Georgia Tech B-back Dedrick Mills got none of the headlines on national signing day a year ago. Neither did Miami linebacker Michael Pinckney nor Syracuse defensive end Kendall Coleman, for that matter.
But all three proved to be valuable starters as freshmen. All three earned three-star designations as high school prospects but showed with hard work and an opportunity to fit an immediate need that they could make a major impact.
It certainly is worth noting today, as signing classes across the country are ranked, parsed and analyzed. ESPN 300 recruits in the 2016 class had big years in the ACC, too: Parker Braun, Brian Burns, Dexter Lawrence, Shaq Quarterman, Ahmmon Richards, Joe Jackson and Zach McCloud were absolutely stellar right away.
But there is plenty of room for an unheralded recruit to step up as well. For Mills, there was a major need at B-back. And like many high school players, he had to make a transition to a new position. Mills played A-back in a Wing-T offense in high school. So making the move to a fullback role took some getting used to.
So did being in college. Mills served two suspensions during his freshman season, yet he still led the team in rushing with 771 yards and 12 touchdowns. Looking back on the season, Mills knows had he played in every game, he would have had a chance to get to 1,000 yards. That is a new goal for this upcoming season.
His freshman season gave him the motivation to improve both on and off the field.
“I learned from my mistakes, and it just helped me as far as next season, pushing me to go twice as hard because I missed a couple games last season,” Mills said. “I want to give everything I’ve got this season coming up.”
Let’s take a look at other three-star players who had big roles as true freshmen:
Miami LB Michael Pinckney, three stars, No. 20 ILB in the country: Pinckney emerged as a starter alongside ESPN 300 freshman linebackers Quarterman and McCloud, finishing fifth on the team with 51 tackles.
Syracuse RB Moe Neal, three stars, No. 54 RB: Neal was a backup, but a valuable member of the Syracuse offense, finishing second on the team in rushing (357 yards). He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, highest on the team among players with 40 rushing attempts.
Syracuse DE Kendall Coleman, three stars, No. 133 DE: Coleman started 11 games as both he and Black filled an immediate need. He led all Syracuse true freshmen with 29 tackles, and also led the team with four quarterback pressures.
Syracuse DE Josh Black, three stars, No. 165 DE: Started the final nine games of the season and finished with 21 tackles. His best game came against Clemson, when he had four tackles.
Virginia LB Jordan Mack, three stars, No. 104 safety: Mack started nine games and became the first true freshman at Virginia to start a season opener at linebacker since Ahmad Brooks in 2003. He finished with 40 total tackles.
Virginia DB Bryce Hall, three stars, No. 163 receiver: Hall played both ways in high school, and Virginia coaches believed defensive back was the position where they needed him most. He made seven starts and had 25 tackles, two interceptions and four passes defended.
Wake Forest RB Cade Carney, three stars, No. 84 running back: Carney led Wake Forest with 156 carries and finished second with 589 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 10 games last season.