Top-Performing Freshmen After Week 3 of College Football

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2019

Top-Performing Freshmen After Week 3 of College Football

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    It's difficult to whittle down a list of the top-performing freshmen so far this college football season.

    The sport has changed over the past few decades, allowing youngsters to get on the field earlier than ever. That's paying off for a lot of teams across the nation this season.

    Some of the most-discussed players in the nation this year are freshmen. That doesn't even include breakout stars like Oklahoma receivers Jadon Haselwood and Trejan Bridges, Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell, Tennessee linebacker Henry To'o To'o, Michigan State running back Elijah Collins, Purdue receiver David Bell or Florida's Kaair Elam.

    Georgia has tons of young talent like top-ranked defender Nolan Smith and receiver Dominick Blaylock, while Notre Dame has a bunch of defenders such as safety Kyle Hamilton who are going to be household names for years to come.

    Incredibly, you'll find none of those guys featured here.

    The following freshmen have consistently performed well, are showcase players on their teams and have the ability to make huge plays in clutch situations. All of these guys have the "it" factor.

    From a handful of playmaking quarterbacks to electrifying runners and top defenders, this year's freshman class is making an early impact. Let's take a look at the ones who've made the most noise thus far.

Hank Bachmeier, QB, Boise State

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    One of the biggest recruiting coups of the past cycle was Boise State landing 4-star quarterback Hank Bachmeier.

    The Murrietta, California, native has since seized the starting job to replace four-year starter Brett Rypien, led his team on a comeback to beat Florida State and propelled the ranked Broncos to a 3-0 record.

    He's completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 927 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. Like most young quarterbacks, he needs to improve his decision-making at times, but Bachmeier is a budding star who has as much potential as any young quarterback in the nation.

    Bachmeier has amassed those impressive numbers under duress, too. According to the Idaho Statesman's Michael Lycklama, Bachmeier has absorbed more hits than any other quarterback in the nation.

    "ESPN revealed a stat during Saturday’s broadcast that Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier had absorbed 29 hits entering the week, the most of any quarterback in the country. That number only went up Saturday as the Vikings racked up three sacks, slammed him to the turf countless times and delivered a helmet to his chin before he exited early in the third quarter."

    If anything, that makes what Bachmeier is doing even more impressive.

    However, the competition is only going to improve from here, so the Broncos must improve their pass protection in tougher circumstances. 

Zach Charbonnet, RB, Michigan

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    The Michigan Wolverines had a crowded backfield entering the season, but no one had enough experience to seize a starting job.

    That's led to a true freshman stealing the show so far.

    Head coach Jim Harbaugh went across the nation and won a major recruiting battle in California, plucking running back Zach Charbonnet out of prestigious Oaks Christian School. He was the offensive centerpiece of a quality recruiting class, while Daxton Hill was the defensive jewel.

    Charbonnet may wind up being the centerpiece of the 2019 offense right away.

    When the Wolverines needed every inch of the field in a rugged 24-21 double-overtime win over Army last weekend, Charbonnet was the bell cow. He had 33 carries for 100 yards and three touchdowns, which made him the first Michigan running back since Mike Hart in 2004 to score three times in a game.

    He has 190 yards on the ground in two games, and though he hasn't been flashy yet, he has that all-around ability. Saturday's showdown against Wisconsin will be a major spotlight game for Charbonnet as well as the entire Wolverines team.

    Regardless of the outcome, it appears as though Michigan has a young running back who's going to carve up Big Ten defenses for years to come.

Mase Funa, OLB, Oregon

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    Most of the offseason headlines regarding Oregon's recruiting class revolved around star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.

    But another major pass-rushing presence has stolen the show so far for the Ducks.

    Outside linebacker Mase Funa was a huge recruiting victory for head coach Mario Cristobal. The nation's No. 68 overall player signed with Oregon in the early signing period and has terrorized quarterbacks ever since.

    Through three games, Funa has tallied five tackles for loss and three sacks. His speed is his strong suit, but the 260-pounder also has the size to physically dominate opponents.

    It's not out of the question to think he could wind up being the best linebacker in school history. It's even more impressive considering he sat out his senior year of high school with an injury.

