B/R's 2014 Early Preseason Freshman All-American Team

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2014

B/R's 2014 Early Preseason Freshman All-American Team

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    It is a grand time for freshmen in college football. Although they were redshirts instead of fresh-out-of-high-school players, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston have won the past two Heisman Trophies in their first seasons of active eligibility.

    Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III was a second-team AP All-American as a true freshman in 2013, and "freshman" head coach Gus Malzahn—as he was considered by the FWAA—came within 15 short seconds of winning a national title at Auburn. Instead, Winston threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin and became the first freshman QB to win the national title since 1983.

    With all of that in mind, and with spring practice officially behind us, it is time for our first early look at next year's brightest youngsters.

    As criteria for this list, a mixture of skill level, game-readiness and opportunity were accounted for. The most talented freshman at a position is not necessarily the best bet to make the All-Freshman team; if he's buried behind two upperclassmen on the depth chart, 2015 might be the year he begins to make an impact.

    Coaching style was also a heavy consideration. Fair or not, stats are typically used as a baseline for postseason teams. A freshman with a clear path to playing time on one of the nation's top offenses was preferred over one in a more conservative scheme. Make sense?

    Chime in below and let me know who I missed.


    Note: All recruiting information courtesy of the 247Sports Composite.


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    USA TODAY Sports

    Brandon Harris, LSU

    Brandon Harris used the spring to gain a leg up on Anthony Jennings in the battle to replace Zach Mettenberger—and in Cam Cameron's offense, that is big. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote after the Tigers' spring game that the quarterback race is now Harris' to lose, and in truth, that might have been the case even earlier.

    Harris was the No. 3 dual-threat and No. 6 overall QB in the country, but none of the five players ahead of him has a clearer path to playing time. Kyle Allen at Texas A&M—the top-rated player in the class—is a looming threat because of Kevin Sumlin's offense, but even with some legal concerns surrounding him and a current indefinite suspension, Kenny Hill makes for stronger competition than Jennings.

    As far as redshirt freshmen go, Notre Dame's Malik Zaire would become the favorite if he finds a way to beat Everett Golson for the starting job. But despite Zaire's incredible spring game, that still seems unlikely given all Golson did for the Irish two seasons ago.

    For dark horses, keep an eye on Kevin Olsen at Miami, Mitch Trubisky at North Carolina, Foster Sawyer at TCU, Drew Barker at Kentucky, Riley Ferguson at Tennessee and Deshaun Watson at Clemson.

Running Backs

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    Greg Bryant, Notre Dame (Redshirt)

    Greg Bryant slogged through an injury-plagued true freshman season, unable to help a Notre Dame team that needed a boost in the backfield. But the former top-50 recruit had fans buzzing after a 51-yard run in the spring game and appears poised to become a lead dog at the position in 2014. "I’m just so hungry right now, it’s crazy," Bryant told Eric Hansen of the South Bend TribuneHis improvement could push Notre Dame back into the national conversation.


    Johnny Jefferson, Baylor (Redshirt)

    Baylor finished 10th in the country with 48.23 rushing attempts per game last season. Even with Shock Linwood ahead of him on the depth chart, Johnny Jefferson should get enough touches in Art Briles' go-go-go attack to put up big numbers. He is the next in a long line of explosive, big-play Baylor running backs, a coach's favorite because of his rare blend of speed and power. Don't be surprised when he flirts with 1,000 yards on the ground.


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    WR Josh Malone, Tennessee

    Of all the impressive early enrollees, none enjoyed a better spring than Josh Malone at Tennessee. He had six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game and appears ready to make an impact from Day 1. Tennessee's defense is a mess (which means the offense will have to pass a lot this season) and sophomore Marquez North will draw the No. 1 corner from defenses that do not play sides. All of which adds to a perfect storm of production for Malone.


    WR Devon Allen, Oregon (Redshirt)

    Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins have both graduated and expected top receiver Bralon Addison tore his ACL during spring camp. With a gaping void on the outside of Oregon's offense, Devon Allen stepped up this spring and looks poised to become Marcus Mariota's No. 1 threat in the passing game. A dual-sport athlete who also stars on the UO track team, Allen caught two passes for 94 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. This is not a bad offense to be featured in.


    TE Dalton Schultz, Stanford

    The top-ranked tight end in the 2014 class, Dalton Schultz walks into a perfect scheme fit under head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. Devin Cajuste has been okay but never morphed into the same type of threat Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz were for the Cardinal, which should help Schultz see the field in two (and sometimes even one) tight end sets. At 6'5", he is exactly the type of big, physical target Stanford fancies in the passing game, but he must keep adding weight this summer to become a viable blocker.

