Ranking the Top 25 Freshmen Heading into the 2014 College Football Season

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

Ranking the Top 25 Freshmen Heading into the 2014 College Football Season

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    The last two Heisman Trophy winners have been freshmen. Redshirt freshmen, but still players in their first year of college football.

    Who's to say this isn't the start of an annual trend, as it's starting to become in college basketball, that the best players in the game are often the ones with the least experience at that level?

    Impact freshmen are a big part of college football nowadays, and this year shouldn't be any different. Dozens of the top recruits from the 2013 recruiting class saw significant time last season, and the same will likely happen this fall.

    But there's also a solid crop of players who redshirted last year. Now with a full year of practice and development under their belts, they are ready to run, throw and tackle wild.

    Here's our look at the top 25 freshmen heading into the 2014 season, factoring in their chance to start and make an instant impact. Becoming Heisman-worthy is entirely optional.

25. Chad Thomas, Miami (Fla.)

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    Position: Defensive end

    Height, weight: 6'5", 240 lbs


    Miami wasn't able to grab any of the top offensive recruits from its home state, but it made sure to hold onto local stud Chad Thomas in order to shore up its defense. The big and fast 5-star end was the No. 26 overall prospect in the nation.

    Bleacher Report's Chris Bello called Thomas the key to the Hurricanes' 2014 recruit class because of the program's troubles on the defensive line over the years. A school that used to churn out top-tier players at that spot in the past needs a good one, and Thomas looks to be that guy.

24. Malik Zaire, Notre Dame

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    Position: Quarterback

    Height, weight: 6'0", 208 lbs


    Malik Zaire was a 4-star recruit in 2013, part of a class that ranked fifth-best nationally, according to 247Sports. Considered the No. 4 dual-threat passer, he sat out last season despite Notre Dame losing its starting quarterback (Everett Golson) to an academic suspension.

    Zaire is brimming with confidence, so much so that he told the Associated Press (h/t Yahoo! Sports) that he would be starting for the Fighting Irish on Aug. 30 in their opener against Rice. He still has to beat out Golson, who's back on the team and has the 2012 title game-leading season under his belt, but this newcomer has shown he's hungry.

23. Jermaine Kelly, Washington

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    Position: Cornerback

    Height, weight: 6'1", 180 lbs


    Jermaine Kelly was one of the top 20 corners in the country coming out of high school in 2013, but Washington has plenty of solid players ahead of him for the secondary. Not so this year, as the Huskies need to replace three spots back there, and Kelly has a great shot at one of them.

    Kelly won't just be handed the job, though, as Washington brings in 4-star defenders such as Budda Baker and Naijiel Hale during the summer. Consider it a "good" problem for new coach Chris Petersen to have.

22. Jalen Tabor, Florida

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    Position: Defensive back

    Height, weight: 6'1", 182 lbs


    Jalen Tabor was a late addition to Florida's 2014 recruiting class, a 5-star prospect who switched his commitment from Arizona to the Gators in January. Arizona's loss was Florida's major gain, because it gives the team yet another standout defender on the back line to beef up a unit that saw two starters leave early for the NFL.

    The early enrollee has impressed in spring ball, according to ESPN.com's Jeff Barlis, who quoted Florida coach Will Muschamp as saying Tabor has been "a quick study" at cornerback. He may end up being the Gators' second true freshman to start back there in as many years, following Vernon Hargreaves in 2013.

21. Josh Malone, Tennessee

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    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'3", 195 lbs


    Josh Malone was the highest-rated member of Tennessee's surprisingly good 2014 recruiting class, coming in No. 36 overall, according to 247Sports. He's one of a slew of wideouts the Volunteers now have in camp for spring ball, and with Pig Howard missing spring ball because of a leave of absence, his quick development is imperative.

