College Football Freshmen Turning Heads in 2014 Fall Practice
Not all freshmen are created equal, at least in terms of hype and expectation.
For every Leonard Fournette, Jabrill Peppers or Raekwon McMillan, dozens of other incoming recruits show up at fall practice with little to no fanfare. Though armed with the same full-ride scholarship, these less-heralded freshmen don't arrive with much hype, and because of this, their early promise comes off as somewhat of a surprise.
But that surprise is really only reserved for the general public, as any college football coach will tell you he wouldn't have recruited those players if he didn't think they could contribute.
Through the first two weeks of college football teams' training camp, several freshmen are getting noticed for the talent they possess and the push they're making to play right away. Some of them are well-known prospects in recruiting circles, while others are relative unknowns, but they all have one thing in common: They're turning heads.
Mason Cole, OL, Michigan
Height, weight: 6'4", 285 lbs
Recruiting ranking: 126th
Michigan's offensive line lost two draft picks from last season, including first-rounder Taylor Lewan at the all-important left tackle position. Replacing him as an effective blindside blocker was as important an offseason goal as anything else for the Wolverines.
There have been a number of players with a chance to earn that starting spot, but as training camp moves into the second half, it looks like true freshman Mason Cole could win the job. According to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press, Cole has been so impressive in practice that he may start the Wolverines' Aug. 30 opener against Appalachian State.
"He comes every day and works hard; he's physically better now than he was in the spring," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told Snyder.
Cole, a 4-star recruit from Florida who committed to Michigan nearly 18 months ago, has been practicing with the first team at left tackle. Previous projected starter Erik Magnuson has moved to left guard, Bleacher Report's Phil Callihan reported earlier this week.
Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami (Fla.)
Height, weight: 6'4", 218 lbs
Recruiting ranking: 141st
To describe Miami's quarterback situation as a jumbled mess would get votes for understatement of the year. Projected starter Ryan Williams tore his ACL in the spring and won't be back until midway through the 2014 season, at the earliest. Meanwhile, contender Kevin Olsen has reportedly been suspended for the Hurricanes' season opener, though coach Al Golden hasn't confirmed that publicly, per Adam Kuperstein of WQAM (h/t The Palm Beach Post).
Those circumstances made it seem like recent arrival Jake Heaps, a graduate transfer from Kansas who left that school after losing his job during spring practice, would be Miami's starter for the Sept. 1 opener at Louisville. But true freshman Brad Kaaya has kept the competition wide open and is making a strong push to get that starting nod, according to Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald.
Following a closed scrimmage on Wednesday, a report from the school's media relations department noted that "the quarterback race is led by graduate transfer Jake Heaps and true freshman Brad Kaaya—but not necessarily in that order," per Miller Degnan.
Kaaya, a 4-star pro-style passer from California, committed to Miami early but still visited schools like Boise State, UCLA and USC before sticking with the Hurricanes.
Toa Lobendahn, OL, USC
Height, weight: 6'3", 293 lbs
Recruiting ranking: 130th
USC's slow recovery from NCAA sanction-affected scholarship numbers as well as lingering injuries means that many first-year players are in line to see action in 2014. The best lock from that lot, offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn, also figures to have the strongest chance to be a true freshman starter.
An early enrollee from the Los Angeles area who picked the Trojans over Florida and Wisconsin, among others, the 4-star Lobendahn has been the de facto starting left guard since spring practice. He's worked with the first team line most of fall camp, according to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, and is in line to be USC's first freshman offensive lineman starter since 2007.
Coach Steve Sarkisian was praising Lobendahn last month during Pac-12 media days, expecting him to contend for a starting spot, but even with those advance accolades, the comfort the freshman has shown on the line has to be a pleasant surprise for Sarkisian and his staff.
Madre London, RB, Michigan State
Height, weight: 6'1", 210 lbs
Recruiting ranking: 450th
Michigan State doesn't have any concerns with its running game, not with Jeremy Langford back for his senior year and coming off a breakout season of 1,400-plus yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. But depth never hurts, both for the present and the future, and true freshman Madre London is angling hard for that backup slot.
The latest in what's becoming a pipeline of Big Ten players to come from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the 3-star London was sought after by several teams from Michigan State's conference. Mike Griffith of MLive.com said London spoke often during his recruitment of the intention to play as a true freshman, and his performance so far in fall camp is making that seem like a reality.
