15 College Football Freshmen Who Are the Real Deal

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2013

15 College Football Freshmen Who Are the Real Deal

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    These days, college football players seem to be making an impact for their respective teams earlier and earlier in their careers.

    Case in point: Last season, the Heisman Trophy was awarded to a redshirt freshman for the first time in the sport's history, when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was honored as the nation's top college football player.

    A certain redshirt freshman quarterback down in Tallahassee is trying to repeat the feat this year.

    But Jameis Winston isn't the only stud rookie blossoming on your television screen Saturday afternoons. The future is flying around, making plays in the present at a football field near you.

    From an unprecedented crop of freshman defensive backs to a stable of first-year offensive skill players making their marks, it's a strong year for freshmen. That's especially true in the ACC, where there is an impressive youth movement.

    Some of these star freshmen have been stalwarts through the season's six weeks; some are just now emerging to make their mark.

    All are the real deal.

    Let's take a look at some top talent.

15. James Conner: RB, Pittsburgh

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    Apologies to a fine freshman running back like Ohio State burner Dontre Wilson whose best days are in the future, but James Conner is carrying the load for his 3-1 football team now.

    Most teams were recruiting Conner as a defensive end out of high school, but Paul Chryst saw something he liked in the 6'2", 230-pound bruiser's ability to carry the football. That was music to Conner's ears, so he signed with the Panthers.

    It hasn't taken him long to emerge as Pitt's top running back.

    Though he really struggled this past weekend against Virginia, Conner was impressive in wins over Duke (26 carries for 173 yards) and New Mexico (12 carries for 119 yards), surging to the top of the depth chart. Not bad for a guy who thought he'd be an edge rusher at a MAC school a year ago.

    Conner doesn't have the flash and dash of some of the rookie runners, but he will be a stalwart at the position through his Pitt career. And he will punish defenders along the way.

14. Cameron Sutton: CB, Tennessee

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    Almost from the first day he stepped on campus, Cameron Sutton has been a starter in Tennessee's secondary.

    Part of that was out of necessity as the Vols rebuild their secondary from a disastrous 2012 campaign. Most of it is because Sutton is just a really good football player.

    The 6'1", 180-pound corner from Jonesboro, Ga., has emerged as one of UT's most consistent players, and the longest pass he has allowed all season is 17 yards. He has shutdown corner abilities with a nice blend of speed and footwork, and there's no wonder Butch Jones had to beat out teams like Auburn and Florida for his signature.

    Sutton has 21 tackles, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown this year. He also has five pass break-ups even while Tennessee has played one of the most difficult schedules in the nation.

    People around Knoxville believe he's Tennessee's best freshman defensive back since Eric Berry.

13. Carl Lawson: DE, Auburn

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    Carl Lawson is one of the most college-ready freshmen in the country physically. Standing at a hulking 6'2", 258 pounds, his muscles have muscles.

    Yet Lawson wasn't immediately ready to contribute on the Plains.

    He is now.

    The Alpharetta, Ga., native had his coming-out party in Saturday's 30-22 win over No. 24 Ole Miss this past weekend, finishing with six tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks in earning national defensive lineman and SEC freshman of the week, according to Justin Ferguson of The Plainsman.

    He'd only contributed four tackles prior to the game against Ole Miss, but the learning curve is over. It appears that things are beginning to click for Lawson, and that's awful news for the rest of the league.

    The former composite 5-star prospect will be a terror to handle moving forward, teaming with classmate Montravius Adams on the Tigers' defensive line.

12. Christian Hackenberg: QB, Penn State

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    Penn State and coach Bill O'Brien won the quarterback recruiting sweepstakes when Christian Hackenberg side-stepped all the sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and chose the Nittany Lions anyway.

    The Fork Union, Va., native has taken some lumps so far this season, but he also has shown how incredibly talented he is. Hackenberg has completed almost 60 percent of his passes for 1,367 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions so far.

    Among the true freshman signal-callers, he gets the nod here over other good-looking quarterbacks like California's Jared Goff and Texas Tech's Baker Mayfield because of how poised he has been in the pocket and because he has the highest upside of all three.

    He is learning on-the-job for quarterback guru O'Brien, and there is a bright future in Happy Valley with Hackenberg at the helm.

11. Robert Nkemdiche: DL, Ole Miss

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    Nobody is surprised that Robert Nkemdiche's college career has started with him making an early impact for Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Rebels.

    Last year's No. 1 high school player spurned all of the top teams in the country to join his brother Denzel in Dixie and try to rejuvenate a dormant program. The massive Nkemdiche is the size of a defensive tackle (297 pounds), yet is fast enough to be an edge rusher for the Rebs.

    He probably fits a bit better in the speed-oriented SEC in the interior of the defensive line, but Nkemdiche is going to be a handful no matter where he plays. Though he is looking for his first sack of the year, he has 14 tackles and four tackles for a loss.

    Maybe he hasn't been the overwhelming star some thought he would immediately be just yet—much like list-mate Carl Lawson—but Nkemdiche has been hard for offensive lines to handle against the run and pass. Once he learns the system, he'll be even more of a terror.


