2020 Recruits Most Likely to Light Up College Football as True Freshmen

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2020

2020 Recruits Most Likely to Light Up College Football as True Freshmen

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    LSU's Arik Gilbert
    LSU's Arik Gilbert247Sports

    Prospect fans know the guys the college football recruiting services expect to be the next big things.

    But who will shine right away?

    It's not easy going from high school to the FBS, but every year some players see that freshman wall and blow right through it.

    Kids are more developed than ever thanks to advanced youth and high school programs, strength and conditioning, and strong playbooks, that we're seeing these mature freshman more and more.

    Last year, guys such as LSU's Derek Stingley Jr., USC's Kedon Slovis, North Carolina's Sam Howell, Arizona State's Jayden Daniels, Iowa State's Breece Hall, Purdue's David Bell and more transitioned seamlessly. 

    Part of it is opportunity. Most of it is ability. So, who'll be the first-year players who take college football by storm in 2020? Let's take a look at the top candidates leading up to Feb. 5's national signing day.

Bryan Bresee, Clemson Defensive Tackle

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    247Sports

    Maryland-based defensive tackle Bryan Bresee shoulders as much hype as any player has in a while. He's the top-rated prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings, holding the top spot at 247 and Rivals, and the No. 3 slot at ESPN.

    The 6'5", 290-pounder can do it all. He's big, strong and thick enough to play on the interior, and he has the explosion to make it on the outside.

    This Clemson class is loaded all over the field for head coach Dabo Swinney, and getting a player like Bresee to team with Tyler Davis, who's coming off a massive freshman season with 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, will be exciting. But Clemson also got 5-star defensive tackle Demonte Capehart, so Bresee's versatility will serve him well.

    He's the best run-stopping line prospect in several years, and no matter the position he sticks with, he'll see the field immediately as one of the country's most college-ready players.

    That's why most major programs—including Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama and Georgia—wanted him.

    He's not the quickest edge-rusher, so he's likely to bump inside. But Bresee is the type of player who'll thrive under defensive coordinator Brent Venables: a tenacious, talented worker who can perfect his craft and be a high draft pick. Look for him to make a Davis-like impact right away.

Jordan Burch, South Carolina Defensive End

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    247Sports

    One of the recruiting cycle's biggest surprises came when defensive line prospect Jordan Burch shrugged off all the concerns about head coach Will Muschamp's future with the school, spurned the nation's top programs and committed to the South Carolina Gamecocks on Dec. 18.

    The in-state prospect's decision could have major ramifications for the Gamecocks and the Muschamp era. Burch is that good.

    The 6'5", 275-pound prospect could stay outside or play defensive tackle, and that versatility is why programs such as Clemson, Georgia and Alabama wanted him.

    Burch probably should stay on the interior and could slide into Javon Kinlaw's role now that explosive playmaker is expected to go in the first or early second round of the NFL draft.

    Though Burch didn't sign with South Carolina, he hasn't indicated he's wavering. That's big news for a Gamecocks program victimized by a difficult schedule and ravaged by injuries in 2019. 

    If Muschamp can turn it around, it will happen because of prospects such as Burch, who headlines a strong class. If Muschamp can't, the next head coach will have a terrific lineman who looks ticketed for an early-round selection in three or four years.

    Burch has the all-around game to get after quarterbacks from the interior and plug running gaps. He'll be a high-visibility prospect because of his ranking, but he'll also stay that way thanks to his production.

Justin Flowe, Oregon Linebacker

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    247Sports

    Oregon's Justin Flowe already looks like an upperclassman, and his football acumen will allow him to star right away as the most college-ready linebacker in this class.

    Remember the impact Ducks edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux had as a freshman this past season (14 tackles for loss, nine sacks)? Flowe will be "that dude" for head coach Mario Cristobal later this year.

    With a big frame at 6'2", 225 pounds, Flowe has a developed lower body and sideline-to-sideline speed that allows him to chase down running backs or drop back into coverage.

    Isaac Slade-Matautia and Mase Funa are two key second-level returners, and Flowe will team with fellow incoming 5-star Noah Sewell to give the Ducks a highly ranked, versatile linebacking corps capable of terrorizing Pac-12 offenses every game.

    Flowe has the highest ceiling of all those guys. The Upland, California, prospect is the kind of player who doesn't come around often, and he had offers from coast to coast because of it.

