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Tom VanHaaren, ESPN Staff Writer 12d

Spring ball's true freshmen you need to know

College Football

As spring practices begin across the country, college coaches will be getting their first look at the 2019 prospects who decided to enroll early in January. By getting a jump-start on their college career and trying to make an early impact, more and more recruits are enrolling early in hopes of getting on the field early.

The 2019 class saw some of the top overall recruits enroll early at their respective schools, and many of those players have a shot at being impact players in the 2019 season. Here is a look at some of those prospects to keep an eye on.


QB Graham Mertz, Wisconsin

  • 6-foot-3, 205 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 21

Mertz became that much more important to Wisconsin when incumbent starter, Alex Hornibrook, announced he was transferring. Mertz might have had something to do with that decision, but having him enroll early and start his collegiate career now is essential to Wisconsin with Hornibrook gone.

Mertz has a very good chance of winning the starting job over Jack Coan and Chase Wolf. Mertz was ranked as the No. 1 pocket passer in the country and brings a level of ability to Wisconsin the Badgers haven't seen at quarterback in quite some time.

DL Antonio Alfano, Alabama

  • 6-foot-4, 288 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 28

Alfano is an important early enrollee in a recruiting class filled with stars. The Crimson Tide are losing Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs along the defensive line and could use depth and players to rotate in throughout the season. Alfano enrolling early, combined with his ability and skill set, should make him a candidate to get on the field soon.

There are some players ahead of him already on the roster, but Alfano getting on campus now can give him a chance to catch up and earn a spot within that rotation. Given the fact Alabama is consistently in the College Football Playoff chase, the defense is going to need to have sufficient depth, and Alfano can help accomplish that along the defensive line.

DB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU

  • 6-foot-1, 193 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 18

Stingley was ranked the No. 1 cornerback in the country in the 2019 class and was heralded as one of the top recruits overall. He has everything LSU looks for in its corners -- size, length and speed. Stingley, a Baton Rouge native, participated in bowl practices for LSU.

Reports out of those bowl practices were that Stingley was living up to the hype already. Time in the weight room and getting a chance to participate in spring football could lead to Stingley's getting on the field immediately for LSU. The Tigers are losing Greedy Williams at corner and Stingley could end up playing his way onto the field to help fill that spot.

WR Jadon Haselwood, Oklahoma 

  • 6-foot-3, 189 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 6

Haselwood was originally committed to Georgia, then decommitted and wound up signing with the Sooners. He is the No. 1-ranked receiver in the 2019 class and has excellent size, ball skills and quickness.

With Oklahoma losing quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, there is an opportunity for playmakers to help on offense. Haselwood should have an opportunity to get playing time despite the fact receiver CeeDee Lamb and tight end Grant Calcaterra are returning. He is one of three ESPN 300 receivers who signed with Oklahoma and enrolled early, so he has competition from his own class as well as the current roster.

DT Mazi Smith, Michigan

  • 6-foot-3, 285 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 45

Smith is enrolling early at a good time for Michigan, as the defense is losing some big pieces. Along the defensive line, Michigan is losing Lawrence Marshall and Bryan Mone, and saw former ESPN 300 defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon transfer to Tennessee.

Smith, a strong tackle from Kentwood, Michigan, earned a ton of praise at the Under Armour All-America game for his size, strength and ability to push around some of the top offensive linemen in the country. Smith will have an opportunity to play early for Michigan and, quite frankly, the Wolverines would benefit greatly if he is ready to go from day one.

TE Baylor Cupp, Texas A&M

  • 6-foot-5, 235 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 65

Defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal would be a name to watch, but Jimbo Fisher announced Leal will miss spring practices with a knee injury. Cupp is a big tight end that enrolled early and could make an immediate impact on the offensive side, the same way Leal could impact defense.

At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Cupp will be a giant mismatch for most defenses and is a legitimate threat in the passing game for Fisher and his offense. He was ranked as the No. 2 tight end in the country and has a shot at having an outstanding college career for the Aggies.

QB Jayden Daniels, Arizona State

  • 6-foot-2, 175 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 44

Daniels is part of a recruiting class with three quarterbacks signed -- and all three have enrolled early at Arizona State. Daniels is joined by ESPN 300 quarterbacks Joey Yellen and Ethan Long in the class, but Daniels seems to have the most potential to play early on.

Long could end up making a position switch if he doesn't win the quarterback job, and Daniels' skill set -- being a dual-threat quarterback -- seems to fit with what the Sun Devils desire at quarterback. He is going to need to add mass to his lanky frame, which is part of why it was important for him to enroll early and get in the weight room. With former starter Manny Wilkins no longer on the roster, if Daniels can add weight, learn the playbook and get acclimated through spring ball, he should have a good chance to win the starting job.

ATH Bru McCoy, Texas

  • 6-foot-3, 205 pounds 

  • ESPN 300 rank: 27

McCoy's journey to enrolling early at Texas actually started with enrolling early at USC. The Santa Ana, California, recruit signed with the Trojans in December and enrolled in January, only to change his mind and flip to Texas after offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left USC to take the Arizona Cardinals head-coaching job.

McCoy was released from his national letter of intent, allowing him to switch schools, and now has a chance to make an immediate impact for the Longhorns. The question becomes, where will Tom Herman and his staff play him? He could be a wide receiver, a safety and a linebacker, and a few college coaches have even said they think McCoy could be a legitimate pass-rusher along the edge. He probably will play at receiver and, while he is waiting on an NCAA waiver to play right away, he should be able to get early playing time with leading receiver, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, off to the NFL.

QB Bo Nix, Auburn

  • 6-foot-2, 204 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 23

Starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham is off to the NFL and Auburn has a new co-offensive coordinator in Kenny Dillingham to go with Kodi Burns, with Gus Malzahn calling the plays. That means there is an opportunity and a blank slate for Nix to come in and win the job.

He'll have competition from Malik Willis and Joey Gatewood, and with a ton of pressure riding on the success of this season, the coaches can't get this quarterback battle wrong. Nix has the tools and ability to run this Auburn offense efficiently, and he might be the best passer of the bunch, which would give him a leg up.

Auburn also has linebacker Owen Pappoe, who enrolled early, and should be mentioned on this list. Pappoe, along with Nix, could get early playing time.

DT Tyler Davis, Clemson

  • 6-foot-2, 293 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 58

Clemson landed five-star defensive ends Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry in the 2018 class, which will help fill some of the holes left along the edge of the defensive line. With Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins vacating the interior of the defensive line, though, there is an early opportunity for Davis.

With starting defensive tackles Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams both injured for the spring, Davis has an opportunity to gain valuable reps and get a jump-start on his development. Even once those two players are fully healthy, Clemson saw the importance of depth along the defensive line in the College Football Playoff when Albert Huggins filled in on the interior while Lawrence was serving a suspension for banned substances.

Davis has a big opportunity ahead of him this spring to make an impact and learn the defense as quickly as he can.

WR Garrett Wilson, Ohio State 

  • 6-foot-1, 181 pounds

  • ESPN 300 rank: 17

Ohio State is losing receivers Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin to the NFL, which is a ton of production to depart in one offseason. Luckily for Ohio State, there is still a ton of talent on the roster in K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack and Chris Olave, among others.

That might not seem like a great opportunity for Wilson, but being as highly ranked and as highly sought after as he was, combined with Ohio State's high-powered offense, means Wilson should be able to get on the field in some capacity this season. Ohio State aired out the ball in 2018, and now that transfer quarterback Justin Fields is eligible immediately, there is no reason to think that won't continue in 2019.

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