Redshirt freshmen to watch in 2017

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#DearAndy: Will the SEC East ever surpass the West?
1:50 | College Football
#DearAndy: Will the SEC East ever surpass the West?
Tuesday February 14th, 2017

For the all the hype around National Signing Day, it can also be a bit of an anticlimactic event. While it’s indisputably true that elite recruiting is essential to winning conference titles and reaching the College Football Playoff, for all but the very best recruits entering very rare circumstances the impact of four- and five-star signings won’t truly be felt until several years later. Even some of the most highly touted recruits from last year’s class redshirted rather than waste a year of eligibility on a season in which their impact might have been negligible.

A year later, though, things have changed. After spending the fall on the scout team battling their first-unit teammates, a batch of redshirt freshmen are ready to break out in their first season of eligibility. Here are eight, in alphabetical order, to keep an eye on:

All recruiting rankings are according to Scout.com.

Ben Davis, Alabama LB

A preseason ankle injury contributed to Davis taking a redshirt in 2016, but now healthy, he immediately enters the competition for a starting job in a Crimson Tide linebacker corps that will require some overhaul this off-season. With Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson departing, Alabama needs some new stars. Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans should fill two spots, while the other two will be settled in spring and fall camp. Davis was the top rated inside linebacker in last year’s recruiting class and the No. 11 overall prospect, and his dad, Wayne, leads the Crimson Tide in career tackles. With plenty of other highly touted options and the addition of four linebacker recruits in this year’s class rated four-stars or better (including early-enrollee and No. 1 inside linebacker recruit Dylan Moses), the battle for the two up-for-grabs starting roles will be fierce. But few have the potential of Davis.

Feleipe Franks, Florida QB

It’s no secret the Gators’ offense is in desperate need of a spark, so while Luke Del Rio, who started six games last year, returns, Franks will get an opportunity to prove he’s ready in his second year on campus. Franks definitely has the most upside of coach Jim McElwain’s options after joining Florida as the No. 5 quarterback recruit in last year’s class. He’ll have the spring to really make a statement while Del Rio recovers from shoulder surgery. After the Gators averaged 6.8 yards per attempt last year with Del Rio and Austin Appleby, it’ll be a bad sign if Del Rio is under center again to kick off the 2017 season.

Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee QB

Franks isn’t the only redshirt freshman who could start for an SEC team next season. In fact, as many as seven teams in the conference could start passers entering just their second year on their respective campuses (Alabama sophomore Jalen Hurts, Georgia sophomore Jacob Eason, Ole Miss sophomore Shea Patterson, South Carolina sophomore Jake Bentley, Texas A&M redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, Florida’s Franks and Tennessee’s Guarantano). Among the three redshirt freshmen in that group, Guarantano may have the best shot to start the season opener. Longtime Volunteers starter Joshua Dobbs graduates, leaving Guarantano to battle with Quinten Dormady and Sheriron Jones. As the No. 3 quarterback recruit in last year’s class, Guarantano has the talent to succeed Dobbs and could be the best fit to replicate Dobbs’s dual-threat abilities.

Mique Juarez, UCLA LB

Juarez’s relationship with UCLA has never not been interesting. Could it lead to stardom next? The former No. 8 overall recruit was a huge coup on National Signing Day last year when he signed with the Bruins after previously committing to USC. After enrolling early, he missed most of spring practices with a neck injury and then mysteriously missed practices at fall camp, with coach Jim Mora consistently saying little more than that the absences were “excused.” Juarez later told the Southern California News Group that he was seeing a psychiatrist to help cope with stress and that “it was just too much pressure.” With the Bruins losing the Pac-12’s top tackler, linebacker Jayon Brown, this off-season, they could be poised to finally get their prized recruit for last February. Juarez posted a photo to his Instagram account with the caption, “I’m back.”

I'm back ...great opportunity to do something better. Painter by @ceaches_

A photo posted by Mique Juarez (@mique_juarez3) on

Tommy Kraemer, Notre Dame OL

With Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson opting to pass on the NFL draft and return to Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish’s line is in solid shape to try to aid a rebuild from 2016’s disastrous 4–8 campaign. However, while McGlinchey and Nelson anchor left side of the line, the right side still needs to be determined. Kraemer, the No. 37 overall recruit in last year’s class, is in prime position to vie for the right guard spot or possibly right tackle after redshirting last season. If Kraemer doesn’t earn a starting role, keep an eye on fellow redshirt freshman Liam Eichenberg. Kraemer offers more versatility than Eichenberg, but which one starts could come down to whether coach Brian Kelly slides last year’s starting right tackle, Alex Bars, to guard. The 6’4.5”, 315-pound Kraemer might be a better fit at guard than tackle.

Michal Menet, Penn State OL

After coming to Happy Valley as a five-star offensive tackle, Menet now is now being groomed to potentially start for the Nittany Lions at center in 2017. Penn State loses starting center Brian Gaia this off-season and worked Menet in snapping the ball during his redshirt season. Menet arrived at Penn State at 273 pounds but has bulked up to around 300 pounds for his future in the interior line. Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon will likely fill the offensive tackle spots for the Nittany Lions in 2017, but expect Menet to find a role at guard or center.

Kaden Smith, Stanford TE

It’s almost too easy to pick a Stanford tight end, particularly after a year in which the Cardinal’s passing offense faltered to just 6.7 yards per attempt. Coach David Shaw’s attack needs new weapons to offset the loss of Christian McCaffrey, so why not a highly touted tight end. Smith redshirted last season as he continued to work his way back from a torn ACL and MCL suffered at the end of his high school career, but the No. 2 tight end recruit in last year’s recruiting class should be ready to contribute this year. He caught 144 passes for 2,260 yards in high school, including 917 yards as a senior, and also demonstrated a strong blocking ability.

Tyler Vaughns, USC WR

That the Trojans could afford to redshirt a player of Vaughns’s caliber speaks to them finally getting fully past the lingering effects of their NCAA sanctions. After going up against Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall as part of the scout team offense (not bad prep work), Vaughns should definitely see the field in 2017 and could quickly make a name for himself. USC loses its top two targets, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, this off-season, and while Deontay Burnett’s Rose Bowl performance announced his rise into the Trojans’ next standout receiver, Vaughns’s talent as the top-rated wide receiver in last year’s recruiting class could help him climb as high as No. 2 on the depth chart this fall.

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