By Zac Ellis
While many top recruits wait until late in the summer to arrive on campus each year, the practice of enrolling early is becoming more and more popular across college football. By adapting to school and taking part in spring practice, incoming freshmen and juco transfers are able start learning a system -- and working their way up the depth chart.
According to a USA Today report, 162 high school prospects in BCS automatic-qualifying conferences opted to enroll early in 2013, the highest total since 2002. In all, 61 of the 73 AQ-conference schools brought in at least one early enrollee.
Skipping senior prom in lieu of helmets and pads can have its advantages. Here are 10 early enrollees, listed alphabetically, who raised eyebrows across the nation:
Dannon Cavil, WR, Oklahoma
Oklahoma brings back a pair of experienced wideouts in Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard, who combined for 1,450 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2012. But the Sooners saw flashes of potential from Cavil this spring, and the freshman could help make up for the departure of leading receiver Kenny Stills. “Dannon just shows a lot of strength and size and he catches the ball well," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told reporters recently. "He's a big guy. Dannon's 6-3 to probably 6-4, 215. Strong for a young guy.” Even while the Sooners break in a new starting quarterback, their receiving corps should be a group to keep an eye on with Cavil in tow.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
The Trojans’ freshman safety saw his spring cut short after suffering a torn meniscus in early April. But he’d already made a name for himself at USC’s spring practice, where he took reps with the first-team defense. Cravens should be back in time for summer workouts, and his return can’t come soon enough for Lane Kiffin’s team; the secondary is looking to replace standouts T.J. McDonald, Jawanza Starling and Nickell Robey. The 6-3, 215-pound Cravens was Rivals.com’s top-ranked safety prospect and has the skills to become an immediate contributor after lining up at both safety and linebacker in high school.
Steve Elmer, OT, Notre Dame
The Irish return three starters on the offensive line, but that experience didn’t diminish the importance of bringing touted signee Elmer aboard for spring practice. Notre Dame lacks depth at offensive tackle, and that’s precisely where the 6-5, 300-pounder may be able to slide in early. The Michigan native committed to the Irish in 2011 over the hometown Wolverines, and he’s already drawn comparisons to Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin. Come fall, there should be plenty of hype surrounding the promising freshman stalwart.
Tyler Ferguson, QB, Penn State
The race to replace departed quarterback Matt McGloin recently became a little less crowded, as Steven Bench announced his decision to transfer from Penn State in late April. Juco transfer Ferguson was neck-and-neck with Bench during spring drills, and the two passers put up nearly identical numbers in the spring game. Now, despite the summer arrival of five-star prospect Christian Hackenberg in State College, Ferguson has a slight edge on the Nittany Lions' starting job. The Bakersfield, Calif., native passed for 2,614 yards and 22 touchdowns last season at College of the Sequoias.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
One of the most gifted athletes in Alabama’s 2013 class, Howard could become one of the first newcomers to see the field this fall. His arrival coincided with the departures of tight ends Michael Williams and Kelly Johnson, and the position’s productivity has dropped off in recent years: No Tide tight end has caught more than 35 passes in a season since 2007. In fact, last year’s entire crop tallied just 33 catches and four touchdowns. Howard made an early impression on coaches by sitting in on extra film sessions this spring. The 6-6, 235-pounder could emerge as a key target for AJ McCarron.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
One of a handful of defensive end signees in Dabo Swinney’s latest haul, Lawson has the skills to fit in immediately on the defensive line. His size (6-4, 260) only adds to his college-ready repertoire, and Clemson needs a replacement for departed defensive end Malliciah Goodman. Lawson made his presence felt among the first-year defensive players in spring practice. Though he’s not likely to earn a starting role, he seems poised to emerge as the Tigers' go-to reserve behind Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford.
Tray Matthews, S, Georgia
Matthews was the only one of the state of Georgia’s top-10 prospects to ultimately sign with the Bulldogs, and he appears set to become an immediate contributor in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s secondary. With the exit of safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams, Georgia lacks veterans at the position, and the defense as a whole lost all but three starters during the offseason. Matthews’ performance this spring reinforces the notion that he’s ready; he took home the defense’s Most Improved Player honors when practice concluded.
Tyrone Swoopes, QB, Texas
For the first time in a few years, the Longhorns head into the summer with quarterback stability behind David Ash. But spring practice offered a glimpse into Texas’ future at the position. Swoopes left a lasting impression despite playing only one series in the team’s spring game, dipping and dodging first-team defenders for a 21-yard run to help lead the offense to a field goal. Swoopes isn’t currently the second-team quarterback -- that designation goes to Case McCoy -- but he's already managed to leapfrog Connor Brewer and Jalen Overstreet for third-string duties. Though he isn’t expected to see the field this fall, Swoopes’ performance could signal that coach Mack Brown's fortunes could finally be changing under center.
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida
Taylor had big shoes to fill from the moment he stepped onto Florida's campus; his father, Fred, was a star running back with the Gators from 1994-97 before enjoying a lengthy NFL career. Now, the younger Taylor is looking to write his own chapter in Gainesville, and he kicked things off with a strong effort this spring. The 5-11, 215-pound tailback racked up 11 carries for 59 yards and a score in the Gators’ modified spring game. But he has the talent to be more explosive: Taylor finished his prep career at Glades Day (Fla.) High with 12,121 rushing yards and a state-record 191 touchdowns. Sophomore Matt Jones has a strong hold on the starting running back job, but Taylor showed he has the talent to make an impact in year one.
JaQuay Williams, WR, Texas A&M
Williams was a onetime Auburn commit, but he made his way to College Station after spending a year in prep school to meet NCAA academic requirements. The Aggies’ freshman didn’t disappoint in spring practice. He reeled in three passes for 43 yards in the team’s spring game. A&M signed six wide receivers in its 2013 class, but Williams’ showing in spring practice should give him a leg-up to make an impact this fall. He’ll likely be one of Johnny Manziel's primary targets on a receiving corps that lost Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Thomas Johnson, who combined for more than 1,500 yards last season.ELLIS: The 10 biggest lessons we learned from college football spring practice