Hyped Freshmen Who Will Light College Football on Fire in 2019

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2019

Hyped Freshmen Who Will Light College Football on Fire in 2019

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    After the early signing period and the high school all-star games, everybody has at least one incoming player they believe will be college football's next big thing.

    But we have to sort through everything and predict who will take a star turn.

    From a quartet of blossoming quarterbacks—including a duo of redshirts—to a group of nasty linebackers that looks ready to light up running backs, there are some exciting athletes set to take the field in 2019. The budding stars are everywhere and span all conferences.

    The thing about all these dudes? They were all highly regarded recruits, too.

    So, from the SEC's loaded group of newcomers to some instant-impact Big 12 prospects and the emerging playmakers in the Big Ten, there are players galore on the precipice of becoming household names.

    All they need is an opportunity, and that's coming in 2019. Let's take a look at some hyped freshmen who are getting ready to become the stars of tomorrow.

Matt Corral, Ole Miss Quarterback

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    One of the coups of Matt Luke's first full recruiting class at Ole Miss was California-cool signal-caller Matt Corral, who was once committed to USC and Florida as part of the 2018 recruiting class before he settled on the Rebels.

    With Jordan Ta'amu finished throwing darts around Oxford, it's Corral's team.

    The Rebels have to replace pass-catchers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf, and Corral's numbers should suffer a little because of it, but new offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez is the perfect person to utilize Corral's dual-threat abilities.

    What a weapon the redshirt freshman can be after he showed flashes in limited 2018 action, finishing with 239 passing yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception. He even mixed it up with some Mississippi State players, showing he's got an edge to him.

    Corral's most impressive outing was a perfect 10-of-10 performance against Louisiana-Monroe for 143 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

    That's what the Rebels have to look forward to. You may not think much of Luke's team in a loaded SEC West, but the coach made some shrewd hires this offseason with Rodriguez and former Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre as the defensive coordinator.

    With Corral behind center, the Rebels could surprise some folks.

Quavaris Crouch, Tennessee Linebacker

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    Credit: 247Sports

    One of the most shocking singings of the early period came when North Carolina athlete Quavaris Crouch signed with the Tennessee Volunteers rather than powerhouses Clemson and Michigan.

    He was once the top-ranked prospect in the 2019 class before he missed most of his senior season with an ankle injury, and a lot of the top programs were recruiting him as a running back.

    UT coach Jeremy Pruitt needs him as a linebacker, and after not playing for months, Crouch flashed in San Antonio at All-American Bowl practice, even while battling through injuries. After settling in at linebacker, he turned heads.

    "He's going to be unreal," said Sam Griner, Crouch's coach at Harding University in Charlotte, North Carolina, according to VolQuest.com's Jesse Simonton. "Inside linebacker or doing some things off the edge in situational football. He's special. Just watch."

    The 5-7 Vols need help on both sides of the ball and got it with star offensive tackle recruit Wanya Morris, and they're right at the top for Darnell Wright, who'll help fortify a porous front. There are playmakers at the offensive skill positions and in the secondary as well.

    But Tennessee's linebackers were arguably the worst in the SEC, and Crouch is an instant-impact player who has all the ability to be the league's top defensive rookie.

    He'll be a force right away at a major position of need.

Jayden Daniels, Arizona State Quarterback

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    Credit: 247Sports

    When talent meets opportunity, it has the potential to find a match made in football heaven, and that's what's facing 4-star Arizona State quarterback signee Jayden Daniels.

    With Manny Wilkins out of eligibility, there is a wide-open gap at the team's most important position. There's also another 4-star quarterback in Joey Yellen coming in, so competition could bring out the best in Daniels.

    The San Bernardino, California, native had offers from a slew of Pac-12 powers, including UCLA, yet he believed in what Edwards was pitching, and he'll head to the desert to prove he can make an immediate difference.

    At 6'3", 175 pounds, he's got a projectable frame and will fill out a little before he gets onto the field, but he's a dual-threat weapon who can help the team move on from Wilkins. The former Sun Devil had an excellent skill set, but he didn't always make the best on-field decisions.

    With N'Keal Harry headed to the NFL, coach Herm Edwards needs a top target, too, but running back Eno Benjamin will return to help Daniels ease in. Receivers Kyle Williams, Brandon Aiyuk and Frank Darby represent an exciting group of pass-catchers.

