CFB Recruiting: Re-Ranking the Top 2020 Class Performances So Far
When it comes to re-ranking recruiting classes over the course of time, you need to look at the full body of work for an entire group of prospects throughout their collegiate careers.
But what fun is waiting?
Seriously, though, some players from the 2020 class are already making a major impact on the football field. With several conferences deep into their seasons, it's time to re-rank last year's haul using only on-field performance and instant impact as criteria.
While elite programs like Clemson, Georgia and Alabama made the list, others like Ohio State and Texas A&M are noticeably absent. That's not a knock on their terrific prospects from the last class; they simply haven't been needed yet.
In other words, nobody is indicating the teams on this list have better classes than those whose players haven't performed well yet. This is a measurement strictly of how true freshmen are performing for their programs right now.
Having just one freshman phenom won't land you on the list (apologies to Auburn and Tank Bigsby as well as Pittsburgh and Jordan Addison), but a couple of difference-makers will get your team in contention. In some cases, first-year players are stepping into crucial roles at important times.
With the Big Ten just a couple of weeks in, only one team from that conference made the list, while the Pac-12 will throw in a few candidates next week.
Let's take a look at last year's classes re-ranked based on on-field performance.
10. Michigan State Spartans
The season is young for everybody in the Big Ten, but one of the top individual performances has been posted by a first-year player.
That would be Michigan State freshman receiver Ricky White. He didn't have the same hype as Marietta High School teammates Arik Gilbert (LSU), Harrison Bailey (Tennessee) or BJ Ojulari (LSU), but he is making a huge impact with the Spartans.
In Saturday's big win over rival Michigan, White finished with eight catches, 196 receiving yards and a touchdown, breaking Cody White's freshman school record for single-game yardage. With that breakout performance, he is going to be a chore for anybody to scheme around.
First-year coach Mel Tucker needed some positivity after Rutgers embarrassed the program in the opener, and beating the rival Wolverines was just the jolt they needed. They'll hope to build on that going forward.
Another freshman who has been a steady player for the Spartans is running back and fellow Atlanta-area prospect Jordon Simmons. Though Elijah Collins and Connor Heyward are expected to be major contributors to the run game this year, it's been Simmons' job so far.
He has 28 carries for 98 yards—not spectacular stats, but enough to keep him firmly in the rotation.
If Tucker is going to be successful in East Lansing, he'll have to keep his Southern recruiting ties from his time as Georgia's defensive coordinator and as an Alabama assistant. The early performances of White and Simmons prove he knows how to grab difference-making talent from that region.
9. Miami Hurricanes
Coach Manny Diaz's Miami Hurricanes make this list based on the sheer volume of first-year players they are throwing out there.
While they aren't making a huge impact beyond the first couple of guys in the stat sheets, they have a bright future.
"This class has something to it. I feel like I've been saying that," Diaz told reporters in September. "You want it to be true as the games come, but it's turning out to be true."
Whether or not "The U" is back remains to be seen, but Diaz's 2021 class looks even better on paper than this one. The number of youngsters who are getting in games in Coral Gables proves those will be big cleats to fill.
Freshman receiver Michael Redding III was the fourth receiver for much of the early season, though he has hit a bit of a freshman wall, allowing classmate Keyshawn Smith to jump in and play.
Two guys who haven't hit anything but their stride are running backs Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney Jr., who stand to get a lot more carries the second half of the season with Cam'Ron Harris slumping.
Those two first-year runners have shown tons of promise, and they will get the chance to be huge parts of a team that is vying for an ACC title.
When you factor in that the top player from the class, safety Avantae Williams, is sitting out this season, you can see why Diaz is so excited. Led by Chaney and Knighton, the freshmen who have gotten the chance to prove themselves are doing big things.
8. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
For all the major recruiting victories Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins had in the 2020 recruiting class, not a whole lot of them have made a major on-field impact.
The two who have are playing such key roles that they're hard to ignore, even on a team that is struggling to find its way through another rebuilding season in Atlanta. It's not going to be pretty for the Yellow Jackets in the win-loss column, but they're building for something bigger.
