2021 College Football Recruits Who Could Start as Freshmen

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2021

2021 College Football Recruits Who Could Start as Freshmen

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    Credit: 247Sports

    National signing day tied a bow on another college football recruiting cycle earlier this month, and it's time to look ahead to which players could make the biggest impact right away.

    Several teams anticipate some of their prize signees will earn starting jobs immediately.

    From offensive playmakers to field generals under center to stars in both trenches, star prospects from the 2021 class are ready to step onto the football field and turn potential into production.

    By next December, some will be household names, either nationally or in their respective programs and conferences.

    Let's look at a handful of incoming players who should have a strong chance to start and make an impact as freshman phenoms.

Billy Bowman, Oklahoma Athlete

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    Few high school football teams are more dynamic or versatile than Texas state champion Ryan High School out of Denton.

    The program produces elite players every year, and in 2020, it churned out two players on this list who could start for Big 12 programs immediately. The best part is nobody knows what position they'll make an impact at—only that they will.

    Billy Bowman is the first one, and the Oklahoma Sooners signee (rated as the No. 43 overall player in the nation) could be a megastar as a wide receiver or a cornerback. He could even shine at both spots.

    "I don't have the first clue where he's going to play for us, but it's going to be somewhere," Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley said in his early signing day press conference in December. "It wouldn't shock me if he doesn't end up having a role for us on both sides of the football."

    That's high praise for a kid who hasn't stepped on a college campus, but it's no secret Bowman can play. At 5'10", 175 pounds, he isn't the biggest player, but he possesses track speed and can be a player in all three phases of the game.

    Get ready for him to star in Norman right away.

Donovan Edwards, Michigan Running Back

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    It's a gamble to start a freshman over established players, but the Michigan Wolverines need a reboot on both sides of the ball following a disappointing 2020 campaign. It would be wise to give some young playmakers a long look.

    With quarterback Joe Milton's transfer, incoming first-year player J.J. McCarthy will battle Cade McNamara for the job, but the latter has to be considered the favorite.

    That's not the case at running back.

    Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum can make big plays for Big Blue, while Zach Charbonnet has transferred to UCLA. The door is wide open for the nation's No. 41 overall player, Donovan Edwards, who is good enough to carry a new-look offense.

    The West Bloomfield product is fresh off a state championship, and he's used to carrying the load. Everybody in the nation wanted him, but coach Jim Harbaugh was able to keep him home, and Edwards will be rewarded with playing time.

    Harbaugh can't afford to keep him on the sideline. He's one of the two or three best running backs in the class, and he could be an instant-impact star for the Wolverines.

Thomas Fidone, Nebraska Tight End

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    One of the best players in Nebraska's recruiting class and one of the top non-Ohio State recruits in the class is incoming Council Bluffs, Iowa, tight end prospect Thomas Fidone.

    Coach Scott Frost has inked a versatile weapon who will help the Cornhuskers in a lot of ways. At 6'5", 225 pounds and extremely athletic, Fidone can do a lot of things with his hands on the ball. That's why he was a top-100 player.

    Nebraska still has Austin Allen, who's coming off a good season in which he finished with 18 catches for 236 yards and a touchdown, so Fidone may have somebody blocking him at tight end.

    No matter. He can play receiver too, and the Huskers need depth there.

    Allen is a good player, but he isn't the kind of talent Fidone is. He's an impact playmaker teams will have to scheme around defensively. In 10 games as a senior, Fidone caught 43 passes for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    You can't keep that kind of talent waiting, especially considering Nebraska didn't burn out any scoreboards last year. It needs help all over the place, and Fidone can provide it.

Korey Foreman, USC Defensive End

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    It's not a stretch to say the nation's top-ranked player will make an immediate impact for any team.

    Korey Foreman decided to stay home and play for defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and the USC Trojans. He will team up with friend and former high school teammate Drake Jackson to give the Pac-12 power a star on the edge.

