Way-Too-Early Predictions for Breakout College Football Freshmen

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2022

Way-Too-Early Predictions for Breakout College Football Freshmen

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    Texas' Quinn Ewers is one to watch.
    Texas' Quinn Ewers is one to watch.Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    It's time to flip the calendar from the 2021 college football season and look forward to the stars of tomorrow.

    During this lull between the national championship game and the start of spring practice, it's all about recruiting, as coaches look to outfit their rosters through the high school ranks and the transfer portal.

    The 2022 recruiting class features plenty of guys who can make an immediate impact, from quarterbacks to a bevy of other offensive skill-position players to some world-class defenders.

    Most of the focus here is on incoming true freshmen, and the only guy who is a redshirt on the list actually would have been part of the '22 haul had he not reclassified to last year's recruiting class before deciding to transfer.

    All of these guys have a golden opportunity to become household names for your favorite college teams in the near future.

Luther Burden, Missouri Wide Receiver

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    Credit: 247Sports

    When Luther Burden took the first play of the Under Armour All-America Game 65 yards to the house, it shouldn't have been a big surprise.

    After all, that's what the 6'0", 200-pound Illinois native does; so much so, in fact, he refers to himself as "Touchdown Luther." He'll be trying to reach pay dirt for the Missouri Tigers next season, as Eli Drinkwitz pulled off the biggest recruiting coup of his brief tenure when the 5-star receiver signed in mid-December.

    Burden spurned Oklahoma, Georgia and others to play for the Tigers. Not only would his being a star be the perfect recruiting tool for Drinkwitz, but Mizzou also doesn't have anybody with his immense talent.

    Yes, the team is looking for a quarterback after the inconsistent Connor Bazelak transferred to Indiana, but Brady Cook, Tyler Macon and incoming 4-star freshman Sam Horn certainly have the ability. They'll have a readymade star receiver with an elite skill set to fling it to.

    It's not often Mizzou gets a player of Burden's ilk, but if he's made an offensive centerpiece as expected, he may be the first of several for Coach Drink.

Raleek Brown, USC Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Amid all the Lincoln Riley fallout after he left Oklahoma for USC, several players and recruits he'd lured to Norman followed the trail west.

    Perhaps the biggest playmaker to do so in the 2022 class is 5'8", 185-pound running back Raleek Brown, who doesn't have to go far to play college ball. He flipped from the Sooners and will be a weapon for Riley in the Pac-12.

    He prepped at prestigious Mater Dei School in Santa Ana, California, which has been a USC pipeline in the past. Now, he'll become a Trojan alongside fellow 5-star and high school teammate, cornerback Domani Jackson. Both of those guys were major candidates for this list, but Brown gets the nod because of where he plays.

    How he plays doesn't hurt, either.

    The Trojans are in desperate need of game-breaking talent at the skill positions, but running back especially is an area that needs immediate improvement. Brown can line up behind the quarterback, flex out to the slot and even run deep routes.

    In other words, he's the perfect do-it-all talent Riley loves and can mold into a megastar. Look for him to be incorporated right away and produce in a big way for the rebuilding Trojans.

Quinn Ewers, Texas Quarterback

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    The first of several gut-punches for Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian when he took over for Tom Herman before last season was losing Quinn Ewers' commitment.

    Originally slated to be in the 2022 recruiting class (where he was the top-ranked player), the 6'3", 206-pound signal-caller committed to Ohio State, reclassified to the '21 class (where he again became the top-ranked player) and enrolled to battle for the Buckeyes' starting job.

    Ultimately, that gig went to C.J. Stroud, who parlayed the opportunity into becoming a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. With Stroud having to return to Columbus for at least another year, Ewers entered the transfer portal and is heading home to play for the Longhorns.

    Without a doubt, big-time NIL money and a major opportunity awaits him in Austin. The Horns desperately need a dependable playmaker at quarterback after the losing '21 season, and Sark now has an elite player to mold at the position.

    Ewers just happens to be the favorite son of the Lone Star State who has a dynamic skill set and is a precision passer and great improviser in the pocket. His 247Sports profile compares him to potential NFL Hall of Famer Philip Rivers.

    There's a lot to like about Ewers, and though he is technically a redshirt freshman, he should be in this class anyway. So, he's included and will have every opportunity to be a star in '22.

Travis Hunter, Jackson State Athlete

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The only downside of Travis Hunter shocking the world and going to play for emerging FCS power Jackson State is it will be difficult to watch him play on a television near you.

    The 6'1", 165-pound dynamo from Suwanee, Georgia, is the top-ranked player in the nation. For the longest time, he was committed to the Florida State Seminoles.

    But Hunter flipped to the Tigers, and he was joined recently by 4-star receiver Kevin Coleman, who also had an offer from FSU. Instead, both star prospects will play for a former 'Nole, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.

    Hunter gets to learn from the greatest defensive back of all time, and he is the type of playmaker who can shine with the ball in his hands too. Don't be surprised if he plays on both sides.

