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14 Redshirt Freshmen Who Will Be Impact Defensive Players in 2014

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2014

14 Redshirt Freshmen Who Will Be Impact Defensive Players in 2014

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Jameis Winston carried the banner for redshirt freshmen nationwide last season, but his success masked some of the deficiencies on the other side of the ball.

    Only two of the 11 players named to the FWAA Freshman All-America Team were redshirts in 2013, and neither of those players—UCF cornerback Jacoby Glenn and Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez—came from the front seven. They both play in the secondary.

    The previous two years sent six and five redshirt freshmen to the first-team defense, respectively, so there's reason to suspect that 2013 was a fluke. There should be more of a contribution this season.

    This list sought a combination of talent and opportunity. It is not merely a rundown of the top-ranked recruits who didn't play last year; it's a rundown of the most talented players who didn't play last year and should play a lot in 2014. Only one of those two did not cut it.

    Sound off below, and let me know whom I missed.

DB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson

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    Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    Perhaps no redshirt freshman enters 2014 with higher expectations than Mackensie Alexander, who was a 5-star prospect and the No. 29 overall player on the 247Sports Composite and is expected to anchor the secondary on a very good Clemson defense.

    "Mackensie Alexander, man. He is special," said head coach Dabo Swinney during spring practice, according to Aaron Brenner of The Post & Courier"He looks tremendous."

    At 5'11", 185 pounds, Alexander has good but not ideal size, but he makes up for any potential deficiencies with the way he competes. The hackneyed way of saying this is that he "plays bigger than he is."

    In Alexander's case, though, that is absolutely true.

DB Marcus Ball, Arizona State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Marcus Ball did a little bit of everything in high school, playing some safety, some linebacker and a lot of dual-threat quarterback.

    At Arizona State, he is not expected to try his hand at offense, but that versatility should come into play on the defensive side of the ball. 

    According to Doug Haller of the Arizona RepublicBall is projected to start at safety, but defensive coordinator Keith Patterson hinted that he might also slide to spur linebacker during fall camp.

    If he heals well from the shoulder injury that ended his true freshman season, Ball will be counted on to help anchor, in multiple ways, a Sun Devils defense that loses as much talent as any unit in the country.

LB Nigel Bowden, Vanderbilt

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Derek Mason knows how to groom linebackers.

    The group that he just left at Stanford was among the best in Pac-12 history, and although it will take some time before he can groom Vanderbilt in that image, his arrival is good news for all the young linebackers—and, really, all the young defenders—in Nashville.

    Few players on the Commodores have the ceiling of Nigel Bowden, who was a 4-star recruit and the No. 15 inside linebacker on the 247Sports subjective rankings. VandySports.com tweeted about his potential in December, saying he could be a key player in 2014

    Expect him to start in the middle of Mason's defense.

DL Caleb Brantley, Florida

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Caleb Brantley has been a chore to get on the field in Gainesville.

    He committed, decommitted and then recommitted to Florida coming out of high school and spent last year redshirting to improve his body.

    But for UF fans, he should be well worth the wait.

    He was a 4-star recruit and the No. 10 defensive tackle on the 247Sports Composite, and according to Pete Volk of SB Nation—who also listed Brantley as a redshirt freshman to watch—he won MVP honors with the scout team last season.

    Even if he doesn't start, which looks likely, Brantley will see a healthy portion of snaps in a rotational role.

DL Demetrius Cooper, Michigan State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Demetrius Cooper was the story of spring camp in East Lansing, and even though he will not start over All-America candidate Shilique Calhoun or fourth-year starter Marcus Rush, he will have a role to play on a defense that is expected to be just as good as usual.

    Cooper's emergence began in the weight room. According to Mike Griffith of MLive.com, he has gone from 198 pounds last summer to 245 pounds now. He is literally growing into a superstar.

    "He's a high-flying guy, he gets off the ball faster than anyone would expect, times it perfectly,'' said Calhoun of his teammate, per Griffith. "He has great hand placement, that's the biggest thing, the hand placement and getting off the ball. You can't teach that."

    Good luck with that, rest of the Big Ten.

DB Marcell Harris, Florida

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Like his defensive teammate Caleb Brantley, Marcell Harris is no safe bet to start next season. He might be a safe bet to not start

    However, that will not keep him from getting a chance to make an impact. And once he gets on the field, an impact he should make.

    Harris was the No. 7 safety and a top-80 overall player on the 247Sports Composite, but he never stood a legitimate chance of playing as a true freshman. The Gators secondary was stacked, and he underwent knee surgery before even arriving on campus.

    This year, the Gators lose Jaylen Watkins, Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Cody Riggs from the defensive backfield and cannot afford to keep their most talented players out of the rotation.

    Zac Ellis of SI.com listed Harris as one of the 10 redshirt freshmen to watch—on either side of the ball—next season.

DB Chris Hawkins, USC

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Chris Hawkins was an overlooked member of the Trojans' 2013 class.

    Or perhaps overshadowed is the more applicable term.

    Safeties Su'a Cravens and Leon McQuay III were lauded as the haul of the USC secondary crop, even though Hawkins, too, was a top-50 player on the 247Sports Composite.

    But he made a name for himself during practice last season and again during the recent spring camp. He's been so good, in fact, that Steve Sarkisian has tacitly considered moving star cornerback Josh Shaw to safety, according to Bleacher Report's Trenise Ferreira.