    Foreman is a 6'4", 265-pound phenom who can add 20 pounds and still be explosive. He will benefit from being in a college weight program, but he's good enough and possesses the type of Power Five body that can allow him to come in and dominate.

    The message coach Clay Helton wants to send to California recruits is he will play you if you stay home. Guys like Foreman, cornerback Ceyair Wright and linebacker Raesjon Davis have the chance to not only play but also start.

    Helton needed this type of class to jump-start a surge to the top of the conference and battle Oregon for Pac-12 supremacy. Foreman is the centerpiece of a group that could signal USC's return to dominance.

    Look for him to get after a signal-caller near you in '21.

Kingsley Suamataia, Oregon Offensive Tackle

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    Everybody wants to talk about Oregon's incoming freshman phenom quarterback Ty Thompson, and rightfully so. He has the talent and ability to fight for starting reps right away for the Pac-12's top program.

    But a lot of talented players are ahead of him in Eugene. That's an uphill battle, even if it's attainable.

    A clearer path to playing time is at left tackle, the position that will protect Thompson, Anthony Brown or whoever wins the signal-caller spot. That may be a true freshman too.

    Kingsley Suamataia is the nation's No. 35 overall player. He hails from Orem, Utah, but he's heading to Eugene to play his college ball, and he likely will get to do a lot of that quickly.

    His family has a relationship with the Sewell family, which produced Penei Sewell, the 2019 Outland Trophy winner who likely will be the top offensive tackle taken in this year's NFL draft, and brother Noah Sewell, who anchors the linebacking corps for the Ducks.

    Suamataia has grabbed the most headlines of any offensive lineman since Sewell and could be next in line as a superstar trench anchor for Mario Cristobal. It is another loaded recruiting class for Cristobal that includes stars like Thompson and receiver Troy Franklin.

    But the left tackle spot is as valuable as any on the football field, and Suamataia is one of the few athletic and talented enough to slide into a starting spot as a freshman.

Destyn Hill, Florida State Wide Receiver

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    While Florida State isn't undergoing a complete rebuild after the failed Willie Taggart era, second-year coach Mike Norvell has a lot of things to implement and needs a roster flip to run the offensive scheme he wants.

    Adding players like Destyn Hill will speed up that process.

    The Louisiana pass-catcher pledged to the Seminoles on national signing day as they beat out LSU and others. He's poised to have a great career in Tallahassee that should start with a big freshman season.

    The nation's No. 113-ranked wide receiver is 6'0", 200 pounds. While the class may have bigger and faster receivers, he is a winner who had a terrific high school career at Edna Karr in New Orleans and brings a lot to the ACC.

    A lot of great teams wanted him. He has quick feet, can stretch the field and runs pristine routes, and he is the type of player Norvell had success with during his time at Memphis.

    The 'Noles need big-time help at receiver, so Hill has the opportunity not only to play but also to earn a starting job. He could be a big playmaker for an offense that needs them.

Tristan Leigh, Clemson Offensive Tackle

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    When Tristan Leigh committed to Clemson rather than heading to LSU, Alabama, Ohio State or another top-shelf program that coveted him, he not only chose to join another elite class pieced together by Dabo Swinney. He also met a major need for the Tigers.

    It's not every year that a program used to competing for national titles has clear deficiencies, but the Tigers weren't good enough in 2020.

    They were awful at times along the offensive front, and the 6'5", 270-pound tackle could go a long way toward solidifying a unit that needs help. He will team with center Ryan Linthicum to give the Tigers a duo of freshmen who could start.

    Leigh is the nation's No. 13 overall player and the top prospect from the state of Virginia, beating out elite Ohio State running back pledge TreVeyon Henderson for that honor. Leigh is big, strong and athletic enough to start at left tackle this coming season.

    Jackson Carman is gone, so Leigh will battle Walker Parks for that spot. Even if Parks wins the gig, Leigh could shift to right tackle.

    A lot of players in this year's class could keep the youth movement going on Swinney's team, but Leigh is one of the highest-profile players who fits at a major position of need.

