At powerhouse college football programs, it usually takes a while for their top incoming recruits to hit the field. But there are always exceptions.
Some of this year’s blue-chip freshmen are positioned to make an immediate impact in 2018, whether it be as key role players or starters. Given the pedigree of some of these schools, there may be a few surprises.
Read on to find out which first-year football phenoms are bound to make a splash on Saturdays this year.
Note: Recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.
Patrick Surtain Jr., cornerback, Alabama
The son of an 11-year NFL veteran who played his same position, there’s a strong enough pedigree alone to believe Surtain has a bright future on the gridiron.
But the young man isn’t resting on any laurels or counting on any preemptive coronation based in name recognition. Surtain is heading to the mother of all programs in Tuscaloosa, yet has a real chance to contribute in a big way as a true freshman.
Coach Nick Saban hasn’t shied away from playing recent arrivals in the past, particularly in the secondary. Minkah Fitzpatrick started as a freshman and played all over the place on the back end, eventually being chosen by the Miami Dolphins in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft.
Funny enough, Surtain’s father played for the Dolphins to begin his pro career. This feels like one of those singularity alignments. In any event, Surtain is the No. 1 cornerback in the country and will be in the starting lineup somewhere when the season starts, largely due to the departures of Fitzpatrick and fellow NFL draftee Anthony Averett.
Micah Parsons, linebacker, Penn State
The Nittany Lions are known for churning out great linebackers, and their next great one may well be the 5-star Parsons. Strength coach Dwight Galt recently remarked how Parsons is a “monster” and is already showing good leadership, per PennLive.com’s Greg Pickel.
Parsons lined up all over the place on defense at the prep level, but appears poised to make an impact at linebacker. He has natural pass-rushing ability due to his high school experience at defensive end and boasts uncanny instincts when it comes to taking proper pursuit angles.
Already with a fine arsenal of moves to shed blocks and the high football IQ to set the edge when necessary, Parsons is beyond his years as a defender. Don’t be surprised if Penn State deploys him all over the place on defense to keep opponents baffled as to how to block him.
Lorenzo Lingard, running back, Miami
As the only 5-star recruit by 247Sports’ measure that the Hurricanes added, Lingard is the prime candidate to make his mark on “The U” in swift fashion.
Lingard is the second-ranked back in the country and enrolled early to participate in spring practice and to run track for Miami. He’s got that type of explosiveness and speed, not to mention a willingness to get on campus as quickly as possible to study the offense.
Despite the fact that he runs a little too upright, Lingard can work on his fundamentals and should add some more weight to help him take more punishment before football gets underway in the fall. Even if his running style doesn’t change much, the frosh possesses breakaway speed the other backs on the roster can’t claim to have.
Considering Miami lost its last three games this past season to finish 10-3, it’s unlikely coach Mark Richt will pass up a potential spark plug like Lingard to ignite the offense, even if he’s a little raw and lacks experience.
Justin Shorter, wide receiver, Penn State
The team already has established receivers like Juwan Johnson and Deandre Thompkins, but could deploy Shorter in certain situations. Like Spiker in Washington, Shorter stands to benefit from a seasoned veteran signal-caller in Trace McSorley, who will be eager to run the show now that freakish running back Saquon Barkley has gone pro.
Barkley is impossible to replace, so it stands to reason Penn State will lean on McSorley’s arm more so in 2018. However, he did lose his leading receiver, DaeSean Hamilton, and tight end Mike Gesicki, who matched Hamilton last season for a team-leading nine touchdown catches.
That creates a spot for Shorter to step up. Listed by 247Sports at 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds, the 5-star receiver has prototypical size and should be invaluable in the scoring zone, helping make up for some of Gesicki’s lost red-zone production and ability to stretch the field.
What’s scary about Shorter, the No. 1 receiver in the class, is he’s agile, laterally quick and fast enough to play in the slot and can take the punishment of going over the middle of the field. That should make him useful in a number of ways in his maiden college season.
Caden Sterns, defensive back, Texas
No one in the Longhorns’ 2018 class rates higher on 247Sports than Sterns. Texas also landed 4-star safety DeMarvion Overshown, but Sterns figures to be the surest bet to start from Week 1 given his gaudy 5-star billing and status as the No. 1 safety in the class—and top overall player from the Lone Star State.
Sterns played some receiver in high school, so his ball skills are obvious, evident too in the fact that he recorded 11 interceptions over his past three seasons. But he also racked up 100 tackles as a senior, proving he can come up and support in the running game.
