10 College Football Freshmen Who Will Become Stars in 2017
Stanford offensive tackle Walker Little could play right away for the Cardinal.Credit: Scout.com
Of all the thousands of high school prospects who signed on this past national signing day, it’s difficult to peg who are going to have the quickest impact.
After all, it takes a special kind of player and the perfect situation for players to immediately step onto the field. When it happens, those kids become household names because it’s unique to see first-year players excel.
Many top programs have recruited the type of players who can fill those roles this year. Some of them will even become stars.
So let’s take a look at 10 signees around the nation who have the talent and ability to make an impact right away, especially considering the situations into which they’re stepping.
When you’re somebody like top quarterback prospect Hunter Johnson and you’ve got a vacant position following the departure of Deshaun Watson, the opportunity is tasty. Ty Jones is looking at the same sort of situation in Washington with John Ross gone to the NFL.
Before long, those guys and more may be on the tips of tongues everywhere as the next big things in college football.
Cam Akers, Florida State Seminoles Running Back
How do you replace one of the best college running backs of the past few years in Dalvin Cook?
If you’re the Florida State Seminoles, you win a hotly contested battle for Mississippi running back product Cam Akers over the likes of LSU, Ohio State, Tennessee and Georgia, and you ride him right away.
The Seminoles already have a former top recruit in Jacques Patrick, who received carries behind Cook a season ago. There are other notable names in the fray, too, despite it not being the deepest position for FSU.
“You can’t make any promises so it’s all up to me,” Akers told Tallahassee.com’s Wayne E. McGahee III. “I know Dalvin’s leaving, so the starting spot is up for grabs in my eyes, so I’m going to go in and work, and I’m going to try and get it.”
But it’s going to be nearly impossible keeping a talent like the 5’11”, 212-pound force of nature on the sideline. Not only is he a powerful player who can break tackles at the point of impact, but he’s also listed as having 4.44 speed in the 40-yard dash.
That perfect blend of power and pizzazz made him one of the most sought-after players in the country, and he may be the best running back to come out of the Magnolia State since Marcus Dupree in the early 1980s.
There are few flaws in Akers’ game, which is why he’s a safe bet to play early. With the open position in Tallahassee, he will be a guy everybody knows by the end of the year.
Justin Broiles, Oklahoma Sooners Cornerback
That’s the situation at Oklahoma, where the Sooners’ two-deep depth chart at Broiles’ position is wide-open other than returning stud Jordan Thomas, who eschewed the NFL to return to Norman.
The 6’0″, 175-pound defensive back has the ideal size and speed to play right away, and head coach Bob Stoops has to be thrilled he elected to stay in-state and play for the Sooners, making the short trip from his Oklahoma City home.
Yes, the Sooners are going to have to replace Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook on offense, but with quarterback Baker Mayfield under center and Lincoln Riley calling plays, the offense shouldn’t be a problem. The defense is another question altogether.
That’s why it’s essential players such as Broiles step right in ready to go. It will help matters that Broiles is an early enrollee, too.
“The Sooners feel good with Jordan Thomas and Jordan Parker returning at corner,” the Tulsa World‘s Cody Stavenhagen wrote, “but they’ll need to establish depth just as much as last season. Broiles might have a chance to leapfrog a couple of older players because he is well-rounded and a good tackler.”
It may be a stretch to say he’ll jump Parker, but Broiles is good enough to get on the field right away. It’s on him to step in and seize the opportunity.
Hunter Johnson, Clemson Tigers Quarterback
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney isn’t just going to replace a generational-type talent such as quarterback Deshaun Watson, who led the Tigers to last season’s national championship and should have won the Heisman Trophy.
The good news for Clemson is the cupboard is far from bare at the position, and even though the Tigers lost offensive playmakers such as running back Wayne Gallman and pass-catchers Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett and Artavis Scott, there are many more behind them.
So who’s going to direct all this new talent?
One option is incoming freshman Hunter Johnson, a 6’3½”, 201-pound pro-style quarterback from Brownsburg, Indiana, who was the fifth-rated passer according to Scout.com.
He’ll have to battle other talented studs such as Zerrick Cooper, Kelly Bryant, Chase Brice and Tucker Israel, but Johnson has the chops to get it done.
“Day one in spring ball, Kelly [Bryant] is the guy, but it’s open,” Clemson quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter told CBSSports.com’s Jon Solomon. “Kelly deserves it. He’s earned it. He’s matured and has done a great job over the last two years. When he came in, he was more of a runner. He has developed so much as a decision maker, as a thrower. He brings that versatility to the table. He’s the best athlete we’ve got.”
