College Football Freshmen We're Most Intrigued to See in 2023 Spring Games

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 7, 2023

College Football Freshmen We're Most Intrigued to See in 2023 Spring Games

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    UCLA's Dante Moore
    UCLA's Dante MooreCredit: 247Sports

    National signing day is in the rearview mirror, and even though the February session gave us a few thrills, most of the proverbial hay was in the barn in December.

    A lot of those fresh faces are already enrolled at their schools of choice, navigating their way through the first few weeks of college life and preparing to go through spring practice. This includes some of the top talent in the nation.

    Several of these guys are going to have major opportunities with depth charts opening up, and while the transfer portal allows teams to fill gaps more quickly, a lot of incoming prospects are too talented to keep off the field.

    Spring is their first opportunity to prove they belong and separate themselves from the pack.

    With early sessions right around the corner, those of us who love the sport can't wait until our football fix is back. Getting a glimpse of young talent in the spring games is what drives attendance and viewership.

    Here are some incoming midterm true freshmen who we're excited to watch take the field this March.

Adepoju Adebawore, Oklahoma Edge

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    Credit: 247Sports

    A 6-7 record isn't exactly what Brent Venables had in mind for his first season as head coach in Oklahoma, especially when you consider the longtime defensive coordinator watched his Sooners rank No. 122 nationally on that side of the ball.

    Getting better players is the key, and Venables has addressed this with a top-five 2023 recruiting class that includes guys like elite safety Peyton Bowen and edge Adepoju Adebawore.

    The latter is perhaps the most exciting player to watch this spring because of his explosiveness. The 6'4", 240-pound Kansas City, Missouri, native gives the Sooners another all-world type of athlete off the edge, a twitchy prospect who is light on his feet.

    Team him with major portal find Dasan McCullough, who is coming over from Indiana, and OU could look a lot different than it did a season ago.

    The Sooners had 28 sacks in 2022, but look for that number to skyrocket this year. With players like Adebawore and McCullough getting after quarterbacks and Bowen helping to lock down the back end, things will improve defensively.

Zachariah Branch, USC Wide Receiver

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Without a doubt, the most electric offensive playmaker in the 2023 recruiting class is Zachariah Branch.

    The 5'10", 172-pound receiver from powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas didn't take long to commit to Lincoln Riley once Riley agreed to coach USC, and Branch hasn't wavered on that decision.

    Why would he? Riley is known for spreading the ball around to his playmakers, and the Trojans have Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams for another season before they'll need to turn to Miller Moss or Malachi Nelson.

    Even with all of the supreme talent at receiver still on the Trojans roster, Branch is going to have a few plays designed for his specific skill set the same way Riley did for Raleek Brown in 2022.

    Branch is going to get the ball in space, and he's a threat to make a house call every time he does. This spring will be the first opportunity to see his game-breaking speed on display, and don't be surprised if USC works him into the return game as well.

    This is a top weapon going to an ideal spot.

Dylan Edwards, Colorado Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Staying out West, if you aren't intrigued by what the start of the Deion Sanders era is going to look like in Boulder, well, you must not care that much about college football.

    Whether or not you agree Colorado's football program can rejoin the land of the living right away, watching how Coach Prime's team jells and adapts to his coaching style is going to be must-see TV.

    Sanders is in the process of flipping that roster, and 4-star running back Dylan Edwards—one of the dudes who will be on the field this spring—is expected to be a big piece of the '23 offensive puzzle.

    The 5'8", 160-pound dynamo is too small to be an every-down back, but he is a game-breaker who was committed to Kansas State and then Notre Dame before flipping and signing with Colorado.

    "We're not recruiting just no ordinary Tom, Dick and Harry," Sanders said, according to the Ralphie Report's Jeff Hauser. "We recruit some guys that can light up the scoreboard and prevent touchdowns from occurring. We're comin', and we're serious about that."

    Edwards is a fireworks guy, and Sanders should showcase him in a depleted backfield that needs difference-makers. Expect offensive coordinator Sean Lewis to design ways to get him the ball right away.

Justice Haynes, Alabama Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    It's nearly impossible to pick just one player from Alabama's majestic group of recruits, considering head coach Nick Saban seems to be on a mission to get the team back to competing for championships.

    After the recent hires of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, several members of the nation's top class are getting acclimated to Tuscaloosa and preparing to be on the field, including safety Caleb Downs and offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor.

    But Justice Haynes isn't getting talked about enough. Perhaps that's because the 5'11", 200-pound runner is entering a room that already includes guys like Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and Jamarion Miller.

    Haynes is a complete back, though, and he looks like one of those old do-it-all backs like T.J. Yeldon and Najee Harris. If he's one of the best options, you'd better believe Saban will put him out there.