10. Jalen Ramsey: CB, Florida State

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    The Florida State Seminoles went all the way up into Tennessee to land this prize recruit, and Ramsey certainly hasn't disappointed.

    According to NFL.com's Mike Huguenin, Ramsey is the first true freshman to start at corner for the 'Noles since Deion Sanders in 1985. At 6'1", 195 pounds, he is a specimen who can fly all over the field and make plays. He also is one of the most technically-sound freshman corners in the country.

    He beat out Nick Waisome, who started all 14 games last season, for his spot. Even so, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher didn't want to anoint Ramsey "The Second Coming of Deion" just yet.

    "He's a heck of a player, but let's just give him a break before we put him in Deion's category,"Fisher told reporters, according to Huguenin's story.

    All Ramsey has done since earning a starting role is register 22 tackles, a tackle for a loss, a sack, an interception and forced a fumble. He's arguably FSU's top defensive back, and he will be an All-ACC candidate very soon.

9. Leonard Floyd: LB, Georgia

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    Leonard Floyd wears a wide receiver's number (84), looks like a wide receiver at 6'4" and runs like one all over the football field for the Georgia Bulldogs.

    But the freakish athlete instead plays outside linebacker for UGA defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, and after waiting his turn, the former Hargrave Military Academy standout is having a sparkling start to his career.

    With Jarvis Jones gone to the NFL, Floyd has taken over pass-rushing duties from his outside linebacker spot and is sixth on UGA with 21 tackles. He is also the Dawgs' most effective presence in getting after the quarterback. Floyd has four tackles for a loss, three sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.

    He is the kind of player offenses have to account for whenever he's on the field, and he has improved as the season has matured. Floyd looks like a can't-miss NFL player with plenty of time left in Athens.

8. Jaylon Smith: LB, Notre Dame

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    It might have taken the former nation's No. 1-ranked high school outside linebacker a few games to get acclimated to college, but Jaylon Smith is already making an impact in South Bend.

    The true freshman struggled in the season's first month but has come on and played his best football in the Fighting Irish's past two games against Oklahoma and Arizona State, amassing 15 of his 26 total tackles.

    He is becoming a consistent force for head coach Brian Kelly, which is exactly what he thought would happen when Smith became the jewel of Notre Dame's 2013 recruiting class. The composite 5-star from Fort Wayne, Ind., was considered the the nation's second-ranked player overall.

    Blessed with premiere size and speed, he's an NFL Draft dream already, but the league will have to wait at least three years to get him.

    "He’s a difficult guy to block," Kelly told Keith Arnold of NBC Sports. "He's got great speed. ... He’s a very important player now within our defense."

7. Brandon Facyson/Kendall Fuller: CBs, Virginia Tech

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    We're kind of cheating here by putting two players on the same slide, but the reason for pairing Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller is because the teammates will be co-stars of ACC quarterbacks' nightmares for years to come.

    Fuller was perhaps the nation's most highly coveted defensive back coming out of high school, and all he has done thus far for the Hokies is register 25 tackles, intercept two passes and break up four additional passes. His ability shines every time a ball is thrown in his direction.

    Yet he has been overshadowed at least so far this year by his 3-star classmate. Facyson is a 6'2", 188-pound athlete from Newnan, Ga., who has upstaged Fuller thus far with four interceptions, four pass break ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

    Facyson recently told ESPN's Andrea Adelson what it's like having a defensive backfield classmate who is going through the same adjustments:

    It's been a great experience so far. Me and Kendall, we both had aspirations of coming in here and getting to work right away and helping the team out as much as we could. That's what we want to do is become a reliable source for the team. Even being true freshmen coming in, we didn't want the team to not believe in us so we had to come in here and really have our minds focused, and so far we've done that.

    They've teamed to help the Hokies to a national ranking in what many thought would be a rebuilding year for Frank Beamer.

    Fuller has the biggest long-term upside, but both players have bright futures.

6. Su'a Cravens: S, Southern Cal

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    Southern Cal is known for producing safeties.

    So, it's no surprise that they've got a future All-American at the position again this season. That would be Su'a Cravens—who's blessed with an awesome name and an even better game.

    Even in the midst of a forgettable season that has already seen head coach Lane Kiffin canned, Cravens is helping lead a Trojans defense that was very impressive before Arizona State manhandled it a couple weeks ago. 

    He is fast, he is physical, and when he gets to a ball-carrier, he packs plenty of punch. Simply, he's everything USC expected he'd be when he signed.

    "Coming in and starting as a true freshman for a USC team is definitely a blessing and a dream," Cravens told the Press-Enterprise's David Lassen. "But I wish we could be competing for a national title. Every kid hopes that, but right now, we’re just focused on this Arizona game."

    Cravens has 24 tackles, a couple of picks and a forced fumble and is living up to his billing as one of the top high school safeties in the country a year ago. Whoever the next Trojans coach will be will have a centerpiece around which to build his defense in the future.

