The Most Impressive Freshman Performances in 2017 Spring Games so Far
Spring college football games are not always the best indicators of who is going to provide a team with highlight-reel help once the real season kicks off in September.
But showing up and showing out in front of a crowd never hurts when it comes to freshmen trying to make a positive impression on fans, teammates and especially coaches. It may not prove those guys are ready for prime time, but they're at least making noise when they get air play.
This spring, there have been several solid performances from first-year players and redshirt freshmen alike. For some, like Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks, it's a step toward starting reps. For others, such as Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins, it's an opportunity to get their name out there.
The next crop of young runners looks special, and the aforementioned signal-callers are getting plenty of headlines, too.
It's just a matter of time before they become household names.
With full slates of spring games remaining over the next couple of weekends, it isn't a full picture of the top newcomers, but let's take a look at some of the superb showings so far.
Cam Akers, Florida State Running Back
It may seem like you've heard—and read—a lot about Florida State true freshman running back Cam Akers this spring.
There's a good reason for that.
Along with Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, he's probably been the most-hyped player over the course of the last month.
The Clinton, Mississippi, product is a special talent, and he looks like a can't-miss prospect. That was evident yet again in Florida State's spring game, when he rushed for a game-high 87 yards and accounted for 102 all-purpose yards.
Jacques Patrick may stand between Akers and a starting gig, but regardless of who takes the first snap for the Seminoles, Akers is going to be firmly in the mix for the most important games of the season right away. He's that talented.
Though he fumbled in the spring game, leading to coach Jimbo Fisher to talk about how Akers needed to go upfield more rather than sideline-to-sideline, it's hard critiquing such a budding star. Almost every team in the nation wanted the fast, bruising back, and the 'Noles hit the jackpot when he signed.
"It gave me a lot of confidence being able to go out there and make a few plays," Akers told the Clarion-Ledger's Annie Costabile. "But really it showed me what I need to work on. Next season I'm going to work to get on the field and help the team as much as I can."
He's too good to keep off it.
Luke Campbell, Michigan State Right Tackle
It's always so difficult for offensive linemen to stand out. If your name is called, it's usually because you did something wrong.
That wasn't the case this spring with Michigan State redshirt right tackle Luke Campbell. After battling for the Spartans' starting gig, he was mentioned several times by writers as a standout during the spring game.
For head coach Mark Dantonio's team looking for a rebound after a rebuilding campaign, it would be a major positive if Campbell lived up to his billing of being a 4-star prospect coming out of high school.
The Spartans need somebody to protect quarterback Brian Lewerke coming off the signal-caller's injury a year ago, and it looks like Campbell will have that opportunity.
Jeremy Warnemuende of CBS Sports wrote that Campbell seems to have answered a vital question for MSU over the past month.
Right tackle was a question mark entering this spring, but the answer seems to be Campbell. Dantonio said after the scrimmage that Campbell had taken ownership of the No. 1 spot opposite Cole Chewins, and he showed why with his ability to move and pull in the run game and the fact QB Brian Lewerke had a consistently clean pocket with the first-team offensive line in the game.
Big Ten Network senior writer Tom Dienhart also noted Campbell's run-blocking skills, paving the way for a 75-yard sprint in the spring finale. With universal praise like that, it's no wonder Campbell is tagged for doing big things.
Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State Cornerback
New Mississippi State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is a veteran who will be tasked with improving a unit after Peter Sirmon bolted Starkville for Louisville after the 2016 season.
He needs more playmakers to step up in order to do that.
If that happens, the Bulldogs would have the chance to be much better than they were a season ago, because the offense appears in good hands with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and Co.
One of the guys who looks capable of stepping up is cornerback Cameron Dantzler, who dazzled in the spring game with a pair of interceptions. The redshirt freshman redshirted a year ago and made the switch from wide receiver.
Blessed with elite size at 6'2" and blazing speed, the former target has great hands and footwork. After an ankle injury a season ago, he displayed all spring what kind of athlete he is, and the spring-game performance was a culmination of all that work.
"I was more happy for him than he was today about the interceptions," cornerback Jamal Peters told the Clarion-Ledger's Will Sammon. "He is going to be huge for us with that size."
Not only did the former 3-star prospect out of Hammond, Louisiana, pick off two passes, he housed one from 81 yards and also added a tackle for a loss. He can do it all, and everybody should look for him to do the same once the real games start.
