Top College Football Freshmen in Best Position for Key Roles in 2022
Most of the time in college football, you worry about your team's recruiting class, get all excited about the signees then tend to forget about the players a couple of years while they develop and mature.
But that isn't always the case.
Plenty of times, true freshmen come into their school of choice, get on the practice field and are deemed far too talented and valuable to stand on the sideline. This is already the case for a few of the prospects from the 2022 recruiting class.
Camp isn't two weeks old for most programs, and already there are youngsters shining. Several players look like instant-impact guys who have a clear path to playing time.
Let's take a look at some of the premiere prospects who have the talent combined with the opportunity to make a major impact on the field once the season starts.
Raleek Brown, USC Running Back/Wide Receiver
It’s standard for Bleacher Report to list the position of the player about whom the content describes at the top of a slide. That becomes obviously tough with a guy like Raleek Brown.
He is listed as a running back, but the USC Trojans and new coach Lincoln Riley have some exciting players at that position in transfers Travis Dye (Oregon) and Austin Jones (Stanford), who were both recently named on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s top running back.
So, Brown’s path to playing time appears blocked, right? Don’t bet on it.
The former Mater Dei standout was the first commitment for Riley when he came from Oklahoma, flipping from the Sooners to the Trojans, and he is exactly the type of do-it-all playmaker Riley loves to find ways to use.
Brown could be a three-year wide receiver because he has great hands and is terrific in space. He almost certainly will take some handoffs this year, and he’s a home-run threat. The California native is also a potential weapon in the return game.
Riley knows, even if he’s not telling.
“Coach [Riley] has a clear vision for him,” running backs coach Kiel McDonald told the Orange County Register's Adam Grosbard. “I think you’re going to see him in a number of different places on the field because he’s more of a Swiss Army knife than anything. There’s a lot of things that he brings to the program and we want to make sure he gets a chance to showcase his talent.”
Luther Burden III, Missouri Wide Receiver
There is never a dearth of electric playmakers coming into SEC recruiting classes, but it’s not a common occurrence the Missouri Tigers boast a skill-position talent who was coveted by teams across the country.
Luther Burden III bucks that trend.
The 5’11”, 215-pound former East St. Louis High School pass-catcher comes from a powerhouse program and decided to stay at home and play for coach Eli Drinkwitz’s Tigers. He was originally slated to go to then-Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley’s Sooners, but he flipped commitments and never wavered.
Now, newly anointed Mizzou starting quarterback Brady Cook has an elite weapon to utilize in Columbia.
Burden is the type of athlete who doesn’t normally wind up on a middle-of-the-pack team, and Drinkwitz would be smart to get the ball in his hands in many different ways. As a high school senior, he had 20 receiving scores and added eight more in the return game, so he has a lot of options to do damage.
There's so much to like in Burden's tool set; SI.com’s Brian Smith thinks the freshman pass-catcher may have what it takes to be the SEC’s offensive freshman of the year.
With Keke Chism gone from the team, Burden has a prime opening to earn reps right away, and not only is he too talented to keep off the field, but it would also be a perfect pitch to recruits around Drinkwitz’s program that he isn’t afraid to play you right away.
Burden has the prime opportunity to be a star right now.
Will Campbell, LSU Offensive Tackle
There may not be a harder position to come into college football and start than at left tackle, locking up a quarterback’s blind side. Still, former 5-star recruit and LSU Tigers freshman Will Campbell appears well on his way to doing just that.
With new Bayou Bengals coach Brian Kelly revamping things in Baton Rouge, you aren’t going to recognize this as the same team as Ed Orgeron’s final, discombobulated group from a year ago.
Not only did Kelly hit the transfer portal hard, but he also wound up with some massive wins on the recruiting trail, including keeping Campbell in the fold.