It's just going to take a lot of time to overhaul Paul Johnson's archaic offensive scheme to a more modern unit.
Two of the biggest pieces of that puzzle are making an impact right now. Quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs are doing good things even through the growing pains.
There have been flashes for Sims, a 4-star signal-caller who marked one of the biggest recruiting wins for Collins when he flipped from Florida State and came to Tech to be the centerpiece of the project.
He has completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,346 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions and has run for 277 more yards and three scores. Those aren't outstanding numbers, but there have been great moments.
The star of the class was Dalton, Georgia, running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who is showing why Ohio State, Florida, Georgia, LSU, USC and others tried to sway him from the Bees in the late signing period. He has run 83 times for 369 yards and scored twice.
He's been an even bigger threat in the passing game, catching 20 balls for 255 yards and three touchdowns.
Those two are going to be making plays for Tech for years to come. They just need some help.
7. Kansas State Wildcats
The Kansas State Wildcats have shown big things don't always come in 5-star packages.
Running back Deuce Vaughn was ranked No. 1,236 in the 247Sports composite rankings in the 2020 class, most likely because he is 5'5", 168 pounds. But the Round Rock, Texas, speedster is proving rankings do not matter.
Despite a disappointing showing in a loss to West Virginia on Saturday, Vaughn is having a phenomenal year, leading the Wildcats in rushing and receiving yards. He has 70 carries for 341 yards and four scores and has 15 catches for 361 yards and another touchdown.
"I've always been overlooked because of my height. It's just a chip on my shoulder," Vaughn told the Associated Press' John Raby. "I feel like that's why we're such a great team, because we all have chips on our shoulders for some reason. We all came here to show everybody that we can play football."
He isn't the only player from the 2020 class to make a splash for 4-2 K-State, which was ranked before the trip to Morgantown a week ago.
Quarterback Will Howard was thrust into the starting lineup after the season-ending injury to Skylar Thompson, and he has done just fine. The 6'4", 230-pound Pennsylvania prospect has completed 56 percent of his passes for 741 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
He also proved in the win over TCU he can be a weapon on the ground, running for 86 yards.
Running back Keyon Mozee doesn't get Vaughn's headlines, but he is showing he can be a piece of the future as well.
While no freshmen stand out on a veteran defense, coach Chris Klieman has found some important pieces around which to build his offense this year and beyond.
6. Georgia Bulldogs
The nation's top-ranked class from a season ago featured 25 players signed by Kirby Smart. On paper, it was one of the best hauls in recent memory for any program.
A smattering of those guys have gotten on the field for the 4-1 Bulldogs, but much like the rest of the players on a quality team full of elite talent with no real standouts, they've blended in. The number of contributors, though, places UGA high on the list.
A year ago, freshman George Pickens broke out in the second half of the season, and UGA is going to need several guys to do the same this year if they're going to be a threat to win the national title.
The top headline-making players in the group are running back Kendall Milton and receiver Jermaine Burton, who both look like future stars.
Milton is second on the team with 165 rushing yards and delivers a punch when he hits the second level. The Clovis, California, product is showing why he was highly rated. Burton had a big game in the loss to Alabama and has nine catches for 122 yards and a touchdown, adding 47 rushing yards.
Tight end Darnell Washington was another 5-star prospect who is a breakout candidate. Though he only has two catches for 59 yards, he has been targeted several times in the red zone. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken needs to get him more involved.
Receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint has three catches for 30 yards and started his first career game at Kentucky when Pickens didn't make the trip because of injury.
With so many injuries along the defensive front, coordinator Dan Lanning has inserted star youngsters Jalen Carter and Nazir Stackhouse. Both have looked the part and more than held their own.
The on-field performance of UGA's 2020 class isn't knocking anybody down from a production standpoint, but the participation is stellar on a deep, talented team.
5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame didn't have the biggest class in 2020 with just 17 players enrolled, but a couple of those guys are proving to be massive parts of the Fighting Irish's season.
