College Football's 11 Greatest First-Year Players of the Past 50 Years

BabyTateSenior Writer IMay 28, 2009

A common occurrence among fans and pundits throughout the country is a sincere debate concerning the greatest college football players in history. 

In local taverns, at a family get together, shuckin' and jivin' sessions on the street, or wherever a difference of opinion can be suggested, someone has an idea of just who should be on that list.

But suppose we qualify such an argumentative list by imposing three strict rules.

1– Let us modify the search to include only the past 50 years.

2- Wrap that around a discussion of only the most outstanding players performing in their first year, either as Freshmen or Sophomores prior to Frosh eligibility in 1972, Junior College transfers in their first year of major college ball, or Redshirt Freshmen.

3- Then, most importantly, add a real kicker to the conversation—let us stipulate that the first year player in question has to be an important member of a National Championship team in his first year.

Can it be that anyone has met such strict qualifications?

Aye laddie, there is such a list of names. Well-known names, many legendary. And with no further ado, we present the 11 greatest first-year college players of 1959 to 2009.

11. Tim Tebow, Quarterback: Florida

When young Tebow hit the scene as a freshman in 2006, he could not have suspected the glory that lay before him.

An integral member of the National Championship team, he was nonetheless a backup at quarterback to senior Chris Leak, and that detail keeps him from ranking higher on the all-time list.

10. Maurice Clarett, Running Back: Ohio State

One of the most unusual stories in pigskin history surrounds this fellow. Instrumental in powering Ohio State to the 2002 National Championship, he could not be found a year later having run afoul of academic and behavioral requirements.

9. Johnny Rodgers, Running Back: Nebraska

To pigeonhole Rogers as merely a runner is similar to equating Tiger Woods as keeping a good scorecard on the greens. 

His presence in 1970 allowed Nebraska to overhaul LSU in the Orange Bowl and win the first national title for Bob Devaney's Cornhuskers. He followed that performance with another national championship in '71 and then took home the Heisman Trophy in 1972.

8. William Perry, Nose Guard and Defensive Line: Clemson

Though enormous in appearance, the man known as "The Refrigerator" is an affable and good-natured representative of how a tremendous talent can impact the defensive side of play.

At 6'3" and 300 pounds, the naturally powerful and cat-quick Perry anchored the world-class defense of Danny Ford's 1981 national champions in Tiger town.

In the 1981 season Orange Bowl game against Nebraska and their outstanding center Dave Rimington, freshman William Perry completely dominated the line of scrimmage and made his name a household word.

7. Jamelle Holieway, Quarterback: Oklahoma

Early in 1985 Holieway was a backup to Troy Aikman at Oklahoma. He found himself thrust on to the field to replace the blond bomber during a 27-14 home loss to Miami.

Young Holieway gathered his troops and led them on a national championship run of eight straight wins. The Sooners then secured the title by defeating Penn State in the Orange Bowl.

Not bad for a true freshman quarterback.

6. Rex Kern, Quarterback: Ohio State

This player has influenced the quarterback position by demonstrating the rules of how to be considered a winner.

From the moment he stepped on the field, he led and he won. And he kept winning, leading the Buckeyes to the 1968 national championship in his first year on the varsity.

After his three years of eligibility, Kern could point to a career record that included only one regular season loss.

5. Bernie Kosar, Quarterback: Miami

Arguably the most underrated offensive player of the past half century. This is a man that knew how to get it done and did it.

As a 6'5" redshirt freshman in 1983, he led the Hurricanes to the national championship—and not just over any old opponent in any old game.

The Hurricanes defeated a Nebraska squad described at the time as the greatest team in football history. The Cornhuskers scored 624 points and gave up only 186 in winning their first 12 games of the season.

The 31-30 classic won by Miami has been considered "the greatest game ever played."

A toast to the cool and efficient Bernie Kosar.

4. Tommy Nobis, Linebacker: Texas

Arguably the most underrated defensive player of the past half century. When offenses stared into the eyes of this legendary player, they knew their time was up.

During his first year of varsity ball in 1963, Nobis led the Longhorns to an undefeated national championship, destroying Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach and No. 2-ranked Navy in the Cotton Bowl, 28-6.

It has been mentioned in some corners that Tommy Nobis is the greatest defensive player who has ever played football. 

3. Ernie Davis, Running Back: Syracuse

The cards of fate were stacked against this great gentleman.

Known as "The Elmira Express," Davis burst upon the scene by leading Syracuse to the national championship in 1959 by hammering Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 23-14.

Two years later he won the Heisman Trophy.

Two years later he lay dead—a victim of leukemia.

2. Herschel Walker, Running Back: Georgia

Walker crashed upon the football world of 1980 by leading his Bulldogs to the national championship.

He possessed power and speed, along with that most admired aspect of success—star power.

Despite all of his accomplishments, Walker's most lasting impact may be his breaking of the time-honored tradition of staying all four years in college before opting for the professional game.

More than one observer has quipped that Walker is the man for whom an entire professional football league was created, and he took advantage of his position by leaving Georgia following the 1982 season to play in the new United States Football League with the New Jersey Generals.

1. O. J. Simpson, Running Back: Southern California

After scoring 54 touchdowns in two years of Junior College ball in his hometown of San Francisco, the man known as "Orange Juice" transferred to the University of Southern California.

He was like no one the country had ever seen before or since. At 6'2" and 210 pounds, O.J. possessed 9.4 speed in the 100-yard dash and had moves that can't be duplicated by even players of this era.

He immediately took his Trojans to the national championship in 1967 and followed it up a year later by winning the Heisman Trophy.

We are all aware of the tragic turn Simpson's life took, a sad figure that peers out of a jail cell.

However, there was a time when he was the greatest of them all on the football field. It is unfortunate that his personal behavior did not compare to his athletic skill and has caused pain to so many. 


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