Feleipe Franks, Florida Quarterback
Dating back to Will Grier's small body of work in Gainesville and long before him, the Florida Gators have been looking for a difference-maker at quarterback.
Nobody is calling back the search party just yet, but redshirt freshman Franks is showing more than flashes of answering that call. After flipping from LSU two recruiting classes ago, the blue-chip prospect carried with him a lot of hype.
During the spring game, he looked like he's capable of at least providing a staunch challenge to usurp incumbent starter Luke Del Rio, who missed the spring with an injury after an ineffective season in '16.
Though the numbers aren't going to blow anybody's door off, Franks finished the spring game with efficient, safe numbers. He completed 8-of-14 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, he didn't turn over the ball.
At 6'6", 214 pounds, Franks is blessed with ideal size and a terrific arm. He just needs the reps to cement his name as the next Florida quarterback, but he already showed the kind of confidence and leadership necessary to sit at the helm of an SEC offense.
The performance was a far cry from his three-interception game in last year's spring tilt.
In the race to replace Del Rio, Franks took a leap forward past fellow classmate Kyle Trask, who completed 2-of-8 passes for 11 yards.
"I think he’s ahead," McElwain told the Orlando Sentinel of Franks. "There’s no doubt about it."
Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State Quarterback
Few quarterbacks put up the kind of numbers in the spring game as Ohio State redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins.
As of right now, the 6'3", 198-pound signal-caller isn't a threat to unseat J.T. Barrett as the Buckeyes' maestro in 2017, who'll run new coordinator Kevin Wilson's offense.
But his time isn't far away, and with the kind of showing he had in the spring game, it's tough not to look ahead to that exciting future battle with Tate Martell. That's not even mentioning Joe Burrow, who may start the year ahead of Haskins on the depth chart.
How long will that last?
Haskins completed 26-of-37 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns in a sterling, head-turning performance. How good was he? Good enough to start the future gushing. OSU great Chris Spielman already began with a heaping helping of hype.
Spielman said Haskins is a future "All-American, Big Ten MVP and Heisman candidate," according to radio personality Bruce Hooley on 105.7 The Zone.
All that talent behind Barrett, who has Heisman potential if he could place any consistency with all that ability, is a good problem for OSU coach Urban Meyer to have.
"I know it is very close," Meyer told ESPN.com's Austin Ward of the race to be backup quarterback. "But I'm not prepared to say who is No. 2, who is No. 3, et cetera, yet."
The money here's on Haskins.
Trey Sermon, Oklahoma Running Back
One of the most talked-about topics of conversation this spring centers on Oklahoma and who is going to replace all that rushing talent with the departures of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.
The Sooners have a slew of potential playmakers lined up ready to go. Rodney Anderson, Abdul Adams, Marcelias Sutton and Kennedy Brooks are all capable runners who could be important cogs for OU.
But perhaps the guy who has the ability to be the biggest between-the-tackles, chain-moving offensive yard-grinder is true freshman Trey Sermon. The Georgia native was coveted by a lot of SEC teams but decided to head west and play for coach Bob Stoops.
The spring game was the first time many fans got the opportunity to watch him, and he didn't disappoint. Sermon had a game-high 13 carries for 73 yards for a 5.6 average. Though he isn't the most explosive back, the 6'0", 215-pound Sermon looks capable of filling the Perine role on the offense.
He'll provide some thunder to the lightning of Anderson and Sutton.
Are there enough carries to go around for Sermon's showing to be a sign of things to come? Quarterback Baker Mayfield thinks so.
"We have a lot of depth," Mayfield told SoonerSports.com's John Rohde. "It's not just two or three guys this year. We really have a lot of guys."
Sermon's name will be called plenty in 2017, and the spring game was just the first time you'll hear of the future star.
Shaq Smith, Clemson Linebacker
With all that talent around him and excitement surrounding the Clemson Tigers a season ago during a magical national championship run, former star prospect Shaq Smith had to stand on the sideline and watch.
The linebacker redshirted while head coach Dabo Swinney's team went on its run, and while it probably wasn't always easy, Smith is seeing the benefits now.
The 6'2", 240-pound linebacker looks like a defensive star who is ready to break out in 2017.
He was tops for all defenders with 10 tackles in the Tigers' spring game, including half a tackle for loss. He was all over the field. After patiently waiting his turn, Smith sounded wise beyond his years this winter when TigerNet.com's David Hood asked him about redshirting.