Now, the Monroe, Louisiana, native is going to benefit from staying true to his original commitment. It looks like he’s in line to start at left tackle after going through the spring, and alongside veteran center Garrett Dellinger, Campbell could make what has been a weakness for a couple of seasons lean more toward the “strength” department this year.
Campbell is a prototypical tackle body at 6’6”, 325 pounds, and with the athleticism, size and flexibility to play the position, it’s not been a huge surprise for him to come into a relatively thin position and seize the opportunity. There may be some bumps in the road to him becoming a star, but Campbell is going to get some heavy on-the-job training.
Look for him to excel in a hurry.
Dani Dennis-Sutton, Penn State Defensive End
The Penn State Nittany Lions are going to be an interesting study this year with several upperclassmen returning from back-to-back disappointing teams from Happy Valley and an outstanding group of incoming freshmen that looks primed to steal their spots.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about quarterback Drew Allar, running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen and receiver Kaden Saunders, but the biggest quick-impact guy may be on the other side of the ball.
Dani Dennis-Sutton is a 6’5”, 254-pound defensive end is a legit star-in-the-making from the Penn State pipeline of the McDonogh School – which also produced defensive tackles PJ Mustipher and Dvon Ellies and linebacker Curtis Jacobs – and the Delaware native may be too good to keep off the field.
The Nittany Lions desperately need impact running backs, but equally as important is finding guys who can come off the edge and get after the quarterback. Dennis-Sutton seems to be the perfect complement to that need. He is big, aggressive, talented, and he will carve an immediate role.
Coach James Franklin is going to have to realize getting these talented youngsters on the field right away could mean getting in the win column a lot quicker. Explosive playmaker wins on the trail like Dennis-Sutton are going to pay off sooner rather than later.
Of all the talented incoming freshmen, he may be on the field for the season's first snap.
Travis Hunter, Jackson State Defensive Back
In case you weren’t paying attention a season ago, the nation’s top-ranked player head-faked all the nation’s top teams and elected instead to sign with Football Championship Subdivision program Jackson State.
Hunter’s signing was billed as a win for lower-tier programs and Historically Black Colleges in general, but really it’s only a win for the Tigers and coach Deion “Prime” Sanders. Why? Because now a lot of those teams have to play against Hunter.
And that’s not a win at all.
The 6’1”, 165-pound playmaker is a generational talent who is electrifying, and while he is in Jackson to learn at the helm of one of the greatest defensive backs to ever play the game, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Sanders doesn’t get him the ball in every facet of the game.
The Suwanee, Georgia, native can be a force returning kicks and punts, with the wiggle, speed and athleticism to run away from anybody. On offense, he can catch the ball, take it up a gear once he gets in space and change the game every time he touches the ball.
Sanders can’t have a weapon like Hunter and fail to use him as the game-changer he is, especially against a bunch of opponents who aren’t the same caliber athlete as him. He certainly will, and Hunter is going to be a dominant force right away.
The only downside is it’s going to be tough finding ways for casual college football fans to watch Hunter play.
Cole Hutson, Texas Offensive Guard
It’s not difficult circling a position on the Texas Longhorns where a youngster could benefit from a thin depth chart. The offensive front is a likely spot, and it just so happens coach Steve Sarkisian did a terrific job addressing needs there in the 2022 recruiting class.
While former 5-stars Devon Campbell (guard) and Kelvin Banks (left tackle) would be safe bets to break into the starting rotation at some point this season, Cole Hutson is less-heralded but already has impressed everybody in Austin. He started the last scrimmage of the spring at right guard and has the benefit of being an early enrollee.
The Frisco, Texas, native wasn’t one of the nation’s top 350 players according to the 247Sports composite rankings, but he fell just outside of that and has plenty of size and ability at 6’5”, 303 pounds.
With a wide-open spot to secure, he looks like he could begin his Longhorns career with the most meaningful reps.
The bottom line, though, is it’s difficult to choose who has the most long-term upside between Hutson, Banks and Campbell. Will all of them get every opportunity to play right away in ‘22? Absolutely, considering Texas’ situation up front.
