All of the teams entering this season slotted near or at the top of the various preseason polls bring back loads of talent from last season. The return of key playmakers is the bedrock of these squads’ cases as conference and national championship contenders, a projectable component of their winning formulas. A more volatile, but in some cases critical, component is the performance of teams' newcomers, the players who weren’t around or weren't eligible a year ago. We’ve already broken down the transfers with the potential to have big impacts this season. Now let’s turn our attention to the freshmen (true and redshirt) who could excel right away.
Shane Buechele, QB, Texas
Texas has spent the years since Colt McCoy’s stint as a potent triggerman in a world-beating offense searching for a capable quarterback. In Buechele, it might have one. The four-star passer out of Lamar (Texas) High was the centerpiece of a 2016 recruiting class that could buoy the Longhorns’ next conference title contender under coach Charlie Strong. Alternatively, should Buechele flop as a true freshman—and his competitor in the Longhorns’ QB derby, senior Tyrone Swoopes, continue to underwhelm—Strong could be looking for a new job before New Year’s Day. Buechele enrolled early at Texas, so he was able to participate in workouts this spring. He’s garnered mostly positive assessments so far, and he’ll have two talented running backs to lean on in D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren. If Buechele can pick up new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s up-tempo scheme, expect a productive, if not McCoy-like, season.
Theo Howard, WR, UCLA
UCLA boasts one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but whether Josh Rosen has the breakout year many expect in 2016—we ranked the former uber recruit the No. 11 player nationally entering this season—isn’t entirely up to him. Rosen needs receivers. That Howard falls under that designation is plain; more important is his value as a true freshman. He has the potential to develop into the Bruins’ best wideout by the end of the season. After committing to UCLA last November, Howard enrolled early and participated in spring workouts. Though he suffered a hamstring injury during preseason camp, Howard is expected to be ready for UCLA’s opener at Texas A&M on Sept. 3. With last year's top receivers Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte moving on this off-season—in addition to workhorse back Paul Perkins—Rosen needs a playmaker with which he can exploit holes in coverage and stretch defenses. Howard, a top-50 recruit in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, gives Rosen an explosive target whom Scout.com describes as “very polished, a natural pass catcher and smooth, precise route runner.”
Ricky DeBerry, LB, Oklahoma
DeBerry redshirted last season while watching Sports Illustrated first-team All-America Eric Striker lead a defense that finished first in the Big 12 in points allowed and yards allowed per play to the College Football Playoff. With Striker and fellow linebacker Devante Bond departing this off-season, Oklahoma could use an infusion of top-end talent to anchor its defense. Early matchups with Houston, Ohio State and TCU will indicate whether the Sooners are deficient in this regard. That’s one reason why it’s important that DeBerry step in and show why he was rated a five-star prospect in the class of 2015 by Scout.com. Another? If he doesn’t, DeBerry risks being upstaged by another five-star linebacker recruit, Clovis West (Calif.) High class of 2016 product Caleb Kelly. Expect both players to play this fall, when their ability to make plays in space will help the Sooners deal with high-powered offenses led by electric dual-threat quarterbacks like the Cougars’ Greg Ward Jr., the Buckeyes’ J.T. Barrett and the Horned Frogs’ Kenny Hill.
Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia
Eason’s decision last December to stick with Georgia despite the departure of the coach who recruited him to Athens (Mark Richt) might go down as the biggest recruiting victory of new coach Kirby Smart’s tenure. By keeping Eason on board, Smart ensured he’d have the sort of elite passer who can help him topple Alabama at the outset of his stint at a high-pressure job. Had Eason elected to flip to Florida, it would have left Smart with an uninspiring pair of veterans (Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey) in a season in which the Bulldogs—given their manageable schedule and the fact they host preseason SEC East favorite Tennessee—should be able to compete for a division title. Eason earned high marks from recruiting services (he was ranked No. 2 among QBs in the class of 2016 by Scout.com), but the transition to the SEC probably won’t be as smooth as Georgia fans would like. For one, the true freshman needs to beat out Lambert and Ramsey, and if he does, he’ll likely make plenty of mistakes against defenses far less permissive than what he faced while shining at Lake Stevens (Wash.) High. But Eason nonetheless offers the prospect of future stardom, even if his first season is less than perfect.
Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State
Francois’s path to immediate playing time became clearer earlier this month, when senior quarterback Sean Maguire suffered a foot injury that reportedly will sideline him for four weeks. Francois, a four-star passer in the class of 2015, according to Scout.com, had been competing with Maguire for the starting job after impressing this spring. The redshirt freshman looked like a decent bet to rise to the top of the depth chart for the Seminoles’ Sept. 5 opener against Ole Miss in Orlando even if Maguire hadn’t gone down, but now he’ll head into that game with the (totally unrealistic) expectation of delivering a Jameis Winston-like debut. Florida State should be able to compete for a playoff berth even if—far from Winston 2.0—Francois is just O.K. The Seminoles' roster really is that good. With possibly the best running back in the country (Dalvin Cook) and NFL talent all over the two-deep, coach Jimbo Fisher just needs someone who can run the offense efficiently while avoiding mistakes. Francois could offer a lot more than that.
Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan
Michigan’s defensive line would have stacked up as one of its top position groups even if it failed to land the nation’s top prospect on National Signing Day this year. The addition of Gary elevated the group from “great” to “potentially awesome,” and it will be surrounded by other top-flight defensive talents like linebacker Jabrill Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Opposing linemen will have a difficult time handling Gary off the edge as a pass rusher—expect him to spend plenty of time in backfields this fall—but Gary’s combination of speed and power should enable him to contribute at multiple positions while helping lead a ferocious defense that could give the Wolverines the upper hand in a division with two other playoff contenders, Ohio State and Michigan State. Neither of those teams features a defensive newbie of Gary’s caliber, and new Michigan coordinator Don Brown certainly didn’t have athletes like Gary at his disposal during his time at Boston College. It won’t take long for the Paramus Catholic (N.J.) High product to prove his recruiting hype was justified.
Trayvon Mullen, CB, Clemson
Clemson has a loaded receiving corps (Mike Williams and Artavis Scott), a top-shelf tight end (Jordan Leggett), a productive tailback somehow hovering below the national radar (Wayne Gallman) and probably the best quarterback in the country (Deshaun Watson), but the Tigers’ prospects on the other side of the ball are less rosy. Specifically, they need to shore up their secondary after losing cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green to the NFL and fellow safety Jefferie Gibson to transfer. Mullen can help. A four-star prospect in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, Mullen ranked behind only five-star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and five-star running back Tavien Feaster in Clemson’s 2016 recruiting class. Yet Mullen might end up making a bigger impact than either player in 2016. Scout.com notes that Mullen’s “size gives him ability to match-up with the taller wide receivers in the red-zone,” and he’s drawn positive reviews for his performance during fall camp. Senior Cordrea Tankersley has one starting corner spot locked up, but Mullen should see plenty of time at the other.
Drew Richmond, OT, Tennessee
With maybe the SEC’s top quarterback (Joshua Dobbs), a potent running back tandem (Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara) and a promising, if unproven, group of receivers (Preston Williams, Jauan Jennings, Josh Smith and Josh Malone), Tennessee has the pieces to lay waste to a subpar East Division and make a run to the national semifinals. But the Volunteers’ attack could sputter if Dobbs isn’t protected. That’s why Richmond is so important. The four-star prospect in the class of 2015, according to Scout.com, spent his first season on campus getting ready to fill a crucial position on Tennessee’s line. The decision to redshirt Richmond should make for a less jarring introduction to the SEC trenches, where in 2016 he’ll need to keep Dobbs upright while fending off the likes of Florida’s Cece Jefferson, Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen. A young offensive lineman probably would rather not start his career against such an imposing lineup of pass rushers. But if Richmond acquits himself well, the Volunteers stand a much better chance of making good on their (not unwarranted) status as preseason top-10 team.
Demetris Robertson, WR, California
Unlike the other true freshmen on this list, Robertson, a five-star athlete out of Savannah Christian (Ga.) Prep, waited until the spring to make his final college decision. In choosing Cal over Georgia and Notre Dame, he positioned himself to assume a major role right away in a high-octane offense orchestrated by highly coveted graduate transfer Davis Webb. The Golden Bears lose their top six receivers from last season, in addition to star quarterback and No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff. Texas Tech import Webb—a highly touted NFL prospect himself—will step in for Goff, and you can expect coach Sonny Dykes to go to the air often: Goff ranked in the top six nationally in passing attempts in each of his three seasons at Cal. Robertson can fly, safeties and cornerbacks won’t beat him for jump balls and he provides Webb with a gifted playmaker to target, but don’t overlook fellow freshman receiver Melquise Stovall. The two of them will give Pac-12 defensive coordinators fits and could make the Bears a major factor in the more top-heavy North Division this fall.
Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State
Ohio State watched one of the best running backs in the country the last two seasons get picked fourth overall in the NFL draft this spring. Don’t expect the Buckeyes to find anyone capable of reprising Ezekiel Elliott’s production this season, but they’ll need Weber to try. A four-star recruit in the class of 2015 who decommitted from Michigan before later choosing its longstanding rival, Weber redshirted in 2015 after reportedly suffering a torn meniscus last summer. He was expected to compete with senior Bri’onte Dunn for carries this season, but Dunn was dismissed from the team this summer. That leaves Weber to carry the load, with junior Curtis Samuel serving as a speedy alternative, in an offense that loses two of its top receivers (Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller) but will be guided by shrewd veteran passer Barrett. If Weber struggles, it’ll damage Ohio State’s attempt to vanquish Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten East and reach the national title game following a (gasp!) one-year absence. If he takes well to a prominent role despite his inexperience, Weber will be proof positive of Urban Meyer’s ability to restock his lineup with first-rate talent.