Like other preseason college football traditions, the freshman hype machine is predictable. Prospects are built up into potential saviors before they reach campus, and if they redshirt or suffer an injury or don’t deliver right away for some other reason, fans quickly move on to the next class of high schoolers.
There’s no reason to expect this trend to change this season with a group of talented prospects headlined by a running back who has received more hype than any other in recent memory. Here are 10 first-year players poised to make an impact in 2014.
It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone on this list is destined for immediate stardom. Some of them may not even start, at least not right away. It could take time before some of these players truly blossom, yet all of them are worth your attention for one reason or another.
Speedy Noil, WR Texas A&M
Though the Aggies lose three of their top four pass catchers from last season -- most notably Biletnikoff Award finalist and first-round draft pick Mike Evans -- there shouldn’t be too big a dropoff at receiver. Along with fellow freshman Ricky Seals-Jones, a class of 2013 recruit, Noil could develop into a lethal deep threat for sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill, who was named the Aggies’ starter over true freshman Kyle Allen last week. Noil, who enrolled early and participated in spring drills after starring as a receiver and quarterback at Edna Karr (La.) High, has drawn positive reviews from coaches and players, with senior wideout Malcome Kennedy describing Noil in March as a “beast.”
Earlier this month, McMillan and running back Curtis Samuel became the first Ohio State freshmen to have their black stripes removed, meaning they have been officially accepted as full members of the roster. McMillan headlined SI.com’s venerable 2014 recruiting all-name team, but if he lives up to his recruiting hype, McMillan’s ability to make plays all over the field will overshadow his name. The Hinesville, Ga., native, who was rated the No. 1 inside linebacker in the class of 2014 by Rivals.com, is competing for playing time in the Buckeyes’ linebacking corps and could earn a starting spot by the end of the season.
Leonard Fournette, RB LSU
Tigers coach Les Miles compared him to Michael Jordan. Others have likened him to Adrian Peterson. Senior running back Terrence Magee said Fournette will be “one of the greatest to ever wear an LSU uniform.” Is all the high praise warranted? It’s too early to tell; Fournette hasn’t played a game yet, after all. One thing to consider when reading all the hyperbole about Fournette is the competition he could face in a deep Tigers backfield. Seniors Kenny Hilliard and Magee, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in 2013, should both receive plenty of touches. Still, if Fournette is even half as good as those both in and outside of the program are making him out to be, you’ll want to watch him every chance you get.
The last time Alabama started a true freshman at left tackle (Andre Smith in 2006, h/t Al.com) the Crimson Tide fired their head coach and finished 6-7. Robinson, the top-ranked offensive tackle in the class of 2014, according to Rivals.com, appears to have the inside track on the starting job, but expect 2014’s Alabama squad to post a few more wins than they did under Mike Shula eight years ago. After enrolling early and taking reps with the first-team unit during spring practice, Robinson has continued to impress during preseason camp. “He has executed much better,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Robinson last week. That’s good news for top running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry and bad news for defenders tasked with stopping the Tide.
After sophomore Tyler Cameron and junior Kevin Sousa didn’t distinguish themselves in spring workouts, new coach Dave Clawson named Wolford the starter in early August. While that’s a strong endorsement for a true freshman signal caller at a major conference program, it also speaks to Wake Forest’s lack of offensive talent. Wolford, who set Florida state records with 10,621 career passing yards and 126 touchdowns over four seasons at Bishop Kenny High, could have a rough go of it in his first season under center at the college level. With a receiving corps short on proven depth and a shaky offensive line, the Oct. 4 trip to reigning national champion Florida State could be particularly brutal.
Quin Blanding S; Andrew Brown DT, Virginia
Blanding, the top-ranked safety and No. 5 overall prospect in the class of 2014, according to Rivals.com, is the highest rated recruit to sign with Virginia since at least 2002. The Bayside (Va.) High product will team with Brown, the top-ranked defensive tackle in 2014, to bolster a defense that ranked 10th in the ACC in yards allowed per play last season. From a macro perspective, Blanding and Brown will be tasked with helping Virginia improve in what could be a critical season for head coach Mike London. Though Brown has been limited in practice after undergoing offseason toe surgery, he should acquit himself well this season if he can clog running lanes as well as he mixes beats. Blanding, meanwhile, has been lining up with the first-team defense.
As Fournette is likened to Adrian Peterson, the popular comparison for Peppers is former Wolverines star and Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson. Earning college football’s premier award is a lofty goal for Peppers (or any defensive player), but the Paramus Catholic (N.J.) High product looks physically capable of making an impact this season and has already seen extensive work with Michigan’s first-unit secondary. Peppers has also received reps returning punts. The top-ranked cornerback and No. 3-ranked recruit in the country, according to Rivals.com, Peppers gained national recognition last summer when his ridiculous touchdown run was featured on SportsCenter. Expect more highlight reel plays from Peppers when he suits up for the Wolverines in the fall.
Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris said in July that Watson wouldn’t have redshirted even if redshirt freshman Chad Kelly hadn’t been dismissed from the team. “That was the consensus from the get-go and that was the consensus after watching him the first couple of practices in the spring,” said Morris, who also mentioned that Watson would definitely play in the season opener against Georgia. “We knew that he was going to be special.” While senior Cole Stoudt is the starter, don’t be surprised if Watson, the crown jewel of Clemson’s 2014 recruiting class, supplants him at some point this season. The dual-threat signal caller compiled 17,134 yards of offense and 218 total touchdowns during his career at Gainesville (Ga.) High.
With the Sun Devils losing nine defensive starters -- including three of their four linebackers -- Calhoun has a good shot to earn major playing time right away. The El Cerrito, Calif., native, a consensus four-star recruit, is not ranked as highly as the other players on this list, but he earned scholarship offers from UCLA, USC and Washington, among other programs. Calhoun enrolled early and played well enough in spring practice to get listed as the co-starter at Will linebacker heading into preseason camp. "He's not big in stature, but he's very strong and very explosive," ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said of the 6-foot, 205-pounder in April.