Starting three first-year offensive linemen is rarely a positive ingredient for offensive success, but Sarkisian has some great-looking cornerstones for his rebuild. It’s going to be fun to watch them develop in front of our eyes.
Will Johnson, Michigan Cornerback
When Jim Harbaugh told reporters last week, “I think that our defense could be better” than last season’s, according to Wolverine Wire’s Isaiah Hole, those strong words obviously were contingent on some of Michigan’s young talent stepping up.
Freshman cornerback Will Johnson is one of the guys who's talented enough to provide an upgrade.
The Wolverines have tons of playing (and starting) experience among their defenders, but Johnson is going to be too gifted to keep off the field. Not only are there opportunities and vacancies in the Big Blue secondary, there's the fact Johnson is a budding superstar.
The former 5-star in-state legacy was always thought to be a Wolverine lean, but it didn’t stop programs like Alabama and USC from trying to turn his mind away from the team he grew up watching. It probably didn’t hurt that Michigan made it to the College Football Playoff a season ago and proved to the college football world that Harbaugh is the answer after all in Ann Arbor.
Johnson is the most talented defensive back on campus right now, and the 6’2”, 194-pound corner should contend with DJ Turner to be the Wolverines’ top player at that position. He even wears the famed No. 2 jersey and may wind up being the best DB at the school since Charles Woodson.
Are those unfair expectations? Yes. But Johnson has that next-level ability.
Cade Klubnik, Clemson Quarterback
The 2022 quarterback class doesn’t look like it has a bunch of instant-impact players who are going to come in and blow spectators away, but that doesn’t mean it was devoid of stars.
Perhaps the one with the most potential also walked into a golden opportunity.
The nation’s top-ranked signal-caller was Austin, Texas’ Cade Klubnik, who signed with Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers. Though D.J. Uiagalelei is the incumbent and a super-talented rising junior with three years of eligibility remaining who has a bunch of ability, he was terrible a season ago.
Swinney may not be ready to move on from Uiagalelei as his starter just yet (and there is plenty of reason to believe he can live up to the promise he showed as a freshman in ‘20) but the leash can’t be too long. Clemson is used to competing for national championships, and the Tigers didn’t even play for the ACC title a year ago.
Klubnik arrived in the spring, absorbed the playbook and is already turning heads in fall camp. Swinney told The Clemson Insider’s Davis Potter recently of Klubnik, “He’s the best we’ve seen him; the best version of him.”
Is that lip service, or is Klubnik ready to step right in and get those significant snaps if Uiagalelei is as mistake-prone as he was a season ago? Right now, the safe money is on the incumbent keeping the job, but who could ask for a better situation than Klubnik’s right now?
Dasan McCullough, Indiana Linebacker
The Indiana Hoosiers don’t normally secure signatures of blue-chip players unless they ball out on the hardwood rather than the gridiron.
That wasn’t the case in the 2022 recruiting cycle when coach Tom Allen hired Ohio State assistant Deland McCullough away from the Kansas City Chiefs to be associated head coach and running backs coach. His son, Dasan, was committed to the Ohio State Buckeyes to play his career, but it wasn’t long before he decided Bloomington would be his new home.
Not only did Allen get a new coach, he got the centerpiece of a recruiting class.
Now, the long, lean linebacker who is 6’5”, 230 pounds will almost certainly be a playmaker right away for the Hoosiers after impressing in spring drills. With All-American Micah McFadden off to the New York Giants, McCullough has a premiere opportunity to slide into the leadership role right away.
While in high school in Kansas, McCullough played alongside Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, who told Si.com’s Jack Ankony, "He's a unicorn. You don't really see a lot of guys that big that can move like that and play defense. I love Dasan, I love that whole family. He's going to have a really good career."