Tywone Malone, Ole Miss Defensive Tackle

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    As bad as Clemson's offensive line was last season, it's all relative. It doesn't approach the level of awful of the Ole Miss defense in Lane Kiffin's first year in Oxford.

    The Rebels could post points with the best of them and won their fair share of shootouts, but they had to because they couldn't stop anybody on the other side of the ball. Kiffin is smart, though, and he used his elite recruiting acumen to address major needs at all three levels of the defense.

    Perhaps no pull was bigger for the Rebels than landing 6'4", 305-pound defensive tackle Tywone Malone, a two-sport star from New Jersey who can anchor the defensive line for years to come. The nation's No. 62-ranked player is a good enough athlete to start right away in Oxford.

    He probably will have to. You can't keep athletes like him off the field.

    As good as Malone is on the gridiron, he may be better on the diamond. He is a heavy-hitting baseball player who reminds some of Frank Thomas, the Hall of Fame former Chicago White Sox star who played two sports at Auburn.

    Malone will be a player for Mike Bianco's Rebels baseball team, but he also could be a pro prospect in football, and he's poised to be a big part of Kiffin's plans in '21.

Jason Marshall, Florida Cornerback

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    Nothing has been disappointing about Florida coach Dan Mullen's recruiting with the Gators, but he hasn't landed a lot of high-level, can't-miss prospects out of high school.

    Instead, Florida has done a great job in the transfer market and in player development.

    Jason Marshall bucks the trend of not being able to land the "big one." The 6'2", 180-pound defensive back is as talented and athletic as any defender in the country. The 5-star player is ranked No. 28 overall, and despite how well UF has recruited the secondary, he should start.

    Teaming him with Kaiir Elam could give the Gators a dynamic duo of shutdown corners.

    Blessed with elite cover skills and track speed, Marshall is a revelation on the back end of the defense, a game-changer with the talent to become a legend. That's high praise, but he's that good.

    "He's the best cornerback in the country," Palmetto High School coach Mike Manasco told CaneSport (h/t Corey Bender of Gators Territory). "He's the total package, is 6'2", 190 pounds, can fly. He's got the ability to do what every team really wants—a man-to-man, boundary corner guy who can basically shut down the boundary on the No. 1 receiver."

    Marshall also has the size to play safety and can do anything Mullen asks. He is going to be a star.

Amarius Mims, Georgia Offensive Tackle

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    Staying in the SEC East, the Georgia Bulldogs have a lot of pieces in place to compete for national championships.

    But the Bulldogs were not good enough along the offensive front in 2020 after losing so many stars to the NFL. Trey Hill and Ben Cleveland are heading off to the pros this year, depleting the unit once again.

    Kirby Smart has loaded up along the offensive front in the past two classes, though, and the Bulldogs have a lot of young, talented players they can depend on. But they need them to learn in a hurry.

    One player expected to be an impact tackle right away is Amarius Mims, ranked seventh in the country. The prospect from Cochran, Georgia, decided to stay in-state rather than go to Alabama, Auburn or Tennessee.

    At 6'7", 315 pounds and possessing great athleticism and brute strength, Mims will only improve once he gets in a college weight room and learns how to play the position. His talent alone may allow him to start at left tackle for a team that expects to compete for the SEC in 2021.

    Among the great tackles on this list, Mims may be the best and the top one in the nation. It'll be exciting to watch him develop and show out on the next level.

Behren Morton, Texas Tech Quarterback

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    It's easy to overlook Texas Tech considering the Red Raiders have fallen on difficult times since dumping Kliff Kingsbury. But coach Matt Wells is trying to build his program, and he may have the signal-caller to do that in the 2021 class.

    That would be 6'2", 185-pound 4-star quarterback Behren Morton of Eastland, Texas, an early enrollee who steps into a prime opportunity to win the starting job.

    The nation's No. 146-ranked player is a coach's son who played for his father and threw for 3,593 yards and 37 touchdowns last year in West Texas. He also ran for 897 yards and 19 touchdowns and can do it all.