    Haynes can catch passes, has elite wiggle in the hole and has the burst to get to the end zone after getting past defenders. While Downs and Proctor may have a clearer path to playing time, Haynes is worth the watch.

Nico Iamaleava, Tennessee Quarterback

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Nico Iamaleava rose to the top of the conversation as the best quarterback in the greatest class of signal-callers ever. He finished the cycle as the No. 3 overall player in the 247Sports composite rankings and the top-ranked player on On3.

    After coming all the way from California to Knoxville, he isn't just going to be handed the starting job, though.

    As the Tennessee Volunteers were looking to replace Hendon Hooker, who tore his ACL in November and later declared for the 2023 NFL draft, rising senior Joe Milton III played admirably in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson and looks to have the lead in the competition. But head coach Josh Heupel is going to give Iamaleava a long look.

    The smooth 6'6" quarterback can make all of the throws and is the future of Heupel's prolific offense.

    Iamaleava turned heads during bowl practices in December after enrolling at Tennessee early, and this spring is another opportunity for him to assert himself as a contender to get viable snaps this fall.

    While Milton looks better than he ever has before, he's won the starting gig three times before (twice at Michigan), only to lose it during the season. So Iamaleava's escalated development is critical.

Brandon Inniss, Ohio State Wide Receiver

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    Credit: 247Sports

    A lot has been written about Ohio State's incoming class of wide receivers, and the reason why is because Brandon Inniss, Carnell Tate and Noah Rogers are very good.

    The evolution of the pass-catchers in the Buckeyes offense over the past few years bodes well for this trio, and even though C.J. Stroud is gone and Kyle McCord is set to step in under center, there is a lot of talent in offensive coordinator Brian Hartline's unit.

    Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming are still on the roster, but Inniss can get in the rotation. Remember, Jaxon Smith-Njigba is off to the NFL after an injury-plagued final season in Columbus, and Innis was recruited to play slot, just like Smith-Njigba.

    That means snaps are available for the 5'11½", 198-pound Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native.

    Inniss is one of those guys who just finds a way to get open, is fast enough to make plays no matter where he lines up and is physical enough to break tackles. He is going to be a thrill-a-minute type of player when he gets on the field.

    Ohio State isn't shy about playing youngsters, so Inniss will have every opportunity to seize a rotation spot this spring in an offense that hopes to not miss a beat post-Stroud.

Bai Jobe, Michigan State Edge

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Much like Oklahoma, it's hard to believe, but Mel Tucker's first two teams at Michigan State were hamstrung by poor defenses, their head coach's specialty.

    Last year, even though the Spartans were actually better on that side of the ball, they still finished 101st nationally in total defense and mustered just 29 sacks.

    Unlike the Sooners, they don't have an array of young defensive talent coming in, but Tucker is getting some recruiting wins. None of those is bigger than 6'3", 225-pound edge-rusher Bai Jobe.

    Rather than staying in Norman, Oklahoma, and being part of the solution with the Sooners, Jobe is off to the Big Ten after coming to U.S. from Senegal to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA.

    The sport switch could pay off for Jobe, who is a big-time mauler with a projectable body to rush from the outside. He could add 25 more pounds of muscle and not lose a step.

    Jobe is going to be hard to keep off the field, especially considering the Spartans' major needs all over the defense. He will have the opportunity to fill a role right away this spring.

Arch Manning, Texas Quarterback

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Arch Manning is one of the most ballyhooed—and polarizing—prospects in recent memory.

    Despite playing at a low level of Louisiana private school football and essentially deciding not to participate in any major camp settings or postseason all-star games, he remained the top overall prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings.

    The 6'4", 215-pound son of Cooper Manning—and nephew of Peyton and Eli and grandson of Archie—could have gone to anywhere in the nation and ultimately chose the Texas Longhorns over Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and others.

    Now comes the fun part; he's on campus to battle Quinn Ewers for the Longhorns' starting job this spring.

    There's no hiding from the bright lights of a program whose every move is under a microscope and that is desperate to put a conference title contender back on the field.

    Head coach Steve Sarkisian is a known developer of quarterbacks, but Ewers didn't separate himself as a top player last year in Austin. Manning can start showing all his naysayers this spring that he's worthy of being the top player in the 2023 class.

    He's all set up for success. How quickly will it come?

Dante Moore, UCLA Quarterback

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The work Dante Moore put in during the All-American Bowl made everybody even more eager to see what he can do at the collegiate level. The UCLA signee was simply sterling, and the poise he showed in the pocket is exciting to think about.

