It’s not easy to make a big impact during your first year at school, but there are some college football freshmen ready to answer the call heading into 2017.
Many freshmen get an early jump by enrolling early so they can take part of spring practices. That has most certainly given them a leg up as they prepare for their first season of college ball. Almost all the players we’re about to highlight took this route, but one defender good enough to earn a starting job has yet to even enroll.
Among the top players we’ll be looking at is a running back tasked with replacing a legend, a defensive end stepping into some huge shoes of his own and a linebacker destined to rack up tackles in his first campaign.
These are the top impact college freshmen for the 2017 season.
Anthony Hines, linebacker, Texas A&M
A tackling machine during his years at Plano East High School (220 tackles last year!), Hines is already making a name for himself at College Station.
It’s a good thing, too, because the Aggies lost some serious talent this winter, including last year’s leading tackler, Shaan Washington. We expect Hines to slide into that vacant spot and make an immediate difference. He was an early enrollee and has been doing all the right things to earn that spot as a true freshman.
One of the biggest reasons to think Hines will make an immediate impact this year for the Aggies is he is big (6-foot-3, 222 pounds), strong and athletic enough to play all three linebacker positions. He’s a natural inside backer but also has the speed to make plays outside, covering tight ends and attacking the edge on blitzes.
Even if Hines doesn’t crack the starting lineup early (he almost certainly will), he’s going to be a big-time player for this program right out of the gate as a rotational guy.
Kareem Walker, running back, Michigan
After spending a redshirt year getting his grades on track, Walker is poised to become a major force for the Wolverines this season.
Good to see Kareem Walker running the ball again too. pic.twitter.com/FYFNObyisC
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) April 24, 2017
Chris Evans is clearly the top running back for Michigan this year. However, there is some room for Walker to become quite useful if he can learn how to pass protect and distinguishes himself from Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac.
A big back, at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Walker isn’t a burner. But he is in no way a plodding running back who simply relies on power, either. He has quick feet and a sweet jump cut that allows him to quickly find and attack holes that open up even in tight quarters.
After getting his grades up in the fall, Walker impressed Michigan coaches during bowl game practices. He’s continued to impress throughout the spring and has the potential to become a relied-upon producer as a redshirt freshman.
Lamont Wade, cornerback, Penn State
Wade certainly has high expectations of himself. Before choosing Penn State, he was already of the opinion that he could become a Jabrill Peppers-type impact player at the collegiate level. At 5-foot-9 and about 190 pounds, it’s actually a pretty good comparison. And he hasn’t lost any of his confidence now that he’s at Penn State.
“He’s got tremendous confidence, as we all saw in high school,” James Franklin told the CDT during the spring when asked about Wade. “But with some guys, that goes away when they get to college; that hasn’t gone away.”
A running back and defensive back in high school, he’ll likely immediately contribute on special teams as a return man this fall.
Check out his elusiveness on this run last year.
— WPIAL_Insider (@WPIAL_Insider) October 8, 2016
Those are the types of skills that will serve Wade well as a return man, both on special teams and defense. Pick-sixes, we’re fairly certain, will be on display during his time in Happy Valley.
Because of Wade’s raw skill, we also expect to see him work himself into Penn State’s defensive back rotation fairly early, if not right out of the gate.
Stephen Carr, running back, USC
This young man is going to immediately provide a spark for the Trojans in 2017. Carr, a 6-foot, 200-pound back out of Summit, is coming off a senior season in which he rushed for 2,128 yards, 31 touchdowns and caught 20 passes, five of which went for touchdowns.
His highlight reel is insane.
— Jesse Reed (@JesseReed78) June 7, 2017
A true power/speed back with excellent vision and a nasty attitude, Carr should work himself into the offense as the No. 2 back behind Ronald Jones, who went over 1,000 yards last year.
The combination of these two playing behind sophomore Sam Darnold should be quite potent. The only real question mark here is whether the Trojans have enough talent up front to account for the three starters that moved on from college.
Still, there is a reason this program is getting so much hype this offseason. In addition to the nine-game winning streak USC finished the season with last year, there is a lot of young talent ready to explode.
Jaelan Phillips, defensive end, UCLA
With the departure of Takkarist McKinley to the NFL, the Bruins have a big void on the edge that must be filled. Based on early rumblings, that void might be filled by Phillips, who could seriously start from Day 1.
“Phillips was the top-ranked defensive player in the Class of 2017 and his performance throughout the spring only reinforced the idea that he could potentially help the Bruins right away,” wrote ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura when asked if Phillips will make an immediate impact. “There was an adjustment period, of course, but by the end of the 15 practices he certainly didn’t look like a player who had just enrolled in school.”