    Andrew Ivins of 247Sports believes Hunter is "legitimately CB1 and WR1 for the class of 2022," and is a "generational talent." Yes, he is that good, and he is going to get great leadership from Sanders and bring much-needed attention to Historically Black College athletics.

    Now if we can only find a way to watch him show out other than ESPN highlights.

Nicco Marchiol, West Virginia Quarterback

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Few freshmen quarterbacks in the Power Five are stepping into a more enviable situation than 4-star Nicco Marchiol is at West Virginia.

    The 6'2", 216-pound Chandler, Arizona, native took a circuitous route to Morgantown, but it could be one that's immediately beneficial to him and maybe the Mountaineers.

    While head coach Neal Brown's team is listed by 247Sports as one of the top five fits for USC transfer Jaxson Dart (and what a coup that would be), he isn't there yet, and plenty of other suitors will be going after him too. With Jarret Doege transferring, that job for West Virginia is wide-open.

    Marchiol also should expect elite coaching. Not only is Brown a quality X's and O's guy, but he is also bringing in former Trojans coordinator Graham Harrell to lead the offense. That's the main reason WVU may be intriguing to Dart, but it's big news for Marchiol too.

    This is a strong-armed prospect with all the traits to thrive in the right system. Though there are some mechanical things that should probably be ironed out with his game, Harrell's air raid offense is an ideal fit for accurate quarterbacks.

    It's a gamble to predict any first-year player can start for any Power Five team, but if Dart doesn't wind up in Morgantown, Marchiol has a major opportunity.

Tetairoa McMillan, Arizona Wide Receiver

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    Credit: 247Sports

    One of the least discussed but best stories of the 2022 recruiting cycle is the job Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch has done convincing players of the direction of Arizona's program.

    Despite limping to a 1-11 record in his first year on the job, Fisch's team made some competitive strides on the field last year, and the Wildcats have followed that with a surprising recruiting class that ranks second in the Pac-12 and 20th nationally.

    Remember, this program ranked 77th in recruiting a year ago.

    This group is anchored by pledges from 4-stars in running back Rayshon Luke, tight end Keyan Burnett and cornerback Ephesians Prysock. Thirteen of the 22 players are from California, and the best of the bunch is receiver Tetairoa McMillan.

    The 6'4", 185-pounder could be a standout defensive player or pass-catcher. He has the type of frame that can add a lot of good weight, he is a terrific athlete who can make all the catches and his long strides allow him to escape defenders.

    This is a top-50 player who was coveted by a ton of quality teams, and he clearly believes in what Fisch is building in Tucson. The coach is hitting the transfer portal hard and has 21 other new faces coming, but McMillan might be the biggest new name on the entire Wildcats roster.

Derrick Moore, Michigan Edge-Rusher

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    Credit: 247Sports

    When Derrick Moore won the Most Valuable Player award of the Under Armor All-America Game, he showed the nation what he could do on a huge stage.

    The Baltimore native, who'll play at Michigan next year, registered two sacks, had another one taken away because of a defensive holding call and harassed opposing quarterbacks throughout the game. Nobody could block him.

    That's big news for a Wolverines team that desperately needs to continue to get after quarterbacks if they're going to repeat as Big Ten champions and get back to the College Football Playoff next year with a young team.

    The 6'4", 250-pound pass-rusher isn't the centerpiece of Jim Harbaugh's '22 class; that would be 5-star cornerback Will Johnson, who also has an argument for being on this list. But everybody loves sacks.

    With Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo off to make their millions in the NFL, starting reps on both edges of the defensive line are up for grabs. The Wolverines have recruited well on both sides of the ball, but Moore was a major coup who is showing out on the biggest stages.

Cyrus Moss, Miami Edge-Rusher

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    Credit: 247Sports

    It looks like Miami coach Mario Cristobal has his next Kayvon Thibodeaux in his new Coral Gables stomping grounds.

    That's not to say Las Vegas star prospect Cyrus Moss will develop into the next Thibodeaux. That wouldn't be fair to anybody, even a 6'6", 220-pound prospect who was coveted by most teams in the nation. Still, he'll be a force off the edge.

    Moss spurned nearby USC and Lincoln Riley, Oregon, Notre Dame and others to go to Miami, and while the Hurricanes' class isn't the biggest yet, Cristobal is making his impact felt already. He's known as a relentless recruiting salesman, and he's going to thrive there.

    This is the first big-time victory in living rooms for the former Ducks coach. It wasn't long ago the 'Canes saw Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau coming off the edge, but that was a major hole in '21.

    Miami ranked 42nd nationally last year with 33 sacks, after finishing 17th and seventh the previous two years. Now, they get to inject the long-armed, explosive Moss into the rotation. He runs a 4.62 40-yard dash and possesses the kind of skill set that will be difficult to keep off the field.

Nicholas Singleton, Penn State Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There have been a lot of headlines about Penn State 5-star quarterback signee Drew Allar, and rightfully so. But the Nittany Lions have a veteran returning under center and other talent already on campus, so that's going to be an intriguing battle.

    The clearest path to playing time is at running back, where coach James Franklin hasn't seen anybody look like a playmaker since Journey Brown, who stepped away from football in 2020.