    The Sun Devils are on the rise, and while USC should awake from its slumber and Utah will have young talent on offense who got important reps at the end of 2018, the league is wide-open. It's the perfect situation for a star such as Daniels to burst onto the scene.

Nakobe Dean, Georgia Linebacker

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Every year, there are high-profile SEC recruiting wars on battle grounds staged as living rooms across the Southeast.

    One of those took place in Mississippi, when everybody in the nation descended on Horn Lake to recruit star linebacker Nakobe Dean, a hard-hitting, 6'0", 220-pound defender who chose coach Kirby Smart's Bulldogs over Alabama and Ole Miss.

    While you may think he's just going to sink into that vortex of talented Dawgs in Athens—think again. There's an opportunity for playing time, even though UGA has a ton of freshman and sophomore linebackers who could step in.

    D'Andre Walker, Natrez Patrick, Keyon Richardson and Juwan Taylor are all out of eligibility, and Tae Crowder could go pro. That will leave a lot of spots in that rotation, and though Georgia has Monty Rice, Channing Tindall, Adam Anderson and Quay Walker, the competition is open.

    Enter Dean, who is talented enough to carve out a rotational role—if not a starting spot.

    It may seem premature to put him on this list, but Dean is talented and hard working, and he's got the hype surrounding him that will make everybody eager to put him on the field. With former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker off to be Colorado's head coach, it's clean slate for all.

    Dean is good enough to prove he belongs on the field right away. 

John Emery Jr., LSU Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    It didn't seem right in 2018 to see the LSU Tigers with a pedestrian rushing attack.

    There was nothing wrong with Nick Brossette and Co., or the job they did for the Tigers during yet another strong season. They combined with quarterback Joe Burrow to give the Tigers their best offense in a few years.

    But there was no big, game-changing running back like Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice.

    Those days are over.

    Enter John Emery Jr., a 5-star, 5'11", 206-pound force of nature from Destrehan, Louisiana, who originally committed to Georgia before Ed Orgeron and his stable of excellent recruiters put on the press and kept him at home like so many Bayou boys before him.

    Emery will be a terrific complement for 4-star runner Tyrion Davis, a 230-pound wrecking ball who will provide the thunder to Emery's lightning.

    With Burrow back, this could be a good LSU offense if Emery and Davis can do what they're capable of. Both Fournette and Guice were household names as underclassmen, and the Tigers proved they weren't scared to play them.

    Orgeron's recruiting message rings true in Baton Rouge, and these guys aren't going to their home-state school to stand on the sideline. Look for Emery to be the best offensive newcomer in the SEC.

De'Gabriel Floyd, Texas Linebacker

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    Credit: 247Sports

    As big of a recruiting hotbed as Texas isbig enough to stock the best teams all over the country and the slew of programs in the Lone Star State with talent—Longhorns head coach Tom Herman went out of state to grab 11 of his 21 early signees.

    That didn't stop the Sugar Bowl winners from putting together another dynamic class that has a couple of instant-impact JUCO prospects and important incoming freshmen at positions of need.

    Perhaps none is more significant than De'Gabriel Floyd, a massive 6'2", 245-pound inside linebacker from Westlake Village, California, who decided to play for Herman rather than stay home.

    The All-American Bowl participant made a big impact the week of that all-star game, and he has the physicality and athleticism to make an impact at a position where Texas needs help.

    He's ready.

    "My mindset's 'just dominate,'" Floyd told USA Today's Logan Newman. "Keep telling myself I'm the best on the field—ain't nobody mess with me, ain't nobody stop me."

    That's the kind of attitude coordinator Todd Orlando's unit needs, as it didn't have a great year but boasted a ton of youngsters and improved throughout 2018, capping the season with a brilliant performance against Georgia that helped shut down the Bulldogs running game.

    Floyd will be a big part of the future there.

Sam Howell, North Carolina Quarterback

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    Credit: 247Sports

    One of the biggest stories of the early-signing period is how North Carolina coach Mack Brown returned to the college game after he resigned from Texas in 2013 and immediately made an impact on the Tar Heels' recruiting trail.

    Perhaps a program-flipping commitment came from 6'1", 225-pound Sun Valley (North Carolina) High School signal-caller Sam Howell, who spurned Florida State, where he'd been committed to for months.