Can he beat out guys like Johnson, who enrolled mid-term and will be able to battle it out during spring drills? It’s a good problem to have, and Swinney and Co. have a track record of making the right call.
Ty Jones, Washington Huskies Wide Receiver
If Washington is going to get back to the College Football Playoff, the Huskies are going to have to find Dante Pettis some help. After all, subtracting the immense production John Ross provided to the offense is a major loss.
He’ll be tearing up NFL defenses next year.
One player who could help fill that void is Ty Jones, who isn’t the same type of receiver as Ross. Instead, the 6’4″, 206-pound receiver is a perfect big target for Jake Browning to go along with the 6’1″, 188-pound Pettis. He’s exactly the big-bodied player every quarterback needs.
“His ball skills are there for everyone to see,” Scout.com’s Chris Fetters wrote. “Haven’t really seen a high school player that good in the air since [former Huskies receiver Kasen] Williams.
“Most of the time Jones just has the height and ability to get to the ball better than most, but even when he’s matched up physically he battles hard to win and his hands are sure so he comes up with tough catches even when in heavy traffic.”
After blowing up at the U.S. Army All-America Bowl, everybody who follows recruiting should know the kind of player Jones can be. That’s exciting news for the Huskies, who thwarted a last-minute attempt by UCLA to flip the Provo, Utah, product.
So not only can Jones replace Ross; he also can give the Huskies something they’ve not had in years. Will he immediately post Ross-esque numbers? That’s not likely. But the dimension he brings is valuable.
Walker Little, Stanford Cardinal Offensive Tackle
Sticking to the Pac-12, one of the best offensive line prospects in the entire nation will reside in Palo Alto over the next four years or so. That’s Walker Little, who committed to Stanford way back in December 2016, leaving his Texas home for the West Coast.
The Cardinal are thrilled to have such a player, who has the ability to play immediately at perhaps the most difficult position to do so jumping from the high school to collegiate level.
At 6’8″, 305 pounds, Little is massive, and he also happens to be athletic for his size. He’s a road-grader, but he also can get out and pass protect, too.
He should team with fellow stud lineman prospect Foster Sarell to make a magnificent duo over the course of the next few years and help head coach David Shaw to run the type of rough-and-tumble offense he loves to.
The Cardinal allowed 34 sacks last year, which, according to ESPN.com’s David Lombardi, was the most allowed by Stanford since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2007.
“They’re the two best tackles in America,” Shaw said. “Which one is No. 1 and which one is No. 2 might change daily, which is great for us.”
That’s high praise from a coach who doesn’t dish it out freely. Little won’t have to look far to find a measuring stick to being the kind of player who will succeed in college. He and Sarell will push one another every day in practice.
Stanford will be better because of it.
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M Aggies Quarterback
This is an extremely important year for Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, who is firmly on the hot seat following yet another late-season collapse by the Aggies in 2016.
It’s a dicey situation having to rely on a freshman, but that is exactly the situation A&M may find itself in after fifth-year senior transfer Trevor Knight is out of eligibility. If Kellen Mond plays his way onto the field, it’ll be because he deserves it.
Is it a bit of a gamble putting Mond on this list? Yes. But he’s that good. The former IMG Academy standout is a 6’3″, 202-pound dual-threat quarterback who has a boatload of ability. Will it translate right away? The Aggies hope so.
The expectations are high. More than one publication has mentioned Mond in the same breath as former star Johnny Manziel, including the Houston Chronicle‘s Brent Zwerneman.
“The Aggies are hopeful that their next Manziel, who last suited up for A&M in 2013, is part of this new class in freshman Kellen Mond, minus the extracurricular activities that came with the partying 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, of course,” Zwerneman wrote.
Mond will have to unseat senior Jake Hubenak, who was shaky in his playing time while Knight was hurt a season ago. Perhaps the biggest block in Mond’s way is redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, who nearly had his redshirt year burned a season ago.
Thankfully for the Aggies, that didn’t happen. Now, the former Southlake Carroll and Liberty Christian standout will battle Mond (and Hubenak) for the full-time gig. Mond’s ability to run and pass the ball effectively makes him more than a wild-card candidate.
Jeffrey Okudah, Ohio State Buckeyes Safety
The next Malik Hooker or Marshon Lattimore may not even be on Ohio State’s campus yet.
That’s Jeffrey Okudah, a 6’1″, 190-pound athlete who could play a lot of different positions but will stick in the defensive backfield, perhaps filling Hooker’s shoes and joining returning starter Damon Webb.
With the Buckeyes needing studs to replace Hooker as well as cornerbacks Lattimore and Gareon Conley, they need players who can make a difference right away.
