College Football's Top True Freshmen Through Week 3

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2021

College Football's Top True Freshmen Through Week 3

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Are you ready for some impact?

    Every analyst who follows college football recruiting loves to project prospects' ceilings and their immediate ability to help their schools. But all of that is done with the knowledge most of those youngsters will need seasoning before they're part of the big picture.

    Still, a handful of true freshmen have shone in the spotlight in this young season. 

    Sure, there may be a few more talented first-year players than some included below, but they haven't proved it on the field. This list is the perfect concoction of opportunity, ability and production.

    Some, such as Penn State cornerback Kalen King, Oregon offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia and Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy just need larger sample sets and barely missed the cut. 

Brock Bowers, Georgia Tight End

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    If you think about the ridiculous amount of talent Kirby Smart has assembled at Georgia, it's easy to see why the Bulldogs are right in the middle of the national title conversation every year. It's also hard to fathom why they don't ever win it.

    Consider tight end. UGA has 2020 5-star Darnell Washington, and LSU transfer Arik Gilbert was immediately eligible too. Neither has played this year, though, as the former is out with a foot injury and the latter isn't with the team because of personal matters, per Smart. That opened the door for true freshman Brock Bowers, who has seized the spotlight.

    It will be hard to get him out of the starting lineup. 

    The 6'4", 230-pound Napa, California, product was the nation's third-ranked tight end in the 2021 class, and he leads UGA with 14 catches, 203 yards and two touchdowns. Though both scores came in the lopsided win over UAB, Bowers has shown up in big games against Clemson and South Carolina, too, with at least five receptions and 40 yards in each.

    Bowers is a long-term weapon and will stay in the picture even with Washington expected back soon. 

Jaxson Dart, USC Quarterback

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    Plenty of people were thrilled with what they saw out of Jaxson Dart in preseason practices after the late addition to the Trojans' stellar 2021 recruiting class arrived on campus.

    It's just with Kedon Slovis entrenched as the starter and on some Heisman Trophy lists, it was hard to envision Dart getting anything other than mop-up duty this year. 

    Then, Slovis went down in the opening minutes against Washington State last week with an upper-body injury, and Dart got his chance. What transpired may turn into a Wally Pipp moment. 

    Pipp was the guy who lost his job to New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig, who went on to play 2,130 consecutive games. After Dart led the Trojans to a comeback win over the Cougars and finished 30-of-46 for 391 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, interim coach Donte Williams had a controversy on his hands.

    Does he go with Slovis, who's only been so-so this year, or roll the dice with the talented freshman?

    It's a tough question, especially with Dart day-to-day because of a knee setback. If you recall, Slovis got his starting gig only after former Trojans (and current Georgia) starter JT Daniels suffered a season-ending torn ACL early in the 2019 season. So he knows all about seizing the opportunity.

    Though Dart has played just one game, he's done enough to warrant being on this list. Perhaps he's proved he should be the man in L.A.

Bryce Foster, Texas A&M Center

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    There is a youth movement in College Station, Texas, which makes one wonder how the Texas A&M Aggies are a Top 10 team.

    It's because coach Jimbo Fisher's squad has a load of talent, and it's bearing fruit all over the field.

    No position group is more inexperienced than the Aggies' offensive line, which has a load of first-year starters and plays four freshmen heavily. Perhaps the best of the bunch is true freshman Bryce Foster, who is anchoring the unit at center.

    This is one of the toughest positions to play, but the 4-star from the 2021 class who was a top-100 player and the No. 5 interior offensive lineman in the class is living up to his billing.

    Not only will he be tough to unseat after starting the first three games, but he's a key to this weekend's huge matchup against Arkansas. He's talented, intelligent and will be a standout for years.

    Fisher has complimented Foster all season, but he had high praise for the center's performance after his first start against Kent State: 

    "I thought Bryce was outstanding in the game. He made a couple little mistakes. But to go in there as a freshman, and there were a lot of looks in that game, there was a multitude of things that they did. He was physical, making moves, point of attack, snaps. There was not one bad snap in the game. ... I think the sky is the limit for the guy."

TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State Running Back

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    Throughout last year's recruiting cycle, you could look at Ohio State's incoming class and circle one name as a potential immediate game-breaker: TreVeyon Henderson. 