Offensive Line

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    Cameron Robinson, Alabama

    Cameron Robinson was the top-ranked lineman in the 2014 class and will almost definitely start at left tackle for Alabama. That means he will be playing one of the most important positions on the field for a team that is likely to contend for a national title. Even if he takes some early-season lumps, which would be understandable, that should be enough to land Robinson on the All-America team.


    Darius James, Texas (Redshirt)

    Darius James has some work left to do this fall; if the season started today, it is unclear what his role would be, what position he would play and whether he would even start. But James' versatility should eventually get him onto the field, and the way he excels in the running game should be medicine for an offense with major questions at quarterback. James was the top-ranked guard in the 2013 class and should benefit from the presence of new offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, one of the best offensive line coaches in the sport.


    Brian Wallace, Arkansas

    One could argue that Bret Bielema was exposed during his first year at Arkansas, and after ending the year on a nine-game losing streak, that is fair. One place he retained his reputation, however, was along the offensive line, where he boldly started true freshmen Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper and turned them into quality young players. Brian Wallace is perhaps more talented than both of them, and although the deck must be re-shuffled along the Razorbacks offensive line, Bielema will not wait to put his most talented players on the field.


    Damien Mama, USC

    The top-ranked guard in the 2014 class, Damien Mama is a mountain of a man (6'4", 370 lbs) who is dominant in the running game. USC is weakest along the offensive line, and Max Tuerk, who started at guard last season, moved to center this spring to replace Marcus Martin, per Johnny Curen of ESPN.com. That opens a spot on the starting line for Mama, who should seize it in fall camp and play well for the Trojans.


    Damian Prince, Maryland

    The No. 2-ranked tackle in the 2014 class, Damian Prince chose to stay home and play for Big Ten newcomer Maryland over SEC power Florida. He will get the opportunity to play right away on an offense that returns almost every starter from (the beginning of) last season, including quarterback C.J. Brown and receiver Stefon Diggs. If the Terps stay healthy, they should have a sneaky good offense. Prince should play a modest-to-massive role in that.

Defensive Line

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    Myles Garrett, Texas A&M

    The fastest-rising player at the end of the 2014 cycle, Myles Garrett dominated every facet of the Under Armour All-America game and finished as the No. 2 overall prospect in the country. Although he is still a tad raw, Garrett has ideal pass-rushing tools that should allow him to see the field early on a defense that needs help at every spot. He may not be consistent from down to down—not yet, at least—but Garrett will flash enough times and put up enough sacks to earn postseason honors.


    Andrew Brown, Virginia

    Even after missing the majority of spring practice with turf toe, Andrew Brown was listed as a co-starter on Virginia's most recent depth chart, per Mark Giannotto of The Washington PostHe was the top-ranked defensive tackle in the 2014 class and should immediately upgrade a position of need for the Cavaliers, shooting the A-gap with the pass-rushing skills of an end (which he played until his junior season of high school). That combination of opportunity and pedigree should help Brown achieve Freshman All-America-type numbers.


    Matt Elam, Kentucky

    Matt Elam made a statement with his college decision, picking home-state Kentucky and head coach Mark Stoops over Nick Saban and Alabama. He should immediately find himself in the middle of UK's defense, using his 372-pound frame (which he carries surprisingly well) to stuff the run in a conference that lost most of its big-name quarterbacks from 2013. Kentucky will not be good next season, but it will be better, and Elam will be an important reason why.


    Demetrius Cooper, Michigan State (Redshirt)

    Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush are the starters at defensive end, and that will remain the case all year, barring injury. But Cooper was the star of spring camp at Michigan State, rising from obscurity the same way Calhoun himself did one year prior. Comparisons have been drawn between Calhoun and Cooper all spring, per Kyle Austin of MLive.com, and on a defense that prefers keeping players fresh with deep rotations, the redshirt freshman will get plenty of chances to make an impact. Plus, Michigan State has had at least one player named to the FWAA Freshman All-America team in three consecutive seasons, including two in 2013. Why should we buck the trend?


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    OLB Matthew Thomas, Florida State (Redshirt)

    Despite losing two of three starters this offseason, much is expected from the Florida State linebacking corps, which has been bolstered by incredible recruiting the past few cycles. Matthew Thomas is the most-prized of that group, checking in as a 5-star prospect in the 2013 class, and he played well in a starter's capacity all spring. With great physical tools and what appears to be a healthy shoulder, he could become a big-time playmaker for the Seminoles as soon as this season.