    You'll hear his name a lot in 2020.

    With Brady Breeze, Verone McKinley III, Jevon Holland, Thibodeaux, Slade-Matautia, Funa and others, Oregon has the potential not only to have the conference's best defense but also one of the best units in college football. Flowe can be a centerpiece.

Maliq Carr, Purdue Tight End

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    Head coach Jeff Brohm has yet to revive Purdue the way it looked like he would in 2017 as a promising hire when several other programs tried keep him out of West Lafayette.

    Still, his teams post huge offensive numbers every year. Though the Boilermakers battled tons of injuries at key positions in 2019—including to star receiver Rondale Moore, who missed all but four games with a leg injury—they did it again.

    Freshman David Bell was the difference-maker in Moore's role, making it each of the past two years a Brohm-coached freshman pass-catcher had a massive season. There will be a third in 2020.

    Tight end Maliq Carr is a 6'4", 230-pound tight end who looks like a star in the making. With Brycen Hopkins likely to be the top player drafted at his position this April, he leaves a void that includes 61 catches, 830 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Carr is in line to fill in a bunch of that production, and it's an exciting thought to imagine what he can do under Brohm after Hopkins' 2019 usage. Carr will make an instant impact, and when you put him in the same receiving corps as a healthy Moore and Bell, watch out.

    This could be the year Brohm puts everything together. If the offense can find a quality signal-caller among a group of several capable guys, the skill-position players are as good as any around.

Zachary Evans, Undecided Running Back

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    247Sports

    The biggest question remaining in the 2020 cycle is: "How will the Zachary Evans saga end?"

    The recruitment of the nation's top rated running back has seen its share of twists and turns.

    The 5'11", 200-pounder signed with Georgia during the early period but didn't make it public. He then wanted out of his national letter of intent—which coach Kirby Smart granted. Now, there are rumors the Bulldogs could be back in the hunt, according to 247Sports' Jake Rowe.

    But questions exist about whether he could even sign another letter of intent with Georgia.

    The Houston native is believed to still have Texas A&M in the mix, but Ole Miss has come on with Lane Kiffin at the helm, hosting Evans on an official visit Jan. 17.

    Evans also visited Tennessee on Friday after Vols ace recruiter Brian Niedermeyer visited the running back earlier this week. Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports mentioned Florida as a school Evans could visit.

    Of all those spots, the Rebels have the most talented running back in Jerrion Ealy, but anybody can use Evans' skill set. No matter where he goes, he will be a major part of the offense right away.

Julian Fleming, Ohio State Wide Receiver

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    247Sports

    The Ohio State Buckeyes will bring back a capable stable of receivers for quarterback Justin Fields, led by deep threat Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who is talented enough to be one of the nation's best pass-catchers next year.

    But they are also losing Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack and K.J. Hill. That means there are plenty of catches and receiving yards to fill.

    A guy like 5-star Julian Fleming, the nation's top-ranked receiver on the 247Sports composite, is the perfect player to do so. The 6'2", 199-pound receiver is silky smooth while running routes, possesses good size and exceptional leaping ability.

    Olave can stretch the field with his big-play capability, but Wilson and Fleming are the all-around receivers you look to with the game on the line. The latter is as close to a can't-miss prospect as there is at his position this year.

    The Buckeyes won one of the most important recruiting battles in the Big Ten when they pulled him out of Nittany Lions country, and head coach Ryan Day has already proved he isn't scared to put freshmen in the mix all over the place, especially at receiver.

    Ohio State could be one of the nation's best teams, if not the best, with Fields coming back.

    Surrounding the signal-caller with elite pass-catchers is vital, and Fleming is one of the most college-ready prospects in the class, so don't be surprised if he eclipses 500 yards right away.

Arik Gilbert, LSU Wide Receiver/Tight End

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    247Sports

    We've discussed tight end Maliq Carr and receiver Julian Fleming. Now, let's talk about an elite target who can play either position and will be a matchup nightmare no matter who lines up on him.

    The LSU Tigers walked into Marietta, Georgia, and plucked Arik Gilbert from the Bulldogs in a hotly contested SEC recruiting battle. Alabama, Tennessee and others wanted Gilbert, but the 6'5", 253-pound pass-catcher surprised many when he committed to Ed Orgeron's team and stuck with his decision.