    In doing so, he may have left the Seminoles in a lurch, but Howell has the potential (and talent) to be a savior for his home state's flagship program. Everybody in baby blue is excited about the future of the offense.

    While there are several quarterbacks already on the roster at Carolina, Howell will have every opportunity to win the job for new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who left Ole Miss to be a part of Brown's first staff at the school.

    "He was awesome," Howell told 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong at the All-American Bowl. "I just thought he was awesome. The first time I met him he came to the school. He's a really good recruiter and a really good coach. I'm excited."

    Howell put up PlayStation numbers in high school, and there are some offensive playmakers who could blossom under a new regime. Look for Howell to get an opportunity to utilize them, and he won't relinquish the job.

Bru McCoy, USC Wide Receiver

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    Yes, Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown will be back for quarterback JT Daniels in 2019, but there is plenty other of help coming.

    In Saturday's All-American Bowl, the Trojans boosted a sluggish early-signing period by gaining two spectacular playmakers at wide receiver in Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy. The latter is a strong athlete and two-way player who was a former teammate of St. Brown's and Daniels' at Mater Dei High School.

    He'll join his old mates to try to help save coach Clay Helton's job and return the Trojans to glory after they missed a bowl game in '18.

    There are enough weapons on that offense to do so.

    Here's the thing, though: The Trojans have a crowded receiving corps, so it's not out of the question McCoy could find his way to the defense if there's a clearer path to playing time.

    247Sports analyst Brandon Huffman told Gerard Martinez: "I think there are other wide receivers with better long-term potential at receiver. But as an outside linebacker, he has the natural pass-rushing skills of a first-round pick."

    That's an intriguing statement, but McCoy is physical enough at 6'3", 212 pounds to carve an offensive role; otherwise, he'll be an instant-impact player defensively. He's ready to contribute somewhere right away.

Cameron McGrone, Michigan Linebacker

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    It's no shame Cameron McGrone sat for much of 2018 while watching Michigan's defense dominate virtually everybody it played throughout the regular season aside from Notre Dame and Ohio State.

    Much of that was because of its deep, talented linebacking corps.

    The 6'1", 228-pound 'backer from Indianapolis who was rated the nation's No. 7 outside linebacker recruit a year ago waited his turn, and next season should be his time to shine. He played in just one regular-season game, and that appearance came on special teams.

    But with Devin Bush headed to the NFL, McGrone is talented enough to slide into that spot and become a force in the Big Ten as a redshirt freshman.

    When Wolverine Wire's Isaiah Hole asked second-year linebacker Josh Ross who stood out in bowl practices, he mentioned McGrone and Vincent Gray.

    "CamI get the privilege to play with him every single day and see his development," Ross said. "He's gotten a lot better since the beginning of the season, and it's good to see that in young linebackers."

    It should be fun to watch McGrone develop under defensive coordinator Don Brown. It looks like the former high school All-American could be a major player for a defense set to lose a lot of pieces.

Graham Mertz, Wisconsin

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    You may not have heard of Graham Mertz before Saturday—even if you have more than a passing fancy for recruiting.

    It's not like Mission, Kansas, gets a ton of attention, and that's where the 4-star signal-caller hails from. It's also not like the Wisconsin Badgers ever grab a ton of high-profile recruits, even though they're a consistently strong program.

    But Mertz has always been a good-looking quarterback prospect who has prototypical size at 6'3", 205 pounds and can spin it with his strong arm.

    He looks like one of the nation's best QB recruits, and he proved it Saturday in the All-American Bowl, throwing five touchdown passes on just seven completions, winning the MVP award and leading the East to a lopsided victory.

    Coach Paul Chryst's team went 8-5 in 2018, and though incumbent signal-caller Alex Hornibrook and Jack Coan, who led Wisconsin to a Pinstripe Bowl win, are coming back, it may be hard to keep Mertz off the field.

    Hornibrook has experienced ups and downs and struggled in important losses to Michigan and Minnesota. He finished the year with just 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and that won't cut it in the Big Ten.

    So, though you'd expect Chryst to go with the veteran signal-caller early, Mertz will change the Badgers offense, and that may start in 2019. There's a good shot he will be too good to keep on the sideline. 

