College Football

25 Freshmen to Watch in 2016 Spring Football

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2016

25 Freshmen to Watch in 2016 Spring Football

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Spring football is a time for development, and no one needs that more than freshmen.

    That's why they're so compelling to follow.

    Early-enrolling high schoolers are the pinnacle, since to this point they are mostly unknowns. Even if they arrive with high expectations, there are no "sure things" in recruiting. Spring ball is their first chance to compete against college opponents.

    Redshirt freshmen are fun to track, too. After spending one year with the scout team, they should be ready to make an impact. Those whom coaches praised for tearing up practice—and there are loads of them—get their first chances to back up the hype.

    Here are 25 freshmen of both types to keep an eye on.

DE McTelvin Agim, Arkansas

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    McTelvin Agim (6'2 ½", 268 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 18 Overall Player, No. 2 Strong-Side Defensive End

     

    Outlook

    Arkansas' biggest signing since 2009, Agim arrives this spring with high expectations. He joins a defense that underachieved last year, ranking No. 67 in S&P+, and especially struggled up front, where the line ranked No. 100 in adjusted sack rate.

    Agim is more of a run-stuffer than a pass-rusher, but his strength to push the pocket should theoretically make an instant impact. This line should be much better in 2016.

QB Blake Barnett, Alabama

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Who He Is

    Blake Barnett (6'5", 200 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 21 Overall Player, No. 2 Pro-Style Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    Barnett enrolled last winter and has now spent a full year on campus. Before that, he enjoyed a monster final season of high school where he rocketed up the recruiting rankings, won the Elite 11 MVP and became a 5-star prospect.

    Even though 247Sports has him listed as a pro-style QB, he's more mobile than Jake Coker and, more importantly, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell. Those latter two will compete with Barnett to replace Coker this spring, but Barnett, the highest-rated quarterback Nick Saban has signed at Alabama, would give the Tide their highest offensive ceiling.

DE Oluwole Betiku, USC

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Oluwole Betiku (6'3 ½", 240 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 16 Overall Player, No. 1 Weak-Side Defensive End

     

    Outlook

    Betiku is raw but talented—and both of those are understatements. The Nigerian has only played football for two years, but that didn't stop him from ranking No. 1 in his class at his position. His upside is almost limitless, which is why enrolling early was so important for his development. USC is losing its top four defensive linemen based on tackles, so it can't afford to develop 5-stars slowly.

QB Shane Buechele, Texas

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Shane Buechele (6'2", 185 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 188 Overall Player, No. 4 Dual-Threat Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes are the favorites, and don't count out Kai Locksley, but Buechele will compete to start at quarterback. That's rare for a true freshman at Texas, but the position has slowed Charlie Strong's rebuilding project, and he can't waste more time on prospects who potentially just don't have it.

    Buechele can move and might already have the most accurate arm on campus, which will endear him to new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, whose mentors, Dino Babers and Philip Montgomery, both learned Art Briles' system at Baylor.

    "Shane, he’s going to have a chance to compete," Strong said of Buechele, per Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman. "With Sterlin and a new offense, we’ll be able to know right away whether a guy can do it or not."

WR Donnie Corley, Michigan State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Donnie Corley (6'2 ½", 184 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 107 Overall Player, No. 15 Wide Receiver

     

    Outlook

    Corley has the best chance to replace Aaron Burbridge at Michigan State. He's a rare-caliber athlete for the Spartans, ranking higher than any receiver they've signed since Burbridge himself.

    That said, Burbridge developed slowly and looked like a bust until his final season. Corley can't afford to do that. The Michigan High School Player of the Year, who led Detroit Martin Luther King to a state title on a last-second Hail Mary, will have to play early and often.

WR Kyle Davis, Auburn

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Kyle Davis (6'1 ½", 218 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 72 Overall Player, No. 9 Wide Receiver

     

    Outlook

    Auburn is losing two of its top receivers, Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray, who accounted for more than 40 percent of last year's targets. Davis will get the first crack of this year's newcomers to replace them.

    If he picks up the offense quickly, he could start and become a reliable possession receiverand that's being conservative. If not, summer enrollee Nate Craig-Myers, the No. 6 wide receiver in the class, will have to come up huge in fall camp.

