When Clemson dominated Alabama in January to win its second national championship in three years, true freshmen powered the Tigers’ offense. After starting the year behind upperclassmen on the depth chart, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Justyn Ross emerged as part of a ferocious Tiger passing attack. Lawrence threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense, while Ross built upon his breakout semifinal performance against Notre Dame with six catches for 153 yards and a score.
Admittedly, Lawrence and Ross are extreme examples of true freshmen making their mark on the college football season, and their first fall on campus wasn’t always smooth sailing. Still, every year many first-year players prove shoot up the depth chart and and contribute immediately. Purdue’s Rondale Moore and Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle wasted little time proving that their playmaking ability translated to their new level with breakthrough September performances.
There’s a bit of guesswork needed to project which true freshmen will pop early in their careers, but rumblings from spring practice and recruiting experts offer clues as to which players will hit the ground running despite being just a year removed from high school. With the disclaimer that the college football season is still more than three months away and a lot can change between now and late August, here are some true freshmen to circle heading into the summer:
Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson
Wilson, a prized five-star out of Lake Travis (Texas) High School, has arrived in Columbus to a receiver room that lost Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin from last season’s Big Ten champs. The Buckeyes return a wealth of talent at wideout in Chris Olave, K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor, but Garrett should make a strong push for targets from the get-go. Exhibit A, from the Ohio State spring game:
OSU receivers coach Brian Hartline has said Wilson doesn’t carry himself like a freshman, which bodes well as summer practices ramp up. Wilson was a major recruiting victory for Ohio State, and he’ll have opportunities to make an impact as the Buckeyes break in new quarterback Justin Fields.
Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
Thibodeaux spent time atop the 247Sports Composite rankings as the No. 1 overall recruit in the country and finished No. 2 behind Georgia signee Nolan Smith. At 6'4" and 239 pounds, Thibodeaux has a college-ready body and elite quickness of the edge. With Jalen Jelks off to the NFL, the Ducks also have a hole to fill at defensive end. In the spring game, Thibodeaux was consistently Oregon’s best pass rusher (albeit against the second-team offensive line). The transition from high school to college for edge rushers is typically smoother than it is for players at many other positions, so it’s realistic to expect Thibodeaux to be a terror on passing downs as soon as he steps on the field. For an Oregon team that hopes to contend for a Pac-12 title with Justin Herbert back at quarterback, a player like Thibodeaux will be an important cog in the front seven.
Texas A&M TE Baylor Cupp
Packers third-round pick Jace Sternberger is a big loss for the Aggies, but Jimbo Fisher has the consensus No. 1 2019 tight end in the country coming in to help replace him, a four-star out of Brock (Texas) High School. Cupp was the leading receiver in the spring game with five catches for 88 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown catch.
At 6'6" and 245 pounds, Cupp is a mismatch waiting to happen in the middle of the field. He’s drawn rave reviews from head coach Jimbo Fisher, and he’ll almost assuredly see the field early for an offense with a pretty open tight end situation. Texas A&M has a hellacious schedule next year, so a breakout campaign from Cupp would help Kellen Mond.
LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.
Stingley is the No. 1 cornerback in the 2019 class and a consensus top-five recruit, and he has received sky-high praise from those around LSU from the moment he stepped on campus. Before the Tigers beat UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said that Stingley, then an early enrollee practicing with the team, looked like the best cornerback on the field. Granted, LSU was depleted at corner and Greedy Williams was sitting out in preparation for the NFL draft, but Stingley should’ve still been in high school. Ed Orgeron has compared Stingley to Reggie Bush as a punt returner, and starting safety Kary Vincent Jr. called him “a once-in-a-lifetime player.” The hype is reaching epic proportions for Stingley, who appears primed to be the next great LSU defensive back.
Georgia DE Nolan Smith
Smith is the class of 2019’s No. 1 incoming player, according to the 247Sports composite, and he’s a physical freak on the edge. He’s 6'3", 232 pounds and has been timed at 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which would be an elite time at the NFL combine—the possibilities are endless with a full offseason of a college strength and conditioning program under his belt. There’s an opening on the edge with D’Andre Walker gone, and Smith may be the main beneficiary. He will be chasing opposing quarterbacks sooner rather than later.
Oklahoma WRs Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges
Three of the top 11 freshman wide receivers in the country (and two of the top three) will play for Oklahoma this season. The Sooners already have a star wideout in CeeDee Lamb, so it might be difficult for all three of Haselwood, Wease and Bridges to contribute early, but they should all figure in somehow, and at least one should emerge as an immediate difference-maker. Bridges and Wease both impressed in the spring game, posting 76 and 68 receiving yards, respectively, on three catches each. Bridges showed tremendous speed and body control when playing with new Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Wease did most of his damage with the second-team offense in the spring game, but he still looked explosive, scoring a pair of touchdowns.
Haselwood had more pedestrian spring game numbers with two catches for 18 yards, but he came to Norman as the consensus No. 1 receiver in the country. Opposing secondaries beware: Oklahoma’s skill players are going to be scary-good again.
Purdue DE George Karlaftis, defensive end, Purdue
Karlaftis, a West Lafayette native, chose to stay home and play for Jeff Brohm, becoming the highest-rated recruit to pick Purdue since 2003. The Boilermakers’ offense should be dangerous with gamebreaking receiver Rondale Moore back as a sophomore, but they need to get more out of their defense, particularly the pass rush, if they want to compete in the Big Ten West. Karlaftis is the most naturally gifted defensive lineman on the roster, so logic says he’ll be an instant contributor when next season kicks off.
Nebraska RB Wan’Dale Robinson
Originally committed to Kentucky, Robinson flipped to become the jewel of Scott Frost’s first full recruiting cycle as Nebraska’s head coach. Robinson is a speedy offensive weapon who should be able to slot in immediately in the backfield and contribute on quick-hitting passes and in the return game. He chose the Cornhuskers over Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State, and he adds another exciting piece to an offense that already has one of the country’s most dynamic players in dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez. The thought of read-options between Martinez and Robinson is dizzying. Just watch the lateral quickness Robinson shows on this play:
Many view Nebraska as a program poised to make a jump in 2019, and Robinson could be a key part of that.
Michigan S Daxton Hill
The nation’s top safety originally committed to Michigan in September before flipping to Alabama in December, then flipped back to the Wolverines less than two weeks later. Hill will bring blistering speed to the back of Don Brown’s defense – he reportedly was clocked at 4.30 in the 40-yard dash in the spring of 2018. Hill didn’t enroll early at Michigan, but Jim Harbaugh has said Hill will probably play “very early in his career” as a Wolverine. Michigan is much deeper at safety than cornerback, so Hill could potentially see time at corner or nickel as he acclimates in Ann Arbor. For a Michigan team with huge expectations, having an elite athlete like Hill in the secondary will be a significant plus.