The trend of redshirt freshmen winning the Heisman Trophy ended at two, but that’s no reason to ignore the next crop of players who spent the past year learning from the sidelines. With several quarterbacks entering spring practice in the mix for high-profile jobs, and some of the top-rated players from the 2014 recruiting class ready to make their debuts, there are plenty of redshirt freshmen who could be set to make major impacts. Here are 10 to watch.
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
The No. 3 overall recruit in the 2014 class, according to Rivals.com, Peppers was limited to just three games last fall due to two separate leg injuries, the second of which shut him down for the season. Although he certainly could have helped the Wolverines—Michigan went a disappointing 5-7 and coach Brady Hoke was fired—perhaps his medical redshirt wasn’t such a bad thing. Now the touted cornerback (who reportedly told recruit Iman Marshall he plans to switch to safety) has four years of eligibility remaining under Jim Harbaugh.
Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
One of two five-star cornerbacks in Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class, Humphrey was at a disadvantage to play as a true freshman. Unlike Tony Brown, he didn’t enroll early. After a year on the sidelines, however, he should be poised to make an impact. Though the depth chart remains crowded—Brown, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve all return—there’s plenty of room for improvement in the Crimson Tide’s secondary, especially on the heels of star safety Landon Collins’ departure for the NFL. Expect Humphrey to get some chances.
Will Grier, QB, Florida
The success of Jim McElwain’s rebuild will come down to his ability to correct for the greatest failure of the Will Muschamp era: an anemic offense. With no quarterbacks in the 2015 recruiting class, McElwain is stuck with the passers he has. The embattled Jeff Driskel transferred to Louisiana Tech in January, so McElwain must choose between Grier and Treon Harris, who beat out Grier for the backup job last season and appeared in nine games. Harris completed fewer than 50% of his attempts, and Grier, a former four-star recruit, may be better suited for McElwain’s pro-style scheme. Florida has had no shortage of heralded recruits among its eight quarterbacks to play since Tim Tebow, with little to show for it. The issue has been development. Can Grier break the trend?
Travonte Valentine, DT, LSU
Academic eligibility issues kept Valentine off the field in 2014, though he was able to begin practicing by October. The former four-star recruit had 31.5 tackles for loss, including 16 sacks, as a high school senior, and has the frame (6’3”, 325 pounds) to contribute right away. The Tigers struggled to stop the run last fall, allowing 4.6 yards per carry, and lost coordinator John Chavis to Texas A&M. A talent like Valentine who can clog the middle should make for a nice addition.
Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
The Cardinal returned three fifth-year seniors on the defensive line last fall, making the decision to redshirt Thomas fairly simple. But now that defensive tackle David Parry and ends Henry Anderson and Blake Lueders have graduated, the team desperately needs Thomas to step up. Despite losing defensive coordinator Derek Mason and stars Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner, Stanford retained its elite defense in 2014, ranking second in yards per play allowed (4.1) and third in scoring defense (17.8). To regain supremacy of the Pac-12 North, it will look for Thomas and the rest of the defensive line to embrace the next-man-up philosophy that has allowed the Cardinal to overcome past departures.
Dillon Bates, LB, Tennessee
The Volunteers led the nation by playing 24 true freshmen, including Bates, in 2014. However, a torn labrum ended the linebacker’s season after four games, so he will return this fall with four years of eligibility. He made six tackles last season backing up Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and was the second-rated outside linebacker recruit in the ’14 class, according to Rivals.com. With A.J. Johnson gone, the son of former Tennessee star Bill Bates has a chance to earn a starting job for a squad that could contend for an SEC East title.
Jacob Park, QB, Georgia
If new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer wants to avoid the meme that followed his predecessor, Mike Bobo, Georgia’s attack should consist heavily of handoffs to tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. But even with the Bulldogs’ incredible array of backfield talent, they’ll have to pass occasionally, which leads to a key question in Athens: Who replaces Hutson Mason? After redshirting last season, Park has a strong chance to win the job over Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta. Head coach Mark Richt and teammates have raved about Park’s practice performances, and he has better mobility than his pro-style label might suggest.
Jerrod Heard, QB, Texas
Texas finds itself in a similar situation as Florida: It has the defense to compete but faces questions about its offense and quarterback. So, while starter Tyrone Swoopes returns, Heard has a strong chance to supplant him. Swoopes threw 13 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions in 2014 and was under center for the team’s 59-yard offensive output in a 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. Quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson said in November that Heard was “starting to get it” and should compete for playing time in the spring. The dual-threat quarterback would likely fit in well into an offense that is expected to increase tempo and introduce more spread concepts in ’15.
Damian Prince, G, Maryland
The question about Prince entering 2014 was whether he was too talented for Maryland to redshirt him. While the answer was evidently no, the former five-star guard should provide a huge boost to the Terrapins. Three starters from last year’s offensive line graduate, so he could earn a spot at left guard or left tackle—the position he originally came to Maryland for—especially if Moise Larose does not return from his one-year suspension for violating the school's athletic department student code of conduct policy.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota
The Golden Gophers still don’t quite know what they have in Jones, as he was forced to sit out fall practices due to academic issues. As standout David Cobb graduates, Jones is prepared to compete for the starting job this spring. He’ll have to beat out Rodrick Williams, Berkley Edwards and Rodney Smith, but brings immense talent to the table. The MVP of the 2014 Under Armour All-American Game, Jones was a major coup for head coach Jerry Kill. He tallied more than 2,000 yards of total offense as a senior at Washburn (Minn.) High.