It's no longer a matter of age. The ancient days of waiting for development and growth have long passed.
If you can play, you will play early. Growth and development will come with time—just like they always have—but they will come while learning on the job.
With national signing day behind us, the fax machines have gone dormant for another year. The term “recruit” no longer applies, as these "commitments" are being schemed to their respected programs. Some are already on campus getting acquainted with the playbook and the resident strength coach. Others won't be far behind.
In the case of immediate playing time, talent is one thing. Need is another. When these two can align for a particular program, however, the importance of a freshman’s role suddenly comes into focus.
Although most true freshmen won’t be expected to deliver early, some certainly will. And some might have to.
Myles Garrett (Defensive End, Texas A&M)
Are you sitting down? I hope you’re sitting down. That’s the best (and only) way to properly absorb Texas A&M’s defensive stats from a season ago without risking the possibility of falling through a glass table.
The Aggies finished at No. 111 in total defense, barely edging out Big Ten power Illinois. A&M also finished tied for 83rd in sacks and allowed 5.38 yards per carry. It wasn’t good; some might even call it bad. But there was a lot of learning on the job going on, which means things should improve.
And as it tries to improve at all levels, Myles Garrett—the nation’s No. 1 overall player according to 247Sports—will add an instant pass rush the team lacked a season ago. In doing so, he could help mask some of the deficiencies the team will have to deal with in other areas.
Let's make something clear: He won’t be Jadeveon Clowney out of the gate. He’ll have to add to the 240-pound frame that he has now, and he will. But Garrett will be able to provide an instant spark on passing downs and be a situational terror early on.
That’s not a knock on his complete game, either. Eventually Garrett will be an every-down monster, perhaps as early as his freshman year. But for now, even as he develops moves and builds on his already impressive frame, Garrett could drastically alter the way offenses scheme this team.
Marlon Humphrey (Cornerback, Alabama)
The nation’s No. 1 cornerback and No. 10 player overall according to 247Sports has company. Marlon Humphrey was one of six 5-star players to commit to Alabama, and yet he feels like the most important commitment by a significant margin.
Nick Saban also landed Tony Brown—the No. 2 cornerback on 247Sports—although Humphrey has the more developed skill set despite the fact that Brown is probably the better overall athlete. The more the merrier in this instance. Alabama needs it.
If you looked at statistics alone, you’d feel good about the Alabama pass defense from a season ago. The Crimson Tide checked in at No. 11 in passing yards allowed, giving up just 180.3 yards through the air.
The tape, however, tells a different story. Just put on a replay of the Sugar Bowl and look at the space wide receivers were able to find. And it's not just the Sugar Bowl. Quality wideouts (see: Texas A&M, LSU and others) had success against this team.
With safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri off to the NFL, Alabama corners will likely be called upon more often.
Humphrey doesn’t have to be Vernon Hargreaves III out of the gate. For the team to get a dramatic boost at the position, he won’t have to be. Good will be good enough.
Chad Thomas (Defensive End, Miami)
It’s quite simple, really. Miami hasn’t had many players of Chad Thomas’ athletic level in recent years. Defensively, he’ll bring a combination of power and speed that has been absent for some time.
247sports ranked the Booker T. Washington weak-side defensive end No. 3 at his position and No. 29 overall. Thomas, who checks in at 6’5” and 240 pounds, will immediately be in the mix for playing time on a team that was No. 90 in total defense last season.
While that might sound bad, the Hurricanes were actually considerably better than they were in 2012. That defense ranked No. 120, and it gave up on average nearly 500 yards per game. Baby steps, I suppose.
Miami’s sack numbers improved significantly last season, although there’s obvious room for growth. While Thomas is still somewhat raw as a prospect, he’ll bring sheer athleticism that the team should be able to put to good use right away.
And with the back end of the defense still struggling to develop, adding another weapon like Thomas into the rotation will be crucial.
Matt Elam (DT, Kentucky)
No recruit received more inconsistent evaluations than Matt Elam, Kentucky’s enormous—and quite frankly, enormous isn’t enough—defensive tackle.
247Sports listed Elam as the No. 3 DT in the class and the No. 21 player overall. Other outlets had the 6’5,” 372-pounder squarely as a 3-star. The book on him is all over the place, which isn’t exactly shocking given the uniqueness of his size and style.
What Elam will provide, however, is immediate relief. He might not be the disruptor many project him to be, but he will be the space-eater Kentucky desperately needs. His addition comes at a perfect time for a team hoping to take the next step.
"We're at a point where we're still trying to put together a top-notch first team," Stoops said courtesy of ESPN.com. "Not only do we need depth, we need some playmakers with our starters as well.
The production may not show up in the stat sheet next season. Heck, it may never show up in the box score during his time there. But Elam’s presence will help the Wildcats redefine their roster. The players around him—the defensive ends and linebackers—will benefit greatly simply from his enormity up front.
If Elam turns out to be more than just a big body that moves well for his size, Kentucky could have a real mismatch in the making. For now, however, he can make the players around him that much better simply by being big.
Jabrill Peppers (Athlete, Michigan)
The term “athlete” has never been more appropriate for a player. Jabrill Peppers, the No. 1 athlete and No. 4 player overall according to 247Sports, could easily turn out to be far and away the best player in this class.
His future home will be cornerback, a place the Wolverines could certainly use an upgrade. Michigan finished No. 66 in pass defense last season, allowing more than 230 yards through the air per game.
Brady Hoke will likely plug Peppers in at the position, and he should fare incredibly well from Day 1. His value on defense alone at a difficult position to fill makes him one of the most important players in the country.
What makes him the most important player in the country, however, is everything else he brings. I’d love to tell you all about it, but Peppers does it so much better himself.
He’s a playmaker. In fact, the moment he steps on campus, he’ll be one of the biggest playmakers in all of college football. Defense, offense, special teams. It doesn’t matter. He can do it all, and he likely will do a bit of everything.
After signing his letter of intent on national signing day, Peppers told the Star Ledger (via MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner):
Now that my John Hancock is on those dotted lines, it's just on the up from here. I've just got to keep getting better. My whole class is excited, and we just can't wait to bring Michigan football back to where it needs to be.
Hoke suddenly has a rich man’s problem on his hands. He has to determine how to use Peppers in creative ways beyond simply shutting down Big Ten receivers.
If he can figure out such quandaries early, the returns could be significant and immediate.
Unless otherwise noted, all defensive statistics come from CFBstats.com.