    ILB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

    Throughout spring camp in Columbus, Raekwon McMillan was impossible to ignore. He was the top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2014 class and is pushing senior Curtis Grant—himself a former 5-star recruit who has thus far had a disappointing Ohio State career—for the starting job at Mike linebacker. Even if he doesn't win that battle outright, however, McMillan will see the field plenty for a defense that cannot afford to keep one of its best 11 players on the bench.  


    OLB Dillon Bates, Tennessee

    The son of former Vol and Dallas Cowboy Bill Bates, Dillon Bates comes to Tennessee as a top-100 recruit with a college-ready game. He did not enroll early to get a jump start this spring, but the way UT's defense has looked in his stead, that early month of practice might have helped his chances of starting nonetheless. Butch Jones will need to take some chances on that side of the ball next season, and Bates is good enough to reward him for being given an early shot.


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    Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

    Jabrill Peppers is pushing it, but not altogether crazy, when comparing himself to Michigan legend Charles Woodson. He is that rare of a two-way prospect. Even though UM appears set at cornerback with Blake Countess and Ramon Taylor, Peppers could slide over to safety—a la Jalen Ramsey at Florida State last season—and still become one of the best defenders in the Big Ten. Throw in the sub-package or two that he is sure to have featured in Michigan's offense, and Peppers could become the national breakout star of 2014.


    Tony Brown/Marlon Humphrey, Alabama

    Alabama is thinner at cornerback, one could argue, than at any position since Nick Saban arrived in 2007. Eddie Jackson's torn ACL this spring only amplified the problem, making it a near-certainty that either Tony Brown of Marlon Humphrey (or both) will start and play meaningful snaps as true freshmen. Both were top-10 overall prospects in the 2014 class, and though Brown holds a slight edge after enrolling early and playing well in spring practice, Humphrey is talented enough to play catch-up this fall.


    Jalen Tabor, Florida

    Jalen Tabor is tall (6'1"), rangy and polished for a true freshman cornerback—much like the man he's projected to start across from, Vernon Hargreaves III, was back in 2013. He ran with the first-team defense after enrolling early this spring and impressed coaches throughout camp. Fellow early enrollee Duke Dawson will challenge Tabor for plating time, but the latter was a higher-rated prospect and checks out better in run support, which Will Muschamp values from every position on the field.


    Mackensie Alexander, Clemson (Redshirt)

    With Vic Beasley at defensive end and Stephone Anthony at linebacker, Clemson's defense has a star at each of its first two levels but none in the secondary. Mackensie Alexander was the Tigers' top recruit in 2013 but missed the season with a groin injury, forcing him to take a redshirt. With starting cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson gone from last year's team, Alexander has a chance to become the star of the back-end unit. According to Aaron Brenner of the Post and Courierhead coach Dabo Swinney called him special and said he looked "tremendous" during spring camp.


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    K Daniel Carlson, Auburn (Redshirt)

    Daniel Carlson was the top-ranked kicker in the 2013 class and redshirted behind Cody Parkey last season. He is 6'5" and has a massive right leg, which he flashed with a 50-yard make during the A-Day game. Although he also shanked an extra point during that scrimmage, Carlson will be kicking for perhaps the best offense in college football. This is a difficult category to project, but on opportunity and potential, he seems like a proper early favorite.


    P Ryan Winslow, Pittsburgh (Redshirt)

    Let's stick with something relatively chalk. Ryan Winslow was the No. 3 punter in the 2013 class and had a chance to redshirt behind three-year starter Matt Yoklic last season. His father, George, punted at Wisconsin and in the NFL in the late 1980s, per his official team bio. That's as good a reason as any to place faith in a freshman specialist.


    KR/PR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M

    Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones were both considered as wide receivers on this list. While neither made the final cut, Noil at least gets a consolation as the top projected freshman returner in the country. He was the top wide receiver in the 2014 class, and his game does not belie his name. If given the opportunity, he is a safe bet to score at least a couple of touchdowns on special teams this season.

Head Coach

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Steve Sarkisian, USC

    Steve Sarkisian isn't necessarily the best first-year head coach in college football—on that front I will happily take Chris Petersen, who ironically replaced Sarkisian at Washington—but he is in the best position to win this honor in 2014.

    USC was better last year than its final record indicated, finishing 11th on Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings despite the four losses, and it returns some potential All-Americans in defensive lineman Leonard Williams, receiver Nelson Agholor and even sophomore safety Su'a Cravens. Seriously…does any new head coach have more talent?

    What's more, Sarkisian finally put the "Seven-Win Steve" moniker behind him in 2013, leading an injury-riddled Washington team to nine victories—its most since the Rose Bowl season of 2000.

    Would it really be a shock if this team won the Pac-12?