Freshman Report Card Grades for 2013 College Football Season

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2013

Freshman Report Card Grades for 2013 College Football Season

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    The class of 2013 will cease being freshman—or at least true freshman—in less than a month, making way for a new batch of youngsters to come in and take the sport by storm.

    Before the national signing day rush approaches and sweeps us off our feet, though, we should take some time to acknowledge and duly assess the performance of 2013's first-year players.

    Not every 5-star recruit on the 247Sports composite rankings stepped in and immediately earned playing time, with some fading to the background as rotational guys or sitting out the year for redshirts. But of the ones who did, some surefire future superstars emerged.

    Here's a look at the class of 2013, position-by-position, to see how the top-ranked guys who earned playing time fared in their first collegiate season.

QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

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    Overall Composite Ranking: 13

    Position Composite Ranking: 2

    Penn State's season went about as poorly as predicted, but Christian Hackenberg was a shiny silver lining, playing as well as anyone could have possibly expected and giving the Nittany Lions a true cornerstone to build around for the next couple of seasons.

    The true freshman took his lumps, sure, like the ugly performance in a 63-14 loss at Ohio State in October, but for the most part, he was solid. He flashed a huge downfield arm and made surprisingly few mistakes, finishing the year with 2,955 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 133.99.

    If junior receiver Allen Robinson declares for the NFL draft, Hackenberg will have a big offseason ahead of him—one where he'll need to improve his accuracy and command of the offense dramatically. Robinson is one of the best receivers in college football, and his presence helped bail Hackenberg out of numerous tough spots.

    Still, after Hackenberg ended the year on such a high note, throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a road upset at Wisconsin, there's no reason to believe he can't make the necessary improvements.

    Grade: A-

RB: Thomas Tyner, Oregon

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    Overall Composite Ranking: 20

    Position Composite Ranking: 1

    Thomas Tyner was technically the top pure running back in the class of 2013, though Alabama "athlete" Derrick Henry plays the position and ranked ahead of him at No. 12. But Henry was unable to find a role in the Tide's backfield as a freshman, so Tyner is the player we'll assess.

    After getting sparse carries at the start of the year, Tyner slowly began chipping his way into Mark Helfrich's rotation, eventually becoming a true force by season's end. Like Hackenberg, Tyner saved his best for last, ending the regular season with career highs in carries (22) and yards (140) in the Civil War win against Oregon State.

    Despite ceding the majority of carries to Byron Marshall, Tyner still finished the year with 689 yards, nine touchdowns and 6.32 yards per carry. Marshall won't be going anywhere next year, but with an offseason of improvement, Tyner should turn their time-share into (at the very least) an even split.

    Grade: B+

WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

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    Overall Composite Ranking: 14

    Position Composite Ranking: 1

    Laquon Treadwell is the first of three Rebels we'll examine on this list, and just like his blue-chip teammates, his freshman season in Oxford did not disappoint.

    Ole Miss has used Treadwell primarily as a possession receiver this year, a role he's proven more than capable of handling. With great size (6'3", 215 lbs) and hands that B/R's Michael Felder grades at 92 percent, he's the ideal weapon to move the chains on third down.

    Treadwell leads the Rebs with 67 catches—14 more than leading receiver Donte Moncrief—and is only scratching the surface of his potential. Senior Ja-Mes Logan will be gone next year, and Moncrief might follow him by declaring early for the NFL draft, which would make Treadwell the No. 1 receiver and a genuine threat to go All-American as a true sophomore.

    His talent is that special.

    Grade: A-

TE: O.J. Howard, Alabama

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    Overall Composite Ranking: 19

    Position Composite Ranking: 1

    It's not easy for a true freshman pass-catcher to crack Nick Saban's rotation, which brings in the top-rated players in the country each year. Only transcendent talents like Amari Cooper and Julio Jones have ever really done the trick.

    But O.J. Howard has followed suit in 2013, getting more and more run as the season progressed and becoming one of the most versatile weapons on Alabama's roster. His production is far from consistent, but he's a physical freak at 6'6", 237 pounds who is fast enough to beat linebackers in coverage and make big plays down the field.

    Never was that more evident than against LSU, when Howard helped give Alabama a 10-7 lead with a 52-yard touchdown, catching a short pass over the middle before outrunning the entire secondary for a momentum-altering score.

    For the season, he's fifth on the team with 269 receiving yards on 14 receptions—good for a team-best 19.2 yards per catch. 

    Grade: B

OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Overall Composite Ranking: 4

    Position Composite Ranking: 1

    Laremy Tunsil started the season in some weird sort of swing tackle role, one of six capable offensive linemen fighting for five spots on the starting unit. But he quickly became an indispensable part of that unit and perhaps the best young tackle in the SEC.

    The only true freshman who starts at left tackle in the conference, Tunsil has stepped in and become a force protecting Bo Wallace's blind side, only allowing one sack the entire season. He has great feet and mirroring ability for a player his size (6'5", 315 lbs) and seems to get better each week.