    Even though he isn't the biggest player and doesn't have the strongest arm, he's a winner who can make a ton of plays. Considering Alan Bowman opted to transfer, Morton must beat out only Henry Colombi, who isn't as talented. If the Red Raiders don't opt to add a transfer quarterback, Morton will probably win the job.

    Morton is excellent in the short and intermediate passing game, which means he's the perfect player to run offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie's Air Raid. With his smooth passing and pocket poise and the athleticism to make plays with his feet when things crumble around him, Morton will be fun to watch.

    Remember his name—even though he doesn't play for a powerhouse program, he could help put Tech back on the Big 12 map.

Demeioun Robinson, Maryland Defensive End

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    If you want to be excited about an out-of-left-field Big Ten team, you should keep an eye on the Maryland Terrapins over the next couple of years.

    It would be difficult for coach Mike Locksley to screw up all the talent he's bringing into the program. On offense, Taulia Tagovailoa seems like an exciting quarterback prospect around whom to build that side of the ball.

    Then on defense, Locksley recruited a trio of electric athletes in the 2021 class with linebackers Terrence Lewis and Branden Jennings, along with defensive end Demeioun Robinson.

    The first two come from the Sunshine State, but Robinson hails from nearby Gaithersburg, Maryland, and he is staying home to become a star. It may not take him long. He is too talented to keep off the field, and this group of players will be exciting to watch develop.

    At 6'3", 220 pounds, Robinson is versatile enough on the second level and can play with his hand down. He will be getting after quarterbacks and could bulk up and not lose much athleticism. Robinson is the kind of quick-twitch player the top teams covet.

    You expect to see this kind of player at Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State, but he'll be terrorizing quarterbacks for the Terrapins.

    Of all the prospects Locksley has brought to Maryland, Robinson has the highest ceiling.

Preston Stone, SMU Quarterback

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    With Shane Buechele off to the NFL after helping coach Sonny Dykes keep SMU at the level Chad Morris rebuilt it to, the Mustangs needed to replace him with another difference-maker.

    Rather than go the transfer route, Dykes convinced a top-shelf high school signal-caller to stay home and do big things for the Group of Five team.

    6'2", 205-pound quarterback Preston Stone of Parish Episcopal School in Dallas could have gone to some of the top programs in the country. Instead, the No. 111-ranked overall player believes in what Dykes is doing and will be groomed under the coach who helped Buechele and Jared Goff become NFL prospects.

    Stone is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the 2021 class. He has a quick trigger, can make all the intermediate throws and isn't bad downfield, even though it isn't the strongest part of the game.

    He was a big-time winner in high school who posted huge numbers and can make plays with his feet as well. He had more than 13,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in his career.

    Stone led his team to consecutive state championships in the largest private school division in the state—not the type of player who is supposed to go to SMU. Of all the quarterbacks in the '21 class, he's the biggest lock to start immediately.

Ja'Tavion Sanders, Texas Athlete

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    A lot of Lone Star State prospects feature on this list, but none are as highly rated as Ja'Tavion Sanders, who could become the biggest star of all.

    The biggest question is at what position?

    The nation's No. 12-rated player may line up all over the place. Like Ryan High School teammate Billy Bowman, who was discussed earlier, he can do a lot of things at different spots.

    Sanders could replace edge-rusher Joseph Ossai and be an instant-impact star on defense. The 6'3½", 235-pounder is fast, has great length and is strong enough to blast past offensive linemen and get home to quarterbacks for a Power Five defense.

    But he also has soft hands and excellent speed for his size and could line up as a tight end or H-back for coach Steve Sarkisian. Much like Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley with Bowman, Sarkisian isn't committing to playing Sanders anywhere exclusively. He may do it all.

    Will it be offense or defense? "We're going to look at him at both, quite frankly," Sarkisian told reporters.

    When your coach says that, there's a good chance you're going to start somewhere.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.