Why 2014 Will Be the Year of the Freshman in College Football

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Why 2014 Will Be the Year of the Freshman in College Football
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LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette set the tone for 2014. Not just for himself, either. Perhaps without knowing he did so, he also displayed the kind of attitude incoming freshmen across college football can have. 

"My expectations: Heisman candidate, All-American, national title," Fournette said in an April interview with Sports Illustrated. "That’s just my first year as a freshman, though."

The talking didn't stop there. During SEC media days, Tigers running back Terrence Magee even compared Fournette, the No. 1 overall player in 247Sports.com's 2014 class, to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com. 

Those are lofty expectations for a player who has yet to take a snap in a college game, but Goodbread did note that Fournette has a good chance to win the starting job this season: 

Given that neither Magee nor veteran running back Kenny Hilliard commanded a starting role previously, Fournette is widely expected to be the Tigers' top rusher as a true freshman this fall. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds and with a highlight reel that left major college programs drooling over his recruitment, it's no wonder LSU head coach Les Miles, like Magee, said Fournette has shown an early willingness to learn and a humility not common in a recruit so highly decorated.

Of course, if Phil Callihan of UMGoBlue.com had it his way, freshmen wouldn't be allowed to play college football. 

"There's so much going on for them right away," he said. 

He has a point. Acclimating to college life is no easy task, especially with the added demands of football. But that hasn't stopped freshmen from competing right away, nor has it stopped them from enrolling early in hopes of getting a jump-start on things. 

Rather than stave off high expectations, freshmen are welcoming them early. 

Fournette is just one of several freshmen who could keep this trend of impact freshmen going this season. Jabrill Peppers, a 5-star athlete who signed with Michigan, could see the field immediately as a nickelback. Texas A&M wide receiver Speedy Noil, Baylor receiver KD Cannon, USC defensive back Adoree' Jackson and a host of other, perhaps widely unknown, players could all help make 2014 the year of the freshman. 

Take Peppers, who, according to Callihan, is already setting the tone for older players. 

"[Michigan defensive back] Blake Countess told me that everyone this summer has had to compete with Peppers," Callihan said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "That says a lot coming from a veteran guy like that." 

Another option, per Callihan, is to put Peppers on offense, perhaps as a wide receiver, where depth is thinner. Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke has hinted before that offense may not be out of the question for Peppers. 

"I don't know how you keep [Peppers] off the field," Callihan said. 

With the rise of tournaments and events like The Opening and Elite 11, high school football—or, at least, a seven-on-seven version—has morphed into a 365-day-a-year sport that highlights its athletes at younger and younger ages. And more than ever, young players are ready to seize the spotlight.

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Consider last year's session at The Opening when Noil posted the second-best SPARQ score ever (153.51) after completing the 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, vertical jump and powerball toss. The numbers may not equate to on-field success, but they only added to Noil's allure. Camps also showcased what he was capable of doing in a wide-open offense like A&M's, where he could be a go-to slot receiver, according to Sean Lester of The Dallas Morning News

Or, consider last year's Elite 11, which featured Jerrod Heard (Texas), Kyle Allen (Texas A&M) and Brad Kaaya (Miami). Is it possible for those freshmen to play in 2014? Of course. David Ash is Texas' starting quarterback, but what if he gets hurt? Allen lost a heated quarterback battle to Kenny Hill but pushed him in the final weeks. Kansas transfer Jake Heaps may not be the answer for the Hurricanes. 

A quick scan of the top players in 2014's class, via 247Sports.com, reveals several freshmen who will be in position to play right away. Like Peppers, Jackson can play offense and/or defense, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian told Rahshaun Haylock of Fox Sports West in April. 

Noil, Florida State wide receiver Ermon Lane and Alabama cornerback Tony Brown are other players who have the talent (and the favorable depth chart) to compete immediately. The Aggies and Seminoles lose star power at those spots due to the departures of Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin.

And as Andrew Gribble of AL.com notes, Brown has been catching head coach Nick Saban's attention since the spring. After getting torched through the air by Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight in the Sugar Bowl (348 yards, four touchdowns), the Tide's cornerback situation is up for grabs: 

His performance throughout the Crimson Tide's 15 spring football practices -- combined with Alabama's lack of experienced veterans at cornerback -- only made him more popular among his newest fans.

Saban certainly hasn't ruled out the possibility of Brown emerging as a starting cornerback by the time Alabama opens the season against West Virginia, and it's a challenge Brown appears to have embraced entering his first season.

2014 wouldn't be the first time freshmen have become key players for their teams. First-year players like Arkansas running back Alex Collins and Ohio State defensive lineman Joey Bosa were impact players right away. It's no surprise to see some of those impact players come from the top of recruiting rankings. 

Rankings may be an inexact science, but they can project how good a player is capable of being. 

2013 Impact True Freshmen
Name Team Position 247Sports.com Composite Ranking Stats
Joey Bosa Ohio State Defensive Line 4-star (No. 37 overall) 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss
Alex Collins Arkansas Running Back 4-star (No. 41 overall) 1,026 rushing yards, four touchdowns
Christian Hackenberg Penn State Quarterback 5-star (No. 13 overall) 2,955 passing yards, 20 touchdowns
Vernon Hargreaves III Florida Cornerback 5-star (No. 3 overall) 11 pass break-ups
Robert Nkemdiche Ole Miss Defensive Line 5-star (No. 1 overall) 34 tackles
Laquon Treadwell Ole Miss Wide Receiver 5-star (No. 14 overall) 72 receptions, 608 yards, five touchdowns
Thomas Tyner Oregon Running Back 5-star (No. 20 overall) 711 yards, nine touchdowns

Various

Can the '14 class be even better? Absolutely. 

Leonard Fournette for Heisman? It could happen, and he'd be the first true freshman to win. (Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won as a redshirt freshman in 2012.) Put up big enough numbers and anyone has a chance. 

Peppers could be the next Charles Woodson-type player for the Wolverines. Like Fournette, Peppers has been quick to downplay his own hype. Still, the goal of Michigan's coaching staff, before a single down has been played, is to find a way to utilize Peppers' athleticism any way possible.

Perhaps a player who's not on anyone's radar will come out of nowhere to take college football by storm. The year of the freshman isn't picky. That's what makes it exciting. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com

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