"I'm trying to be the best I can be and help my team out," London told Calloway. "I've just got to keep working hard and getting better with the (offensive) line calls and helping my O-line get the blocks."
Tyler Luatua, TE, Notre Dame
Height, weight: 6'2", 260 lbs
Recruiting ranking: 284th
Most of the attention paid toward Notre Dame's offense heading into training camp was focused on the competition for starting quarterback and on wide receiver depth. Everett Golson has locked up the quarterback job, and several receivers are showing promise.
But the unexpected surprise from practice to this point, though, is the emergence of true freshman Tyler Luatua, a 4-star tight end from California who could get significant use as both a receiver and ball-carrier. According to Bleacher Report's Keith Arnold, coach Brian Kelly plans to use Luatua's size and speed in as many ways as possible:
He's gonna play. We're gonna feature some backfield sets that will allow him to really use his size. He's close to 270 pounds, and when he brings it, he's a heavy load. We haven't had that kind of downhill physicality that changes the pace. We can still play fast and then play down hill. He gives us some really good flexibility. He's a fullback/H-back that gives us some versatility that we would like to have.
Last season Notre Dame's starting tight end, Troy Niklas, was third on the team in receptions (32), yards (498) and touchdowns (five) but wasn't used in the backfield.
Adarius Pickett, RB/DB, UCLA
Height, weight: 5'11", 175 lbs
Recruiting ranking: 136th
Position changes are not uncommon in spring practice or fall training camp, as an abundance of depth at one position and the lack of healthy bodies elsewhere can prompt coaches to move a player to a new spot for a better chance to contribute. It just usually doesn't happen so early in one's career, but true freshman Adarius Pickett might be parlaying the shift into significant playing time right away.
A 4-star cornerback recruit, Pickett came to UCLA to play a position where the Bruins have plenty of capable players already ahead of him. Where the team isn't so fortunate is at running back—an issue it had in 2013 as well that required the use of linebacker Myles Jack at tailback for several games.
As a result, Pickett has been moved from defensive back to running back, and so far the move is paying off. According to Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times, defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin said that "none of the DBs could tackle" Pickett when he carried the ball.
That sounds a lot like what UCLA had last year in Jack, who bulldozed over opposing defenders when he did rush it.
Cameron Robinson, OT, Alabama
Height, weight: 6'7", 335 lbs
Recruiting ranking: Fourth
Not all of the freshman head-turners from fall camp are ones whose impact wasn't expected this early. In the case of Cameron Robinson, it's more a matter of how easy the young offensive lineman is making it look against Alabama's great defenders.
A 5-star recruit who enrolled early, Robinson was the starting left tackle by the end of spring practice and has continued to hold that spot for most of training camp. Nick Saban told ESPN's SportsCenter last month it wouldn't surprise him one bit if Robinson started the Crimson Tide's opener against West Virginia Aug. 30, considering how well he's fared.
Robinson is making it a lot easier than expected for Alabama to move on from the departure of Cyrus Kouandjio, last year's left tackle who was taken in the second round of the NFL draft.
John Wolford, QB, Wake Forest
Height, weight: 6'2", 207 lbs
Recruiting ranking: 917th
When Penn State named Christian Hackenberg its starting quarterback last season, it wasn't that big of a surprise because the true freshman came to college with a lot of hype. The same can't be said for John Wolford, who will be in a similar position with Wake Forest this fall.
The unheralded 3-star recruit from Jacksonville, Florida, was officially named the Demon Deacons' starter earlier this week, when new coach Dave Clawson told reporters that a review of film from a recent scrimmage finalized the decision. He said it was more than just that one instance, that "consistently through camp, he has executed the offense at the highest level. I think he gives us the best opportunity to win football games."
Wolford, who also had offers from Mississippi State and Penn State and didn't chose Wake until after originally committing to East Carolina, holds Florida state records for passing yards, passing touchdowns and all-purpose TDs. His career passing TD mark of 96 surpassed the old record held by Tim Tebow.
Wake Forest, which went 4-8 last season, averaged fewer than 197 passing yards in 2013 and managed just 19 total touchdowns from its quarterbacks. Wolford had 10 in one game as a high school senior.
All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.