Less than two weeks remain until National Signing Day, meaning focus will soon shift from recruiting battles to position battles. Yet for early enrollees in the class of 2016, this semester is already in session, training is underway and spring practice—their first chance to show their coaches what they can do—is on the horizon.
The benefit of enrolling early is obvious: Players get a full spring to get up to speed and prove they can contribute. For some, that contribution could come right away. Here are 12 early-enrolling recruits, listed in alphabetical order, who could make an instant impact for their new programs during the 2016 season.
Malik Barrow, DT, Ohio State
The Buckeyes began 2016 on a high note, beating Notre Dame 44–28 in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1. Since then, however, Ohio State suffered an expected downturn, as nine players declared early for the NFL draft. Combine that with the graduating departures, and the Buckeyes will need to replace their entire defensive line next season. Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard appear poised to take over the end spots, but there is uncertainty over who will see time at tackle.
That creates an opportunity for Barrow, the three-star recruit from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Barrow has the quickness of a defensive end, and at 6’ 2”, 270 pounds—before spending a full spring and summer in a college weight room—he should have a chance to compete for reps right away. To do so, he’ll have to beat out Michael Hill, Tracy Sprinkle and Donovan Munger, and the knee injury that ended Barrow’s senior season could limit his participation this spring. Still, Hill, Sprinkle and Munger have combined for just 2.5 tackles for loss in their careers. Barrow’s lack of experience shouldn’t rule him out.
Donnie Corley and Cameron Chambers, WRs, Michigan State
These four-star receivers were part of a group of eight Michigan State signees who enrolled in January. Corley is the more highly touted of two, ranked as the No. 93 overall prospect and the No. 15 wide receiver in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com. Chambers, meanwhile, is the No. 49 wideout in the class.
Both should have opportunities to ascend to the top of the Spartans’ depth chart, as the team loses Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings Jr., AJ Troup and DeAnthony Arnett this off-season. R.J. Shelton is the only returning Michigan State receiver who recorded more than 10 catches in 2015, and with Corley and Chambers standing at 6’ 3”, both newcomers have the height to create mismatches. Given Connor Cook’s departure to the NFL and a new quarterback taking over the offense, neither should suffer from a major disadvantage in chemistry.
Corley is also a skilled cornerback, and Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said he plans to give the Detroit native a look on both sides of the ball. However, Michigan State’s secondary returns most of its key pieces from 2015, so Corley’s best shot for immediate playing time will likely come on offense.
Kyle Davis, WR, Auburn
Dismal quarterback play drew most of the blame for Auburn’s disappointing 2015 campaign, but the performance of the Tigers’ wide receivers wasn’t much better. With Sammie Coates heading to join the NFL last spring and D’haquille Williams dismissed from the roster in October, Ricardo Louis was the only Auburn receiver who had consistent playmaking ability. Now that Louis has graduated, coach Gus Malzahn’s team returns just one wideout who made more than 14 catches last fall.
Davis, a four-star prospect and the No. 22 wide receiver recruit in this year’s class, according to Scout.com, could add a physical presence to the Tigers’ aerial attack. He boasts a similar build (6’ 2”, 215 pounds) to Coates and Williams and won the Most Valuable Player award at The Opening last summer. Shoulder surgery could limit his participation this spring, but he’ll be ready to vie for reps this summer.
Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia
Georgia and Florida fought hard to land Eason’s services, and for good reason: The No. 2 quarterback in this year’s recruiting class, according to Scout.com, won Gatorade Player of the Year and U.S. Army Player of the Year honors. Now that Eason has officially enrolled in Athens, attention will turn to whether the true freshman can unseat returning starter Greyson Lambert.
Lambert made few mistakes in 2015, completing 63.3% of his passes and tossing only two interceptions while helping the Bulldogs finish 10–3. But Eason is clearly Georgia’s quarterback of the future, and his 6’ 6”, 217-pound frame gives him the look of a star in the making. New coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney have no loyalty to Lambert and hope to make a good first impression on campus. If Eason can use this spring and summer to prove he is the best option, expect him to start the season opener against North Carolina on Sept. 3.