The Hoosiers could wind up with a strong defense, and they’ll need one to bounce back from a miserable 2021 season. McCullough could be a catalyst on that side of the ball, and he’s way too talented to keep on the sideline.
Tetairoa McMillan, Arizona Wide Receiver
One of the safest bets on this list is do-it-all pass-catcher Tetairoa McMillan making a major impact in the desert for the Arizona Wildcats.
Second-year coach Jedd Fisch has rebuilt that program from the ground up following the disastrous Kevin Sumlin era, and while it’s been far from an overnight fix, the Wildcats had a surprisingly strong showing on the recruiting trail and also added some exciting portal players.
Now, former Washington State starting signal-caller Jayden de Laura is set to take the reins of the offense, and he is going to need playmakers. While UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing is a strong bet to be the top target, McMillan is going to work his way up the ladder, too.
The 6’4”, 185-pound Anaheim, California, native could have played on either side of the ball, and it was a bit of a shock when Fisch convinced him to play his college days in Arizona. He’s the poster child for a talent turnaround at the program, and as Fisch looks to flip the roster, McMillan can be somebody whose progress he boasts about to future recruits.
“He comes in with a lot of attention, a lot of hype, and by all accounts in spring football, he backed those up,” 247Sports’ Brandon Huffman said, while qualifying McMillan as his Pac-12 freshman of the year pick.
If he has that kind of season, the Wildcats could flirt with a winning record.
Walter Nolen, Texas A&M Defensive Tackle
The group of recruits Jimbo Fisher lured to College Station, Texas, this past cycle was not only strong enough to give the Aggies the nation’s top class, but it may also be the best one ever on paper.
There was an elite quarterback, offensive playmakers galore and a gaggle of “Gig Em” defenders that would be the envy of any team.
Headlining that group is the nation’s second-ranked player, Tennessee defensive tackle Walter Nolen, who spurned overtures from across the nation to be part of the historic class. While he was never quite able to unlock his massive potential at the high school level, it’s just a matter of time before he lives up to those massive expectations.
Defensive line prospects like Shemar Stewart, Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy, Lebbeus Overton, Enai White, Anthony Lucas and others are crowding the depth chart with elite ability, but Nolen has next-level ability if he’s in shape and comes in with the mindset to dominate.
Between Nolen and receiver Evan Stewart, Fisher looks to have at least a couple of instant-impact players on either side of the ball, and they will prove their immense ability right away.
Nolen can play defensive tackle or nose tackle, and the Aggies are desperate for difference-makers along the front. You don’t sign a guy like Nolen to watch, so he will have every opportunity to be in the rotation right away, and it will not take him long to seize the job and be one of the top young D-line talents in the SEC.
Talyn Shettron, Oklahoma State Wide Receiver
Oklahoma State was part of a two-team revival a season ago in the Big 12, alongside Baylor. With Texas and Oklahoma having one foot out the door toward the SEC, the conference already has witnessed a shift in power.
If Cowboys coach Mike Gundy is going to prove last year’s success isn’t just a one-hit wonder, he’s going to have to get some production from young players.
The team lost playmakers on both sides of the ball, including top receiver Tay Martin who is off to the NFL. While the Cowboys have a lot of weapons who can step up and take over some of those grabs, one exceptional pass-catching youngster coming in who can help shoulder the load is Tayln Shettron.
Much like Luther Burden III and Raleek Brown, Shettron was a former Oklahoma commitment who decided not to head to Norman. Instead, he’ll be experiencing Bedlam from the other side of the field, and he could wind up being a major thorn in the Sooners’ side.
Shettron is a 6’3”, 185-pound receiver from Edmond, Oklahoma, and he is far too talented not to get on the field quickly. Gundy has a history of putting young receivers in a position to make plays, shown by how he handled guys like James Washington and Tylan Wallace.
It’s going to be the same rush to get Shettron on the field out of necessity, and there is a vacancy in that starting rotation he is capable of filling.