Bold Predictions for Top College Football Freshmen in 2014

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2014

Bold Predictions for Top College Football Freshmen in 2014

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    It was a good year for blue-chip true freshmen in 2013.

    Of the top 22 players on the 247Sports composite rankings, 18 saw at least a fair amount of playing time—everyone except for Reuben Foster, Matthew Thomas, Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne—and appear to be on track for nice college careers.

    Further down the list of top 50 overall prospects, players such as Alabama defensive end A'Shawn Robinson, Ole Miss safety Tony Conner, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa and Arkansas running back Alex Collins also flashed signs of nascent superstardom.

    In order to enjoy such a promising freshman season, a player must have a mix of talent, opportunity and health. Those were some of the factors in constructing this list, which takes a look at 2014's top prospects and attempts to predict the unexpected.

    Keep in mind that not all of these are actually likely. Otherwise they wouldn't be bold. But they aren't exactly far-fetched, either.

    In the case of true freshmen, it's always hard to tell.

Deshaun Watson Takes More Than 400 Snaps

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    Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

    After enrolling early and competing with Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly during spring camp, Deshaun Watson injured his collarbone and had to miss the spring game. Not long after, Kelly was dismissed from the program and Stoudt, a senior, was named the starting quarterback.

    But the impact Watson made before his injury left a lasting impression. Even if Stoudt is the "starter" heading into fall camp—and even though he's likely to keep that role through the start of the season—Watson will prove too good to keep on the sideline.

    "[Watson] is going to play this year and he is going to play (in Week 1) at Georgia," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said in a recent interview, per David Hood of "What is his role and how much will he play that is all to be determined through the progress."

    What starts as a gimmicky package here or there could turn into meaningful reps as Watson grows more and more comfortable. Stoudt is the safer, more experienced option under center, but even in his true freshman year, Watson gives this offense a higher ceiling. And with a College Football Playoff-worthy defense—something that is rare at Clemson—the Tigers cannot afford to waste this entire season playing it safe on an offense with numerous questions.

    Why not double down on the guy who has more potential?

Ermon Lane Catches Seven Touchdowns

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    USA TODAY Sports

    No freshman receiver caught more than seven touchdowns last season, so, essentially, this prediction is saying that no first-year pass-catcher will find the end zone more than Ermon Lane.

    Lane was the No. 3 receiver in the class and has the size (6'3") and physical tools to occupy the red zone role vacated by first-round NFL draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, who caught 15 touchdowns in 2013.

    Writes Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel

    Benjamin (with 15 touchdowns) was certainly a luxury more than he was a necessity, but FSU will still look to find a player who can be a reliable option when the team is in scoring position. Tight end Nick O’Leary could see increased targets in the red zone and Isaiah Jones has the physical build to produce around the red zone, but there is room in the rotation for Lane. Already on campus for a couple of weeks, Lane (6-3, 195) has impressed teammates with his physical ability and work ethic. He is raw, but his size and instincts make him an intriguing candidate to get targets when FSU is inside the 20-yard line.

    Fellow freshman receiver Travis Rudolph is more college-ready in terms of his all-around game, but no receiver in the class has a specific skill more college-ready than Lane's red-zone ability. And Jameis Winston knows how to throw a pretty nice fade route.

    He and Lane could form a dangerous combination inside the 20.

Florida—Not Alabama—Has the Best Pair of Freshman Cornerbacks in the SEC

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    Much ink has been spilled about the cornerback situation at Alabama—specifically, the potential for 5-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey to start or see meaningful playing time.

    But the Tide aren't the only team in the SEC with a pair of blue-chip freshmen in the secondary. And even though Brown and Humphrey were both top-12 overall prospects, by the end of the season, they might not even be the No. 1 true-freshman duo in the league.

    Why? Because Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson both look ready to contribute down at Florida. Assuming he does not miss meaningful playing time after a marijuana arrest, Tabor looked like a perfect complement for Vernon Hargreaves III during spring practice, and Dawson looked plenty capable in his own right.

    That both Tabor and Dawson enrolled early (whereas only Brown did at Alabama) and get to learn under Hargreaves gives them a small advantage over the pairing in Tuscaloosa. It helps make up for their slightly lower pedigree in a way that could prove important.

    Although, in the end, both of these duos should be impressive.

Jabrill Peppers Makes a Postseason All-Big Ten Team

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Where, exactly, will Jabrill Peppers line up next season?

    Who knows?

    And more to the point, who cares?