    There was a lot of movement in LSU's class, but Gilbert and defensive end and high school teammate BJ Ojulari are heading to the Tigers, who were gutted by departing seniors, the NFL draft and even coaches who went to other opportunities.

    Next year's Bayou Bengals will look nothing like the team that won the title a couple of weeks ago, especially since Burrow is off to the NFL.

    But Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase will need help catching passes in 2020. Gone are Justin Jefferson and tight end Thaddeus Moss, so those spots are available for a star like Gilbert.

    It probably makes more sense for him to replace Moss, an athletic receiving weapon who wasn't used much as a traditional, in-line tight end. Gilbert is aggressive and physical enough to do damage in the running game, but his real threat is as a downfield target.

    If LSU can find a capable quarterback to dish the ball around the field, it should be a huge first year for Gilbert.

Rakim Jarrett, Maryland Wide Receiver

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    Receiver Rakim Jarrett had an opportunity to join Gilbert at LSU and was committed to Orgeron for a long time before he flipped to Maryland on the first day of the early signing period.

    It was perhaps December's biggest shock.

    The 6'0", 208-pound St. John's High School standout from Washington, D.C., is an ideal all-around receiver, able to line up in the slot or go over the middle, but he can also be a downfield weapon.

    Jarrett is easily the biggest recruiting victory for Mike Locksley, and though the 3-9 Terrapins didn't have a big season in his first year back at the program as head coach, getting a playmaker like Jarrett will go a long way toward validating Locksley's message. He's known as a great recruiter, and this is validation.

    Maryland tried but failed to land transfer quarterback D'Eriq King, who is off to Miami, so the Terrapins are expected to call on Josh Jackson to lead them again in 2020. Lance LeGendre is another option, and the redshirt freshman should develop into a good player.

    But no matter who the quarterback is, Jarrett is the kind of player around whom you can build an offense. Locksley did a great job of recruiting running backs—with Peny Boone and Isaiah Jacobs coming in along with Michigan transfer Jordan Castleberry.

    This won't be an overnight rebuild, but a guy like Jarrett could open the floodgates for mid-Atlantic kids to go to Maryland again. He could also be a 1,000-yard receiver right away.   

Kelee Ringo, Georgia Cornerback

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    If you're looking for a defensive back to provide the kind of impact LSU freshman Derek Stingley Jr. did in 2019, you may not have to go far. Incoming Tigers freshman Elias Ricks may do it.

    But the best bet is another SEC defensive back: Georgia's Kelee Ringo.

    In a clear sign Smart's recruiting brand has gone national, the Bulldogs swept into Arizona's prestigious football powerhouse Saguaro and landed the versatile 5-star prospect, who can play any secondary position.

    Combine Ringo with guys like Richard LeCounte, Tyrique Stevenson and Tyson Campbell, and that's a bunch of potential elite defenders on the back end.

    At 6'2", 205 pounds, Ringo is built like a safety, but he is fluid and moves well enough to be a cornerback, and that's likely where he'll play. He'll be a weapon in press-man coverage and has the kind of physicality to do damage when bumping receivers off routes at the line of scrimmage.

    He possesses exceptional ball skills and is a force against the running game thanks to his tackling ability. Watch for him off the edge in corner blitzes too. Simply put, the can't miss-prospect can do it all, and Ringo is one of the 2020 cycle's top two defensive backs.

    Look for him to become a household name right away.

Bijan Robinson, Texas Running Back

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    The state of Arizona isn't known for producing a lot of top-tier talent, but it had a strong 2020 cycle, and we're going back to back with players from that state.

    Ringo gets plenty of headlines, but Bijan Robinson could be the top running back in the class—as it's probably between him and Evans.

    The 6'0", 200-pound runner from Tucson is heading to Texas and should team with Jordan Whittington for a formidable one-two punch in 2020. The Longhorns certainly need him.

    Whittington battled a hernia issue and had several surgeries as a freshman but has elite potential, and Robinson is a dynamic all-around weapon who can run between the tackles, turn it up a gear on the second level or be a passing-game weapon.

    His 247Sports comparison is New Orleans Saints and former Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara. That should be an exciting thought for any Longhorns fan, and the program is loaded again for perhaps another turnaround season after a disappointing 2019.

    With Sam Ehlinger back at quarterback and new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich proving as Ohio State's passing game coordinator last year that he knows how to juggle a bunch of star playmakers and get the most out of them, big things could be in store for Texas' offense in 2020.

