College Football Freshmen We're Most Intrigued to See in 2019 Spring Games

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2019

College Football Freshmen We're Most Intrigued to See in 2019 Spring Games

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    Everybody in Sun Devils country is excited about quarterback Jayden Daniels.
    Everybody in Sun Devils country is excited about quarterback Jayden Daniels.Credit: 247Sports

    The page has turned from recruiting season to the hiatus before spring practice, and while drills won't begin around the nation for the next few weeks, it's fun to think of some midterm enrollees ready to start making noise.

    This 2019 class is full of instant-impact players, and some who are already at their respective schools will begin building their resumes on the field in front of coaches this spring.

    It's not always easy to identify the next big stars in spring games. Especially difficult to judge are defensive linemen, which is why you won't see many on this list. After all, if they can't hit quarterbacks, the proverbial bullets really aren't live.

    The majority of prospects on this list are skill-position players with a few defenders sprinkled in, too.

    Across the Power Five, newcomers are gearing up to reveal whether their ratings match their production right away or if the college football world is going to have to wait to watch them shine. From a select group of quarterbacks to some potential game-breaking runners, there are a handful of breakout candidates ready to steal the show.

    Let's take a look at some incoming freshmen already enrolled in school whom we can't wait to watch during spring games.

Noah Cain, Running Back, Penn State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Several Big Ten running backs will look to replenish the stat-sheet production vacated by departing upperclassmen.

    It hasn't been a happy offseason so far in Happy Valley with so many defections from coach James Franklin's program, but many of those guys weren't going to see the field anyway.

    Still, the Nittany Lions must replace a wealth of offensive production with quarterback Trace McSorley gone along with running back Miles Sanders, who departed after a junior season that saw him eclipse 1,000 yards.

    While everybody is excited about the nation's fifth-ranked running back Devyn Ford coming to State College, Pennsylvania, this summer, there's a kid just one spot behind in the positional rankings who will be here this spring and ready to shine.

    That would be Florida prospect Noah Cain, a 5'10", 208-pound do-it-all back from IMG Academy who had a stacked offer sheet.

    Game-breaking rising sophomore Ricky Slade is expected to be the next big thing in Franklin's offense with his vision and speed, but he can't do it alone. The Nittany Lions need at least one of the freshmen to come in and earn valuable reps right away.

    The best candidate for that is Cain, who'll have a few months' worth of a head start on Ford and be able help. This spring will show everybody whether Cain is ready now or if he needs a little more seasoning.

Zach Charbonnet, Running Back, Michigan

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There may be some questions about Noah Cain's ability to instantly impact Penn State, but one player there shouldn't be any concern over is Zach Charbonnet at Michigan.

    The Wolverines pulled a major coup when they went into Oaks Christian High School in California and convinced Charbonnet to come cross-country and be a new offensive centerpiece in Ann Arbor. Yes, there are several candidates already on campus who can replace Karan Higdon, but why not Charbonnet?

    He is big (6'2", 215 lbs) and fast, especially when he gets to the second level. There's a reason why most of the top programs in the country wanted him and why he's universally lauded by most of the recruiting services.

    If Michigan is going to usurp Ohio State at the top of the Big Ten standings, finding a dynamic replacement to take on Higdon's carries and production is vital. Charbonnet looks like a prime candidate.

    Chris Evans was going to be a rising senior and rock-solid option to be a steady force for the Wolverines, but he is no longer with the team. Christian Turner will have every opportunity to lead this offense and is a potential star-in-the-making who's shown flashes and will be a major part of the offense.

    But Charbonnet can be a superstar. He's the total package who has the size and speed, shows great balance and can be an asset in the passing game, too. It's not uncommon to see true freshmen step in at running back and make an impact.

    This spring is big for Charbonnet to show he can.

Baylor Cupp, Tight End, Texas A&M

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    Credit: 247Sports

    We know several things about what Texas A&M is going to look like under Jimbo Fisher. With Kellen Mond at quarterback, the Aggies are versatile, and they're going to have some big-bodied targets at receiver who can make a lot of things happen.

    It's also obvious after Jace Sternberger's breakout season in 2018 that tight ends are going to love being a part of this offense.