Thankfully for head coach Urban Meyer, a loaded 2017 recruiting class may have done that with the additions of JUCO transfer Kendall Sheffield and freshmen Okudah and Shaun Wade. Okudah knows opportunity is screaming in Columbus.
That’s one of the reasons he elected to leave the Lone Star State to head north.
“I know a spot is open so it’s just all about competition,” Okudah said on national signing day, according to Scout.com’s Tim Moody. “I know the best two corners will get on that field and so it’s just whatever I make of it and I’m just going to try to take the opportunity and run with it.”
It sounds like Okudah’s first crack may be at corner, but he has the body type that can play either position. He’ll eventually get on the field somewhere, and it’s a safe bet he’ll be a difference-maker very quickly for the Buckeyes in 2017.
That would be big for Ohio State, especially if ESPN.com’s prediction that defensive back being the Buckeyes’ biggest question mark this spring comes to fruition.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan Wolverines Wide Receiver
The top two pass-catchers off Michigan’s 2016 football team are gone, and so Wilton Speight needs some able playmakers to line up and catch all the balls Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt did a season ago.
That’s why Donovan Peoples-Jones may wind up being the biggest lock on this entire list.
The former Detroit (Cass Tech) wide receiver is a 6’2½”, 190-pound beast who plays bigger than his size and can do it all. He may catch passes from Speight in 2017, but he’s going to team with Dylan McCaffrey for the future of Michigan football.
It’s exceptional news for the Wolverines that with all that production leaving the offense, Peoples-Jones and fellow stud receiving prospect Tarik Black are early enrollees, which make them even more likely to step right in and be Big Ten stars.
“Both are in position to contribute right away in a wide receivers group that returns just 27 receptions,” SI.com’s Colin Becht wrote. “With Peoples-Jones’ speed and Black’s size (he’s 6’3.5″, 206 pounds), both have assets that should allow them to make the leap to the college level quickly.”
It’s certainly possible with all the talent that departed Ann Arbor after the 2016 season that Michigan may experience a bit of a downtick in wins this year. But the future will be on the field this season, and that future is very bright.
Peoples-Jones will be the biggest star.
Jaelan Phillips, UCLA Bruins Defensive End
Redlands, California’s 6’6″, 260-pound freak-of-nature Jaelan Phillips wasn’t a consensus national top-rated player, but he was high enough on all the lists to ensure everybody thinks he’s going to be a dynamite player.
Entering a must-win season for head coach Jim Mora, that’s big news for the Bruins, who need an edge-rushing force to take over for the departed Takkarist McKinley, whose name will be called very early in the NFL draft.
Phillips has the size, speed, intelligence and physical makeup to play right away.
But can he live up to the hype, especially considering some are asking if he can be the savior of UCLA football?
That’s a big question mark, and it’s unfair to put that kind of load on any kid. Thankfully, Phillips will have help.
The Bruins enjoyed a boon in defensive recruiting in this cycle despite a losing record in 2016. With quarterback Josh Rosen returning, things could quickly fall back into place.
“We’re about where we wanted to be,” Mora said on national signing day, according to the Associated Press’ Dan Greenspan. “Last year was awful, obviously. To go 4-8 and be able to secure a class like this says a lot about UCLA and what it has to offer. I think eventually these young men will grow into guys that will help us reach our goal, and our immediate goal is to win the Pac-12.”
That’s going to be difficult and a huge one-year turnaround. But players like Phillips will help.
Jacoby Stevens, LSU Tigers Safety
The LSU Tigers have gone into the Volunteer State and had a lot of luck recently in recruiting, most recently snagging two elite prospects in the 2017 cycle in safety Jacoby Stevens and linebacker Jacob Phillips.
Those two will be stars on the Bayou Bengals defense for years to come, and it may start as soon as this season.
With stud Jamal Adams heading to the NFL, Stevens could fill that vacancy on the back end of LSU’s defense. The Louisiana native who prepped at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, could play the role of big, physical safety that Adams vacated, especially at 6’2″, 190 pounds.
He looks like a good candidate to carry on the tradition of Defensive Back U.
Stevens could join with Todd Harris to be the future of the Tigers secondary. Unlike Harris, however, Stevens is an early enrollee, which will give him a leg up on the rest of the defensive backs.
“He…fits the mold of the new breed of bigger-bodied defensive backs, and when you see him on film you see a thick-bodied athlete,” SBNation’s Richard Johnson wrote. “But don’t let the frame distract you from the fact that Stevens can absolutely move. Most importantly it’s how he moves that makes him such an intriguing prospect.”
Stevens is the total package at safety, and head coach Ed Orgeron has proved in the past he isn’t scared to play youngsters. If Stevens can grasp defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s scheme quickly, he’ll be a guy making headlines this season.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter: @Brad_Shepard.
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