    As long as he sees the field in some capacity, Peppers will make a mark on Michigan's season. Whether it be in the secondary, on offense or as a kick and punt returner, you can mark him down for a good deal of big plays and at least a couple of touchdowns.

    His most likely route to an All-Big Ten team is probably on special teams. Especially if Maryland tries to limit Stefon Diggs' all-purpose touches (for reasons of health and sustainability), Peppers could become the best return man in the conference.

    But he could also be one of its best safeties.

Kyle Allen Is a Freshman All-American Quarterback

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Kyle Allen will have his fair share of growing pains. But you know who else did? Penn State's Christian Hackenberg—last year's No. 1 overall quarterback recruit and Freshman All-American signal-caller.

    Those lumps are a part of the process. Allen was the top-ranked QB recruit for a reason—specifically, his downfield accuracy—and the last two starting quarterbacks under Kevin Sumlin have been the leading passer in college football history (Case Keenum) and the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy (Johnny Manziel).

    He's set up pretty well for success.

    And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Allen should have one of the best offensive lines in college football, an efficient running game, a high-upside cast of receivers (Malcome Kennedy, Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil) and a defense that requires him to score a lot of points.

    Even if the completion, efficiency and turnover numbers suffer from his inexperience, that should be enough to power Allen to some impressive yardage and touchdown totals. After beating Kenny Hill for the starting job in fall camp, he will become a Freshman All-American.

Leonard Fournette Does Not Rush for 1,000 Yards

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    USA TODAY Sports

    At first glance, this might seem like a safe, not bold prediction.

    But given the way Leonard Fournette has been described—i.e., as the second coming of Adrian Peterson—going under 1,000 yards would be a letdown. That holds doubly true after Alex Collins accomplished the feat in 2013, and T.J. Yeldon and Todd Gurley did in 2012.

    But the very running back who compared Fournette to Peterson at SEC media days, Terrence Magee, is the main reason Fournette might not reach the 1,000-yard plateau. Les Miles has always worked with tandem running backs when his depth chart allows it, and Magee, a senior, averaged 7.28 yards on 86 carries last season.

    Fournette will get some touches, and it's a safe bet that he impresses with them. La'el Collins and Vadal Alexander will plow some huge holes along the left side, and with so much inexperience in the passing game, LSU will not air it out as much as it did in 2013.

    But it also won't be good enough on defense to simply run the ball for 60 minutes, and Magee and Kenny Hilliard sniping carries might be enough to keep Fournette out of the 1,000-yard club.

    At least until 2015.

Raekwon McMillan Leads Ohio State in Tackles

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    Curtis Grant is a senior and a former 5-star recruit. He was just named to the Butkus Award watch list for the nation's top linebacker.

    And he's competing for his job with a true freshman.

    That should tell you all you need to know—which is actually two things. First, Grant has been good but never great during his time in Columbus, failing to live up to the potential he had coming out of high school. And second, Raekwon McMillan is not your average teenager.

    McMillan was the No. 1 inside linebacker prospect in the country and impressed during spring camp. In this feature comparing him to former OSU phenom Andy Katzenmoyer, Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors quotes McMillan as saying the following:

    [Head coach Urban Meyer] always tells us that he wants incoming freshmen to play early. He wants us not to sit back and relax and wait for the next guy, but to practice every day like you’re competing for a job and attack every drill like it’s your last drill…

    Every day, I come in with the mindset that the five-star stuff and high school really don’t matter anymore. All that can be thrown in the trash can right now because I’m just a freshman in college who got here in January. I have to come in and work hard like everybody else so I can make a name for myself on the field.

    In other words, McMillan is saying all of the right things.

    He has the talent, the drive and the humility to become an instant impact player on this defense—a unit that lost its three leading tacklers from 2013. Joshua Perry's 64 tackles last season are the most among returnees, and Grant had only 58 in 13 games.

    McMillan will be needed up the middle.

Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown Make Virginia a Top-15 Defense

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    Virginia's defense is closer than people realize to being great.

    Even before landing two 5-star prospects this cycle, the Wahoos already had one of the best safeties in America (Anthony Harris) and a deep, experienced core of defensive linemen and linebackers.

    In fact, in terms of efficiency (success rate allowed), this was actually the No. 10 defense in America last season. The problem was that it gave up too many big plays, leading Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall to refer to UVA's defense as "a glitchy Michigan State."

    Quin Blanding should fix some of those lapses on the back end, and Andrew Brown should allow UVA to commit even fewer players forward against the run—a place it already excelled. All together, this group is definitely good enough to become a top-15 defense.

    And that might be selling it short.

    Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.