    Enter Baylor Cupp, a 6'6", 240-pound aberration who is the top-ranked player at his position in the nation and easily the most college-ready tight end. That's a good thing, too, because with Sternberger off to the NFL, there's an open spot for him.

    Fisher sees a ton of potential in Cupp, according to the Star-Telegram's Rick Mauch. When a coach talks about you this way, it's not out of the question to predict instant success.

    "You talk about size, speed, power, length. I mean, how many guys can do that?" Fisher said. "And then he catches the ball and runs, and plays offense, plays defense.

    "Yeah, he's as good as anybody out there. He didn't go to all the crazy camps, didn't go promote himself. He said 'I know what I want to do and I know where I want to come.'"

    Fisher talked about everything he can do, from running a 4.55 40-yard dash to a 36-inch vertical leap. With those athletic traits, it's easy to see why the Aggies are excited.

    There are other players on the roster capable of filling Sternberger's role, but Cupp is as good a guess as any.

Jayden Daniels, Quarterback, Arizona State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Arizona State quarterback signee Jayden Daniels has that California swagger, and even though it's going to be a free-for-all battle to replace departed longtime starter Manny Wilkins, it's hard to envision Daniels not winning the gig.

    Sun Devils coach Herm Edwards got a major steal when Daniels chose them over several Pac-12 offers, and though he's still a little raw, his athletic ability and acumen are unparalleled in this class. He has more upside than any other signal-caller in the 2019 group of prospects.

    Will it translate right away? We're going to find out soon enough.

    If you've seen any pictures of Daniels (check the main image of this article), you'll see he's tall and lanky and certainly could add about 20 to 30 pounds, but you don't have to be physically developed to be a star at the position. Just ask Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, who is rail-thin but took college football by storm.

    Once Lawrence adds weight, he's going to be even better. His game isn't similar to Daniels', but the Sun Devils' first-year prospect can do a lot of things with his feet Lawrence can't. He has the upside to be as good as any dual-threat quarterback in the country.

    Edwards told Sun Devil Source's Chris Karpman it doesn't matter what class a player is in; the best will play, and they've created a ton of competition under center.

    "It's been quite fun, we started spring practice now, had our second practice [Wednesday] and all eyes are on the quarterback position from all the players as well," Edwards said.

    It's an exciting time to be a Sun Devils fan with all the youth and talent. Daniels could be the orchestrator of it all.

Jadon Haselwood, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma

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    Credit: 247Sports

    You could have inserted the names of Theo Wease or Trejan Bridges into the header of this slide.

    The bottom line is everybody is excited to see what the elite incoming Oklahoma receiving corps can do, and Jadon Haselwood is the highest-ranked of any of them. Will he live up to expectations, or will he show he isn't quite ready to step into the role vacated by Marquise Brown as OU's top downfield threat?

    We'll learn a lot this spring.

    Coach Lincoln Riley won one of the most hotly contested recruiting battles in the country when Haselwood decided to leave his Georgia home and head to Norman, Oklahoma, and the Sooners could use him right away.

    Though everybody wants to link the trio of exciting pass-catchers to incoming 5-star quarterback Spencer Rattler (and rightfully so), this 2019 Sooners team won't be Rattler's. Instead, it belongs to Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts, and this upcoming spring practice will be vital for them all to develop a rapport.

    As Hurts arrives, he will have to become acclimated with the staff, his teammates and his surroundings. That should put guys like Haselwood, Wease and Bridges on equal footing with the rest of them. If Haselwood comes out and shows out, he stands just as good of a chance to be one of Hurts' top targets right away.

    It's exciting for OU fans to think about some of the nation's top targets roaming the field and Hurts slinging them the ball. This spring ought to be fun. While the Sooners look to take another step forward on defense, it's obvious the offense is restocking its weapons cabinet.

    Haselwood has all the ability necessary to lead that arsenal.

Sam Howell, Quarterback, North Carolina

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    Credit: 247Sports

    One of the biggest storylines of the early signing period this recruiting season was the immediate splash new (old) coach Mack Brown made by returning to his old stomping grounds of North Carolina.

    When he did, it seemed like a lot of prospects from the Tar Heel State were just waiting for some excitement to surround that program before hopping in the baby-blue boat. 