The combination of Sterns’ coverage skills and physicality could land him at either safety spot. It depends where the coaching staff wants to put him. It could even come to pass that Sterns plays cornerback. That type of versatility is just what the Longhorns secondary needs to ensure the defense continues trending in the right direction this year.
Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Clemson
Kelly Bryant did a fine job stepping in for his celebrated predecessor Deshaun Watson, guiding the Tigers to the College Football Playoff. That alone was a feat Bryant should be proud of.
That being said, Lawrence is the top-ranked freshman nationally by 247Sports. He has so much more talent as a passer than Bryant, whose weaknesses were exposed when he completed 18 of 36 passes for 124 yards and two picks in the playoff loss to Alabama.
Lawrence can probably do better than that. If he isn’t getting play packages early in the season, it’d be a surprise. The frosh isn’t as fleet of foot as Bryant, yet he can escape and run when he must and isn’t slow by any means. His superior passing skill set of arm strength and accuracy should ultimately result in Lawrence being the starter, if not at the dawn of the season, some point down the line. That is, if Clemson really wants to win a national championship.
This isn’t meant to bash Bryant, but he only threw 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions in 2017. I’ll bet Lawrence can do better even in his first year.
Terrace Marshall, wide receiver, LSU
Prior starting quarterback Danny Etling is gone, leaving a void at the most important position. The cast of wide receivers is scant, with D.J. Chark now in the NFL. Chark had 874 yards receiving in 2017, by far the most on the team. Next-closest in that department was backup running back Darrel Williams at 331 yards.
It’s asking a lot for Marshall to step in as a prominent skill player for a competitive SEC team and shine. Nevertheless, he has the tools to be an instant stud. The 5-star prospect is the third-ranked wideout in the country. SB Nation reported Marshall is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, which is the type of supreme skill set that will help him hit the field in Baton Rouge. The Tigers have few other options in their returning core, so Marshall is bound to be their most explosive target.
Dante Stills, defensive lineman, West Virginia
The Big 12 isn’t big on defense. It would behoove the Mountaineers to enlist any help they can get on that side of the ball regardless of college reps. They must complement a high-powered offense led by quarterback Will Grier, a possible first-round NFL draft prospect.
Stills, a home-state product, may well fit the bill. At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, he blends ideal size with stunning quick-twitch athleticism to evade blockers. What stands out as well is how he can already understand leverage and play with a lower pad level, which shows he pays attention to the finer details and can excel in the next phase of his career sooner rather than later.
With some time to adjust throughout his freshman campaign to the fast pace of conference play, Stills could be just the type of pocket-collapsing force West Virginia requires to take the next step and truly challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title.
The team certainly has the offensive firepower to do so. It’s going to take someone like Stills, who compares rather favorably to an in-development, younger Aaron Donald, to put the Mountaineers over the top.
Emory Jones, quarterback, Florida
Gators head coach Dan Mullen recently said the only incumbent quarterback with any experience, Feleipe Franks, that no one he’d coached since Cam Newton had such tremendous arm talent, per SEC Country’s Ryan Young.
That doesn’t mean Franks has locked up the starting gig, though, and in the highly competitive SEC, Mullen is going to make sure he has the best chance to win. This may mean turning to a true freshman in Jones to steer the offense.
It’s not like Franks lit the world on fire last season—he completed just 54.6 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions, averaging a meager 6.8 yards per attempt despite his rocket arm.
Franks had a long run of 79 yards in 2017 and is hard man to bring down but isn’t the same type of quick-twitch athlete the 4-star Jones is. Mullen oversaw the development of Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, and Jones is cut more from that cloth, which should ultimately get him on the field as the starter in 2018. Even as a high schooler, too, Jones showed a knack for downfield passing ability, so he has more than enough arm to justify starting right away.
Adrian Martinez, quarterback, Nebraska
New head coach and former Cornhuskers quarterback Scott Frost has some unique insight into how to thrive under center in Lincoln, which he’s sure to pass on to Martinez, the landmark first signal-caller he successfully recruited to his alma mater.
Martinez is in a unique position to be mentored and groomed to play immediately. Frost has the chance to prove himself right out of the gate by finding Nebraska’s quarterback of the foreseeable future in his first recruiting class. The mutual incentive is especially high here.