Evan Neal, Alabama Offensive Tackle

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    One of the most impressive offensive linemen in either of the high school All-America games was Alabama signee and former IMG Academy standout Evan Neal.

    He was a huge December 19 pull when the 6'8", 360-pound mauler chose the Crimson Tide over Miami, Florida State and Georgia. Drawing comparisons to former Oklahoma offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., Neal is expected immediately vie for playing time.

    He'll thrive in the strength-and-conditioning program right away and will be on the field as a starter for coach Nick Saban's team.

    He's that good.

    Neal is massive, and he's hard to get around. He's also exceptionally strong, and though he needs to improve his lateral quickness, he has all the tools to make an immediate impact.

    With Jonah Williams possibly heading to the NFL, where he'll be a lottery pick—especially considering he's arguably the best left tackle in college football—Neal has a clear path to playing time. Williams played as a true freshman, and Saban isn't scared to slide those guys right in.

    Neal is capable, and he has the chance to be elite. Not a lot of high school players can play for the Crimson Tide immediately, but Neal can.

Frank Ladson, Clemson Wide Receiver

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    When you look at all the ridiculously talented skill-position players lining up for the Clemson Tigers, it's hard to imagine that another guy could fit in from the beginning.

    Florida wide receiver Frank Ladson has that potential.

    Even with rising juniors Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers and sophomore Justyn Ross, who broke out in the College Football Playoff semifinal game against Notre Dame, there's room for Ladson. The 6'4", 186-pound pass-catcher is long and lanky like Higgins (6'4", 210 lbs) and Ross (6'4", 210 lbs), and he has instant-impact ability.

    Ladson is a natural when it comes to route-running, and he is smooth despite his size, looking on film like he reaches top-end speed quickly.

    With Hunter Renfrow out of eligibility (it seems the former walk-on has been on Dabo Swinney's team for 10 years), there is a flashing vacancy sign in the receiver rotation, and Ladson could fill it.

    If he catches on quickly, he'll have Trevor Lawrence, the most promising young quarterback in college football, flinging darts to him, and the former top-ranked high school quarterback has shown a propensity to get everybody involved.

    Look for Ladson to have a rookie season similar to Ross', and with Clemson smack-dab in the playoff picture every year, he'll be a well-known name by midseason.

Wandale Robinson, Nebraska Athlete

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    You knew head coach Scott Frost had to get one of his pet "gadget" players at Nebraska whom he could line up everywhere and utilize as an offensive force.

    Wandale Robinson is a good pick to become a big-time weapon beside quarterback Adrian Martinez.

    The former Kentucky commit flipped to the Cornhuskers, and there aren't any other players with his skill set on Frost's team. At 5'10", 179 pounds, Robinson is compact and can do a lot of things.

    From running the ball to catching passes out of the backfield to lining up on the outside, Robinson has major upside at a lot of different spots. He should be one of the Big Ten's most showcased newcomers; look for him to have a similar impact to Purdue's Rondale Moore.

    When you pair Robinson with Maurice Washington, the duo of running backs can line up anywhere, catch the ball and terrorize defenses. The way Frost's mad-scientist offensive mind works, he'll have a blast with plugging in Robinson.

    Rivals.com's Nate Clouse told the Lincoln Star Journal's Parker Gabriel that Robinson was a standout at the recent All-American Bowl game practices.

    "He's got major burst, and I feel like he's up to top speed in two or three steps," Clouse said. "His acceleration—everything he does is really, really smooth, and he makes it look effortless. He gets up to speed quickly, and his short-area quickness is off the charts. He's a load to handle."

    That's exciting news for a Nebraska team that needs playmakers.

Max Duggan, TCU Quarterback

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    If TCU doesn't get a transfer quarterback, the guys on its roster should still be talented enough get the job done.

    Head coach Gary Patterson is bringing in 4-star recruit Max Duggan from Iowa, and Mike Collins had flashes of progress, too, as injuries ravaged the position for the Horned Frogs in 2018. There's another quarterback you may have forgotten about who could be a difference-maker: 2018 recruit Justin Rogers.

    The Bossier City, Louisiana, prospect sustained a severe leg injury during the season opener of the 2017 high school season, including a torn anterior cruciate ligament and drop-foot condition. He never got full clearance to play in 2018.