    The biggest of those prospects who did so was 4-star signal-caller Sam Howell, who appeared all set to head to Tallahassee and join coach Willie Taggart's program. Howell looked like a prime candidate to leave his home of Monroe, North Carolina, and take over FSU's starting gig right away.

    Instead, now he should do that at Chapel Hill.

    The 6'0", 225-pound top-100 prospect is the nation's third-ranked dual-threat quarterback, and though the Heels have several options at signal-caller already on campus, Howell seems too good to keep off the field.

    He throws his receivers open as well as any quarterback in this class, and UNC don't have any stars on campus at the position, anyway.

    He's a perfect weapon for new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who worked with Jordan Ta'amu at Ole Miss a year ago before coming to join Brown's first staff at North Carolina. 

    Howell's belief in Brown's pitch, staying home and convincing other prospects to do the same should go a long way toward building goodwill with the staff as he vies for the starting gig, but that isn't going to be the determining factor, of course. UNC needs to get a lot better on the field.

    If Howell is the guy to get them there quicker, he'll start.

Frank Ladson, Wide Receiver, Clemson

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Every year you think Clemson doesn't possibly have room for another freshman impact player, Dabo Swinney utilizes another one and he becomes one of the most exciting players in all of college football.

    It seems to happen every season in Swinney's tenure.

    Two years ago, it was elite receiver Tee Higgins and versatile running back Travis Etienne. In 2018's national championship season, it was superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence and College Football Playoff standout Justyn Ross.

    Who's it going to be in '19?

    A prime candidate is 4-star receiver Frank Ladson, another recruiting victory in Florida, who will join classmate Joe Ngata as the next big things in the Clemson receiving corps. With Hunter Renfrow (finally) graduated after what seemed like an eternity as a difference-maker, there's a spot free.

    Of course, Higgins, Ross and Amari Rodgers will have major roles in this offense as Lawrence's top targets, but Ladson possesses the skill set to step right in and compete. He's tall, lanky and athletic. He high-points the ball, a common trait among all those Clemson receivers.

    He's also going to get some of the best coaching in the country right away from Swinney and offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, so watch out. Ladson may not be a name on your radar right now, but just get ready. Lawrence is going to make a lot of kids look good.

    Ladson already looks pretty strong on paper, and he's going to be stepping into an exciting situation with a remarkable 17 early enrollees joining the national champions.

Graham Mertz, Quarterback, Wisconsin

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Everybody at Wisconsin was excited about luring 4-star signal-caller Graham Mertz to Camp Randall to be the quarterback of the future.

    He may be the quarterback right now for the Badgers.

    Neither Alex Hornibrook nor Jack Coan strike fear into the hearts of any Big Ten defense, and 2018's mediocre results, especially after the anticipation that came with such a high preseason ranking, aren't going to cut it.

    The biggest questions surrounding Mertz's ability to be an instant-impact player are: 1) Does Paul Chryst have the guts to buck his trend of playing upperclassmen almost exclusively and roll the dice with a first-year player, and 2) Can Hornibrook return to his quality 2017 form?

    If the answers are "yes" and "no," the door is open for Mertz.

    Of course, the prospect must do his part, too. Mertz didn't exactly light up the competition as a high school senior in Kansas, and though he has the arm strength, size and intangibles to make a difference, he must prove it on the field.

    He certainly did that with a record five-touchdown performance in the Army All-American Bowl to burst onto the tips of recruitniks' tongues across the nation. If that's the real Graham Mertz, Chryst won't be able to afford to keep him off the field.

    This likely is star running back Jonathan Taylor's final season at Wisconsin, and the Badgers need a huge rebound. In order for that to happen, better quarterback play is a must. Mertz has the talent to provide it, but he has to make a strong first impression this spring.

Luke McCaffrey, Athlete, Nebraska

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There are fewer more intriguing prospects in the country than Nebraska's Luke McCaffrey, a 4-star signal-caller with a strong enough pedigree that everybody should be watching his progression this spring. 

    Of course, McCaffrey's father Ed is a Super Bowl-winning receiver who starred for the Denver Broncos.