    Expect Robinson to be right in the thick of things.

Jeff Sims, Georgia Tech Quarterback

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    Even though North Carolina's Mack Brown produced the most surprising recruiting class of the 2020 cycle with the No. 19 group, Georgia Tech's Geoff Collins' first full haul wasn't far behind at No. 26.

    The Yellow Jackets are transitioning their offense from Paul Johnson's triple-option attack, and though the first year of that was predictably shaky, there's plenty of playing time to sell, and Collins did an excellent job of doing that.

    One of the biggest buyers of that pitch was quarterback Jeff Sims, who committed to Willie Taggart at Florida State but flipped to the Seminoles' ACC rival and is the type of instant-impact playmaker the program needs.

    "I just want to know that I have a chance to win the starting job," Sims told 247Sports' Rod Mackenzie. "They tell me I have an opportunity to come in there and start. That just tells me that I have to go in there and compete and work hard."

    Sims is a 6'3", 205-pound dual threat from Jacksonville, Florida, who was the fifth-rated player at his position in the 2020 class. Though he isn't yet a polished passer, he is developed enough to learn on the job and be the centerpiece of what Collins wants to do at Tech.

    There are remnants of that run-all-the-time offense on the Yellow Jackets roster, and Sims is the perfect quarterback to pull all those elements together.

    He went 5-of-11 for 27 yards and ran eight times for 59 yards and a touchdown in the Under Armour All-American Game. Sims showed flashes of brilliance, even if he isn't a finished product. He'll do some "wow" things in 2020.

Chris Tyree, Notre Dame Running Back

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    When Notre Dame's Tony Jones Jr. left early for the NFL, he left a large hole in the Fighting Irish's backfield.

    Thankfully for coach Brian Kelly, there are plenty of capable runners already on campus. He's also getting a major reinforcement in the nation's top-ranked all-purpose running back, Chris Tyree, a 4-star talent from Chester, Virginia, who was a big recruiting victory.

    Tyree should be an immediate difference-maker beside quarterback Ian Book. Having an experienced signal-caller in the same backfield will be huge for the freshman, who is ticketed for big things in a small package.

    Despite being 5'10", 179 pounds, Tyree is explosive and will only get better as he develops in a college strength-and-conditioning program. His burst and vision make him look like a potential NFL running back, but his small frame probably kept him from being ranked higher.

    Will he be durable enough to be an every-down back? The Irish probably won't need him to fill a full-time role in 2020 with Jafar Armstrong expected to be the starter and other runners such as C'Bo Flemister, Kyren Williams and Jahmir Smith already on the roster.

    With that, it's probably a gamble to put him on this list, but Tyree is exactly the kind of explosive, change-of-pace runner who can be placed in the slot, be a third-down star and big-play threat, and may have wrinkles put in the offense just for him.

    If new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees uses him right and Notre Dame shuns the urge to redshirt him to let him get stronger, he'll be a weapon right away. 

Bryce Young, Alabama Quarterback

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    247Sports

    Speaking of gambles, perhaps the biggest one on this list is Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

    That has nothing to do with the Mater Dei High School superstar's ability. Though he's just 5'11", 183 pounds, he has elite traits and could be the next Russell Wilson. He isn't quite as mobile as a Kyler Murray, but he can do anything with a football.

    It's risky to place him here because he plays for one of the nation's elite programs—and it's getting back a perfectly capable quarterback in Mac Jones, who more than held his own while filling in for an injured Tua Tagovailoa (hip) in 2019.

    If you're not that enamored with Jones, there's also the younger Tagovailoa, Taulia, who will be a sophomore and has a ton of ability.

    But Young is a next-level athlete.

    He was the MVP of the All-American Bowl and is 2020's top-ranked dual-threat QB. Virtually everybody wanted him, and the California recruit didn't travel across the country to watch from the sideline. This is a confident, talented playmaker who can seize the job.

    Before you perhaps pigeonhole Nick Saban as being an old-school coach who prefers playing upperclassmen, remember that talent knows no age in Tuscaloosa.

    Saban played Jalen Hurts as a true freshman when he was the best option, and he pulled Hurts for true freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of an eventual national championship.

    Saban plays the best, and it's difficult to envision an elite, electric player like Young won't be the best option in the first half of the season. Once he gets into the starting lineup, he'll never look back.

                                 

    Recruiting information via 247Sports unless otherwise noted.