QB Jacob Eason, Georgia

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Jacob Eason (6'5 ½", 208 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 5 Overall Player, No. 2 Pro-Style Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey return, but neither inspires much confidence for Georgia. Eason is a true freshman, which also inspires little confidence, but his upside is so considerable it doesn't matter.

    His arm strength conjures visions of Matthew Stafford, his footwork is underrated and his composite grade ranks higher than that of UCLA's Josh Rosen, last year's No. 1 quarterback recruit, who started and played well from day one.

QB Deondre Francois, Florida State

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Who He Is

    Deondre Francois (6'1", 203 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 64 Overall Player, No. 3 Pro-Style Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    Florida State doesn't need Francois to win the job—Sean Maguire would do just fine—but it definitely hopes he does. Unlike Maguire, a senior with a defined ceiling, the blue-chip redshirt freshman can take this offense over the top.

    He's short but has a big arm and good mobility, much like Everett Golson at Notre Dame. Golson didn't work out in Tallahassee, but Francois has had more time to learn Jimbo Fisher's offense. This spring will show how much information he's retained.

QB Feleipe Franks, Florida

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Feleipe Franks (6'5 ½", 210 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 54 Overall Player, No. 5 Pro-Style Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    With Will Grier off the roster and Treon Harris at wide receiver, Florida's two best quarterback options other than Franks are transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby. Del Rio has thrown 18 career passes, and Appleby lost his job at one of the worst Power Five programs (Purdue), so Franks has a realistic shot to start.

    That doesn't mean it's likely. Despite his impressive build and high potential, Franks still needs to work on his throwing motion. But spring ball is when players receive the most constructive, skill-focused coaching, and head coach Jim McElwain is a quarterback specialist. Pay close attention to how the freshman develops this offseason.

ATH Torrance Gibson, Ohio State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Torrance Gibson (6'4", 205 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 75 Overall Player, No. 6 Athlete

     

    Outlook

    What exactly is he? No one knows. That's Urban Meyer's question to answer. But Gibson is too good to spend another year in purgatory, sitting when he's so athletically gifted.

    He obviously won't play quarterback over J.T. Barrett, but can he find snaps in a slash role? Has he developed enough to contribute at wide receiver? If not, true freshman Austin Mack, who almost made this list in his own right, has the talent to make Gibson obsolete. Either way, he'll be fun to watch this offseason.

OC Tristen Hoge, Notre Dame

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Tristen Hoge (6'4 ½", 300 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 89 Overall Player, No. 1 Center

     

    Outlook

    Notre Dame is losing Zack Martin, and replacing quality centers is one of the most difficult things an offense can do. Backup Sam Mustipher looks solid, but a strong camp from Hoge, the No. 1 center in the 2015 class and last year's Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year, would soothe Notre Dame fans' anxieties.

    Hoge bulked up during his redshirt year, which is huge since he was a blue-chip prospect despite lacking ideal size and strength. If he adds even adequate power to his masterful technique, he can step in and become a four-year starter. That would be a huge boost for the Irish.

DT Benito Jones, Ole Miss

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Benito Jones (6'2", 285 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 24 Overall Player, No. 6 Defensive Tackle

     

    Outlook

    Ole Miss loses one 5-star defensive tackle, Robert Nkemdiche, but replaces him with another. Jones lacks Nkemdiche's pedigree but is no slouch rushing the passer, where his explosion off the line makes him dangerous shooting the A-gap.

    It's a big year for Hugh Freeze and the Rebels, who need to sustain success after losing 2013's top recruits to the NFL draft, so even with decent players such as D.J. Jones, Issac Gross and Breeland Speaks all returning, Jones will not be brought along slowly. Ole Miss will ask him to contribute as a freshman.

QB Travis Jonsen, Oregon

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Travis Jonsen (6'3", 194 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 109 Overall Player, No. 4 Dual-Threat Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    Jonsen (nee Waller) might not start next year, but it's important he at least becomes the backup. Assuming Dakota Prukop wins the main job, that would pit Jonsen primarily against Jeff Lockie.

    In multiple chances to prove himself, Lockie has looked mediocre, which is what makes Jonsen's development so crucial. Comcast Sportsnet Northwest's Aaron Fentress compared Jonsen to Luke Skywalker, calling him Oregon's "only hope to restore balance to what has been a horrid run of quarterback development beyond Marcus Mariota."