    One brother, Christian, was the Heisman Trophy runner-up at Stanford who is now a do-it-all feature back for the Carolina Panthers. Other brother, Dylan, appears next in line to be Michigan's starting QB after Shea Patterson.

    Then there's Luke, another dynamic athlete who can play a lot of different spots on the field. He could team with Wandale Robinson to give quarterback Adrian Martinez a couple of explosive new offensive weapons. There's only one problem with that:

    McCaffrey is going to remain at quarterback right now, and that may not be a "problem" at all.

    "I don’t know if I have seen a kid work harder in an offseason to learn an offense than Luke," Nebraska coach Scott Frost told the Columbus Telegram's Parker Gabriel. "He has been kind of a little bit of the ringleader of that group already."

    Will he remain at quarterback? With Martinez's dual-threat game, injuries are a possibility, and it would be an ace up Frost's sleeve to have McCaffrey ready to go as a backup. But could he play receiver in the interim? Don't be surprised if you see the Cornhuskers design several unique packages ready for him.

    Everybody is excited about Martinez, who has the ability to be the league's top quarterback as a sophomore, but McCaffrey is too talented to keep off the field. With Frost's creativity, if any coach can figure out a way to keep two talented star quarterbacks happy, it's him.

    Stay tuned for some excitement in Lincoln.

Bru McCoy, Wide Receiver, Texas

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    Credit: 247Sports

    No prospect's recruiting odyssey had more twists and turns than former Mater Dei High School athlete Bru McCoy's.

    First of all, he may be playing out of position; he's a potentially game-changing outside linebacker or safety who wants the ball in his hands on offense, and he proved in the Army All-American Bowl he could excel on that side of the ball, too.

    The 5-star prospect made headlines that day, announcing he signed with the USC Trojans as an early enrollee and would be a star weapon in new offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury's system in Los Angeles. 

    Then, Kingsbury left for the Arizona Cardinals. Not long after, McCoy entered the transfer portal, bolted L.A. and has now resurfaced with the Texas Longhorns, who get a centerpiece "recruit" who really isn't a recruit anymore but a transfer.

    His status, in terms of immediate availability for the Longhorns, remains up in the air, as the Trojans must grant him a full release if he's going to be eligible. Even if he isn't, he'll go through spring drills with Tom Herman's team, and we all want to see what kind of prize the 'Horns landed.

    He'll team with Jordan Whittington to give Texas a strong one-two punch as pass-catchers for Sam Ehlinger, and if the Longhorns have to wait a year for him to get on the field for real, well, he's still worth it.

    There's a reason why McCoy is one of the nation's top 10 prospects. He's too good not to wind up starring somewhere, and even though his career has gotten off to an odd and unfortunate start, he's got plenty of time to prove he's worth the trouble.

Bo Nix, Quarterback, Auburn

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Auburn wants desperately to turn the page from a disappointing 2018 season.

    The Tigers got off to a strong start doing just that by trouncing Purdue in the Music City Bowl in one of the biggest exclamation-mark games of the entire postseason. That was quarterback Jarrett Stidham's swan song, though, and he's now off to the NFL.

    With several potentially exciting options already on campus primed to replace him, Auburn will insert one of the best prep signal-callers in the country into that race this spring. Pinson Valley (Alabama) High School's Bo Nix is following in father Patrick's footsteps as the quarterback on the Plains.

    His career starts this spring, and even though he lost a running mate in 5-star receiver George Pickens, who flipped to Georgia on national signing day, Nix still has a lot of weapons at his disposal.

    It's time for the top-rated dual-threat quarterback to see what he can do.

    With 29-year-old offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham coming in to run coach Gus Malzahn's offense, it's a fresh start for everybody all around, which is big news for Nix. The former Alabama high school star can make the most of his opportunity.

    Though Nix doesn't have the biggest arm or huge stature, he is known for his pinpoint accuracy and has sneaky athleticism that enables him to move the ball downfield with his arm or his feet. He's also a heady player who's been around football his whole life.

    More than anything, he's a winner who plays that way on the field. It's going to be fun to watch him develop for the Tigers, and he will get every opportunity to start as a true freshman.