    Malone is getting high praise from the coaching staff, with head coach Butch Jones telling Nooga.com's Daniel Lewis that the true freshman is "playing with a lot of confidence and you can see the speed, burst and acceleration that we saw on film when we were recruiting him."

    Tennessee averaged only 165 passing yards per game last season, and no receiver had more than 500 yards.

20. Darius James, Texas

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    Position: Offensive guard

    Height, weight: 6'5", 320 lbs


    Texas' offensive line was among the best in the nation in 2013, both in terms of performance and experience. But four of those starters are gone now, and the Longhorns have a lot of work to do to find adequate replacements.

    Because there was so much experience ahead of him, 5-star recruit Darius James was redshirted last year despite being the country's top-rated guard prospect. He'll now have a great chance to start for new line coach Joe Wickline, assuming James can show the speed and versatility that earned him strong praise in high school.

19. Greg Bryant, Notre Dame

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    Position: Running back

    Height, weight: 5'10", 204 lbs


    Greg Bryant got three carries in Notre Dame's first three games in 2013 before tearing a knee ligament, requiring surgery. He was granted a medical redshirt, though the Fighting Irish still list him on their roster as a sophomore.

    Regardless of what year he's classified as, Bryant is a newcomer who is eager to show his stuff and win an open competition for the starting running back gig. He'll need to beat out senior Cam McDaniel and sophomore Tarean Folston, but the former 4-star rusher appears ready to take on that challenge.

18. Lorenzo Carter, Georgia

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    Position: Defensive end

    Height, weight: 6'5", 232 lbs


    Georgia's defense was quite porous in 2013, so it can use all the help it could get. The Bulldogs got a big boost with the hiring of Florida State's Jeremy Pruitt as their defensive coordinator, but almost as huge a pickup was the signing day acquisition of 5-star Lorenzo Carter.

    The in-state star picked Georgia over Florida, Florida State and LSU, and in doing so almost immediately makes the Bulldogs' defense look better. He won't arrive until the summer, but his size, speed and ability to play either end or linebacker puts him in great position to start right away.

17. Cameron Robinson, Alabama

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    Position: Offensive tackle

    Height, weight: 6'7", 335 lbs


    Cameron Robinson was an early commit to Alabama, and he was so devoted to playing for the Crimson Tide that he graduated from high school early in order to get into school in January. Rated the top lineman and the No. 4 overall prospect in the country, Robinson looks like a pretty solid bet to be in the mix for playing time.

    The Tide have two open spots on the line that need to be filled, one of which was previously held down by standout Cyrus Kouandjio. Look for Robinson to get as good a chance as anyone to be that replacement, if not at least a well-used backup as a true freshman.

16. Drew Barker, Kentucky

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    Position: Quarterback

    Height, weight: 6'4", 210 lbs


    There are a lot of things that have to go right in order for Kentucky to move out of the SEC's cellar, and one of those things is finding a franchise quarterback. The Wildcats haven't had one since Tim Couch, but Drew Barker could be that guy.

    Though only rated as the No. 119 player in the 2014 recruiting class, Barker is still the most important piece to Kentucky's incoming class. He enrolled early to challenge Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips and others for the starting job. With coach Mark Stoops telling ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough that he'd like to have a starter named before the end of spring ball, Barker's time is now.

    Kentucky's spring game is April 26, at which time we'll see if Barker has been able to win the job as a true freshman.

15. Matthew Thomas, Florida State

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    Position: Linebacker

    Height, weight: 6'3", 224 lbs


    Matthew Thomas was the No. 8 overall player in the 2013 recruiting class, and he was well on his way to having a solid true freshman season when a shoulder injury knocked him out for good. Thomas had a sack and two tackles for a loss in the Seminoles' game against Bethune-Cookman.

    He received a medical redshirt because of his limited play. With FSU looking to replace two starters in the middle of the defense, he's already got a leg up on this year's prized linebacker recruits because of last season's time on the field.

14. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

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    Position: Linebacker

    Height, weight: 6'2", 242 lbs


    Ohio State's most important incoming recruit is already on campus, an early enrollee who is challenging senior Curtis Grant for the middle linebacker spot. A 5-star signee whom the Buckeyes plucked out of SEC country in Georgia, Raekwon McMillan has been applauded by OSU coach Urban Meyer for his maturity and awareness, according to 247Sports.com's Dave Biddle.

    Grant started for the Buckeyes last season, but if McMillan continues to progress he could have that starting job stolen by the true freshman.

13. Ra'Shaad Samples, Oklahoma State

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    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 5'11", 178 lbs


    Oklahoma State lost three of its top four receivers from 2013, but Ra'Shaad Samples is making those departures hurt a lot less. The speedy wideout was able to be held out last season because of the Cowboys' depth at wideout, but now his ability to fly will come in handy.

    A 4-star recruit in the 2013 class, Samples has run the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds, according to ESPNDallas.com's Jake Trotter.

12. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma

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    Position: Running back

    Height, weight: 6'2", 195 lbs


    Joe Mixon was the top all-purpose back in the 2014 recruiting class, but that's not the biggest piece of hype attached to Oklahoma's most prized incoming prospect.

    The strong and speedy Mixon is already getting compared to Sooners great Adrian Peterson, who set freshman rushing records in 2004 and is the school's last great running back. Only Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray have rushed for more than 1,200 yards in a season since Peterson. While Mixon isn't guaranteed to start, he'll have a shot at being a major contributor for a team that lost its top three rushers from last year.

11. Robert Foster, Alabama

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    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'3", 187 lbs


    Robert Foster would have started at most places as a true freshman in 2013, but the combination of Alabama's receiver depth and not getting cleared by the NCAA until just before training camp put him behind the eight ball.

    But now, with a year in the system, the former 5-star recruit looks to have a great chance to get lots of time on the field with the Crimson Tide losing two wideouts from their rotation. Foster won't have to be the No. 1 guy because Amari Cooper and Christion Jones are still there, but he'll have a shot to contribute and gradually move up the charts.

10. Mackensie Alexander, Clemson

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    Position: Defensive back

    Height, weight: 5'11", 185 lbs


    Mackensie Alexander suffered a groin injury during preseason camp in 2013, otherwise the 5-star cornerback would have seen significant time as a backup for the Tigers last season. In one way, his ailment actually helped Clemson deal with a rash of departures from that team.

    Clemson lost both Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson at corner, so Alexander has a chance to start right away. He's one of three talented defensive backs the Tigers redshirted from last year's recruiting class, along with Adrian Baker and Marcus Edmond, but Alexander is the best of the bunch.

9. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

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    Position: Defensive back

    Height, weight: 6'1", 205 lbs


    Jabrill Peppers was a two-way standout in high school, and was among the more explosive running backs in the nation. But despite Michigan's offense being very inconsistent last year, the 5-star athlete's best value to the Wolverines this fall will be on defense.

    He might not be able to lock down a spot in Michigan's secondary right away, but his contributions there will likely be supplemented by some time as a returner and the occasional offensive set. He can do it all, and the most intriguing aspect of his first year in college might be seeing how the different Michigan units try to share his talents.

8. Speedy Noil, Texas A&M

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    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 5'10.5, 176 lbs


    With a name like "Speedy," it's hard not to grab some attention for your swiftness. Noil is fast, having been clocked at 4.40 in the 40-yard dash en route to being the top-rated wide receiver in the 2014 recruiting class.

    Noil got into Texas A&M early, and has been working with the quarterbacks who have been vying to replace Johnny Manziel. He's impressed the coaching staff and teammates already, and despite his short stature he's expected to play a big part in the Aggies' offensive rebuilding project. 

