Ranking College Football's Best Freshmen in 2017

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2017

Ranking College Football's Best Freshmen in 2017

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    Virginia Tech QB Josh Jackson
    Virginia Tech QB Josh JacksonRob Carr/Getty Images

    The 2017 college football season is nearly a month old, and most FBS teams have played at least one-fourth of their scheduled games. That gives us a large enough sample size to start evaluating performance, both from a team standpoint and in terms of individual showings.

    For the freshmen, it's the first chance to compare their work against the reputations they showed up with.

    Recruiting is such a huge part of the sport, but the highest-rated prospects aren't always the ones who stand out early. Among the 10 best freshmen in FBS so far this season—based on their performances to this point and how much they have helped their respective teams—none were 5-star recruits and only two were ranked in the top 100 of either the 2016 or 2017 class.

    Which freshmen have impressed the most? Let's wade through the cream of the crop.

10. Dez Fitzpatrick, WR, Louisville

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Measurables: 6'2", 200 lbs

    2017 stats: 12 receptions, 235 yards, four TDs

    Recruiting rank: 266th (2016)

    Lamar Jackson can't do it all himself, though the reigning Heisman Trophy winner often makes it seem like he can. When Louisville needs to move the ball through the air, it requires someone on the other end, too.

    Dez Fitzpatrick has asserted himself early as one of the Cardinals' best deep threats, as 25 percent of his receptions have gone for 30 or more yards. He's also responsible for 40 percent of their touchdown catches, having caught one in each of Louisville's first three games. He had a combined three TDs in wins over Purdue and North Carolina during the Cardinals' 2-0 start.

    Louisville lost its three most prolific pass-catchers from 2016, leaving behind junior Jaylen Smith and a mostly inexperienced group. Fitzpatrick watched last year's receivers from the sidelines as a redshirt, but he's now coming through.

9. Quincy Roche, DE, Temple

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Measurables: 6'4", 230 lbs

    2017 stats: 14 tackles (6.5 for loss), four sacks, one forced fumble

    Recruiting rank: 1,486th (2016)

    Matt Rhule left for Baylor last winter after piloting Temple to 10 wins and the American Athletic Conference title. He didn't leave the cupboard empty, though, as he held Quincy Roche back instead of burning his redshirt in 2016.

    The Owls have started 2-2 under new head coach Geoff Collins, with blowout losses at Notre Dame and South Florida, but Roche is off to a stellar debut. He leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks, ranking first nationally among freshmen in both.

    Roche's breakout game came in a 29-21 win over Massachusetts, when he had eight tackles (seven solo), four tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble. That earned him AAC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors, and it prompted South Florida to gear its blocking schemes toward neutralizing him a week later

8. D.K. Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    Measurables: 6'4", 225 lbs

    2017 stats: 16 receptions, 246 yards, two TDs

    Recruiting rank: 119th (2016)

    If D.K. Metcalf's hot start to the 2017 season looks familiar, it's because he's done this before. As a true freshman, he scored touchdowns on his first two receptionsa three-yarder in Ole Miss' loss to Florida State and a 10-yard catch a week later against Wofford.

    A broken foot then ended his 2016 season, but it also made him eligible for a medical redshirt.

    Fast-forward to early this month, when the Rebels opened against South Alabama. On their first offensive play, quarterback Shea Patterson found Metcalf for a 16-yard catch. Though it didn't result in a TD, it did set the stage for an eight-catch, 84-yard performance and signal Metcalf was ready to be a big part of the offense.

    Metcalf hauled in TD passes in Ole Miss' next two games, including a 71-yard score against California.

7. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Measurables: 5'11", 214 lbs

    2017 stats: 438 rushing yards, 8.3 YPC, five TDs

    Recruiting rank: 371st (2017)

    Running backs seemingly grow on trees at Wisconsin. The Badgers have had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in nine of the previous 10 seasons, and Jonathan Taylor is well on his way to making that 10 of 11.

    In fact, if he remains on his current pace, he'll end up as one of the Badgers' best freshman ball-carriers.

    While Ron Dayne was the Badgers' go-to guy right off the bat in the 1990s—he rushed for 2,109 yards as a freshman!Wisconsin frequently leans on upperclassmen in the backfield and gives fewer carries to younger players. Taylor started out in a similar boat, with nine rushes for 87 yards and a touchdown in the opener against Utah State, but an injury to sophomore Bradrick Shaw opened the door for Taylor to take on a bigger role in Week 2.

    Taylor capitalized, going off for 223 yards and three TDs on 26 carries against Florida Atlantic. A week later, he ran for 128 yards and a TD at BYU. His per-game average is tops in the Big Ten and fifth-best nationally.

    "Taylor isn't interested in sitting around and waiting for Wisconsin's unofficial line of succession to work in his favor," Dustin Schutte of SaturdayTradition.com wrote. "He's carved out a substantial role for himself in only a few short weeks."

6. Greg Dortch, WR/KR, Wake Forest

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Measurables: 5'9", 165 lbs

    2017 stats: 20 receptions, 242 yards, five TDs; 212 return yards

    Recruiting rank: 2,228th (2016)

    Off to a 4-0 start for the second year in a rowa program firstWake Forest is no longer the scrappy, defensive-minded team that gets by with as little offensive production as possible. The Demon Deacons are averaging 37.8 points per game, which is nearly double last season's rate and 48 percent better than they did during their four straight wins to open 2016.

