The Best CFB Freshmen in the Big Ten After Opening Weekend
Graham Mertz wasted no time announcing himself as one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks, throwing for five touchdowns in his starting debut for Wisconsin.
While his performance is the undisputed best among freshmen in the conference, several other young players had superb games.
And two of them have familiar names.
Both true and redshirt freshmen were considered. Production is the major focus for skill-position players, though one wideout landed a spot because of a remarkable touchdown. Overall impact is the main factor for players who don't record counting stats.
Blake Corum, RB, Michigan
As if there's not enough anticipation for the first play of the season, Michigan trotted out a true freshman running back.
Blake Corum caught a simple swing pass and made the initial defender miss. He turned upfield, split a couple of Minnesota players, shed one defender and carried the tackler four extra yards. Though a penalty ruined the possession, Corum's 24-yard gain sparked a promising opening drive for the Wolverines.
The true freshman ended his Michigan debut with 45 yards from scrimmage on six touches and also made a great block in pass protection.
Corum is slated to rotate with Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet in the backfield this season.
Luke McCaffrey, QB, Nebraska
How exactly will Nebraska manage quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey? It's a critical question for the 2020 season. But no matter the answer, it's clear McCaffrey will see the field often.
His name might eventually be said without a reference to his brother Christian, the star running back of the Carolina Panthers. Today is not that day, obviously, but Luke continues to impress with his versatility and production.
Last year, he appeared in four games to protect a redshirt. Saturday, he completed four of five passes for 55 yards, rushed for 80 yards on nine attempts and notched a five-yard reception.
McCaffrey wasn't perfect; he fumbled in the 52-17 loss to Ohio State. Still, the 'Huskers have an exciting player to boost an offense that probably needs regular jolts of creativity this season.
Max Melton, CB, Rutgers
For the first time in three seasons, Rutgers has a Big Ten victory! Greg Schiano's second stint with the program began with a 38-27 win over Michigan State.
Though the Scarlet Knights leaned heavily on older defenders, freshman cornerback Max Melton made a positive impact. Yes, he allowed a few catches too, but the younger brother of top wideout Bo Melton posted six tackles in his debut.
Max, a true freshman, will likely be a regular contributor in nickel and dime packages this year.
Graham Mertz, QB, Wisconsin
During the first half of Wisconsin's season-opening win, Graham Mertz had three touchdown passes and zero incompletions. It's safe to say quarterbacks have experienced worse starting debuts.
Mertz wrapped up the contest 20-of-21 for 248 yards with five scores and no turnovers. In true Wisconsin fashion, his first touchdown went to fullback Mason Stokke. His top targets, tight end Jake Ferguson and wideout Danny Davis III, caught the other four.
The 45-7 win hardly could've gone better for Mertz. But now, the Badgers are hoping he stays available.
According to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mertz tested positive for COVID-19. Pending a confirmation, Wisconsin could be without its quarterback for several weeks. But if he can play, the Badgers are the biggest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten.
Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
When your father is a former NFL All-Pro, expectations will be high. Nevertheless, Penn State corner Joey Porter Jr. is off to a good start.
After playing in four games last year to keep a redshirt, Porter landed a first-string role in 2020. During the overtime loss to Indiana, he tallied five stops, one pass breakup and a sack. He showed off excellent speed when blitzing off the edge.
The 36-35 loss undoubtedly stings, but Porter and senior Tariq Castro-Fields give the Nittany Lions a pair of quality corners.
Peter Skoronski, LT, and Brandon Joseph, S, Northwestern
Several freshmen played key roles to help Northwestern obliterate Maryland 43-3 in the opener.
For the offense, Peter Skoronski earned the start at left tackle. His strong performance was doubly valuable for the Wildcats given he's both a local 4-star product and an immediate contributor.
Defensively, a few defensive backs made a big impact. The most notable is safety Brandon Joseph, who replaced Travis Whillock after he opted out of the 2020 season. Joseph collected a team-high seven tackles, including one in the backfield.
For good measure, Rod Heard tallied six stops, and Coco Azema grabbed an interception.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
Usually, two receptions for five yards is not a noteworthy line. We need to bend the rules for Jaxon Smith-Njigba, though.
The 5-star freshman made a stellar impression on his five-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter.
While running along the back of the end zone, Smith-Njibga leaped to grab a pass. Momentum carried his body out of bounds, but he somehow managed to drag his right foot. That body control is both enormously difficult and incredible.
Perhaps he's best considered an honorable mention, but Smith-Njigba possibly made the catch of the year in his debut.