True freshman players are the future of college football. Sometimes, they show what they will become in their first year.
Over the last several years, true freshman players have exploded onto the national scene as game-breaking playmakers for their schools. They’ve thrust themselves into the spotlight, gaining the attention of NFL scouts. Think of prospects recently like LSU cornerback Derek Stingley, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, and Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore. It happens every year.
Before the season starts, there are some key indicators that we can use to identify these players who may jump out. Weak spots on the team roster are usually a good hint. Highly ranked recruits with high football intelligence pops out on paper too. The biggest factor to me, however, isn’t production nor recruiting rankings. It’s the combination of roster weakness and their performance in Spring Training. Coming into school early to play with the team is usually a very high indicator that a player will see the field early.
Let’s take a look at ten of the top true freshman players entering college this year that have the opportunity to stand out.
Best true freshman players -10. TE Leo Blackburn, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Head coach Geoff Collins is turning Georgia Tech into a competitive football team again in the ACC. Behind sophomore backfield stars, Jeff Sims and Jahmyr Gibbs, the future of Yellow Jacket football is very promising. Collins has always developed tight ends well and prefers having them in his system to provide his quarterback with additional weapons. Currently, the Georgia Tech tight ends room is underwhelming.
Leo Blackburn went for 1,000 yards receiving in 2020 as a wide receiver at Westlake High in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s 6’5″ and 230 lbs but doesn’t have the breakaway speed needed. He’s coming to Tech to play tight end and could offer Coach Collins his formidable weapon out of the slot.
Recent history indicates that big tight ends who can catch the ball have a great chance to pop as freshmen. Last year, we saw Arik Gilbert and Darnell Washington pop out as 2023 NFL Draft potentials due to their size and catching ability. Blackburn has that. Due to his lack of experience as a pure tight end, it isn’t easy to imagine Blackburn starting as a tight end. His contested catch ability should get him on the field quickly.
9. LB Aaron Willis, Tennessee Volunteers
The Tennessee Volunteers saw a mass exodus from the program following former head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s firing. Over thirty players entered the transfer portal and left the program, including stud inside linebacker Henry To’o To’o, who transferred to Alabama. Not only did they lose their star, but six linebacker transfers significantly thinned the linebacker room.
Enter Aaron Willis.
Willis is a little bit undersized for the position, listed at 5’11” and 225 lbs. Regardless, he’s physical, violent, and shows excellent instincts. That’s exactly what Tennessee will need in the middle of the field. Willis is positioned to have a huge 2021 season. All he has to do at this point is show up.
8. CB Alijah Clark, Rutgers Scarlett Knights
Alijah Clark is a very long cornerback, 6’2″ and 180 lbs, with room to grow. However, that’s not a concern, as Clark is a phenomenal worker who doesn’t know how to stop. He played both ways at Camden High in Camden, NJ. Clark was both a physical cornerback and a flashy receiver.
The clip above gives you an excellent idea of his athletic ability, which was always the best on the field at Camden High. With Rutgers still in rebuilding mode, there’s an excellent chance that Clark will see the field early and come up with big-time plays, making a name for himself.
7. QB Preston Stone, SMU Mustangs
Preston Stone gained national recognition with an Overtime Reality show that followed him through his junior year of high school. He came across as a genuine teammate and leader. Overall, his show was enjoyable, even if the editing was a little bit too retro and brief for a football series. He took offers from all over the country, including some of the biggest programs. In the end, he followed his older brother, Parker, to SMU. He has an older brother, Lindell, who plays quarterback at Virginia.
Stone was a four-star quarterback, the highest-rated quarterback to choose a school outside of the Power Five. He’s not very much unlike SMU’s previous quarterback, Shane Buechele, although he is significantly more athletic and capable as a runner. The clip above was from his appearance on National Television when Parrish played Trinity Christian, who Deion Sanders coached. It was the game-winning touchdown – a clutch play by Stone.
It’s not guaranteed that Stone will start. He still has to beat out Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai, which will not be an easy task. However, I think Stone has a good chance with his smart decision-making and his ability to run with the ball.
6. LB Khayri Banton, Rutgers Scarlett Knights
Khayri Banton is a 6’2″ 220 lbs outside linebacker with some ability to play run defense and drop into coverage. A four-star prospect, Banton stayed close to home by choosing Rutgers, clearly a program on the rise in the Big Ten. Banton enrolled in January to participate in Spring Practices.