5. Alex Collins: RB, Arkansas

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    It took surviving one of the most bizarre National Signing Day stories ever for Arkansas to get Alex Collins in Razorbacks red. But now that he's safely in Fayetteville, all is forgotten and forgiven.

    New coach Bret Bielema thought he'd signed the jewel of his recruiting class when Collins was set to spurn his home state Miami Hurricanes for Arkansas until his mother ran off with his signing papers, refusing to sign. She wanted him to stay closer to home.

    A day later, Collins made it official when his father signed Arkansas scholarship papers.

    Collins' mother may have initially run away, but her son is now running wild in Arkansas. He has 651 rushing yards on a 5.8 yards-per-carry average. Four of the first six games of his college career, he's gone for more than 100 yards.

    Bielema gets running backs to the NFL, and he loves his workhorses. Collins is proving early that he's capable of carrying the load in the rugged SEC.

4. Tyler Boyd: WR, Pittsburgh

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    This hasn't been a banner year for freshman wide receivers across the country. But there is a future star in Pittsburgh in freshman receiver Tyler Boyd.

    With many of the nation's powers coming after him, Boyd honored his mother's wishes and stayed close to his home in Clairton, Pa.

    Despite a late recruiting push from Tennessee and West Virginia, Boyd decided to stick with his original commitment to Pittsburgh and currently leads all other freshmen in all-purpose yards per game.

    Boyd is doing magical things when he gets the football. He has 23 catches for 425 yards and 17 of those catches have come in ACC play. After struggling in his debut against Florida State, Boyd has six catches for 134 yards against New Mexico, eight for 154 against Duke and seven for 111 against Virginia.

    Boyd also has seven rushes for 98 more yards as head coach Paul Chryst continues to find inventive ways to get his star youngster the ball. The Panthers are off to a 3-1 start, and that has a lot to do with Boyd and freshman runner James Conner.

3. Addison Gillam: LB, Colorado

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    Addison Gillam is proof that recruiting rankings aren't always what they're cracked up to be. He was a lowly 2-star prospect coming out of high school, but Gillam is proving every week that he's a high-level talent.

    Just three schools—UC Davis, Sacramento State and San Jose State—recruited Gillam as a high school senior in 2012. 

    According to the Boulder Daily Camera's Kyle Ringo, Gillam's path to a true freshman starting middle linebacker was a circuitous one. He originally signed with San Jose State and coach Mike MacIntyre in 2012 before discovering he needed arthroscopic shoulder surgery.

    (Gillam) developed a strong relationship with CU coach Mike MacIntyre and defensive coordinator Kent Baer while they were still coaching at San Jose State.

    Gillam signed with San Jose State as part of the 2012 recruiting class but discovered he needed arthroscopic shoulder surgery a year ago. He underwent that procedure and decided to grayshirt last fall, delaying his enrollment at San Jose State until this semester.

    All Gillam has done as a Buffalo is develop into a tackling machine. He leads all freshman averaging 12.25 tackles per game, racking up 49 total. In a lopsided loss to Oregon this past weekend, Gillam shone, registering 18 tackles.

    His emergence isn't a fluke.

2. Vernon Hargreaves III: CB, Florida

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    Perhaps the best true freshman in the country roams the secondary for the Florida Gators.

    Vernon Hargreaves III, who is the son of the University of Houston linebackers coach, was one of the top-rated defensive backs in the nation in last year's recruiting class, and he elected to sign with Will Muschamp.

    Already, Hargreaves has cracked the starting lineup for a super-stacked Gators secondary that highlights one of the top defenses in the country. 

    All Hargreaves has done thus far is climb to second in the entire nation with three interceptions in four games. He is tied for No. 1 in the SEC and No. 2 in the FBS in interceptions and is ranked No. 4 in the SEC and No. 6 nationally in passes broken up.

    Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin told Scott Carter of Gatorzone.com that Hargreaves is not a typical freshman.

    "He’s a freshman, but he’s a veteran," Durkin said. "At practice, he knows how to prepare. He’s one of those guys you know has been around the game. He responds really well. The stage is not too big for him. He goes out there and handles his business."

1. Jameis Winston: QB, Florida State

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    The first time the nation caught a glimpse of one of the most hyped quarterbacks in recent memory, Jameis Winston was nearly perfect.

    That opening-weekend Monday night, Winston completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout win over a pretty good Pittsburgh team.

    Ever since, the redshirt freshman from Bessemer, Ala., has been one of college football's darlings. The two-sport star Seminole decided to go to Tallahassee over Alabama and Auburn and waited his turn behind NFL first-round pick E.J. Manuel.

    Now it's Famous Jameis' show.

    He has fueled FSU's undefeated start, completing 73 percent of his passes for 1,441 yards, 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Winston also has added 135 rushing yards and a couple scores.

    He just rarely makes mistakes, and while it would be an uphill battle, he's the only freshman in the country who could follow in Johnny Football's footsteps and hoist the Heisman at season's end.