The Most Impressive Freshman Performances in Spring Games so Far
Spring games—and, really, spring camp in general—is less about the older, proven players and more about the younger, still-learning prospects on a roster.
The youngest, most-in-need-of-learning of those prospects are the true freshman early enrollees—players who have graduated early from high school to join the program before spring term and begin the long process of learning the system.
This is often met with mixed results. Early enrollees have a long ways to go, especially at the more cerebral positions like quarterback and safety. However, even at more physical positions like defensive end, the transition from high school to college is substantial and requires a decent learning curve.
Some players throw this curve, however, and look game-ready by the time spring camp closes. Perhaps stoked by the energy of playing on a real college field, before an almost-real college crowd, for the first time in their careers, they end spring workouts with an exhibition of their improvement and make a loud statement prior to summer.
And no true freshmen have done better in their spring games—at least so far—than these ones.
Note: Again, to be clear, this list only includes true freshman early enrollees. No redshirt freshmen or JUCO transfers were included.
CB Tony Brown, Alabama
Tony Brown didn't get called up to play with the first team defense—as some, like myself, had hoped—in the wake of Eddie Jackson's torn ACL. Instead, it was Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve taking snaps for and against the "ones," and both looked decent without being tested much.
However, running with the "twos," Brown was without a doubt the star of the unit, finishing the game with a couple of pass breakups and an interception on Alec Morris. Despite wearing a non-contact jersey for his bum shoulder, he also showed a willingness to step up and tackle, which is part of what he was known for as a recruit.
Brown and fellow 5-star corner Marlon Humphrey, who did not enroll early and will arrive this spring, are the future of this secondary at cornerback. How game-ready Humphrey is remains to be seen, but Brown, if he continues playing like he did in the spring game, has a real (if not good) chance at starting that future this season.
QB Brandon Harris, LSU
Brandon Harris staked his claim, loud and clear, to be the Week 1 starter in Baton Rouge, outplaying Anthony Jennings in the spring game and appearing to enter summer workouts as the slight front-runner.
Splitting time between the Purple and White teams, Harris completed just 11-of-28 passes, but he made those 11 completions count with 195 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Jennings, meanwhile, threw two picks and showed far less willingness to stretch the field vertically.
Harris also rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown, flashing the out-of-pocket ability that made him the No. 75 overall player and No. 3 dual-threat quarterback on the 247Sports Composite. Jennings was credited with minus-22 rushing yards because of sacks.
This bout is far from over, but Round 1 went to Harris, 10-8.
DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
Marquis Haynes was one of the top prep school players in the country, ranking No. 7 (behind five of his Fork Union teammates) on the 247Sports Composite. However, that didn't make him more than a 3-star recruit, so any Year 1 impact would be playing with house money.
In Ole Miss' spring game, Haynes looked capable of providing that boost. He was one of the stories of the defense from his defensive end spot, racking up seven tackles and two sacks to finish second and first on the team, respectively.
According to David Collier of The Daily Mississippian, head coach Hugh Freeze said Haynes "has potential to be a phenomenal player" on national signing day, despite his odd recruitment (which also included brief commitments at Louisville and North Carolina).
So far, so good.
WR Bo Hines, N.C. State
A scant-recruited athlete from Charlotte Christian, Bo Hines barely cracked the top 700 of the 247Sports Composite, checking in at No. 694 overall.
Perhaps this is why recruiting rankings don't matter.
Hines was a menace during the North Carolina State spring game, leading the team with 10 catches for 132 yards. He worked well with Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett (who also starred in the exhibition), taking a 20-yard pass 40 extra yards for a 60-yard completion on his signature play of the game.
"Bo Hines is a reliable player," said head coach Dave Doeren, according to David Hale of ESPN.com. "He’s the same guy every day—in the right place, catches the ball well with people around him, made some one-handed catches and has the ability to catch it and run.
"We’ve had 15 practices and I don’t think we’ve had one where he didn’t make a play."
WR Josh Malone, Tennessee
The Tennessee freshmen were the stars of spring practice, and wide receiver Josh Malone was the star of the Tennessee freshmen.
That was particularly true during the Volunteers' spring game, when Malone used his freaky athleticism to go off for 181 yards and three touchdowns on six receptions.
The No. 36 overall player on the 247Sports Composite, Malone was a borderline 5-star prospect who would likely, in hindsight, be bumped up by most recruiting services after how he performed this spring.
Between him, sophomore Marquez North and JUCO transfer Von Pearson, Tennessee's receiving corps has a ceiling like few others in the country next season.
It's even scarier the season after that.
LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
Raekwon McMillan is giving Curtis Grant all he can handle in the battle to start at inside linebacker, which is surprising, despite McMillan's pedigree, because of the difference in experience.
McMillan has not given Urban Meyer a choice, however, and he bookended a strong spring camp with five tackles and a loud goal-line stuff on fellow freshman Curtis Samuel in the spring game.
"He's going to play," said Meyer of McMillan, according to Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "Whether he's going to start depends on, you know him and Curtis are in a battle. Curtis had his best spring. He's earned that right. He's not a freshman anymore. He's gotta go play."
McMillan does not play like a freshman—nor does he look like one—and should become an important piece in Ohio State's (hopefully) improved defense this season.
He solidified as much in the spring game.
LB Chris Register, Clemson
Senior defensive tackle Tavaris Barnes was the story of the spring game—and with good reason. He did, after all, notch five sacks.
But let's not overlook the two sacks by true freshman Chris Register, which went for a total of minus-14 yards. That is not a bad debut for a first-year linebacker, especially given Register's size (6'4'') and ability to defend the run just as well as he gets to the quarterback.
Clemson will have to be a much different team this season. For seemingly the first time in forever, its defense, led by coordinator Brent Venables and All-American defensive end Vic Beasley, will need to be the unit that carries the team.
Register may not find himself in the Week 1 starting lineup, but he looks like a piece that can help out immediately.
RB LJ Scott, Louisville
Yes, it came against a banged-up and mostly backup defense, but what Bobby Petrino's offense did in its first public showing was enough to raise some eyebrows. Petrino is still Petrino.
One of the stars of that offense was fullback/running back hybrid LJ Scott, who went for 93 yards on 13 carries for the White team and 35 yards and a touchdown on nine carries for the Red team, per the school's official box score.
Scott was the No. 554 overall player and No. 2 fullback on the 247Sports Composite, and he has been a consistent bright spot during spring camp. With proven commodities such as Michael Dyer ahead of him, it's unclear what his workload will look like in 2014, but Scott is a piece to watch for in the future—no doubt.
CB M.J. Stewart, North Carolina
North Carolina is a trendy sleeper in the ACC next season, in large part because of what it returns on offense.
On defense, however, there are the same old questions for the Tar Heels, and the secondary appears to be a particular weak spot on that unit. It needs someone to step up.
Might M.J. Stewart be that someone? It sure looks like he could be. He had seven tackles and an interception for the Tar Heels in the spring game and earned some post-game praise from head coach Larry Fedora, according to Brett Friedlander of the Star-News.
With so much youth around him in the defensive backfield, Stewart has a chance to step right in and become part of an ACC title race. But performances like this must become the rule instead of the exception.
Note: Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy of the schools' official box scores.