If they are going to upset Clemson on Saturday, a pair of first-year X-factors need to shine.
One is tight end Michael Mayer, who is a star in the making, filling the void left by departed junior playmaker Cole Kmet. The Irish are known for producing star tight ends, and Mayer may wind up the best of them all.
He has caught 15 passes for 168 yards and two scores, emerging as a viable target for Ian Book on an offense that desperately needs them.
The catalyst behind Book is sophomore Kyren Williams, who is the bell cow for the Irish carrying the football. However, a change-of-pace freshman who is proving capable of quality reps is Chris Tyree, who has blossomed right away.
Tyree has 40 carries for 264 yards with a pair of touchdowns. He is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and is an explosive threat who can find pay dirt any time he gets his hands on the ball. Though he has just two catches, Tyree can be a force in the passing game too.
As those two players draw headlines, it's easy to forget about New Jersey native Clarence Lewis. Far from one of the top players in the class, the 3-star prospect is proving to be an evaluation jewel. He's started multiple games, registering seven tackles and a trio of pass deflections.
Defensive end Rylie Mills is working his way into the rotation too. There are a lot of good, young players in that small class.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
It has been a bit of a youth movement for coach Lincoln Riley in Norman with an Oklahoma team that is used to competing for national championships.
On one hand, that's been disappointing since the Sooners already have a pair of losses. On the other hand, they are beginning to blossom, and they have more young playmakers at their disposal ready to turn into stars.
Guys like Jadon Haselwood, who is injured and missing this season, will be thrown into the mix again in 2021, so it's exciting the Sooners are finding even more offensive weapons. The defense has even made strides in recent weeks.
Offensively, with all the suspensions and injuries to start the year, it's hard to fathom where Oklahoma would be without a pair of 4-star, top-200 players in receiver Marvin Mims and running back Seth McGowan. Mims is not only an emerging star but is also a threat to be an All-Big 12 performer this year.
The 5'11", 177-pound native of Frisco, Texas, has 23 catches for 388 yards and six touchdowns, highlighted by a pair of two-score games.
"He balls. He does his thing," defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles told the Tulsa World's Eric Bailey. "He knows his job. He knows his assignment. I love having him as a teammate. He's exciting to watch. And I'm just ready for the rest of the year."
At running back, the Sooners needed to find capable bodies after Kennedy Brooks opted out and with Rhamondre Stevenson suspended for the first part of the year. Enter Seth McGowan, who is the team's second-leading rusher with 280 yards and three scores on 55 carries.
Though he may lose some touches now that Stevenson is back, he has been a key player.
Toss in a guy like jumbo athlete Mikey Henderson, who has seven grabs for 78 yards, and the production for the 2020 class is looking good for Riley.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
Much like Georgia, Alabama's 2020 class was lauded for being deep and talented, and a bunch of Crimson Tide players have made a difference.
They've had more guys stand out than the Bulldogs. They also get the nod over Oklahoma and Notre Dame because of the number of instant-impact players.
The group is led by cornerback Malachi Moore, a star in the making who is a two-time SEC Freshman of the Week. His season has shades of LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. a year ago. Though he isn't quite that talented, Moore is doing everything for the Tide.
He has 28 tackles, six passes defended, two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown in what is shaping up to be an all-conference season.
Beyond him, Alabama boasts 5-star outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who is living up to expectations. Though he isn't always at the right place at the right time on Pete Golding's defense, Anderson is making plays early, registering 22 tackles.
The Tide's sixth defensive back is also a freshman. Brian Branch earned a start against pass-happy Mississippi State and has nine tackles and three passes defended.
Those three guys are making a difference on a young Alabama defense that is getting better each week. Linebacker Drew Sanders is earning more and more reps too.
Offensively, a ton of hype surrounded 5-star quarterback Bryce Young coming out of high school. Though it has been a mixed bag, he is 8-of-15 passing for 84 yards in relief of Mac Jones.
