Freshman 15: Robert Nkemdiche tops list of impact newcomers

Tuesday August 6th, 2013

Prized defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (right) joins his brother Denzel on the Ole Miss defense in '13.

Fall camp is kicking off across the nation, meaning it's almost time to meet the next crop of FBS stars. Early enrollees are looking to prove they got a leg up in spring practice, true freshmen are working to avoid being redshirted for a year and former prep stars around the country are starting to experience what college football is really like.

While some newcomers may be in the process of adding a real Freshman 15 -- in the form of muscle, hopefully -- others are putting themselves in position to contribute from day one. Here are 15 incoming players to keep an eye on this fall.

DE Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze secured a program-altering class on National Signing Day, and no prospect was more coveted than Nkemdiche, the consensus top recruit in the 2013 cycle. The younger brother of Denzel Nkemdiche, who led the Rebels in tackles (82) and tackles for loss (13) last season, he is expected to start -- and produce -- from the get-go. Nkemdiche has drawn comparisons to South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney for his uncommon size and athleticism. Whether or not he lives up to that billing remains to be seen, but he's already the most-hyped recruit to come to Ole Miss since Eli Manning.

S Su'a Cravens, USC: Cravens tore his meniscus in spring practice after enrolling early in January, but not before leaving an impression on the Trojans' staff. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said he'd have no problem starting a true freshman, and given USC's lack of depth in the secondary, Cravens and fellow newcomer Leon McQuay III could well take over as the team's starting safeties. Cravens has spectacular ball instincts and was a two-way star at Vista Murrieta (Calif.) High. While it's unfair to rouse expectations at such an early stage in his career (he turned 18 in July), some think Cravens has the skills to eventually develop into one of the great USC defensive backs.

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QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: When backup quarterback Steven Bench abruptly decided to transfer to South Florida in May, Penn State's quarterback situation became clear: Hackenberg will compete for the job against Tyler Ferguson, who transferred to the Nittany Lions from the College of the Sequoias. Hackenberg was one of the premier quarterback recruits in the class of 2013, and he stuck with Penn State through NCAA sanctions despite holding offers from Alabama and Florida, among others. Coveted for his size, arm strength and on-field tenacity, Hackenberg was the only freshman who didn't enroll early to be listed on coach Bill O'Brien's post-spring depth chart.

LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame: Outside of Nkemdiche, Smith may be the most college-ready defender to emerge from the class of 2013. A superstar at Bishop Luers (Ind.) High, Smith should compete with several other inexperienced candidates for a starting spot on a Notre Dame unit that lost several key guys, including Manti Te'o, Zeke Motta and Kapron Lewis-Moore. The high school Butkus Award winner and Indiana's Mr. Football shined at the U.S. Army All-American Game and should see plenty of snaps at outside linebacker. He may be one of the players on this list who starts the first snap of the season and doesn't surrender his spot the rest of the way.

WR Marquez North, Tennessee: The Volunteers are looking to replace NFL-bound receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, and the depth behind them wasn't particularly substantial in 2012. That has worked to North's advantage. In the short time he's been on campus, he's already garnered praise from both Tennessee coaches and upperclassmen. First-year coach Butch Jones said North would be "one of our playmakers" and called him a needed asset on offense. The 6-3, 220-pounder has "a knowledge of every receiver position on the field," according to Jones, and should excite an SEC fan base hoping to turn things around.

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RB Greg Bryant, Notre Dame: Even though the Irish lost both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood after last season, their backfield isn't depleted heading into 2013. Junior George Atkinson III is set to slide into the starting role, and Bryant seems likely to see some action as a true freshman. Brian Kelly may phase in Bryant much like he did Atkinson last fall, on selected carries designed for big gains. In the wake quarterback Everett Golson's suspension, the pressure is on Notre Dame's ground game to produce. Bryant is capable of providing a jolt of momentum.

WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: A two-way standout at Crete-Monee (Ill.) High, Treadwell finished his senior season with 81 catches 1,424 yards and 16 touchdowns. Widely regarded as the best receiver in the class of 2013, he surprised many with his commitment to Ole Miss before instantly becoming one of the program's most vocal recruiters. Treadwell should find his way into the Rebels' rotation even though the team's top three wideouts (Donte Moncrief, Vince Sanders, Ja-Mes Logan) all return from 2012. He boasts great size at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, and he's shown the ability to stretch the field.

DE Chris Jones, Mississippi State: Jones was perhaps the one prep star from Mississippi who didn't end up with Ole Miss on National Signing Day. The rare player who was completely unknown entering his senior year, Jones quickly developed into one of the hottest commodities in the country, a 6-7, 250-pounder with stunning athleticism. He still may have some learning to do, but he almost certainly will see some reps for a defense that lost a number of players to the NFL. Jones could eventually become the marquee attraction to fill the seats in Starkville.

RB Derrick Henry, Alabama: With T.J. Yeldon returning to the 'Bama backfield, the question becomes who will split carries with the star sophomore. Though he broke his fibula in the spring, Henry appears to be the man for the job. He's 6-3 and 243 pounds, and he finished his high school career at Yulee (Fla.) High with a national-record 12,124 rushing yards. If Henry's injury does force him to redshirt, then one of two other true freshmen backs (Altee Tenpenny or Alvin Kamara) should see the field in 2013.

TE O.J. Howard, Alabama: Following the departure of three-year starter Michael Williams, Howard has an opportunity to make a rare jump for a true freshman -- especially one in Nick Saban's program. Howard remains unlikely to start in Week 1 (junior Brian Vogler is the favorite to win the job), but he comes to Tuscaloosa as one of the most hyped offensive recruits in recent state history. A three-sport star at Autauga (Ala.) High, the 6-6, 230-pounder is big enough to block in the Tide's power-running game, and he's speedy enough to play more of an H-Back role. He could turn into a red-zone favorite for quarterback AJ McCarron.

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WR James Quick, Louisville: Quick is a downfield terror, a state record-holder in the 200-meter dash and a runner-up in the 100-meter dash. Now, the Louisville native could pair with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to become a major threat. The true freshman has a long way to go before climbing up the depth chart (DeVante Parker is a potential All-America candidate, and Robert Clark, Eli Rogers and Damian Copeland all have far more experience), but expect the speedster and high school All-American to turn some heads for the Cardinals this fall.

RB Taquan Mizzell, Virginia: The Cavaliers got scant production out of their running backs last season (an average of 3.7 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns), making the addition of the state's top recruit even more critical. In Mizzell, coach Mike London and staff landed a much-needed and versatile weapon. The former Bayside (Va.) High standout is a strong punt returner and breakaway runner. He should offer an immediate boost to the Cavs' attack.

DE Carl Lawson, Auburn: Lawson was part of a 2013 Auburn signing class that will be asked to revitalize the program coming off a nightmarish campaign. A ferocious weakside defensive end and an incredible physical specimen -- a recent photo of him at a workout circulated around Auburn message boards -- Lawson and fellow freshman Elijah Daniel offer significant promise on both ends of the line.

OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss: Freshmen offensive linemen often redshirt in order to to bulk up and improve their footwork, but Tunsil seems poised to bypass that practice. He's already 6-5 and 332 pounds and could bolster an offense that brings back most of its key pieces from 2012. With senior tackles Pierce Burton and Emmanuel McCray returning, the staff could conceivably redshirt Tunsil to give him additional time to develop. Still, it seems unlikely that the Lake City, Fla., native turned down offers from Alabama and Georgia just so he could come to Oxford and sit for a year.

RB Derrick Green, Michigan: Michigan running back Fitzgerald Touissant confidently asserted that he "will be the starting running back on August 31" in a recent press conference, but there's a reason Brady Hoke hasn't penciled the fifth-year senior in for the job. Green was considered the top back in the class of 2013, and Hoke didn't sign him just to sit him. Expect Green to be used frequently in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He's a 5-11, 222-pound bulldozer of a back, and he'll be tough to tackle even for Big Ten defenders.

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