Banton still has a lot of room to grow. He’s a RUSH EDGE style player. I think Rutgers will ask him to play more as a WILL type, and he will play well and early.
Best true freshman players – 5. DL Korey Foreman, USC Trojans
Korey Foreman is the number one prospect of high school this year and the 12th overall prospect in 247 Composite histories. He should see the field early on at USC. The numbers that Foreman posted at The Opening as a junior in high school were mind-numbing. Foreman ran a 4.88 forty-yard dash while measuring in at 6’4″ and 263 lbs. The crazy aspect of Foreman’s game is that he has slimmed down and can play both as a defensive end in a 4-3 system and an outside linebacker in a 3-4. USC runs a 3-3-5 system which means that he will probably play outside.
247 Sports Greg Biggins compared Foreman to New Orleans Saints star Cameron Jordan. That’s about the same play style that Foreman plays with. He’s a formidable pass rusher who is equally as effective in run defense. He was heavily pursued by Clemson, Alabama, LSU, and Oregon but ultimately chose the Trojans as his home, staying close to home. I think he’s up for a season where he shows out as a star and starts the conversation as an early pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.
4. QB JJ McCarthy, Michigan Wolverines
The Michigan Wolverines have been a mess at quarterback over the last several years, not ever finding a guy who can be consistent game in and game out. JJ McCarthy could potentially be that guy who can finally do that for Michigan.
McCarthy is a five-star quarterback, the fourth-ranked prospect in the class of 2021. He has a good arm and is very accurate. He played very well at IMG Academy last year, showing all of the traits you want to see on tape. On top of that, McCarthy enrolled in January and performed throughout spring practice. The Michigan Spring game was untelevised and mostly hidden from the public, but reportedly McCarthy played well.
McCarthy is the best quarterback that Michigan has seen in the Jim Harbaugh era if he’s as advertised. He will be hyped if that is the case and most certainly considered a top prospect for the 2024 NFL Draft.
Best true freshman players – 3. Safety James Williams, Miami Hurricanes
Miami requires a ROVER type defender this season, Something that 6’5″ and 215 pound James Williams could definitely help immediately with. Williams is a versatile prospect who has drawn comparisons to Carolina Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn, who broke out as a star last season. His scouting report on 247 Sports, penned by Andrew Ivins, speaks glowingly of his ball skills and overall ability.
“Smooth in the backpedal for someone of his stature,” Ivins wrote. “Fluid enough to cover a tight end out of the slot. Has a ‘my ball’ mentality which results in plenty of takeaways.”
Williams fits the prototype safety and has a rare size that can make him stand out among most other safeties across the country. It’s hard not to like his style. He’s a fun one to watch. With the defenders that Miami moved to the NFL last season, he’s in a great spot to compete immediately.
2. EDGE Demeioun Robinson, Maryland Terrapins
Remember how I mentioned earlier in the article that Maryland was thin on the defensive side of the football? Enter Demeioun Robinson, the 247 Sports five-star edge rusher who performed in both the All-American Bowl and the Under Armour All-America Game. Robinson was heavily recruited by Penn State, South Carolina, and Tennessee but ultimately chose to stay close to Maryland.
He’s still a little thin in his frame to be an edge rusher, but Robinson’s athletic ability and strength are already at a high level. He was listed as 247 Sports second edge rusher prospect in the country, and their scouting reports were glowing. Robinson is very athletic and has the ability to take over a game when he needs to. He should fill a rotational spot at Maryland because of his raw ability and could end up being a full-time starter by the end of the season.
Our best true freshman players – 1. QB Sam Huard, Washington Huskies
Sam Huard was one of the top quarterbacks exiting high school in 2021, ranked on several websites as the top prospect at the position. Huard’s father, Damon, played a few years in the NFL. His uncle, Brock, played for several years in the NFL and currently works as a color commentator and sideline reporter on FOX Sports. Both his father and uncle played at Washington, so it makes sense why he would go there. He enrolled in school just in time for Spring Practice.
Washington is a quarterback away from making a serious championship run in 2021. With the amount of talent that came back, they have a stacked roster and can make a deep run. Last year, Dylan Morris limited what they could do and hindered the offense at times.
Huard is very polished mechanically and delivers a catchable ball with incredible accuracy. He has a stronger arm than Morris does, too, despite not having the ideal size (6’2″ 190 lbs) and not being near as athletic. I think that there is an excellent chance that Huard wins the starting job and shows out for Washington, winning all the freshman awards that you can imagine.