If you’ve ever doubted the ability of true freshmen to make an immediate impact, look no further than last week’s national championship game. A true freshman quarterbacked the Alabama offense while another true freshman protected him at right tackle and another true freshman tried to sack him and plug running lanes for Clemson. What do the Crimson Tide’s Jalen Hurts and Jonah Williams and the Tigers’ Dexter Lawrence have in common besides their preternatural talent? All three enrolled early at their respective schools.
A new crop of early-enrolling recruits hit college campuses this month with dreams of following in the shoes of Hurts, Williams and Lawrence. By arriving on campus early, these recruits give themselves the best shot to earn significant roles as true freshmen by impressing their new coaches in spring practices.
Here are 11 players, ordered alphabetically, best positioned to take advantage of their early enrollment to make an impact this fall.
*All recruiting rankings are according to Scout.com
Cam Akers, Florida State, RB
The class of 2017 is filled with elite talent at running back, so it’s no surprise Akers isn’t the only back to make this list. With the sensational Dalvin Cook off to the NFL, Florida State must find a new leading tailback in 2017. The rest of the pieces are there for a run at a College Football Playoff bid, particularly if quarterback Deondre Francois can develop as a sophomore. Akers will have to fight with Jacques Patrick and Amir Rasul for carries, but the No. 4 overall recruit is such a versatile runner that Jimbo Fisher is bound to find a use for him. He has the power to run inside the tackles, the speed to get to the edge and the hands to get involved in the passing game.
Jack Anderson, Texas Tech, OL
The highest rated recruit in the Red Raiders’ class, Anderson should figure into the offensive line rotation right away and is definitely a contender to earn a starting spot this fall. The 6’5”, 300-pounder played offensive tackle at Frisco (Texas) High but says he’ll play guard at Texas Tech. He’ll have to learn a lot quickly as the four-star recruit switches from his high school’s run-based offense to the Red Raiders’ Air Raid attack. However, Anderson performed well at the Under Armour All-American Game, so perhaps that adjustment won’t take long.
Najee Harris, Alabama, RB
The most coveted recruit in the class of 2017, Harris is simply too good to not see the field as a true freshman. And while Alabama’s backfield is crowded—Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs, B.J. Emmons and Ronnie Clark all return—Scarbrough, Emmons and Clark each suffered injuries in the fall and could be vulnerable to more setbacks. At the very least, those injuries will create extra opportunities for Najee Harris to impress new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian in spring practice. Don’t expect Harris to begin the season as the Tide’s primary back or even with a sizeable role in the rotation, but as Hurts showed last season, if a talented true freshman can make the most of his chances, he’ll rise quickly.
Anthony Hines, Texas A&M, LB
With top linebackers Shaan Washington and Claude George departing, Texas A&M loses 155 tackles from 2016. Good thing Hines racked up 245 of them this past season. That’s right, the five-star Plano East (Texas) Senior High product recorded 245 tackles as a senior, including 38 tackles for loss and six sacks. Among the most sought after recruits in the class of 2017, Hines got his first scholarship offer from Mississippi State in eighth grade and ended up with over 90 offers. He developed a strong relationship with defensive coordinator John Chavis as Chavis moved from LSU to Texas A&M, and now Hines figures to start right away in Chavis’s defense. As the No. 19 overall recruit, Hines is Texas A&M’s highest ranked signee at linebacker in the history of Scout.com’s rankings.
Jeffrey Okudah, Ohio State, CB
Ohio State is in dire need of new talent at cornerback; good thing it has one of the top defensive backs in this recruiting class coming in. Listed as an athlete, Okudah will likely end up in the secondary and could become a critical asset this fall for the Buckeyes. With Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore off to the NFL, Ohio State loses both its starting cornerbacks a year after losing Eli Apple early to the NFL draft, too. Adding safety Malik Hooker’s departure makes six Buckeyes defensive back starters heading to the NFL in the past two seasons. That makes Okudah, the No. 12 overall recruit in the class of 2017, a sorely needed addition. He’ll compete with rising sophomore Damon Arnette, rising junior Denzel Ward and five-star juco commit Kendall Sheffield for the starting corner spots and also could contribute at safety.
Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, Michigan, WR
While its top two passing options, quarterbacks Wilton Speight and John O’Korn, both return, Michigan’s receivers will go through a major overhaul next season. Top wideouts Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson both depart as does tight end Jake Butt. That upheaval is good news for the Wolverines’ two elite early-enrolling receivers. Peoples-Jones is the more highly touted of the pair, ranking No. 4 among wide receivers and No. 32 overall compared to Black’s No. 13 and No. 99, respectively. Still, both are in position to contribute right away in a wide receivers group that returns just 27 receptions. With Peoples-Jones’s speed and Black’s size (he’s 6’3.5”, 206 pounds), both have assets that should allow them to make the leap to the college level quickly.
Jaelan Phillips, UCLA, DE
Getting the No. 7 overall recruit and top-ranked defensive end prospect was a huge victory for the Bruins after their lackluster 4–8 campaign in 2016. And with Takkarist McKinley heading to the NFL after racking up 18 tackles for loss and 10 sacks this season, Phillips could fill a huge hole. Named the defensive player of the year by the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Phillips shows great quickness and athleticism off the edge. With the versatile Jacob Tuioti-Mariner along with Matt Dickerson and Boss Tagaloa, UCLA has some solid returning pieces on its defensive line, but Phillips may be too good to keep off the field.
Shawn Robinson, TCU, QB
The 2016 recruiting class was full promising passers with the potential to start right away. A few followed through, including Hurts, Georgia’s Jacob Eason and Texas’s Shane Buechele. Don’t expect as many in 2017, but the Horned Frogs’ Robinson may have the best shot of the bunch. He’ll have to unseat returning starter Kenny Hill, but Hill’s Big 12-worst 13 interceptions leave plenty of room for improvement. Backup Foster Sawyer’s transfer clears more room for Robinson, who has a much higher ceiling than TCU’s other options, Brennen Wooten or Grayson Muehlstein. Robinson is an elite dual-threat quarterback and could use spring practices to prove he’s the best candidate to revive a Horned Frogs offense that slipped from 14th in yards per play in 2015 to 41st in ’16.
Trey Sermon, Oklahoma RB
The Sooners’ running game is in for an overhaul with Samaje Perine, the program’s alltime leader in rushing yards, and Joe Mixon off to the NFL. So with a combined 2,334 rushing yards walking out the door, who’s going to fill the void? It’ll be a crowded completion, but Sermon, a four-star recruit from Marietta, Ga., stands a strong shot. He’ll have to battle with Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams this spring, and fellow four-star Kennedy Brooks joins the field in the summer. But at 6’1” and 216 pounds with room to add strength, Sermon could quickly develop into an effective power back alongside quarterback Baker Mayfield this fall.
Brock Wright, Notre Dame, TE
Potentially the next great Fighting Irish tight end, Wright should see the field this fall even with the talent Notre Dame returns at his position. The four-star recruit is a capable pass catcher, but what sets him apart are his blocking skills. Ranked No. 3 among tight ends in the class of 2017, Wright will have to battle with Alize Jones, who missed the 2016 season due to academic issues, and Durham Smythe, who caught nine passes for 112 yards. With the Irish’s QB situation in flux with DeShone Kizer heading to the NFL and Malik Zaire set to transfer, new offensive coordinator Chip Long will likely look to his running game, led by Josh Adams (933 yards on 5.9 yards per carry in 2016), to guide the attack. That could make Wright’s blocking skills especially valuable. All five of Notre Dame’s early enrollees last year saw action as true freshmen, so expect Wright to work his way into the offense.