    Has that ever come to fruition. 

    Henderson, who has the next-tier burst to run away from defenders, can catch the ball out of the backfield and is a threat to make a house call every time he touches the ball.

    After a couple of carries and a 70-yard touchdown catch to start the year against Minnesota, the Virginia product had 12 carries for 54 yards and a score against Oregon.

    Last week against Tulsa, he had a breakout performance, going for 277 yards on 24 carries and scoring three touchdowns. The 5'10", 210-pound runner averaging a gaudy 9.1 yards per carry and is the prototypical do-everything star.

    The Buckeyes' season hasn't started the way they'd hoped because of the loss to Oregon, but that has little to do with an offense full of young playmakers. Henderson may be the team's most dynamic weapon, and that's saying something, considering all the elite talent head coach Ryan Day has.

Seth Henigan, Memphis Quarterback

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    Second-year Memphis Tigers head coach Ryan Silverfield is enduring a youth movement, but he's finding the perfect players to keep his team at the cusp of AAC contention, with quarterback Seth Henigan among them.

    While redshirt freshman running back Brandon Thomas is becoming a star in the Bluff City, Henigan has complemented him as a steady star who keeps defenses honest with his ability to throw downfield.

    Though Henigan was just a 3-star quarterback and the No. 77-ranked player at his position, the Denton, Texas, product played at powerhouse Ryan High School where his father, Dave, is the head coach. His pedigree has been evident.

    He beat Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell for the starting job, and it doesn't look like he'll relinquish it anytime soon.

    Henigan lit up Nicholls State (19-of-32 for 265 yards, one touchdown) and Arkansas State (22-of-33 for 417 yards and five touchdowns), but he was also steady against a decent Mississippi State defense in a shocking upset last weekend.

    Underdog Dynasty's Steve Helwick wrote Henigan is "taking college football by storm," and it's hard to argue with that considering the way he's consistently posting numbers.

Jarquez Hunter, Auburn Running Back

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    Head coach Bryan Harsin's Auburn Tigers offense has been characterized by rushing proficiency in his first season at the school, and an offensive line that was a preseason concern has been a strength. That wasn't a surprise in lopsided wins over Akron and Alabama State, but it continued in a narrow loss at No. 10 Penn State.

    Everybody expected sophomore running back Tank Bigsby to have a monster season if he had holes to run through, and he hasn't disappointed, posting 343 yards. Right behind him, though, is a little-known 3-star running back from Philadelphia, Mississippi, who nobody gave a second look in the 2021 class.

    That would be 5'10", 202-pound change-of-pace running back Jarquez Hunter, who is proving he deserves plenty of run as the perfect complementary back to Bigsby's rugged, between-the-tackles style.

    Whether Hunter is gracefully leaping over defenders like he did against the Nittany Lions or scampering around defenders, he's been effective.

    He has 26 carries for 320 yards and a pair of touchdowns, averaging 12.3 yards per carry. After going for more than 100 yards in the first two games against the cupcakes, Hunter had a solid day against great defense in Happy Valley, running nine times for 63 yards.

    It's the perfect one-two punch for the Tigers, who look better than expected.

Will Shipley, Clemson Running Back

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    It looks like Clemson freshman running back Will Shipley has that "it" factor.

    A perfect example came in the 14-8 win over Georgia Tech when Shipley fumbled at Clemson's 1-yard line in the closing minutes. Rather than give up on the play, he recovered the ball in the end zone for a safety. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than giving up a touchdown.

    "Disappointed there at the end when the ball got on the ground," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told the Greenville News' Todd Shanesy. "But, man, what an effort by that kid."

    That effort is equaling big results for the 2021 5-star prospect. He has basically turned into the Tigers' primary back and has 33 carries for 175 yards and four touchdowns despite a tough start for offensive coordinator Tony Elliott's unit.

    Though Kobe Pace and Lyn-J Dixon are listed above Shipley on the depth chart, the first-year player had 21 carries for 88 yards and both touchdowns in Clemson's escape from the Yellow Jackets. As the season progresses, he's proving harder and harder to keep off the field.

    That's not a surprise considering what was expected of the North Carolina prospect who looks like the ideal candidate to fill departed star Travis Etienne's huge cleats. He'll only keep surging, and it says something when your coach compliments you even after a massive blunder.