7. Tony Brown, Alabama

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    Position: Cornerback

    Height, weight: 6'1", 175 lbs


    Alabama's pass defense was pretty good last season. Even with two starters graduating, it could be much better in 2014 with the arrival of the nation's top two cornerback recruits. Tony Brown was slightly ahead of Marlon Humphrey in 247Sports' rankings, but both were considered 5-star prospects.

    Where Brown gets the real edge, and his placement on this list, is by enrolling early in school and getting involved in Alabama's game plan ahead of time. Marc Torrence of BamaOnline.com (subscription required) has noted that Brown is getting a lot of first-team reps, and has a great chance to start right away.

6. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M

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    Position: Defensive end

    Height, weight: 6'4", 240 lbs


    Myles Garrett won't be on campus until the summer, but considering Texas A&M's troubles on defense the last few years, there's a good chance he'll be given a chance to contribute right away no matter when he shows up.

    As the No. 2 prospect in the 2014 class, Garrett comes with high expectations. He had 20.5 sacks as a high school senior and could be the savior for the Aggies' defense. We won't know for certain until he gets onto the field, but all signs point to him being a standout as soon as he arrives.

5. Malachi Dupre, LSU

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    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'2.5", 187 lbs


    LSU's annual pillaging by the allure of NFL hit the wide receiver corps as hard as any position this past year, so getting some players in who can start right away was key for the Tigers. Thankfully, they were able to pull in 5-star Malachi Dupre despite him making visits to Alabama, Florida State, Ole Miss and UCLA prior to signing day.

    Dupre had 21 touchdown catches and averaged more than 20 yards per reception over his final two seasons of high school ball, and he'll likely serve as LSU's deep threat when he's on the field. Considering how thin LSU is at receiver, that should be early and often.

4. Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M

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    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'5", 225 lbs


    Ricky Seals-Jones made about as great a debut as possible for a true freshman last season, but his arrival on the college football landscape was almost done before it started.

    Seals-Jones hauled in a 71-yard touchdown pass in Texas A&M's season-opening win over Rice, but a knee injury suffered during that game required surgery and ended his year. A medical redshirt was granted, and now the big wideout is ready to be one of the Aggies' top targets for a full season.

    A&M also has the best receiving prospect from 2014 in Speedy Noil in spring ball, but when it comes to a wideout that fits the mold of 2013 standout Mike Evans, that's Seals-Jones.

3. Kyle Allen, Texas A&M

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    Position: Quarterback

    Height, weight: 6'3", 200 lbs


    Kyle Allen was the top quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class, and he got a jump on his college career by showing up early at Texas A&M. A smart move for a guy who had to expect Johnny Manziel was going to go pro early, and as a result Allen has a great chance to success Manziel this fall.

    Allen was already in good position to have a shot at starting, but Kenny Hill's suspension after his arrest for public intoxication thins the field a bit. Bleacher Report's SEC lead writer, Barrett Sallee, has gone on record to say Allen will win the job and start A&M's opener on Aug. 28 at South Carolina.

2. Max Browne, USC

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    Position: Quarterback

    Height, weight: 6'5", 215 lbs


    Max Browne was the top quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, but he was stuck behind Cody Kessler and Max Wittek on USC's depth chart. Wittek has decided to transfer and while Kessler had a solid season last year, the arrival of a new coach has reopened the quarterback position.

    Browne would be starting at most other schools, and may very well end up getting the job with the Trojans. At the very least, he'll get time on the field early in the season so he can show off the skills that got him so much attention at the prep level.

1. Leonard Fournette, LSU

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    Position: Running back

    Height, weight: 6'1", 225 lbs


    Leonard Fournette has yet to participate in an LSU practice, as he won't enroll in school until the summer. Yet the nation's top recruit in the 2014 class has such high expectations attached to him it's almost as if he's become a folk hero.

    Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports quoted former USC and Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron as saying Fournette is the best rusher out of high school since Adrian Peterson. With Jeremy Hill opting for the NFL, there's a wide-open spot for Fournette to step into and become a star.