Freshmen Report Card Grades Through Week 6
Conference play has geared into full-swing, allowing America's top freshmen their first glimpse at teams they might see multiple times during their career.
That shift away from non-league play also ups the level of competition, forcing college football's best first-year players to go up against other former blue-chip recruits instead of FCS dregs and cream puffs from non-power leagues.
Success can no longer be considered a fluke and failure can no longer be considered a slow start. It's time for these future starts to put up or shut up.
Otherwise, they could be in store for a long offseason of questions.
Note: This list consists of the top six true freshmen on 247Sports' composite; one player from outside the top six who has most impressed; and one superlative redshirt who couldn't be ignored.
DE Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
Previous Grade: B+
Last Week: 4.0 tackles (at Auburn)
Nkemdiche has yet to record a sack this year, but at the start of the season, when Ole Miss was winning and he was still creating negative plays, that could be forgiven.
Now it sticks out a little bit more. After starting 3-0, the Rebels dropped their second consecutive game at Auburn on Saturday, falling to 1-2 in SEC play.
Nkemdiche, who recorded at least one tackle for loss in each of the three victories, was held to a goose-egg in that department once again. And it's not like Auburn was avoiding him, as defensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee explained after the game.
"He's going to be a great player in this league," said Lashlee, according to Brandon Marcello of AL.com. "But we felt comfortable running at him or running away and reading him."
If teams are going to attack Nkemdiche head on, he has to to start making them pay. Ole Miss' defense needs that kind of playmaker.
OLB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
Previous Grade: A-
Last Week: 9.0 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble (vs. Arizona State)
Smith lit up the stat-sheet in Dallas, finishing with career highs in tackles and tackles for loss, while also forcing his first career fumble.
He continues to be a bright spot on the otherwise upsetting Irish defense, though the unit performed slightly better than the final score indicated against Arizona State.
Smith and the defensive line wreaked havoc in the trenches all game and helped hold a pretty good offense in check when it most needed stops. His athleticism was on full display against the Sun Devils' spread attack, which highlighted Smith's range and ability to get off blocks.
A bye week should help them heal up, but the loss of linebacker Jarrett Grace to a broken fibula will leave a void in the middle of the defense. Smith might be counted on to become a leader much quicker than he anticipated.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Previous Grade: A+
Last Week: 5.0 tackles, 1 pass defended (vs. Arkansas)
Teams might finally be learning to not throw in Hargreaves' direction.
For the first time this season, Florida's star freshman finished with no interceptions and less than three pass breakups, but he didn't let that deter him from making an impact.
The five tackles were a career high for Hargreaves, who proved against a run-first offense that he, unlike the Razorbacks, is not a one-trick pony. He can come up and hit some guys too.
Watching him guard Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. against LSU this week should be NFL-quality entertainment.
OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
Previous Grade: B-
Tunsil struggled in the loss at Auburn, consistently finding himself on an island with fellow 5-star freshman Carl Lawson, and consistently letting the Auburn end get by him.
Lawson finished the game with six tackles, two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss, throwing a wrench in countless Ole Miss drives en route to SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
Some struggles from Tunsil are expected. The learning curve for tackles is much steeper than it is for defensive ends. It wasn't exactly a shock to see Lawson get the best of him.
But no one expected it to be so lopsided.
S Su'a Cravens, USC
Previous Grade: B+
Last Week: Bye
Cravens and the rest of his teammates got to take a week off and lick their wounds.
Still reeling from the 62-41 massacre against ASU and the firing of Lane Kiffin, the rest of USC's season could go one of two ways.
The Trojans could rally around this adversity and play with a newfound fire in Pac-12 play. Or they could pull a Texas and continue to sink toward the depths of ineptitude.
Cravens is just a freshman, but he's already one of the team's most important players. He'll have a big say in which direction it goes.
DT Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
Previous Grade: B
Last Week: 3.0 tackles (at Utah)
Vanderdoes continues to work into the defensive line rotation and he continues to make a mild, albeit underwhelming, contribution.
Though he hasn't racked up a tackle for loss since Week 1, when he posted 2.0 against Nevada, Vanderdoes has played hard every snap and made things difficult on opposing blockers.
He hasn't been the unblockable, game-changing threat that he was billed as, but Vanderdoes is still just a freshman and he did come into camp late. Give him some more time to catch up, and it shouldn't be long before he gets there.
But he might not have that luxury. With Ellis McCarthy questionable for Saturday's game against Cal, Vanderdoes might be thrust into the starting lineup and counted on to produce like a true first-teamer.
RB Alex Collins, Arkansas
Previous Grade: A
Last Week: 13 carries, 54 yards; 5 catches, 45 yards (at Florida)
Collins was held to a career-low 54 yards at Florida last week, but it's possible he played his best (or at least his most impressive) career game.
The five catches for 45 yards helped, as Collins had only caught two passes for 13 yards total in his four previous games. It was nice to see him add another element to his repertoire, and it helped him come one yard short of 100 total in the Swamp.
Florida trusted its corners against the Razorbacks' passing game, committing seven or eight guys to the run on almost every play. The fact that Collins even came away with 4.15 yards per carry should be considered a mild win.
This guy is still something special.
QB Jameis Winston, Florida State (Redshirt)
Previous Grade: A+
Last Week: 23-of-32, 393 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT
If not for Johnny Manziel in 2012, what Winston is doing as a freshman would be completely without precedent. But the fact that we've seen this dance before should do nothing to temper our opinion.
Winston shredded Maryland to pieces on Saturday, making difficult plays and throws look easy in a 63-0 shutout. Say what you will about the Terps' hobbled defense, that performance still technically came against a ranked opponent.
It's not like he was picking on a Sun Belt team.
At this point, Winston is more than just "in" the Heisman conversation—he's becoming the Heisman conversation. He's vaulted himself onto a short list with Johnny Football and Marcus Mariota at Oregon, just a nose above some other very capable passers.
He's got a chance to be the signature story of 2013.
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