Top College Football Freshmen in Best Position for Key Roles in 2021
No matter the hype, incredible high school players aren't locked into a starting lineup as college freshmen.
When these prospects sign a letter of intent, fans and analysts alike are quick to project immediate-impact potential. However, fall camp provides a more realistic outlook of the depth chart—and some freshmen just aren't going to see many significant snaps.
Based on early reports, though, these freshmen—all of whom held top-50 rankings in the 2021 recruiting class—are inching closer to a substantial role.
The list is organized by prospect billing in ascending order, using the 247Sports composite rankings as the guide.
Troy Franklin, WR, Oregon
Both players enrolled early and captured a fair bit of attention in the spring game. Franklin, who was the No. 41 overall prospect in 2021, posted four catches for 93 yards, while Thornton reeled in three passes for 89 yards and a touchdown.
According to Zachary Neel of Ducks Wire, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal recently said Franklin and Thornton "look like veterans. They look like they belong."
At worst, the freshmen seem headed for regular snaps. And since no returning wideout has averaged more than 60 yards per game at Oregon, the opportunity for a larger role is evident.
Will Shipley, RB, Clemson
Will Shipley has demanded attention after soaring on Clemson's depth chart in two places.
Lyn-J Dixon and Kobe Pace are currently the top running backs. But if Shipley is the best option—reminiscent of Trevor Lawrence over Kelly Bryant in 2018—there's no doubt Clemson would make the switch.
"He's not like a typical freshman," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, per Sam Neumann of the Clemson Insider. "It's pretty easy to see. First of all, he came in, in January; he's going to be ahead anyway. Just how he carries himself. He's locked in all the time, everything."
Factor in Shipley working as the punt returner, and it's fair to expect the No. 32 prospect in 2021 to hold a major role.
TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State
Similar to Donovan Edwards at rival Michigan, TreVeyon Henderson has jumped to a third-string spot. But as Edwards challenges Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, Henderson has a slightly more favorable outlook at Ohio State.
Master Teague III is a two-year contributor, but he basically missed all of spring practice and seems best suited for a complementary role anyway. Henderson is largely chasing Miyan Williams, who enters 2021 with only 10 career carries.
Plus, like Shipley, Henderson is positioned to contribute on special teams. Dan Hope and Colin Hass-Hill of Eleven Warriors noted Henderson has been lining up as the first-string kick returner.
If Henderson, the No. 23 prospect in the 2021 class, has a consistently strong fall camp, it's clear he can swing this depth chart considerably.
Maason Smith, DT, LSU
Given that Glen Logan has exactly 100 career tackles, LSU will lean on the fifth-year senior. But he needs to be healthy first.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Logan has "a little break in his foot," according to Glenn Guilbeau of the Daily Advertiser. Logan isn't expected to play in the opener at UCLA or against McNeese State, leaving Maason Smith a full month to earn snaps.
Listed at 6'5" and 316 pounds, the No. 20 overall prospect is physically ready for the SEC. Orgeron said he guaranteed Smith will "challenge those older guys," per Billy Embody of 247Sports.
Smith is potentially only a few impressive weeks from landing a key place in the rotation.
Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB, Alabama
Alabama returns much of its secondary, yet Kool-Aid McKinstry is still a strong candidate for playing time.
Tony Tsoukalas of Bama Insider noted the cornerback's physicality has impressed Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Pete Golding. Considering he's also on Alabama's basketball roster, McKinstry definitely has the "athletic" box checked, too.
Although the spring game is just a glorified exhibition, he absolutely shined there. McKinstry collected three tackles (one for loss), one interception, one fumble recovery and a key pass breakup.
McKinstry, who finished as the No. 18 prospect in his class, is chasing Jalyn Armour-Davis on the depth chart.
Jack Sawyer or J.T. Tuimoloau, DE, Ohio State
Granted, it's a product of unfortunate news. According to Dan Hope of Eleven Warriors, head coach Ryan Day said Tyler Friday will be sidelined for most of the season because of an injury. Friday held a regular backup role last season.
"They're gonna have to get on the field a little sooner than maybe we thought before," Day said of Sawyer and Tuimoloau, per Hope.
While both Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith are likely to command first-string roles, Ohio State typically uses a deep rotation. And if either Harrison or Smith struggles or has a negative setback, Sawyer or Tuimoloau should be the next man up.
Korey Foreman, DE, USC
USC fans undoubtedly have visions of Drake Jackson and Korey Foreman dominating off the edge like they did for Corona Centennial a few years ago. Nick Figueroa will have something to say about that, but Foreman is making it a possibility.
The prized freshman—ranked No. 1 overall until Ohio State's Quinn Ewers reclassified—is impressing the right people.
"He's everything we thought he would be," defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said, per Antonio Morales of The Athletic. "Now, mentally, it's how much he can process? As a play-caller, we have to be smart about how much we give him, so it's a work in progress."
Foreman will likely open the campaign as a second-stringer, but he might be too impactful to keep off the field.