Jeremiah Payton, Wide Receiver, Miami

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    Credit: 247Sports

    As Manny Diaz tries to rebuild the Miami Hurricanes in a hurry, he's banking on winning a lot of future recruiting battles in South Florida.

    Few understand the culture in the city like Diaz, the son of a former mayor of Miami. He has ties to the area and plans to use them to keep hometown players. One of the Florida natives (though from North Florida rather than the Miami area) who signed with the 'Canes is receiver Jeremiah Payton.

    The 6'1/2", 186-pound receiver is a 4-star prospect and one of the top 60 players in the country. He's the type of offensive playmaker who's been choosing Florida, Florida State or leaving the state the past few years.

    Though Payton isn't the fastest receiver, he's shifty in the open field and looks like he can play any receiver position, whether it be in the slot or on the perimeter.

    With Lawrence Cager transferring to Georgia, the U needs pass-catchers in the worst way to help either Jarren Williams or N'Kosi Perry as the team transitions to the Dan Enos era on offense. Payton is too talented to keep off the field.

    The best thing for Miami is Payton is already on campus and will go through spring drills, so Enos will get to see what he's working with and how to best utilize his skill set.

    Diaz will win more of these battles in the future, thanks to his recruiting acumen. And next year, he'll have Ohio State quarterback transfer Tate Martell's name to throw at recruits. But Payton was a major recruiting win who could pay dividends right away.

Chris Steele, Cornerback, Florida

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Florida coach Dan Mullen sits on such a scorching hotbed of talent in the Sunshine State that he doesn't really need to venture off those sandy soils to find prospects.

    The Gators brand is still strong after some down years, and 2018's resurgence was a big deal that began resonating with a lot of instate prospects. It made waves with some across the country, too.

    One major victory on the trail for Mullen occurred when he convinced elite cornerback and California native Chris Steele to come to Gainesville. The dynamic 6'1/2", 187-pound defensive back committed to USC before things started spiraling out of control, and he kept his options open.

    Following a nationwide search for a school, Steele zeroed in on the Gators, and he is the kind of prospect who can help Florida return to dominance on defense. Though Alabama, Georgia and LSU have enjoyed better defensive back talent than the Gators the past few years, UF is known for producing DBs.

    Steele can be that kind of game-changing talent.

    He's probably got the best chance of any freshman on Florida's roster to start right away because he's polished and can do everything on the field.

    Look for him to establish himself right away and be a force for that aggressive Florida defense in 2019. It'll start in the spring as he begins to make headlines that won't fade as the summer bleeds into the season this fall.

Kayvon Thibodeaux, Defensive End, Oregon

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    Credit: 247Sports

    If defensive end were one of those showcase positions of which you get to see a lot during the spring, players like Georgia's Nolan Smith and Alabama's Antonio Alfano would have been on the list.

    But it's hard to judge defensive linemen in spring games, mainly because most quarterbacks are wearing no-contact jerseys to keep from getting injured. Still, you can see flashes of dominance if you're truly watching the line of scrimmage.

    So, pay close attention to the two aforementioned SEC future stars, but also take a look at the Northwest for Oregon star-in-the-making Kayvon Thibodeaux. He's the poster boy for what coach Mario Cristobal is trying to build with the Ducks, and there are plenty of playmakers in this class who can transform that defense.

    It looks like Oregon is Washington's biggest Pac-12 threat in the years to come, and that may even be the case in 2019, especially with the Huskies having to replace so much talent on both sides of the ball.

    If we start seeing some flashes of what Thibodeaux can do, and if he's truly as explosive as the expectations he carries with him, watch out. He's going to have every opportunity to step in and play immediately if for no other reason than Oregon doesn't have anybody on its roster who is that kind of playmaker.

    His first step off the line of scrimmage toward the quarterback is elite, and as the Ducks try to upgrade their pass rush, a player with Thibodeaux's size, speed and athleticism will be too good to keep off the field.

    Thibodeaux represented a major victory for the Ducks in the state of California, and Cristobal has to play him as a message to recruits that he's serious about getting you on the field early. However, watch for the defender to earn his way onto the field this spring and not relinquish the starting gig.

    There will be a lot of headlines following him around, and he'll live up to the hype.


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

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