Josaiah Stewart, Coastal Carolina Edge-Rusher

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    Coastal Carolina edge-rusher Josaiah Stewart hasn't quite hit the national radar. As the image of coach Jamey Chadwell above shows, it's hard even finding a picture of the 6'2", 245-pound first-year player from Massachusetts.

    It hasn't taken long for the Sun Belt to learn who he is, though.

    Stewart was a huge coup for Chadwell in the 2021 recruiting class, and the freshman already earned the conference Defensive Player of the Week honor for his breakout game in a win over Kansas. 

    Stewart torched the Jayhawks, setting a single-game school record with 3.5 sacks and tying the CCU single-game mark in tackles for loss with 3.5, also registering seven total tackles.

    "Josiah was outstanding tonight," Chadwell told's Ian Livingston Brooking after the KU game. "Last week, he played a little bit and you don't get to use his skill set when you're playing an option team. We think he's got a chance to be really, really good."

    Though he is striving for consistency after so-so efforts in wins over Buffalo and The Citadel, Stewart looks like he'll be a force over the next few years.

Maason Smith, LSU Defensive Tackle

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Though the LSU Tigers have a long way to go before they can return to the national champion form of two seasons ago, 5-star defensive tackle Maason Smith is already a disruptive force whom opponents must game-plan for every weekend.

    After starting his season as a defensive tackle, the 6'6", 292-pound lineman is moving to defensive end so Ed Orgeron can keep his best playmakers on the field, as Glen Logan could return next week from a broken foot. 

    The head coach told ESPN Radio's Off the Bench (h/t Geaux247's Shea Dixon) of Smith:

    "I think he is a prototypical left end in the NFL. Most NFL (quarterbacks) are right-handed and that is where they will run the football and that's where the tight end will be. I think he is just what you are looking for. He is big, he is agile, you can play him on a tight end and he can handle the tight end, he can handle double-teams, and he has enough athletic ability to play on the edge. Playing inside was good for him, but he is so tall that taking on those double-teams was tough for him."

    Smith has collected seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, and now he's heading to a position where his coach thinks he's best-suited. Considering LSU will have a near-300-pound defensive end coming off the edge, it should make QBs everywhere shudder.

Mario Williams, Oklahoma Wide Receiver

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    Our last two players are Big 12 wide receivers who play for heated rivals, and it looks like they'll try to one-up each other for the next several seasons.

    The first is top-50 prospect Mario Williams, who had everybody buzzing through the recruiting cycle before he left his Florida home to play for coach Lincoln Riley and the Oklahoma Sooners.

    All the 5'9", 186-pounder has done in Norman is squeeze his way onto a crowded depth chart, where he's the No. 3 receiver on the title-contending Sooners.

    He has 13 catches for 115 yards but has found the end zone twice and completed a 10-yard pass.

    "He's an explosive guy," Riley told reporters. Still, in the same breath, Riley said he expects more of Williams.

    Quarterback Spencer Rattler and OU's passing attack hasn't gotten going yet, sitting 87th in yards per game, and though Marvin Mims (168) and Jadon Haselwood (127) have higher yardage totals than Williams, it isn't by much.

    If the Sooners start exploding, as expected, the youngster's numbers will skyrocket.

Xavier Worthy, Texas Wide Receiver

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    Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy flipped from Michigan to Texas after signing his letter of intent, and he's been a boon for the Longhorns. 

    The 6'1", 160-pound Fresno, California, native has 10 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown and is improving every week while learning the ropes for Steve Sarkisian's offense. In a 58-0 win over Rice, he had seven grabs for 88 yards and a score. 

    Worthy leads the Longhorns in receiving yards, and it seems he is clicking with quarterback Casey Thompson after the latter unseated Hudson Card as the starting quarterback following Card's inconsistent start.

    The first-year pass-catcher has plenty of confidence too. Worthy told reporters he sees himself as a DeVonta Smith-type player in Sarkisian's offense, and while he has a long way to go to make it to the Heisman Trophy winner's level, he's off to a good start.

    "Everybody talks about his speed and quickness," Thompson said of Worthy, per's Casey Thompson, "but he's got really good ability to get in and out of cuts and break down a defender. And he can stop on a dime."

    Those skills have him off to a fantastic start on the Forty Acres.


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

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.