    Hawkins will find a way to see the field.

DB Jermaine Kelly, Washington

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Jermaine Kelly was a huge coup for former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who got him to decommit from UCLA in December 2012 before pledging to the Huskies in January 2013.

    Now, after taking a redshirt, he appears ready to step into the starting lineup and pay immediate dividends—even without Sark.

    According to Anthony Cassino of UW Dawg Pound, Kelly "seems to be on the trajectory to become a star" after winning Mark Drennan Defensive Scout Squad MVP award last season. And new head coach Chris Petersen has always done well with defensive backs, turning Jamar Taylor, Brandyn Thompson, Kyle Wilson, Orlando Scandrick and Gerald Alexander into NFL draft picks between 2007 and 2013.

    Kelly was the No. 20 cornerback on the 247Sports Composite.

DL Justin Manning, Texas A&M

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Justin Manning may not be ready to play a giant role in Texas A&M's defense. But he's going to have to be.

    The dismissal of fellow class of 2013 defensive tackle Isaiah Golden thrusts Manning directly into the spotlight, even if he's not necessarily the starter. Between him, Jordan Mastrogiovanni and freshman Zaycoven Henderson, the Aggies will need to form some sort of semblance of a physical presence up the middle.

    Manning has the best pedigree of that trio. He was the No. 73 overall player and No. 5 defensive tackle on the 247Sports Composite, and his 6'1" frame carries 300 pounds surprisingly well.

    He will be given the chance to step up.

DL Chikwe Obasih, Wisconsin

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Chikwe Obasih made his presence felt despite not getting on the field as a true freshman, and head coach Gary Andersen took notice.

    "He was the toughest guy last year on the scout team, day in and day out, as far as just coming out and getting knocked around," said Anderson, according to Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal. "As light as he was, he kept on fighting and battling."

    Obasih was 235 pounds last season but is now in the low 250s and hopes to be around 265 by the start of next season. He is expected to start on a Badgers defensive line that has always been productive but no longer has the cushion of Chris Borland behind it.

    There will be no time for Obasih to ease himself into live action. He will need to be ready to contribute from the opening whistle against LSU.

DB Tyree Robinson, Oregon

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Tyree Robinson's twin brother, Tyrell, announced that he would transfer from Oregon earlier this week, per Andrew Grief of The OregonianBut Tyree is in it for the long haul.

    A safety and former basketball star, Robinson is projected as the only new starter in Oregon's secondary. That projection, of course, is based on optimistic speculation, but after watching the 6'4" safety's acrobatic interception in the spring game, it was easy to envision a future where he becomes an impact force.

    Despite Robinson's lack of playing time, Matt Prehm of Duck Territory ranked him the No. 21 player on Oregon this season.

    Prehm explained the ranking:

    We're taking a stab here with the belief Robinson will develop into one of the elite players on Oregon's roster next season. We are aware he's likely ranked higher than he should be, after all Robinson hasn’t played in a single counting college football game, but seeing and hearing about his spring this past year makes us believe he'll be a top player at Oregon for years to come…

    Is an All-Pac-12 caliber season in Robinson? We don’t believe it’s fair to assume it is or project it, but we also know a lot of college programs were after the San Diego prep out of high school and were saying he could have played and potentially started for them - USC and Washington included - right away as a freshman. We have to think his talents are good enough to be in the discussion, but again it comes down to how quickly can he adjust being one of the key players of Oregon’s secondary.

    Sounds like precisely the type of player this list is looking for. 

LB Matthew Thomas, Florida State

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Matthew Thomas is a monster.

    That is the easiest way to sum him up. He's 6'3" and runs like a tailback, and according to Dustin Tackett of Tomahawk Nation, he has bulked up to 235 pounds this season after checking in at 224 in 2013.

    Thomas was also the No. 8 overall player and No. 2 linebacker on the 247Sports Composite, trailing only Notre Dame sophomore Jaylon Smith. Thomas can do some of the same things Smith can, and if his redshirt freshman season looks anything like Smith's true freshman season in South Bend, FSU will be stacked once again at linebacker.

    No one on this list has higher upside. 

DL Greg Webb/Dajaun Drennon, North Carolina

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    Credit: 247Sports

    If North Carolina wants to be taken seriously as a threat to win its division (and even, maybe, compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff), it will need to get sound production from a pair of redshirt freshman, Greg Webb and Dajaun Drennon, along the defensive line.

    The Tar Heels lose their leader, Kareem Martin, from a defensive line that finished No. 20 in adjusted sack rate (pass rushing) last season, per Football Study Hall. That is where Drennon, a 6'4" end from New Jersey, will have to come in and make a difference.

    More importantly, though, UNC is trying to beef up a defensive line that finished No. 71 in adjusted line yards (run defense) last season, per the same source. That is where Webb, another New Jersey product, and his 310-pound frame will need to come in.

    He was North Carolina's prize recruit in 2013, checking in as the No. 140 overall player and No. 12 tackle on the 247Sports Composite. Drennon ranked 120 spots lower on that ranking but was fancied by the 247Sports subjective rankings, which considered him the No. 119 overall player and No. 4 weak-side end in the class.

    Together, they could grow into something special.

     

    Note: All class rankings refer to the 2013 class. Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting data courtesy of the 247Sports Composite.

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