The right attitude and the approach to working hard every day looks to be paying off for Smith, who looks like the prime candidate to replace All-American Ben Boulware in the center of the Tigers defense.
"There was definitely a learning cure for me," Smith told Hood earlier this year. "It has been very helpful, and I am glad that I redshirted. I am redshirting but I'm going against Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman and Jay Guillermo and guys like that every day. I am getting the best of both worlds. It has been helpful, and it has prepared me for my future."
That future is now, and Smith proved throughout spring practice he can live up to the great expectations of being one of coordinator Brent Venables' next star defenders.
Double-digit tackle performances may just become the norm soon.
Trevor Speights, Stanford Running Back
As Stanford looks to replace star running back Christian McCaffrey and his game-breaking, do-it-all ability, it can't just be a one-man show.
Bryce Love looks like the heir to McCaffrey's throne as the Cardinal's leading rusher, but there are plenty of other candidates who look like they can open up head coach David Shaw's offense and provide Stanford with some guys who can get them over the top in the Pac-12.
One of those is freshman Trevor Speights, who redshirted a season ago but is now battling for carries in what is suddenly a crowded backfield with a wealth of opportunity.
With Love missing some time this spring, Speights got some valuable reps. Some of those came in the spring game.
The Texas high school product answered the call with more than 100 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Cameron Scarlett and Dorian Maddox provided some highlights, too, but Speights—who is the cousin of Los Angeles Clippers forward Marreese Speights—drew praise from Shaw.
"The athletic ability has been there," he told ESPN.com's David Lombardi. "He's strong and he's physical. We wanted to see the decisiveness—knowing where the blocking scheme is, where the cut is going to be, and the patience to know when to explode once the offensive line engages. And that's what we saw today."
That sounds like a player who is gaining the confidence of his coach, and if Speights plays his way into opportunities alongside Love, he's got the ability to become a star.
Marlon Tuipulotu, USC Defensive Tackle
One of the jewels of head coach Clay Helton's brilliant 2017 recruiting class was 6'2", 295-pound 4-star defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who entered USC mid-term and was ready to go through spring drills right away.
He was also apparently ready to star.
Halfway through spring drills, Tuipulotu had earned first-team reps. Now, entering a season where massive expectations are being heaped on the Trojans, it appears the big lineman is going to be right in the thick of things.
That was the case during USC's spring game, when he led the team in tackles and was one of just four Trojans to record a tackle for a loss in the game. Not only is Tuipulotu massive and strong, he's also explosive into the backfield, providing a weapon on the interior.
He was a big reason why the Trojans defense held the running backs to a paltry 2.9 yards-per-carry average in the spring game, and he is in the mix for a starting gig.
247Sports' Chris Trevino was certainly impressed:
Not only did the steal of the 2017 class live up to those expectations but he came a long faster than most expected: Tuipulotu is already projected to be the starting nose tackle coming out of the fall. While Kenny Bigelow Jr. still has to officially get back on the field, Tuipulotu has a good grip on the position. He's big. He's fast. He's strong. Not bad for a true freshman.
You'd better learn to pronounce the big guy's name, because it'll be one you'll hear often soon enough.
Jamar Watson, Kentucky Linebacker
Several standout youngsters, such as Auburn quarterback Malik Willis and Indiana signal-caller Peyton Ramsey, easily could have been on this list. But the final spot goes to a guy who actually may get some meaningful reps quickly.
That would be Kentucky redshirt freshman linebacker Jamar "Boogie" Watson, who plans on becoming the most famous player with that nickname playing sports in the Bluegrass State instead of former Wildcats basketball star DeMarcus Cousins.
Though Watson is going to have to battle some quality players like Denzil Ware for reps at UK's "Jack" linebacker spot, the lack of depth at the position almost assures Watson that he'll get to play some, especially if he continues to perform the way he did in the spring game.
Playing for head coach Mark Stoops' emerging Wildcats, Watson finished the day with an eye-popping three sacks to go along with his four tackles. Ware is going to start at the position, but the uber-athletic Watson may be too good to keep off the field.
"Boogie made a bunch of plays tonight," defensive coordinator Matt House said, according to CatsIllustrated's Derek Terry. "I thought he did a really good job. He was flying around. He showed a great first step. I don’t know how many sacks he affected the quarterback."
Though no Cats defender could actually bring down the quarterbacks, Boogie boogied into the backfield several times and put up big numbers.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report.