    "He's got a lot pent up now," Cristobal told Duck Territory's Erik Skopil. "He missed his entire senior season due to injury. This is his first action in over a year. It's impressive to see what he's done so far, but again, his best football is ahead of him."

    That's scary for the rest of the Pac-12.

Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State

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    It's difficult to be a showcase player when you're running for your life. Just ask Arizona State freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels.

    Although he's been sacked 10 times, Daniels has shined during the Sun Devils' 3-0 start to the season.

    In Saturday's 10-7 slugfest win over Michigan State on the road, Daniels had to battle. He was sacked four times, threw for only 140 yards and ran for 37 as his team had a difficult time moving the ball against the Spartans defense.

    But facing a 7-3 deficit late, he calmly led the Sun Devils down the field on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that was highlighted by a 15-yard first-down scamper on 4th-and-13 from Michigan State's 28-yard line just before Eno Benjamin's go-ahead touchdown.

    It was a veteran play for a youngster on a tough day.

    In Arizona State's season-opening win over Kent State, Daniels finished 15-of-24 for 284 yards and two touchdowns. He then went 17-of-27 for 304 yards and a touchdown in a 19-7 win over Sacramento State.

    Daniels is also a threat on the ground, having run for 75 yards and a touchdown this year despite facing constant pressure.

    Head coach Herm Edwards' team is young, and it will get better protecting Daniels as the season goes on. But Daniels looks like a star in the making.

Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF

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    Everyone who plays quarterback for the UCF Knights winds up with a loaded stat line. Whether it's under Scott Frost in the past or second-year coach Josh Heupel, college football's Group of Five gold standard always has quality quarterback play.

    McKenzie Milton raised the bar as a Heisman Trophy contender in 2017, and when he got hurt last year, Darriel Mack was much more than a fill-in for the Knights. This season, an injury sidelined Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush, opening the door for true freshman Dillon Gabriel.

    It now appears as though the Knights have another star on their hands. And much like Milton, this one came out of nowhere.

    Gabriel was the nation's 758th-ranked player in last year's class. Regardless, he's quickly become one of college football's top playmakers.

    On Saturday, Heupel stuck with Gabriel over Wimbush, and he posted his best all-around game, torching Stanford for 347 yards and four touchdowns on 22-of-30 passing. 

    Gabriel is far from a finished product, but he's shown impressive flashes. He started his year going 9-of-13 for 127 yards and three touchdowns against Florida A&M. He was shaky in a win over Florida Atlantic the following week, but he still accounted for 264 total yards and three touchdowns.

    Through three weeks, Gardner has tallied 747 total yards and 10 touchdowns. There's a bright future for yet another signal-caller at UCF.

Javian Hawkins, RB, Louisville

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    As he rebuilds Louisville's football program, head coach Scott Satterfield desperately needs playmakers to help lay the foundation.

    Junior quarterback Jawon Pass can make things easier on the Cardinals in figures to be a tough season, but freshman running back Javian Hawkins is perhaps the most exciting development so far for Louisville.

    From the start of the season, the 5'9", 182-pound redshirt freshman asserted himself as an integral part of Louisville's offense, as he carried the ball 19 times for 122 yards against a stout Notre Dame defense.

    As an encore against Eastern Kentucky, he ran 11 times for 123 yards, but he failed to get in the end zone in either game. He rectified that in a 93-yard performance Saturday in a win over Western Kentucky, and though he'll never be the pounding, short-yardage type, he hits the hole as hard as anybody you'll see.

    Coupled with sophomore Hassan Hall, the Cardinals have a pair of young, capable runners, and they've been able to help shoulder the load early this season when Pass was injured and Malik Cunningham took over.

    Satterfield is a great coach who will get the Cardinals back to their winning ways before long, regardless of how tough this season is. Hawkins will be a major part of those future victories.

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

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    True freshman quarterback Sam Howell's flip from Florida State to North Carolina was monumental for his home-state team, and it set the tone for the early days of Mack Brown's return to Chapel Hill.

    That's why it was so puzzling to see him benched Thursday evening against Wake Forest after he'd led the Heels to an impressive 2-0 start win wins over South Carolina and Miami.

