True freshmen continue to make big impact, even on top teams

Georgia shifting recruiting narrative in SEC (1:33)

Seth Emerson says that if Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs want a prospect, "they're probably going to get him." (1:33)

Some of the top teams in the country relied on true freshmen this past season, and quite a few might be doing much of the same in the 2018 season. As signing day approaches, some of the players putting their names on the dotted line could be starring on the field in August.

Without the 2017 recruiting class, we might have seen a completely different outcome in the national championship game. Alabama’s leaders in passing, receiving and rushing were all true freshmen, and they all played large roles in the overtime win for the Tide.

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, receiver DeVonta Smith and running back Najee Harris all helped Alabama beat a Georgia team that was also led by a true freshman at quarterback in Jake Fromm. The performance throughout the entire season from Fromm led him to the best QBR among true freshmen at 81.1, and No. 9 of any FBS quarterback.

Without those instant-impact freshmen, these two teams probably would have had very different seasons.

Alabama and Georgia weren’t the only ones with outstanding performances from first-year players, though. Wisconsin and Ohio State had the two leading rushers in the conference with Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins, both true freshmen. Taylor had the most rushing yards by a true freshman in FBS history with 1,977, while Dobbins had a conference-best 7.2 yards per carry with 1,403 yards.

There were four first-year running backs who rushed for 1,000 yards with Cam Akers at Florida State and AJ Dillon at Boston College joining Taylor and Dobbins. Often overlooked because of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia has a true freshman running back in D'Andre Swift who played a role late in the season, rushing for more than 600 yards and 7.6 yards per carry.

The Dawgs will be without Chubb and Michel next season, so Swift will be counted on even more, but the staff has two prospects coming in the 2018 class who could be the next impact freshmen at running back. Zamir White and James Cook, the No. 1 and 3 ranked running backs in the class, are signed and could become stars with an opportunity to play in Athens.

Penn State is in a similar position as Georgia, trying to replace star running back Saquon Barkley, who is off to the NFL. The Nittany Lions have Miles Sanders already on the roster and have signed Ricky Slade, the No. 2 running back in the 2018 class.

Penn State is looking to fill a few voids on offense as Barkley, receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki will all be gone next season. Those three players accounted for 3,325 yards from scrimmage, which was 56 percent of the team’s yards, as well as 39 total touchdowns, which was 57 percent of the offensive touchdowns scored.

Slade should provide a boost in Barkley’s place, and the coaches are hoping five-star receiver Justin Shorter and ESPN 300 tight ends Patrick Freiermuth and Zack Kuntz also can pitch in for new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne.

The Nittany Lions return quarterback Trace McSorley, who threw for 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns, adding 11 more scores on the ground. Georgia is returning Fromm, and while he was on the list of standout first-year players, he still could get pushed from 2018 quarterback signee Justin Fields, the No. 1 quarterback in this class.

Not every team is that lucky to have the depth and consistency at quarterback, and a few teams might look to true freshmen for help. USC saw starting quarterback Sam Darnold leave for the NFL with only redshirt freshman Matt Fink and true freshman Jack Sears on the roster.

That decision by Darnold helped trigger J.T. Daniels to reclassify from the 2019 class to the 2018 class, and now Daniels will have a shot at playing for the Trojans in August. After reclassifying, Daniels was ranked as the No. 3 pocket-passer in the 2018 class despite technically being a year behind the current prospects.

Daniels finds himself behind Jacob Sirmon, who is committed to Washington, and Trevor Lawrence, a Clemson signee. Lawrence is joining a Tigers roster that has incumbent starter Kelly Bryant and Hunter Johnson, who was the No. 1 ranked pocket-passer in the 2017 class.

Lawrence, the No. 2 overall recruit, was named the 2017 Maxwell Football Club offensive national high school player of the year, though. He is also the highest-ranked quarterback recruit in the ESPN 300 era for Clemson, ahead of Deshaun Watson, who was No. 16 overall.

As an early enrollee, Lawrence could play himself onto the field in his first season despite having some talented players in front of him.

Who knows, maybe a few of these names will impact the next national championship the way a few true freshmen helped change this season’s title game.