    Speaking of Mariota: Don't count Jonsen out from starting this year. Mariota did the same in his own redshirt freshman season, pulling the upset by passing Bryan Bennett, the heavy favorite, on the depth chart. Oregon recruited Prukop for a reason, but it's under no obligation to play him. Jonsen has the talent to pull the upset.

DT Dexter Lawrence, Clemson

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Dexter Lawrence (6'4", 327 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 2 Overall Player; No. 2 Defensive Tackle

     

    Outlook

    Lawrence looks and plays like a No. 1 overall recruit. Michigan's Rashan Gary was the only thing that stopped him from getting there. But now that the cycle is over, none of that matters. All that matters is how Lawrence helps Clemson, for the second straight season, overcome major defensive losses.

    Lawrence and sophomore Christian Wilkins, a 5-star defensive tackle in 2015, have the makings of a special partnership, even though depth around them might need help. Add in redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell, a defensive end who nearly made an appearance here along with Lawrence, and it's not hard to see why the Tigers should remain optimistic about their defense.

LB Leo Lewis, Mississippi State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Leo Lewis (6'2", 240 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 63 Overall Player, No. 1 Inside Linebacker

     

    Overview

    Mississippi State's loss of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz hurts, because Lewis would have been perfect for his system. Regardless, big things are expected from last cycle's No. 1 inside linebacker.

    Beniquez Brown declared early for the NFL draft, and Mississippi State, which competes hard despite recruiting worse than its SEC West counterparts, needs to maximize almost all of its blue-chip talent. Lewis has the size and range to become an all-conference player.

TE Isaac Nauta, Georgia

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Isaac Nauta (6'3 ¼", 244 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 12 Overall Player, No. 1 Tight End

     

    Outlook

    Even with senior Jeb Blazevich returning, Nauta won't take a back seat. Head coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will find a way to get him on the field. Rare is the tight end who ranks inside the national top 15 recruits. Nauta earned that honor for a reason—he's just as college-ready through the air as on the ground—and will give Georgia a much-needed passing-game weapon, especially if he and Jacob Eason develop chemistry.

QB Shea Patterson, Ole Miss

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Shea Patterson (6'1 ½", 192 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 4 Overall Player, No. 1 Pro-Style Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    He won't start as a freshman (barring injury), but Patterson still needs a strong camp. It's important for Ole Miss to learn it has a capable backup behind Chad Kelly, the same way Baylor learned it had a backup—4-star early enrollee Jarrett Stidham—behind Seth Russell in spring ball last year.

    Patterson looked sharp in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and rode that performance past Eason for the No. 1 quarterback ranking. As good as Kelly was last year—and should be again as a senior—he's keeping the seat warm for a much better prospect.

QBs Bryce Perkins and Brady White, Arizona State

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    Bryce Perkins
    Bryce PerkinsCredit: 247Sports

    Who They Are

    Bryce Perkins (6'3", 215 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 559 Overall Player, No. 17 Dual-Threat Quarterback 

     

    Brady White (6'2", 200 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 67 Overall Player, No. 4 Pro-Style Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    White arrived with substantially more hype, but Perkins became a cult star during his redshirt year and might even be the favorite to start next season. Either way, both quarterbacks will compete with Manny Wilkins for control of a high-variance offense.

    Head coach Todd Graham knows how to score points, but the loss of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who replaced Justin Fuente at Memphis, might throw things out of whack.

    Either Perkins or White needs to become more than a game manager, which is ultimately, unfortunately, the most Arizona State ever got from Mike Bercovici.

QB Tommy Stevens, Penn State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Tommy Stevens (6'4", 211 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 644 Overall Player, No. 21 Dual-Threat Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    Unlike Christian Hackenberg, Penn State's next quarterback will be set up for success. The offensive line looks better (mostly because it can't get worse), the top three receivers return and 5-star running back Miles Sanders, the No. 1 running back in the country, joins breakout sophomore Saquon Barkley in potentially the nation's best backfield.