Phillips is very talented pass rusher who knows how to get his mitts on opposing quarterbacks. Even better, he has experience playing both defensive end and linebacker. His versatility, quickness and power make him a unique chess piece for UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to utilize throughout the 2017 season.
This 6-foot-6, 260-pound monster of a freshman has the makings of a true star.
Najee Harris, running back, Alabama
— Jesse Reed (@JesseReed78) June 7, 2017
You know the drill. Every year, ‘Bama shuffles out a new crop of unbelievably talented running backs.
This year is no different. Harris was one of the top prospects in the nation and was the No. 1 running back in the 2017 class. He was a three-year stud at Antioch High School, rushing for 7,813 yards and 93 touchdowns from 2014-16.
“Najee had a great spring,” Nick Saban said during the SEC’s spring football teleconference (h/t 247Sports). “It was a learning experience for him both on and off the field. But a fine young person who is going to be a really, really good player. I think his knowledge and experience of the game in the spring is going to be very beneficial.”
So, while it’s true the Crimson Tide already feature the likes of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, don’t think for a second that Harris won’t get an immediate opportunity to show off his chops as a freshman.
Saban loves to pound defenses into submission with a relentless wave of running backs. Harris will be a big part of that wave in 2017.
Jeffrey Odukah, cornerback, Ohio State
Ohio State watched as two key cornerbacks — Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore — left for the NFL this winter. Their departures leave the door wide open for young players to step up and contribute. Don’t be surprised if Odukah seizes this opportunity with both hands and earns a starting job in 2017 as a true freshman.
A five-star recruit out of Grand Prairie in Texas, Odukah played safety and receiver during high school. But he’s aiming for one of the starting cornerback spots.
“That’s my intention,” Okudah said on National Signing Day (h/t Landof10.com). “I know a spot’s open. It’s just all-out competition. I know the best two corners will get out on the field.”
At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Odukah has the length to be troublesome against even the biggest receivers. He’s also fast enough and strong enough to be a problem from the line of scrimmage to the back of the end zone.
Whether it’s on the corner, in the slot or as a safety, Odukah is going to be an impact player this year for the Buckeyes. Additionally, he has the potential to add value as a return man, given his experience on offense.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, wide receiver, Michigan
Tall (6-foot-2), strong, fast and bouncy, this young man is a big-play machine just waiting to explode onto the national scene for Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines in 2017. He’s been impressing his coaches already and put up jaw-dropping numbers during the team’s spring combine testing.
— Matt Caraccio (@Matty_OS) May 17, 2017
Perhaps even better than the hype surrounding this young man is his desire to live up to it.
“I need to get better, I need to continue to work on the little things that’ll separate me from everybody else,” he said, via Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. “I’m always looking for more. I’m always trying to find an edge.”
Michigan has a big need for Peoples-Jones to step up, too. It’s the perfect time for this young man to show up for the program, which saw Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson (92 catches, 1,362 yards and nine touchdowns between them) graduate after last season.
With Peoples-Jones making big plays down the field and fellow freshman Kareem Walker softening up defensive fronts on the ground, Michigan has some incredible young offensive talent to feature this year.
Devon Hunter, safety, Virginia Tech
A do-it-all star at Indian River HS in Virginia, Hunter was a prized recruit this year as the Hokies work towards reeling in more local talent.
Unlike the others on this list, Hunter is enrolling at Virginia Tech this summer. So he hasn’t gotten the same early jump as the rest of these freshmen phenoms. That won’t stop him from having a big-time impact this season, however. Furthermore, he could very well end up as the starting strong safety in time for Week 1 if he picks things up quickly.
And there’s every indication he will. Even though he wasn’t enrolled this spring, Hunter couldn’t stay away from practice.
Bud Foster said safety signee Devon Hunter was here all of last week just taking in practices. #Hokies
— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) April 18, 2017
Even if he’s not a starter right away, Hunter will be on the field early and often for the Hokies this year. He’ll be learning on the job, so there could be some minor speed bumps in his future. But don’t expect them to stop this big hitter and talented athlete from becoming a fan favorite.
Cam Akers, running back, Florida State
You didn’t think we’d forget about Akers, did you?
The Seminoles said goodbye to a legend this past winter when Dalvin Cook took his considerable talents to the NFL. He’ll be missed, but that doesn’t mean Florida State hasn’t been planning for this day. Jacques Patrick is the clear-cut starter heading into the summer months, but don’t be surprised if Akers ends up touching the ball at least a dozen times per game this fall.
The freshman showed off his skills in a major way during the spring game, tallying 102 yards, including 87 on the ground on 10 carries.
— Chris Hudgison (@ChrisHudgison) April 8, 2017
All the things that made Akers a five-star recruit were on display in the spring game. His vision, power, burst and speed should have FSU fans very excited about the upcoming season.