Best Of The Best | College Football's 10 Greatest Freshmen

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Best Of The Best | College Football's 10 Greatest Freshmen
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

There was a time, not that long ago actually, when college football was dominated by men who looked like Hacksaw Jim Duggan, and never, ever needed a fake I.D. to get into a bar. It was the redshirt era—a time when fifth-year seniors ruled the gridiron and freshmen spent the majority of their game time waving towels over their heads on the sidelines.

But with the onslaught of early entries into the NFL Draft and the rise of the super-underclassman in recent years (see Tebow, Peterson, Crabtree, et al … ), more freshmen are arriving on campuses each fall looking to make an impact from Day One. So with the college football season nearly upon us, we thought we’d take a look back today on the game’s greatest freshmen. And yes, a few of them even managed to make their mark during the Hacksaw Duggan era:

No. 1—Emmitt Smith, Florida, RB, 1987. True impact freshmen were still a rarity during the 1970s and ’80s, but the one position that seemed to produce more than any other was running back. And the running back who made the biggest splash of them all was Emmitt Smith. A decorated prep running back out of Pensacola (Fla.) Escambia, the undersized Smith still had his share of doubters when he was signed by the University of Florida. But in his first full game as the Gators’ featured back, Smith broke the school’s 40-year-old single-game rushing record, galloping for 224 yards and a pair of TDs in a victory over Alabama. Smith finished his rookie campaign with 1,341 yards and earned Freshman of the Year honors from both the Southeastern Conference and the Associated Press. Smith bolted Gainesville after his junior year with 58 school rushing records, and went on to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.

No. 2—Marshall Faulk, San Diego State, RB, 1991. Another frosh running back with a supersized high school resume and an undersized frame would make an enormous impact on the game just a few seasons later. In his second college start, Marshall Faulk shattered a pair of NCAA rushing records by rushing for 386 yards and seven touchdowns in a rout of Pacific. Faulk went on to compile one of the gaudiest freshman lines in NCAA history – 1,429 rushing yards and 23 TDs. Three years later, he exited as the second overall pick in the NFL Draft and went on to become one of the league’s most prolific backs and a fantasy player’s wet dream (he’s still the only RB in NFL history to compile 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards over his career).

No. 3—Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma, QB, 1985. If you’re a college football fan who grew up in the Atari and Frankie Goes to Hollywood era, chances are you remember this lightning-fast quarterback well. If you’re a fan from the Xbox and Jay-Z era … well, maybe not so much. Which is a shame, because you missed seeing one of the most scintillating QBs in the game’s history. With feet as quick as a hiccup and the ability to cut on a dime, Holieway was a natural to run Barry Switzer’s option offense when he took over for an injured Troy Aikman four games into the 1985 season. He went on to lead the Sooners to an 11-1 season, capping it with a victory over Penn State in the Orange Bowl and a national championship. Holieway remains the only true freshman QB to lead his team to a national title. Unfortunately, Holieway’s remarkable freshman year would be the apex of his career, as off-field issues and knee injuries derailed his success.

No. 4—Bernie Kosar, Miami, QB, 1983. While Holieway may be the only true freshman to lead his team to a national crown, one strong-armed QB managed to pull off the feat as a redshirt frosh two years earlier. And it’s easy to overlook the accomplishment, as Bernie Kosar played like a fifth-year senior from the moment he stepped on campus in Coral Gables. Kosar completed 61.5 percent of his passes (remember kids, this was before the bubble screen era) for 2,328 yards and 15 TDs, leading the Hurricanes to an 11–1 regular-season mark and a spot in the Orange Bowl against top-ranked Nebraska. Kosar passed for 300 yards and two TDs, helping the Hurricanes halt the Huskers’ 22-game winning streak and collect the school’s first national title.

No. 5—Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech, WR, 2007. The San Francisco 49ers, who selected Tech’s superstar receiver with the 10th pick in this spring’s NFL Draft, can only hope that Crabtree will have the same impact in the Bay Area this fall that he had on the Texas plains in the fall of 2007. A standout QB for perennial high school power Dallas Carter, Crabtree redshirted his first year in Lubbock while acclimating himself to the wideout position. He proved to be a quick study. In the fall of ‘07, Crabtree put together one of the most prolific campaigns in the history of the position, piling up 1,861 receiving yards and 21 TD catches under coach Mike Leach’s high-flying system. Crabtree garnered a slew of awards, including the Biletnikoff Trophy (given to the nation’s top receiver) and a unanimous All-America selection.

No. 6—Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma, 2004. Peterson is better known these days as an All-Pro back for the Minnesota Vikings. But in 2004, “A.D.” he was the B.M.O.C. for OU. Peterson exploded out of the gate for the Sooners during his freshman season, running for 1,925 yards en route to earning first-team AP All-America honors. The workhorse back (he led the nation in carries as a freshman with 339) finished second to USC quarterback Matt Leinart in voting for the Heisman Trophy—the highest finish ever for a freshman.

No. 7—Tim Brown, Notre Dame, WR, 1984. No player on this list had as rocky a start to his college career as this future Heisman Trophy winner did. The Dallas native arrived in South Bend as a ballyhooed recruit under Gerry Faust, and even earned a spot as the team’s starting kickoff returner for the season-opener against Purdue. On the opening kickoff, Brown fumbled, Purdue recovered, and the Irish went on to lose. Brown persevered, however, and went on to set the school’s freshman record for receptions. He went on to a stellar career that culminated with winning the 1987 Heisman. Brown was also a nine-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.

No. 8—Maurice Clarett, RB, Ohio State, 2002. Like Holieway, Maurice Clarett’s star burned brightest his freshman year. The talented but troubled running back was a one-year wonder for the Buckeyes, rushing for 1,237 yards and 18 TDs to help lead Ohio State to a national title. Amid a bevy of academic and off-field problems, however, Clarett was dismissed from the school a year later. He later challenged (unsuccessfully) the NFL’s rule that a player must have been out of high school for three years to be eligible for the entry draft, and was waived by the Denver Broncos a year later without ever playing a regular-season down.

No. 9—Herschel Walker, Georgia, RB, 1980. Perhaps the most physically gifted player on the list, Herschel Walker became a national sensation for the Bulldogs almost from the get-go. With a stunning combination of size, speed and quickness, Walker helped Georgia to an undefeated regular season and a Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame that gave the Bulldogs the national title. He finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting after rushing for 1,616 total yards and 15 TDs. Walker would win the award two years later.

No. 10 – Jared Lorenzen, QB, Kentucky, 2000. It seems only fitting that a quarterback nicknamed the “Hefty Lefty” would make a big splash right from the start, and that’s exactly what Jared Lorenzen did for the Wildcats. The 275-pounder shattered six NCAA single-season marks for freshmen, including total yards, passing yards, pass attempts and completions. His greatest performance came between the hedges in Athens, Ga., as the beefy southpaw gorged himself for 528 passing yards (still an SEC record) and a pair of TDs in a 34-30 victory over Georgia.

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