2021 Recruits Most Likely to Light Up College Football as True Freshmen
In the overwhelming majority of cases, true freshmen spend much of their first college football season on the sideline or holding minor roles. But once in a while, a first-year player becomes a top contributor for his team.
When we think of players lighting it up, that typically means impressive numbers. So, while an offensive lineman such as Clemson-bound 5-star Tristan Leigh could be a starter immediately this fall, blockers are rarely thought of in that way.
Our focus is on the highest-rated players, per the 247Sports composite rankings, who have traditional counting stats and are most likely to have significant production in 2021.
Preston Stone, QB, SMU
During the last two seasons, Shane Buechele threw for 7,024 yards and 57 touchdowns. Now that he's headed to the NFL, though, SMU has a quarterback competition.
Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai is a contender, but 4-star Preston Stone has a legitimate chance to win the job.
"I think that [enrolling early] will give him an opportunity to probably play faster than your typical freshman quarterback," SMU coach Sonny Dykes said, per Billy Embody of 247Sports.
In high school, Stone racked up 13,168 passing yards and 145 touchdowns to only 23 interceptions. He added 2,072 yards and 34 scores as a runner.
Thomas Fidone, TE, Nebraska
And, well, Nebraska needs someone to catch passes.
Top receiver Wan'Dale Robinson decided to transfer, leaving tight end Austin Allen (18 receptions, 236 yards) as the leading returning target. Plus, nobody—not even Robinson—had more than one touchdown reception in 2020, either.
According to Mitch Sherman of The Athletic, Fidone said he expects to hold a hybrid role in which he lines up as a wide receiver, too. If he's ready to produce, Nebraska needs Fidone on the field.
Donovan Edwards, RB, Michigan
Hassan Haskins will probably be the starter to begin 2021, and Blake Corum figures to build on his role, too. As the season progresses, though, Michigan's backfield may have a different look.
Zach Charbonnet is transferring and Chris Evans isn't returning, so Donovan Edwards should be a part of the rotation right away.
Versatility is a major draw for Edwards, who caught 33 passes for 419 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. He helped West Bloomfield win a state title in a shortened (and interrupted) 2020, rushing for eight-plus yards per carry in 2019 and 2020 combined.
Most importantly for his 2021 outlook, Edwards is already on campus. Having a full spring and summer to rise up the depth chart can propel him to a significant role—even if that takes a couple of games.
Ty Thompson, QB, Oregon
Oregon is stacked with talent in the quarterback room. Tyler Shough is the returning starter, while Anthony Brown held the backup job in 2020. Jay Butterfield and Robby Ashford were 4-stars, and Cale Millen arrived as a top-rated 3-star.
But the position still feels unsettled. Shough and Brown rotated by the end of 2020, so there's a real competition here.
"We always felt he was the best [quarterback] in the country, hands down," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said on signing day, per Andrew Nemec of Oregon Live.
Between the uncertainty at the position, Thompson's production and Cristobal's praise, the freshman could be taking over for the two-time defending Pac-12 champs.
Jacorey Brooks (or a 4-Star), WR, Alabama
Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III were first-round picks in the 2020 NFL draft. Last season, DeVonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy—after an ankle injury ruined Jaylen Waddle's would-be All-American year. Both will be first-round selections.
So, other than John Metchie III, who's next?
Slade Bolden will probably start. Behind him, it's a big question. Perhaps it's Xavier Williams or Javon Baker, but the incoming class has 5-star Jacorey Brooks and 4-stars JoJo Earle, Agiye Hall and Christian Leary. Brooks, Hall and Leary have enrolled.
Because of his billing and likelihood of playing on the outside, Brooks is the headliner. But it's entirely likely one of Alabama's other top-70 prospects will contribute quickly.
TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State
Master Teague III is a quality back and capable starter, but he's more a straight-line, powerful back. Ohio State's offense hit a new level when Trey Sermon began ripping off explosive runs.
Simply noting that TreVeyon Henderson has big-play ability would be an incredibly large understatement.
In 2019, he rushed for 2,424 yards at a ridiculous 12.2 per carry and scored a jaw-dropping 45 touchdowns. Now enrolled at Ohio State, Henderson can climb the depth chart in a talented, yet relatively unproven, backfield behind Teague.
Marcus Crowley and Steele Chambers have 31 and 28 career carries, respectively. Miyan Williams has 10. Evan Pryor, a 4-star in the 2021 class, will also join the group.
Henderson has a great opportunity to earn significant snaps, or even become the outright starter, immediately.
Ja'Tavion Sanders, ATH, Texas
Will he play offense or defense? Ja'Tavion Sanders could be a dominant tight end, or he might develop into an elite pass-rusher.
Texas coach Steve Sarkisian may be forced into one answer. After coordinating a championship-winning Alabama team that overwhelmed opponents simply on the strength of its offense, Sark knows the value of putting your best players on the scoring side.
As a senior at Texas powerhouse Denton Ryan, Sanders reeled in 63 passes for 1,156 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Granted, Mike Roach of 247Sports noted Sanders said Sarkisian plans to use the 5-star on both sides of the ball. It's likely Sanders will have that chance. But once he starts scoring touchdowns, having Sanders focus on offense will be highly appealing.
Korey Foreman, DE, USC
Not only is Korey Foreman the nation's top-rated prospect, but he also enters a position of need at USC.
Last season, Nick Figueroa paced the Trojans with 3.5 sacks in six games. Tuli Tuipulotu added two sacks. While both should be key members of the rotation in 2021, it's totally foreseeable they dip behind Foreman on the depth chart.
Despite missing half of his junior year because of a knee injury, the 6'4", 265-pounder piled up 32 tackles with 10 for loss.
Foreman can be a dynamic pass-rusher opposite Drake Jackson. USC's defense, a unit that ranked 49th in yards per play last season, would benefit immensely from that kind of impact.