    UCLA pulled off one of the biggest coups of the cycle when it flipped the Michigan product from Oregon, and while the Ducks landed on their (webbed) feet with a quick Austin Novosad commitment, head coach Chip Kelly wound up with one of the best quarterbacks in a loaded class.

    Now Moore is going to be battling Kent State transfer Collin Schlee and Ethan Garbers for the starting job vacated by Dorian Thompson-Robinson. If he plays as well as he's capable of, he has just as good of a shot to win it.

    UCLA's program took an upward turn with DTR under center, and now, Moore could elevate the play of the Bruins just in time for them to move to the Big Ten in 2024. He's got special arm strength, athleticism and talent.

Rueben Owens, Texas A&M Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    All eyes are going to be on the state of Texas when it comes to running back prospects in 2023.

    Over in Austin, Cedric Baxter Jr. has a golden opportunity to replace Bijan Robinson and be the Longhorns' primary running back. But the rival Texas A&M Aggies have their own superstar ready to go in College Station.

    Rueben Owens is a 5'11", 190-pound all-purpose back who has long strides but quick feet and can get into the open field and gallop past defenders. He's going to be exciting to watch in new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino's scheme.

    Petrino, of course, was hired to turn around an atrocious offense for head coach Jimbo Fisher and perhaps get him off the hot seat. Keeping the El Campo, Texas, native in his home state after he'd been committed to Louisville was a major piece of the puzzle.

    With Devon Achane off to the NFL, the Aggies lost their best playmaker on an offense that didn't have many of them in the first place. Owens has the ability to be special, and he is good enough to start right away.

Cordale Russell, TCU Wide Receiver

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    Credit: 247Sports

    With Quentin Johnston off to the NFL, the TCU Horned Frogs must fill a major playmaking void in the receiving corps.

    Taye Barber and Derius Davis are leaving too, meaning there are a lot of catches to go around. Even if guys like Savion Williams and Jordan Hudson are waiting in the wings, a freshman like Cordale Russell can step into Fort Worth and make a name for himself.

    The infusion of talent is going to be real for head coach Sonny Dykes, who is still riding the high of taking the Frogs to the national championship game. Getting Alabama transfer JoJo Earle was a big deal, and Russell is an explosive athlete too.

    He caught a touchdown in the All-American Bowl, and the 6'2", 200-pound muscular player with a lanky frame and big catch radius has as much upside as any receiver in the 2023 class.

    While TCU's challenge to find the quarterback heir to Max Duggan has been puzzling, if Chandler Morris is the guy in '23, he'll have a lot of options at his disposal.

    Russell is one of those who has a chance to be a big-play receiver right away for the national runners-up.

Hykeem Williams, Florida State Wide Receiver

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Sticking with the wide receiver position, the Florida State Seminoles landed one of the most high-ceiling prospects in the class, and he's already in Tallahassee.

    That would be 6'3", 200-pound Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native Hykeem Williams, a generational type of athlete with long strides, great hands and wild speed for his size.

    With Williams lining up alongside guys like Johnny Wilson, the Seminoles will have a bunch of matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. There's no question the return of Wilson is big for an ACC title run next year, but it's also huge in Williams' development.

    This freshman could be an X-factor. Mycah Pittman and several others are back too, but Williams has as good of a skill set as any of them.

    "There's a lot of returning receivers, and I'm just picking at their brain because we probably have one of the top receiver groups in the country," Williams said, according to Tomahawk Nation's Tommy Mire. "As long as I can learn as much as I can now and get a ton of reps, it'll impact the future tremendously."

    After getting our first look at him this spring, we'll know soon whether his time is now or later.

Peter Woods, Clemson Defensive Tackle

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    Credit: 247Sports

    One of the most talked-about players at the Under Armour All-America Game was 5-star defensive tackle Peter Woods, who dominated much of the practices before having a breakout performance.

    Now, he's off to play for head coach Dabo Swinney at Clemson, where elite defensive linemen turn into first-round draft picks.

    You'd be hard-pressed to find a program that has churned out D-linemen the way the Tigers have in the past 10 years, and they are going to have guys like Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and KJ Henry in the 2023 draft too.

    All that means for Woods is there are valuable snaps for the taking.

    The 6'3", 270-pound Alabaster, Alabama, native who played at powerhouse Thompson High School appears to be ready to plant himself right in the middle of all those reps. He's already on campus for spring practice, and he is a weapon while rushing quarterbacks from the center of the line.

    Woods is one of those guys who can play in the middle but has the athleticism of an end, and Murphy actually isn't a bad comparison for him at this early juncture of his career.

    It's always great when defensive linemen can develop for a year and live in the weight room before making collegiate contributions, but Woods may be one of those players who is ready right now.

    All stats courtesy of cfbstats and Sports Reference. Player rankings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.