The freshman receiving trio of Javon Baker, Thaiu Jones-Bell and Traeshon Holden also have gotten on the field and may be counted on more with the season-ending injury to Jaylen Waddle.
The 2020 haul was yet another home run class for coach Nick Saban.
2. LSU Tigers
When you lose the number of elite players to the NFL that coach Ed Orgeron did after the dream national title year a season ago, and then factor in all-star opt-outs like Ja'Marr Chase and Tyler Shelvin, there's no question it's going to be a rebound year.
This season has not started the way LSU hoped at 2-3.
But the youth movement is in full effect in Baton Rouge, and the early returns are strong.
The class is led by cornerback Eli Ricks, who teams with Derek Stingley Jr. to give LSU a formidable duo. It's shocking the Tigers are last in the SEC in pass defense, but Stingley hasn't been healthy, and Ricks' terrific moments are interspersed with frustrating lapses.
He's tied for the SEC lead with three interceptions and has returned one for a score. He also has 11 tackles and a pair of passes defended.
The other defensive first-year star is BJ Ojulari. The freshman edge-rusher is second in the conference behind his brother, Georgia's Azeez Ojulari, with four sacks, and he has 12 tackles as well.
On offense, with Myles Brennan out, the Bayou Bengals got a phenomenal debut by true freshman TJ Finley in a win over South Carolina. He struggled against Auburn, though, opening the door for Max Johnson, who looked great in relief. Johnson is the son of former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson and the nephew of Mark Richt.
Finley has completed 67 percent of his passes for 408 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, while Johnson has completed 15 of 24 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown.
You want pass-catchers? LSU has those too. Tight end Arik Gilbert is a generational talent at his position and has 22 catches for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Rookie receiver Kayshon Boutte has added 168 more receiving yards and a score.
Talent abounds for Coach O as he reloads on the Bayou. Despite the struggles, there are probably plenty of victorious chants of "Go Tigahs" ahead from Orgeron.
1. Clemson Tigers
LSU probably has more instant-impact freshmen who have burst onto the scene. The quarterback injuries give the Bayou Bengals the upper hand in numbers too.
But another set of Tigers gets the slight nod for the top spot since their impacts are magnified by a national championship race. That group, of course, is coach Dabo Swinney's team—the one that finished runner-up to LSU a season ago.
What they've been able to accomplish with first-year players while maintaining the No. 1 ranking is even more spectacular. If the Tigers can beat Notre Dame in South Bend this weekend, it will solidify this spot atop the rankings, because it will be largely thanks to freshmen.
The hot name on the whole list is true freshman signal-caller D.J. Uiagalelei, who was thrust into action after Heisman Trophy front-runner Trevor Lawrence's positive COVID-19 test.
Uiagalelei played poised and near-flawless football in leading Clemson to a comeback win over Boston College. He completed 30 of 41 passes for 342 yards and a pair of scores while running for another touchdown. He has 444 passing yards for the year and faces a massive test against the Irish.
"I felt prepared," Uiagalelei told reporters after the game. "Ever since I got here, I've been preparing like I'm the starter. Not under the circumstances of Trevor having COVID, but I was ready to go. I have been preparing for this since I came into Clemson. I treated it like another game, I was ready to go."
Uiagalelei is far from the only freshman star. A trio of front-seven defenders are elite, led by Myles Murphy, who is second on the team with 25 tackles and has 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He's among the best defenders in any class in the country.
The No. 1 overall prospect in 2020, Bryan Bresee, has made a huge impact too with 11 tackles, three sacks and two passes defended. He forced Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec into a safety last weekend, sealing the game. Trenton Simpson also has 12 tackles and two sacks.
At receiver, first-year players E.J. Williams (11 catches for 135 yards) and Ajou Ajou (two catches for 41 yards and a score) have helped ease the sting of losing star receiver Justyn Ross for the year. Williams actually hails from the same high school in Phenix City, Alabama, as Ross.
Defensive back Fred Davis II is also firmly in the secondary rotation. LSU may have more star freshmen, but Clemson has plenty and is doing it battling for a national title.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard