Alabama’s Derrick Henry snapped one Heisman Trophy drought, but now a new one has emerged in its stead. While Henry ended a five-year run without a running back winning the award, it has now been more than two years since a redshirt freshman claimed the Heisman—never mind that no redshirt freshman had won it before Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston in 2012 and ’13, respectively.
Not all of the 10 players listed below could become Heisman candidates (barring a groundswell of support for non-skill position contenders), but each has a chance to become a pivotal contributor in his first season of eligibility. Here are 10 redshirt freshmen to watch in 2016:
Madison Akamnonu, Texas Tech, OT
The Red Raiders’ offensive line requires a nearly complete overhaul this off-season, and replacing All-Big 12 tackle Le’Raven Clark will be the most difficult assignment of all. Akamnonu may be up to the task. After adding 25 pounds since joining Texas Tech, Akamnonu now has the size to match the athleticism that made him the No. 26 offensive tackle prospect in the class of 2015, according to Scout.com. He’ll need to anchor a rebuilt line that seeks to replicate the performance of a group that ranked eighth in adjusted line yards this past season.
Blake Barnett, Alabama, QB
A three-way battle stands between Barnett and playing time in 2016, but as the potential No. 1 quarterback for the potential No. 1 team, he’s worth knowing. After falling out of Alabama’s 2015 quarterback battle, Barnett redshirted and quarterbacked the Crimson Tide’s scout team—not bad prep considering the defense he faced every day in practice. The No. 2 passer in the recruiting class of 2015, according to Scout.com, Barnett’s dual-threat ability drew the praise of Alabama’s defensive coaches. He’ll have to beat out rising junior Cooper Bateman (who was benched in his one start in ’15) and rising sophomore David Cornwell for the right to run Lane Kiffin’s offense.
Ricky DeBerry, Oklahoma, LB
Despite being the highest-ranked recruit in the Sooners’ 2015 class, DeBerry redshirted while learning from talented veterans Eric Striker and Devante Bond. But with Striker and Bond graduating, it’s time for DeBerry to step up. With an excellent combination of size and speed, he should become an elite pass-rusher, helping to replace the 7.5 sacks Oklahoma lost with Striker’s departure.
Deondre Francois, Florida State, QB
Learning Jimbo Fisher’s offense takes time. Now that Francois has spent a year picking it up on the scout team, he should be ready to challenge Sean Maguire for the starting job. Francois, the No. 10 quarterback in last year’s recruiting class, according to Scout.com, possesses a strong arm and has drawn comparisons to Deshaun Watson, whom he imitated in the Seminoles’ practices before they faced Clemson. Maguire’s ankle fracture, suffered in Florida State’s Peach Bowl loss to Houston, further opens the door for Francois to claim the starting spot, as he should get the majority of reps during spring practices. If Francois can take charge of the offense this fall, it wouldn’t be the first time a redshirt freshman quarterback became a star at Florida State.
Tristen Hoge, Notre Dame, C
Hoge arrived in South Bend at the perfect time. He spent this past fall winning Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year and watching Nick Martin, one of the top center prospects in the 2016 NFL draft; now he is poised to take Martin’s place on the offensive line. Hoge may have to compete with rising sophomore Sam Mustipher, but Mustipher could be a better fit at guard, possibly as a replacement for the surprise departure of Steve Elmer. Hoge enrolled early last year, giving him ample time to adjust to the speed of college rushers, and should be ready to assume a starting role this season.
Leo Lewis, Mississippi State, LB
That Lewis likely won’t begin the season at the top of the Bulldogs’ depth chart is a testament to their depth at middle linebacker. Lewis, the No. 7 middle linebacker in the recruiting class of 2015, according to Scout.com, must battle with Gerri Green (49 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two sacks in ’15) and Richie Brown (109 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) for playing time. But the instinctiveness that drew him praise from former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz ensures Lewis is bound to make an impact and force new DC Peter Sirmon get him into the mix.
Keisean Lucier-South, UCLA, LB
Bruins fans are understandably excited about the arrival of Mique Juarez, the five-star linebacker who was the prize of National Signing Day 2016 for the Sons of Westwood. But a year before Juarez, another five-star linebacker made his pledge to UCLA, and after a year redshirting, Lucier-South is ready to make an impact in Tom Bradley’s defense. Rising senior Deon Hollins’s return to the Bruins may limit Lucier-South’s playing time, but the No. 29 overall recruit in last year’s class, according to Scout.com, should develop into a similar caliber pass-rushing specialist.
Richard McBryde, Auburn, LB
T.J. Neal’s transfer from Illinois creates an obstacle for McBryde, but the No. 18 middle linebacker in the recruiting class of 2015, according to Scout.com, should push for playing time now that Kris Frost and Justin Garrett have left the Plains. McBryde excelled during the Tigers’ bowl practices, earning him admiration from one of the players he hopes to replace. “He’s really raised his level,” Frost told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
Drew Richmond, Tennessee, OT
The No. 10 offensive tackle recruit in last year’s class, according to Scout.com, Richmond had the potential to play right away for the Volunteers. After a year on the scout team, he could be poised to jump right into a starting role to fill the hole left by Kyler Kerbyson’s graduation. Richmond had the stripe removed from his helmet during bowl practice, a marker of his progress this season. He’ll compete with rising junior Brett Kendrick to earn a starting tackle spot.
Mike Weber, Ohio State, RB
Weber was tearing up the field in fall camp before a torn meniscus sidelined him and ultimately led to him redshirting the 2015 season. With that setback behind him, Weber is now fighting to replace Ezekiel Elliott as the Buckeyes’ primary ballcarrier. It’s a crowded competition that includes senior Bri’onte Dunn; junior Curtis Samuel, who could move back to running back from H-back; and true freshman Antonio Williams. Weber’s brutally effective, bruising running style ensures he’ll have a significant role in Ohio State’s running game, and don’t be surprised if he separates himself from the pack.