    But the money is on Duggan, who will be the most talented signal-caller on the team and looks like the ideal quarterback for TCU's offense.

    Shawn Robinson's transfer to Missouri clears a path for one of the new guys to play, and though Collins is the most experienced, he isn't expected to get much run this spring. Who knows when Rogers' elite talents will be on display or if he'll ever return to the player he was pre-injury.

    That's the wild card in Duggan's playing time. But the athletic dual-threat player from Iowa who had other major college offers is stepping into a situation where coaches know the Frogs need to be better.

    "He's going to be the most athletic quarterback on the roster, speed-wise, even if Mike Collins and Justin Rogers are fully healthy," Jeremy Clark, publisher of Horned Frog Blitz, told the Star Telegram's Drew Davison.

Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon Defensive End

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    Oregon coach Mario Cristobal is putting together one of the country's most impressive, complete recruiting classes after his first full season as head coach.

    Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, a 5-star prospect who was sought-after by virtually everybody in the nation, headlines that group of instant-impact playmakers.

    The Oaks Christian (California) High School product will almost certainly be a difference-maker right away.

    At 6'5", 239 pounds, Thibodeaux is big enough to play with his hand down and athletic enough to rush the passer from the second level. He's one of the most complete packages of any prospect in this year's class.

    The Ducks are building a program that, while not completely "back" yet, looks like it took some major steps forward in 2018 as they tried to inch closer to winning a conference title. Quarterback Justin Herbert will return for his senior season, which will help matters considerably.

    Oregon shut down Michigan State with a 7-6 win in the Redbox Bowl, giving the Ducks lots of defensive momentum heading into the offseason. Reinforcements from this class will only boost that side of the ball.

    Thibodeaux is one of the biggest recruiting victories of 2019, regardless of conference. 

Theo Wease, Oklahoma Wide Receiver

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    When Oklahoma receiver Jadon Haselwood announced during Saturday's All-American Bowl that he'd head to Norman to play for coach Lincoln Riley's Sooners, he joined an already gaudy collection of receiver talent.

    Incoming quarterback Spencer Rattler will have Haselwood to throw to, along with Trejan Bridges and Theo Wease, who'll ensure that the explosive offensive weapons are restocked. They're why OU's class is ranked fourth.

    Yes, the Sooners need to get the defense fixed, and that will be charged to new coordinator Alex Grinch, who'll head over from Ohio State. But the offense is rolling.

    Perhaps the most dynamic receiver in that crop of newcomers is Wease, a 6'3", 202-pound outside target who is a 50-50 ball wizard and a perfect downfield weapon. He should replace Marquise "Hollywood" Brown.

    Wease elected to leave the state of Texas along with Allen teammate and offensive lineman EJ Ndoma-Ogar. Those are both huge recruiting victories for Riley.

    Any one of Haselwood, Wease or Bridges could've taken this spot. Probably not all of them will stand out in 2019 because the Sooners still have stars such as CeeDee Lamb, but at least a couple of them will carve a role.

    Wease is the pick to do so, because he's close to college-ready and has the size and skill set to make an impact right away.

    This future Sooners offense is going to be intimidating.

Garrett Wilson, Ohio State Wide Receiver

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    One of the easiest spots to make an immediate impact is receiver, and we've noted a few of the guys who could show out.

    There's another one at Ohio State worth watching: Garrett Wilson.

    The Lake Travis, Texas, native continued a long line of recruiting success for the Buckeyes in Texas. He should battle for reps right away alongside sophomore Chris Olave, who had a breakout '18.

    With Justin Fields' transfer in from Georgia—and his attempt to get a waiver to play immediately—and Tate Martell already on campus and showing major promise, the Buckeyes aren't expected to miss a beat at signal-caller, even as Dwayne Haskins heads to the NFL.

    With head coach Ryan Day now calling the shots and new passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich heading to OSU, there are a lot of reasons to like this offense. Wilson should be a beneficiary right away.

    Wilson is a fast receiver and has good size at 6'1", 181 pounds. In the all-star practices and on film, he looked extremely quick out of his breaks, which should make him a vertical weapon.

    That's great news for the Buckeyes, who need a field-stretching force.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com. All recruiting information is from 247Sports, and rankings are from 247Sports' composite.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.