    Howell responded exactly the way you'd want him to, re-entering the game and nearly leading North Carolina back in a narrow loss to the upstart Demon Deacons, who are one of college football's early-season surprises. He finished 17-of-28 for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 24-18 loss, but the sputtering start hurt the Heels' chances.

    Howell's ownership of those mistakes afterward was refreshing, too.

    "This one is on me," hetold reporters after the game. "I've got to play a lot better for our team to win.”

    Howell has completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 701 yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions on the year. But the margin of error for a young team short on depth is thin.

    These leadership traits will serve Howell well as he tries to lead UNC back to a bowl this year and to bigger things in the future.

DJ Dale, DL, Alabama

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    A superb stable of offensive superstars will keep Alabama at the top of the college football polls throughout the year, but this season is a little different than usual.

    The Crimson Tide have an abnormal amount of newcomers all over the field, specifically in the linebacking corps, where they've suffered a bunch of injuries. Freshman offensive lineman Evan Neal is too good to keep off the field and has started all three games as well.

    But the biggest impact freshman to date was nowhere near one of the top prospects they signed.

    That would be defensive lineman DJ Dale, a 6'3", 308-pound load who has lived in the offensive backfield throughout the first three games. He already has eight total tackles, and he registered his first sack of the season Saturday against South Carolina.

    The freshman looks like another former Alabama star defensive lineman, Daron Payne. With Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs off to the NFL, there was a vacancy on that defensive front, and Dale has responded.

    Dale was named the SEC's Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week after his debut against Duke, and he is becoming a name every Alabama fan knows. Quarterbacks and offensive linemen should follow suit.

    The freshman looks like another former Alabama star defensive lineman, Daron Payne. With Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs off to the NFL, there was a vacancy on that defensive front, and Dale has responded resoundingly.

Bo Nix, QB, Auburn

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    Bo Nix was born to play quarterback at Auburn.

    The son of former Tigers signal-caller Patrick Nix grew up surrounded by orange and blue, going to Auburn games on Saturdays and dreaming of shining on the Plains. He got the opportunity to start his first-ever game as a collegian against Oregon, and he responded.

    Though Nix had ups and downs against the Ducks, he led Auburn to a resounding comeback, and his legend was born. Now, the expectations are massive.

    So far, he's doing nothing to quiet the noise.

    Nix had another steady game in a whipping of Kent State on Saturday with 161 passing yards, 21 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. He's totaled 545 passing yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions and 79 rushing yards through three games.

    Those may be somewhat pedestrian numbers, but few other quarterbacks have the type of win on his resume as Nix's against the Ducks. He's a raw product who needs a lot of work, but his steely demeanor with the game on the line was a major asset for the Tigers.

    CBS analyst Gary Danielson told AL.com's Mark Heim that Nix has a "leadership gene you can't teach."

    Nix is a young star on a team with a lot of exciting young faces. Linebacker Owen Pappoe looks like he'll fly around the field for years making plays as well, but Nix gets the nod here because he plays at the showcase position.

    However, the competition is going to be fierce for Nix to remain on this list, beginning with next weekend's massive road war against Texas A&M in College Station. Nix will have plenty of opportunities to keep silencing any doubters this season.

George Pickens, WR, Georgia

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    Instead of talking about a second Auburn freshman here, wide receiver George Pickens plays for Georgia.

    That one stings for the Tigers, who held Pickens' commitment for a long time before the Hoover (Alabama) High School product wound up flipping to the Bulldogs and Kirby Smart on national signing day.

    In a loaded group of freshmen, Pickens is doing big-boy things. The Dawgs have guys like defensive end Nolan Smith, who already is a load for offensive linemen, and Pickens' receiver mate Dominick Blaylock.

    But Pickens gets the nod here because he can make electrifying plays like this.

    Thus far, Pickens has nine catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. Blaylock has seven grabs for 160 yards and a pair of scores. 

    While some pass-catchers like former UGA commit and Oklahoma freshman Jadon Haselwood and Purdue's David Bell could be featured here as well, Pickens' athleticism separates him. With so many Georgia receivers leaving for the NFL after last year, Pickens' opportunities are only going to increase.

