'll be seeing a lot of him this season.

Alquadin Muhammad (DE, Miami Hurricanes)

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    Miami's offense has one of the highest ceilings of any team in the country heading into 2013. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes defense finished 120th last season by allowing well over 450 yards per game.

    Alquadin Muhammad is one of the reasons that people are expecting so much from Miami this season. Had the 'Canes not opted out of the ACC title game last year, there's a chance they could have made the Orange Bowl.

    They accomplished that without a defense to speak of, and there are recruits on the roster who can make a serious improvement on that side of the ball. One of them is Muhammad, who is the No. 8 defensive end of his class.

    If the No. 8 end can't make headlines on the No. 120 defense in the country, where else could he do it? As long as he's not a complete bust, he'll be a major player this fall.

Robert Nkemdiche (DE, Ole Miss Rebels)

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    Robert Nkemdiche is the No. 1 recruit in his class, and he stands to make serious waves at Ole Miss. Nkemdiche is going to be a huge improvement on the Rebels' defensive line, and don't be surprised to see him start in Week 2 against Southeast Missouri State, or even against Vanderbilt in the season opener.

    He will be as important to Ole Miss as Jadeveon Clowney is to South Carolina. The question is simply whether he'll start that journey at the beginning of this season or closer to the halfway point.

    He's a 294-pound, 6'5" monster who will have his way with many offensive linemen throughout his career. If fans had a vote, he'd play against Vandy.

Marquez North (WR, Tennessee Volunteers)

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    Tennessee's offense is in some serious trouble with Tyler Bray no longer under center. New starter Justin Worley is going to need all the Vols' weapons on the field as much as possible.

    That's where Marquez North comes into play. He is the No. 12 wide receiver of this class, and he already has the starting position in his possession. North is a talented receiver who will give secondaries fits all season long.

    If there's one freshman to watch at Tennessee, it's North.

Robbie Rhodes (WR, Baylor Bears)

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    Baylor scored a huge victory when it landed No. 2 wide receiver Robbie Rhodes. The Bears are breaking in yet another first-time starter at quarterback, and lethal weapons like Rhodes are going to make a huge difference.

    Rhodes will extend the field and spread defenses thin once they recognize his talent. He will have the same effect on Baylor's game that Alshon Jeffery did at South Carolina in 2011. Whenever Jeffery was on the field, he either caught the ball or drew the double-team that left another receiver open.

    Rhodes will assist Baylor in yet another school record-setting season this fall.

Demarcus Robinson (WR, Florida Gators)

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    Florida's offense is in a similar situation as Tennessee's. The Gators desperately need receivers who can take some of the pressure off the line of scrimmage simply by forcing defenses to recognize the passing attack.

    Demarcus Robinson, the No. 14 wide receiver of the class, will do exactly that. He has a unique ability to adjust to badly thrown passes, which gives him a bigger target area. This is a skill that Florida could have used in 2012.

    Robinson will stretch defenses, gain yards-after-catch and generally wow crowds with his ability to elevate the Gators' passing attack. That's also something that Florida needed last season.

Ricky Seals-Jones (WR, Texas A&M)

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    The potential in this cycle's No. 1 wide receiver, Ricky Seals-Jones, is massive. His combination of skills is incredible, and they will all come in extremely handy for Texas A&M this season.

    First, he can catch the ball. This may seem obvious, but it's the foundation on which everything else is built. After he catches it, he cuts like a running back and breaks ankles all the way to the end zone.

    When he takes the ball out of the backfield, he looks like a great tailback. This will help the Aggies use him as a decoy, considering his third skill: He can throw the ball.

    No, he's not likely to back Johnny Manziel up, but this plays well into the following situation. Seals-Jones catches the ball, forcing defenses to recognize the talent. The defense takes a breath when he lines up in the backfield.

    Seals-Jones takes one to the house on the ground, because the defense relaxed. Now, defenses recognize him as a running threat, so they move up when he's well off the line. Manziel tosses him a barely recognizable lateral, and Jones tags the defense for a touchdown pass.

    This is just one of a million possible outcomes when this recruit hits the field. Texas A&M would be insane not to use him this season...a lot.

Laquon Treadwell (WR, Ole Miss Rebels)

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    Ole Miss has a lot going for it this season, and one of the nation's best recruiting classes comes with more than one freshman to keep an eye on. Robert Nkemdiche holds the defensive slot for upcoming freshmen, but Laquon Treadwell weighs in on the other side of the ball.

    Treadwell is the country's No. 5 wide receiver, and he'll raise the standard for Ole Miss receivers immediately. No, he's not listed as a starter yet, but there's a great chance he'll see the field in Week 1 against a depleted Vanderbilt squad.

    After the catch, he's instinctive with his hands and feet. He moves quickly toward the goal line (or away from defenders, whichever is the most direct route to more yardage), and his free hand consistently meets the grass when he loses his footing.

    As he adjusts to the college game, he'll get less fancy and more effective with his feet, but the foundation for elite play is all there. He'll be one of the most exciting freshmen in the nation this fall.

Thomas Tyner (RB, Oregon Ducks)

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    LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas all have one thing in common with Thomas Tyner: They were all highly touted running backs on the recruiting trail, and everyone wondered how they would compare to the tailback before them.

    Tyner is the No. 2 running back of his class, and he's a great fit for the Oregon scheme (No. 3 rushing attack in 2012). Tyner already lists third on the Ducks' depth chart, but there is plenty of time for him to make a name for himself this season.

    He'll line up with De'Anthony Thomas for a punt/kick return more than once this season, and he won't be instructed to concede the field to Thomas. Tyner is the next big thing at Oregon, and if recent history has taught fans anything, it's that the next big Duck is always worth watching.

Dontre Wilson (WR, Ohio State Buckeyes)

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    Dontre Wilson is going to be a valuable asset for the Ohio State Buckeyes. With receivers dropping balls and generally being less effective than expected last season (surprising for an undefeated team, no?), he can get in on the action quickly.

    Wilson is the No. 10 running back of the 2013 class, but he is already listed as a backup wide receiver on Ohio State's depth chart. He is actually ahead of another potential standout freshman: Jalin Marshall (the No. 6 wide receiver of the class).

    Wilson is going to be a wild card for Ohio State. He'll be a running back, wide receiver and a stellar return man if his skills transfer well to the college game. He'll be the difference in more than just one game before the season comes to a close.

Jameis Winston (QB, Florida State Seminoles)

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    Freshman Jameis Winston is the starting quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles this season. He was the No. 2 quarterback in his class, and he's more than ready to take the field.

    Winston had a great spring game that was so good it resulted in the departure of Clint Trickett to West Virginia. Winston is the future of Florida State football, and he's going to be the talk of the ACC this year (win or lose).

    The Seminoles are fighting against the loss of 11 players who were drafted this past cycle, and this quarterback is going to be the reason that the offense doesn't suffer much at all. The question is whether he's good enough to take them back to the Orange Bowl in his first year.