Feleipe Franks, QB, Florida
Eason might not be the only true freshman quarterback starting in the SEC East in 2016. Following Will Grier’s suspension and subsequent announcement that he'll transfer, and given Treon Harris’s subpar end to last season, four-star prospect Feleipe Franks should get an opportunity to compete for the starting job in coach Jim McElwain’s offense. Like Eason, Franks, the No. 5 quarterback in the class of 2016, per Scout.com, has the size (6’ 6”, 220 pounds) to take charge.
However, in addition to Harris, Franks will have to contend with former Alabama quarterback Luke Del Rio and Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby. If he wins the job, Franks could form a connection with fellow early enrollees Freddie Swain and Joshua Hammond, both four-star receivers who could provide a sorely needed boost to a Gators’ offense that averaged just 4.9 yards per play in 2015.
Daelin Hayes, LB, Notre Dame
Once a USC commit, the four-star Hayes could now be the key to plugging Notre Dame’s gaping hole at linebacker. Both of the Fighting Irish’s leading tacklers, Jaylon Smith (114 tackles) and Joe Schmidt (78), are bound for the NFL. James Onwualu, Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan and Tevon Coney could all be in the mix to replace them, but expect the 6’ 4”, 249-pound Hayes to get a look, too.
Hayes could benefit from enrolling early more than anyone else, if only because spring practice will give his new coaches the long-awaited chance to watch him. Hayes played just four downs as a sophomore before a shoulder injury ended his season, and then he played in three games as a junior until a custody battle forced him to transfer and sit out the rest of that fall. Hayes injured his other shoulder in the third game of his senior campaign, abruptly ending his high school career.
Theo Howard, WR, UCLA
UCLA suffered an unexpected blow to its receiving corps when Thomas Duarte declared early for the NFL draft. Top receivers Jordan Payton and Devin Fuller are graduating, leaving the Bruins with just one returning wideout who made more than 11 catches in 2015. That lack of options could stunt the growth of rising star passer Josh Rosen, the top overall quarterback in last year’s recruiting class.
A glass-half-full analysis would suggest Duarte’s departure only clears the way for the early-enrolling Howard to emerge as Rosen’s preferred target. As the No. 7 wide receiver recruit in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, Howard is UCLA’s highest-rated wideout prospect since Scout began its rankings in ’02.
Collin Johnson, WR, Texas
In a Longhorns’ offense desperate for a spark, Johnson could be exactly what coach Charlie Strong needs. No Texas receiver compiled more than 500 yards in 2015, and three players amassed two touchdown catches, a team high. Of course, first-year coordinator Sterlin Gilbert will need to find the solution to the offense’s quarterback conundrum, but the addition of Johnson, a four-star receiver, should only help. The No. 30 wideout in this year’s class, according to Scout.com, missed nearly all of his senior season with a shoulder injury. However, Johnson should be fully recovered in time to compete for playing time in spring practice.
Tre Lamar and Rahshaun Smith, LBs, Clemson
For the second consecutive year Clemson’s defense will require a huge overhaul, including replacing middle linebacker B.J. Goodson, who led the Tigers with 108 tackles (14 for loss and 5.5 sacks) and also had two interceptions and a forced fumble in 2015. There is not a lot of experience in Tigers coordinator Brent Venables’s returning options: Sophomore Kendall Joseph made all of six tackles last season, while freshman Chad Smith redshirted.
That’s where early enrollees Lamar and Rahshaun Smith could come in. Both are four-star prospects ranked as the No. 6 and No. 9 inside linebackers in this year’s class, according to Scout.com. With the veteran Ben Boulware back to anchor the linebacking corps, Clemson can afford to play high-upside young talent, opening the door for Lamar and Smith if they can pick up Venables’s schemes this spring.
Brandon McIlwain, QB, South Carolina
The third incoming SEC East quarterback to make this list, McIlwain should also get a chance to compete for playing time after enrolling early. He likely would have been a first-round pick in the MLB draft had he decided to go that direction, but he instead opted to play both football and baseball at South Carolina.
On the gridiron, he’ll have to unseat returning starter Perry Orth, as well as Lorenzo Nunez, Connor Mitch and Michael Scarnecchia. But McIlwain is the mostly highly regarded of the bunch. South Carolina’s passers combined for a 54.4% completion rate and a 17-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2015. McIlwain isn’t the only Gamecocks early enrollee with a shot to see the field right away, either; four-star receiver Bryan Edwards from Conway, S.C., could help offset the loss of top target Pharoh Cooper.