    All this offense needs is a quarterback. Sophomore Trace McSorley might be the answer, but it's hard to get excited about his ceiling. Stevens, on the other hand, has earned rave reviews since enrolling last spring, including one from Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod, who called him "the future of Penn State football."

    It's time to see him in action.

LB Shaquille Quarterman, Miami (FL)

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Shaquille Quarterman (6'0 ¼", 233 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 109 Overall Player, No. 5 Inside Linebacker

     

    Outlook

    Miami is known for having physical, downhill linebackers. Quarterman fits that profile. He's bigger than the Hurricanes' most recent linebacker superstar—Denzel Perryman—but nimble enough to get from sideline to sideline.

    With Raphael Kirby and Tyriq McCord departing, there is also room for Quarterman to play, even if it's not necessarily on the inside. Regardless, the freshman should thrive in Manny Diaz's aggressive defense, which has always been kind to linebackers.

OT Drew Richmond, Tennessee

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Drew Richmond (6'5", 301 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 54 Overall Player, No. 3 Offensive Tackle

     

    Outlook

    Chance Hall will start at one tackle spot, leaving Richmond as the favorite for the other. He'll battle redshirt junior Brett Kendrick, who has more experience but considerably less upside, along with potential breakout freshmen for the job.

    It's crucial for Tennessee to build its line up—and fast—with Alvin Kamara, Jalen Hurd and Joshua Dobbs all eligible to declare for the 2017 draft. This is the only year it's guaranteed to have all three. Although he is raw and untested, Richmond would help Tennessee maximize that backfield. This spring will be instrumental in bringing him along.

S Deionte Thompson, Alabama

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    Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

    Who He Is

    Deionte Thompson (6'2", 183 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 44 Overall Player, No. 2 Safety

     

    Outlook

    Alabama has more depth at cornerback, where fellow redshirt freshman Kendall Sheffield lines up, than at safety, where Thompson will return after spending some time at receiver.

    The former top-50 recruit enrolled last spring and left a big impression, but coaches moved him around based on positional need. This year, he should settle for good on defense, where he can master one position instead of becoming fluent in two. That will help him reach his full potential.

QB Ricky Town, Arkansas

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Ricky Town (6'3", 200 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 79 Overall Player, No. 6 Pro-Style Quarterback

     

    Outlook

    Town was enrolled at USC but transferred last August and spent the year with Arkansas, learning Dan Enos' system and watching Brandon Allen emerge as an NFL draft prospect. He'll compete with Allen's younger brother, Austin, along with Rafe Peavey and fellow redshirt freshman Ty Storey, to inherit control of a quietly explosive offense.

    Once a 5-star prospect, Town fell off his senior year but still ranked in the top 100. He's a pro-style passer with a pretty release who can make all the same throws as Allen. We'll learn this spring how well he learned and fits within Enos' scheme.

RB Mike Weber, Ohio State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Mike Weber (5'10", 215 lbs)

    Redshirt Freshman; Class of 2015

    No. 78 Overall Player, No. 9 Running Back

     

    Outlook

    The loss of Ezekiel Elliott cannot be overstated. More than just a great a rusher, he was the best pass-blocking running back in the country.

    Weber has the frame and skill to replace Elliott—in some capacity—on the ground, but whoever wins the job between him, Bri'onte Dunn and Curtis Samuel will have to embrace the little things. Especially with major losses at receiver, Ohio State's running back will play a big role in the passing game.

OT Jonah Williams, Alabama

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Who He Is

    Jonah Williams (6'5", 296 lbs)

    True Freshman; Class of 2016

    No. 17 Overall Player, No. 2 Offensive Tackle

     

    Outlook

    Williams and JUCO transfer Charles Baldwin, another early enrollee, will compete for the starting right tackle job opposite Cameron Robinson. If you remember the national title game—and really, Alabama's whole season—you'll know how much Dominick Jackson struggled in that role and how much it affected Alabama's offense.

    One thing to watch with Williams is weight gain. He's a 5-star recruit despite weighing under 300 pounds, which is rare (though not unheard of) for a lineman. His tape and technique are stronger than his measurables, but if Alabama's strength program corrects thatas it shouldthere's no reason he can't start from day one.

     

    All recruiting info refers to 247Sports' composite rankings. All advanced stats via SB Nation's Bill Connelly.

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