    Georgia head coach Kirby Smart told the Red & Black's Augusta Stone that he loves Pickens' blocking ability, which bodes well for his playing time moving forward. His teammates lauded his elite ability, too.

    "He's out there doing some crazy stuff," sophomore offensive lineman Cade Mays said, per Stone. "[He is] always making plays on the ball. That's something he does a really good job of—going and finding the ball and coming down with it."

    Pickens may wind up being one of college football's top playmakers and quarterback Jake Fromm's biggest weapon before the season is over. He has that kind of ability.

Spencer Sanders, QB, Oklahoma State

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    Oklahoma State is starting its 2019 season with quietly impressive numbers.

    If that trend continues, the marriage between new offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson and redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Sanders will deserve much of the credit. Sanders waited his turn for a season after losing the job last year, and he's proving that he's ready to become an important playmaker this season.

    The Cowboys are lurking in the considerable shadow of Oklahoma and elite graduate transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts, but Spencer's stats are matching up well. In wins over Oregon State, McNeese State and Tulsa, Sanders has 622 passing yards, 219 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns against one interception.

    Running back Chuba Hubbard shined against Tulsa, but the Golden Hurricane's defense will help prepare Sanders for the conference schedule. He responded after a slow start.

    "When you're young (and) playing and you're competitive like (he is), you want success all the time and sometimes it doesn't work, especially versus a defense that we played today," head coach Mike Gundy told reporters afterward. "It's very high-risk, big or not much at all, so that frustrated him. But he calmed down and those things will help him as we go along."

    Developmental adjustments like that will help Sanders turn the corner more quickly. He is already one of the nation's top freshmen, and it's just a matter of time before everybody knows his name.

Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

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    Kedon Slovis likely wants to forget Saturday, as he wound up throwing three interceptions, including one on a deflected pass in overtime in a difficult road loss to BYU.

    Considering Slovis was a lightly recruited prospect who was expected to sit and watch JT Daniels this season, he's shouldered the expectations of the proud USC program well so far. A season-ending injury to Daniels in the season opener against Fresno State gave way to the youngster.

    Slovis entered the game and went 6-of-8 for 57 yards and an interception to finish off the win. The next week against Stanford, he erupted for 377 passing yards and three scores with only five incompletions.

    USC's game plan against BYU was a bit of an enigma, as the Trojans salted away much of the game on the ground, taking what the Cougars gave them as they tried to take away the pass for much of the game. Slovis was good in his limited opportunities, finishing 24-of-34 for 281 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the three interceptions were costly.

    Slovis has to learn to take care of the ball as the Trojans head to play Utah next week in a massive early-season Pac-12 contest that could help them reassert their spot at the top of the division.

    Saturday's loss was bad, but it means little for USC's season goals. Slovis has displayed terrific accuracy, promising arm strength and a calm demeanor that makes him seem like a veteran at times.

    Slovis is far from a finished product, but the Trojans can win now with him at the helm.

Tyler Davis, DT, Clemson

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    With so many offensive weapons returning, the Clemson Tigers appeared poised to defend their national championship with star quarterback Trevor Lawrence and his group of weapons leading the way.

    However, the Tigers are still shaking off some rust on that side of the ball.

    In the meantime, Clemson's defense has picked up the team despite losing star linemen like Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins. It's because of exceptional recruits who've turned into dynamic players early in their careers.

    For instance, defensive tackle Tyler Davis has earned the nickname "Baby Dex" for his similarities with Lawrence, a first-round pick, according to the Post & Courier's Joshua Needelman.

    Davis has started the first three games of the season and has 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He made several impressive plays again against Syracuse, including chasing down a screen pass and making a tackle.

    Those kind of plays and awareness make him the next special defender for the Tigers.

    Heading into the season, the biggest returning star on Clemson's defense was end Xavier Thomas, who also has the ability to be a great player. But Davis, a 6'2", 295-pound 4-star prospect may be making an even bigger impact.

    This young Clemson defense is exceptional, and Davis is a big reason why.