    Starting slot receiver Greg Dortch has helped fuel this sizzling start, as he's capable of turning short passes into long gains. He has emerged as senior quarterback John Wolford's favorite target and is responsible for half of the Deacons' 10 receiving touchdowns, including at least one in every game.

    Dortch is more than just a little guy who can make corners, linebackers and safeties miss. He's also a menace for special teams defenders, as he's averaging 9.3 yards on nine punt returns and 21.3 on six kickoff returns. His 115.5 all-purpose yards per game are 48 more than any other Wake player.

5. C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Measurables: 6'1", 186 lbs

    2017 stats:  11 tackles, two interceptions, two TDs, one pass breakup

    Recruiting rank: 139th (2017)

    It took almost two full games before Florida's offense realized it was allowed to score touchdowns. Before then, the Gators defense handled that responsibility, with C.J. Henderson serving as a leader in that area.

    Henderson scored on interception returns in Florida's first two games against Michigan and Tennessee, which made him the first Gators player with pick-sixes in consecutive games since 1996, per Scott Carter of the team's website. Before Henderson, no player in program history had ever done it to start their career.

    He didn't even accomplish that feat as a starter. His first start didn't come until Saturday's win at Kentucky, when he had four tackles and a pass breakup.

    Florida's longstanding reputation as a defensive back factory is being furthered by Henderson, who chose the Gators over hometown school Miami (Florida) on national signing day in February.

4. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Measurables: 6'2", 225 lbs

    2017 stats: 650 passing yards, 62.3 completion percentage, seven TDs

    Recruiting rank: 44th (2017)

    Georgia didn't have any expectation of being able to redshirt Jake Fromm this season, even after fifth-year senior quarterback Brice Ramsey rejoined the team during the summer. Head coach Kirby Smart knew he would likely need to use Fromm at some point this fall, as he told Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Hreald back in August, "He's one play away from playing"

    As it turns out, that one play was the one where sophomore starter Jacob Eason injured his ankle while being sacked midway through the first quarter of the season opener against Appalachian State.

    Fromm replaced Eason and went 10-of-15 for 143 yards and a touchdown in that 31-10 win. One week later, he was starting under the lights at Notre Dame, throwing for 141 yards and a TD in a one-point victory.

    Fromm's overall numbers aren't dazzling, but with Georgia's wealth of running back options and a defense that's allowing 11.5 points per game, they haven't needed to be. He has only thrown one interception on 69 pass attempts and been sacked just twice, so he has limited his mistakes as he learns on the job.

3. Andraez 'Greedy' Williams, CB, LSU

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Height, weight: 6'2", 182 lbs

    2017 stats: 19 tackles, three interceptions, five pass breakups

    Recruiting rank: 233rd (2016)

    Players don't get nicknames by accident. In the case of "Greedy" Williams, that moniker was the result of his hearty appetite as a baby, but it still fits him now that he's starting in LSU's secondary.

    "My aunt kept me for a night and I guess my mom didn't fix enough bottles," Williams told Jim Halley of USA Today in 2015. "... It helps to be greedy as a defensive back."

    Williams has three interceptions, one in each of the Tigers' wins, including one on the first play from scrimmage Saturday against Syracuse. That set up a touchdown one play later in the 35-26 win.

    Williams, who was one of three cornerbacks LSU signed in the 2016 class, was redshirted while Kristian Fulton and Saivion Smith got to play as true freshmen. It looks like it was worth the wait.

2. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Measurables: 5'10", 208 lbs

    2017 stats: 520 rushing yards, 7.5 YPC, three TDs

    Recruiting rank: 46th (2017)

    With Mike Weber coming off a 1,096-yard season in 2016, it was going to be difficult for J.K. Dobbins to make much of an impact in his first year. Then Weber suffered a hamstring injury during the summer, which lingered into training camp and kept him out of Ohio State's opener at Indiana.

    Less than a month later, Weber may have been Wally Pipped.

    Dobbins ran for 181 yards against Indiana on 29 carries, the most by a Buckeyes running back since Ezekiel Elliott had 30 against Michigan in November 2015. It was also the most productive debut for an OSU back, breaking Maurice Clarrett's record of 175 set back in 2002.

    Weber has been limited to just seven carries this season and sat out Saturday's game against UNLV. There's no need to rush him back while Dobbins is running hot, but unless the freshman cools off, that gig is going to be his for a while.

1. Josh Jackson, QB, Virginia Tech

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    Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

    Measurables: 6'1", 215 lbs

    2017 stats: 1,127 passing yards, 65.2 completion percentage, 11 TDs; 144 rushing yards, one TD

    Recruiting rank: 457th (2016)

    Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente has a knack for developing quarterbacks. He turned Paxton Lynch into a first-round NFL draft pick at Memphis, and in his first year with the Hokies, he oversaw Jerod Evans' assault on the school's single-season passing records.

    Josh Jackson could end up being better than both of them before his college career is over. He's off to an electric start, helping Tech to its highest Associated Press ranking (12th) in six years.

    In Jackson's debut, he threw for 235 yards and a touchdown and ran for 101 yards with a score against West Virginia. It was the first 200-100 game by a Hokies quarterback since Logan Thomas in October 2013.

    His running numbers have declined since, but the aerial numbers haven't. He was 24-of-31 for 372 yards with five TDs in Week 3 at East Carolina, and while he's thrown two fewer TDs than Evans had at this point in the season, he's amassed 137 more passing yards.

    If Jackson can keep this up against Tech's next opponent—the defending national champion Clemson Tigers and their lockdown defense—he might need to start getting some Heisman Trophy buzz.

                

    Statistics are provided by CFBstats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted. Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.