    Keyvone Lee led the team with just 530 rushing yards in '21, and Noah Cain added 350 for a team that finished 13th out of 14 Big Ten squads in rushing. A big problem was the offensive line, of course, but the Nittany Lions need a can't-miss player in the backfield.

    At least on paper, Nicholas Singleton looks like the guy.

    The 6'0", 210-pound Reading, Pennsylvania, product could be the biggest instant-impact star for a class full of guys who have massive potential. Not only does Singleton already have a college-ready body, he's also got top-end speed.

    He is a complete, three-down back, and those don't exist on the Penn State roster. He's going to have every chance to prove he can earn the starting job, and at the very least, he'll be in the rotation. He's that good.

Talyn Shettron, Oklahoma State Wide Receiver

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There's a lot to love about Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State Cowboys in 2022.

    After the program's biggest comeback win ever in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, there's nothing but excitement surrounding this team, especially with quarterback Spencer Sanders, a handful of running backs and several pieces from an elite defense returning.

    But Tay Martin is off to the NFL, and somebody needs to earn those catches.

    Enter Talyn Shettron, who looks like the ideal playmaker who can star right away.

    The 6'3", 185-pound Edmond, Oklahoma, native is a top-100 prospect who was committed to the hated Sooners before he flipped from what was then Riley's program.

    Shettron is a tall, lanky receiver with long strides and a big catch radius. He can stretch the field and go up and get the deep ball, and while he needs to add weight to be a more physical receiver, he's certainly got the body to do that.

    Gundy has proved he isn't scared to play youngsters who are ready to play. Shettron is the best prospect in a quality class, and with Martin leaving, he's got a green light to earn starting reps. Those are ingredients for major success.

Malaki Starks, Georgia Safety

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    Credit: 247Sports

    How can a true freshman step into the nation's best defense and earn major playing time right away?

    We'll all find out in 2022.

    The Georgia Bulldogs are about to have a mass exodus of playmakers from the unit that led the team to its first national championship since 1980, and many of those are leaving the defensive backfield.

    With Lewis Cine, Christopher Smith, Tykee Smith, Ameer Speed, Derion Kendrick and others eligible to head to the NFL, there will be open snaps. Coach Kirby Smart has an elite group of prospects to outfit the back end of the defense, and there may not be a better one than Malaki Starks.

    The 6'1", 200-pound athlete could play a number of positions, such as running back and linebacker, but he projects more as an in-box safety. He's just the type of physical presence the Dawgs need on the back end, and while he isn't the best on-ball defender, he has enough elite skills to play right away.

    Starks is the type of defender Smart likes to utilize, and he can carve out a niche and become a quick playmaker the way Kelee Ringo did.

    A lot of determination of where Starks fits best depends on who Smart pegs as his next coordinator in the wake of Dan Lanning's departure for Oregon, but Starks and cornerback Jaheim Singletary look like they can keep the excitement churning in '22.

Evan Stewart, Texas A&M Wide Receiver

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    Credit: 247Sports

    It's so difficult to pick just one instant-impact playmaker in coach Jimbo Fisher's top-ranked Texas A&M recruiting class.

    The Aggies have guys who look like they'll be stars on all three levels of the defense, on the offensive line and at quarterback with Conner Weigman.

    But the most exciting player is 5-star receiver Evan Stewart, a 6'0", 175-pound Under Armor All-American from Frisco, Texas, who can do it all.

    Not only is Stewart big and physical enough to make all the catches, but he also possesses blazing speed, is a terrific route-runner and is the most polished receiver in the entire 2022 class. He looks like he can provide a field-stretching presence the way Xavier Worthy did for Texas last year.

    For a while, it appeared Stewart may join Worthy with the Longhorns, but Fisher convinced him to head to College Station and be part of a generational class that can build on this year's upset of Alabama.

    The only way anybody is going to compete with the Crimson Tide in the SEC West is to recruit the way Fisher has this year, and Stewart might be the biggest star of them all.

Sonny Styles, Ohio State Safety

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Ohio State can put up points with anybody in the nation.

    But coach Ryan Day's Buckeyes need all the defensive help they can get, and even with some promising freshmen sprinkled through all levels of the field in '21, they need more playmakers and depth.

    Assistance is arriving in a big way in the 2022 class, with stars such as 5-star linebacker C.J. Hicks, who looks like a player who instantly can challenge to start. But another guy who meets a major need is 5-star safety Sonny Styles.

    The 6'4", 215-pound Ohio native reclassified from the '23 class to this year's, and that's huge news for the Buckeyes, who need him now. Despite being younger than his peers, he already has a college-ready body.

    You can't teach his height and length, and Styles' 247Sports profile talks about how strong he is in the lower body too. He is an ideal in-the-box safety or sideline-to-sideline outside linebacker who can line up all over the field and impact the game from the back end of the defense or by getting after passers.

    His profile compares him to former Clemson great and current Arizona Cardinals star Isaiah Simmons, and you can't keep a talent like that off the field very long. Styles will impact the defense in '22 and can fill up a stat sheet in categories from tackles to interceptions.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports ReferencePlayer and recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.