    According to the SEC Digital Network, Tunsil was rewarded for his strong play by being named to the AP All-SEC Second Team. He was the only freshman lineman—true or otherwise—to be named to either team, and he'll be counted on as a building block for this offense going forward.

    Grade: A+

DE: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

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    Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

    Overall Composite Ranking: 1

    Position Composite Ranking: 1

    Robert Nkemdiche's debut season has been a mixed bag. He's been a starter and a productive player from day one, but he hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations set forth before him by previous No. 1 recruit Jadeveon Clowney.

    Comparing the two, though, while natural, is a little bit unfair. Clowney is a pure pass-rusher with size, speed and quickness around the edge; Nkemdiche is thicker and slower—more of a 3-4 defensive end at the next level—so his stats are predictably deflated.

    Still, Nkemdiche has done well to rack up eight tackles for loss on the season, second-most among Ole Miss players. He's also made an impact carrying the ball on offense, flashing the ability to plow forward and convert short-yardage situations in the Egg Bowl loss to Mississippi State.

    Nkemdiche hasn't dropped peoples' jaws the way he was supposed to, but that doesn't mean the year has been a bust. He's still one of the best young prospects in America.

    Grade: B

DT: Eddie Vanderdoes

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Overall Composite Rank: 6

    Position Composite Rank: 1

    Eddie Vanderdoes hasn't made the same giant impact some thought he might in the middle of UCLA's defense, but he has been a steady contributor all season—enough so that coaches voted him an All-Pac-12 honorable mention.

    Like fellow true freshman linebacker Myles Jack, Vanderdoes has even gotten in on the action on offense, rushing for a one-yard touchdown against USC in the Bruins' final game. That was the cherry on top of a decent campaign that also included 36 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.

    Defensive tackle is typically a place where true freshman struggle, since so much of the position requires power and multiple years in a college strength-training program. Even if he hasn't been able to dominate on a consistent basis, Vanderdoes has done fine (all things considered) and should be an interesting player to watch in 2014.

    Grade: B

LB: Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame

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    Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

    Overall Composite Ranking: 2

    Position Composite Ranking: 1

    Jaylon Smith is both the present and future of Notre Dame's defense, having already become one of its most important players—especially after the loss of defensive tackle Louis Nix.

    He's come up big in some of the Irish's biggest games, including an 11-tackle performance in the close loss at Pittsburgh and a nine-tackle, 1.5-tackle-for-loss game against Arizona State. Smith also might have saved Notre Dame's season with an athletic fourth-down stop against Navy, when the Midshipmen were driving to tie or win the game.

    From day one in fall camp, Smith has vindicated all the scouts that believed in him, showing rare athleticism and a nice knack for playmaking. He's a future Butkus Award candidate and should be on some preseason All-American teams in 2014.

    Grade: A

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

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    Overall Composite Ranking: 3

    Position Composite Ranking: 1

    It was a banner year for blue-chip freshman cornerbacks, with fellow 5-star players Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech) and Jalen Ramsey (Florida State) also jumping into the starting lineup of good defenses and enjoying fine seasons.

    But Vernon Hargreaves III stands out from the pack.

    It was unclear where and how much he would play before the season, since Florida was blessed with All-SEC candidates at cornerback in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. After intercepting three passes in the first four games, though, it was clear Hargreaves was too good to be left off the field.

    Those were his only three picks of the season, but that's only because his coverage has been so good that offenses have opted to stop throwing in his direction. There's a reason he was the only true freshman elected to the AP All-SEC First Team.

    Grade: A+

S: Su'a Cravens, USC

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    Overall Composite Ranking: 5

    Position Composite Ranking: 1

    Su'a Cravens has lived up to his billing as a sound, ball-hawking safety this year, teaming with Dion Bailey to give USC the best safety tandem West of Tuscaloosa (or maybe East Lansing).

    He's USC's eighth-leading tackler with 52 total stops, but Cravens' performance in big games has stood out most considerably. He had two tackles for loss in the close loss at Notre Dame, and he set up USC's game-winning drive against Stanford by intercepting a Kevin Hogan pass—his fourth pick of the season—with three minutes left to play.

    There is a long, esteemed tradition of All-American safeties at USC, especially in the modern era with guys like Troy Polamalu and Taylor Mays. Cravens has a little bit of both of those guys in his skill set, and there's a chance he eventually becomes just as good at his position.

    Grade: A

Redshirt: QB Jameis Winston, Florida State

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    Jameis Winston doesn't fit in with the rest of the guys on this list—all of whom were thrown into the fire as true freshman, not redshirts—but any list of first-year players would be remiss not to mention him.

    There aren't enough words to describe how good Florida State's offense has been this year, and Winston has been the engine driving it forward. Last year, with much of the same schemes and personnel and a first-round draft pick (EJ Manuel) under center, the Seminoles didn't score at nearly the same rate they have in 2013.

    With an FBS-best passer rating of 190.06, Winston is the overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, becoming the second consecutive redshirt freshman quarterback to win the award. Come the evening of Jan. 6, he might add a national championship ring to his hardware collection.

    Grade: A++