Also worth noting is the fact that Frost started McKenzie Milton as a true freshman in his prior coaching stint with UCF. By his second year, Milton was guiding the team to a perfect season with 37 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions.
Bryan Addison, wide receiver, UCLA
An uneven and ultimately unsuccessful tenure in the NFL has former Oregon coach Chip Kelly back in the college game, where his tactics seem better suited. Among the players he’s brought in through his initial recruiting haul, Addison stands out as the most intriguing and logical choice to contribute from the jump.
The Bruins are in the unenviable position of replacing an NFL-bound quarterback in Josh Rosen. A new system, a new triggerman — possibly redshirt sophomore Devon Modster — and more importantly: a new cast of top pass-catchers for UCLA. Last year’s leading receiver Jordan Lasley went to the pros, and No. 2 wideout Darren Andrews graduated.
Recruited as an athlete who can also excel as a defensive back, Addison towers over defenders at 6-foot-5 and is a lethal red-zone threat who can high-point the ball well, further extending an already huge catch radius. Junior Theo Howard is the only returning receiver who was a bigger contributor last season and stands at only 6-foot.
Tight end Caleb Wilson had only one touchdown in 2017 and wasn’t a go-to target close to the end zone. That leaves a pretty clear role for Addison to potentially fill. It may not be until later in his career that the offensive-minded Kelly tries Addison out on defense.
Marquis Spiker, wide receiver, Washington
The high-powered Huskies offense has recently produced NFL receivers in John Ross and Dante Pettis. With that type of recent track record developing the position, Washington fans should be optimistic about Spiker’s arrival.
Due to Pettis’ departure, there are more balls to go around from senior quarterback Jake Browning, whose leadership should accelerate Spiker’s understanding of the system as he vies for a spot with the first-team offense.
Spiker projects well to get into the receiver rotation as a playmaker because he’s a wiry, 6-foot-3 athlete, a 4-star recruit who already shows advanced route-running ability, incredible acceleration, the knack to track downfield throws — and not to mention, the strength of catching purely with his hands rather than bodying the ball so much. All those attributes may result in Spiker emerging as a star in the making after only one year in Washington.
Justin Fields, quarterback, Georgia
The Bulldogs need an X-factor to get past Alabama, and Fields may well be the answer. He’s the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback prospect in the 2018 class and the second-ranked player overall, only behind Clemson’s Lawrence.
Fields has his work cut out to steal playing time from rising sophomore Jake Fromm, who took control as a first-year in his own right and led Georgia to the national title game. That resulted in a loss at the hands of the Crimson Tide, though, even with future NFL running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to help the cause.
Perhaps the added juice Fields can bring with his immense athleticism and rushing ability will give Bama fits — he ran for north of 2,000 yards over his last two seasons in high school. The only problem is, a two-quarterback system can take both players out of rhythm, so head coach Kirby Smart must be delicate should he opt to stick Fields out there in non-garbage time, critical game situations.
Nicholas Petit-Frere, offensive lineman, Ohio State
The Buckeyes lost an extremely versatile trench player Billy Price and offensive tackle Jamarco Jones to the NFL draft, which means there’s a chance for a newcomer to step up and claim a place in the starting five up front.
Petit-Frere, albeit admittedly more of a wild card compared to others on this list, is a prime candidate, coming to Columbus as the nation’s best offensive tackle prospect for good reason. He’s incredibly nimble on his feet and plays with a high motor and tenacity. That ought to translate well to Ohio State’s spread, run-heavy offense, as Petit-Frere will be able to keep up with the pace of play and have the stamina to pass block.
Both tackles spots are being decided between Isaiah Prince and Thayer Munford, so there’s at least a chance for Petit-Frere to push for one of those spots, more likely at right tackle. Football Outsiders ranked the Buckeyes No. 92 in sack rate on passing downs last year, signaling plenty of room for improvement there. Petit-Frere doesn’t play the flashiest position, yet his contributions should keep OSU’s bona fide offense operating at an elite level, earning him recognition for his precocious abilities.
Adam Anderson, linebacker, Georgia
Sophomore Monty Rice had a big spring game and should solidify a starting spot at mike linebacker, but Anderson is top outside linebacker in the nation and has a real chance to crack the rotation somewhere.
Although he’s a little undersized at this point at just 214 pounds, he’ll be putting on some bulk as his college career progresses — and he has enough of a skill set to contribute right away.
Georgia sports a 3-4 alignment, featuring a Jack position that is a hybrid of linebacker and defensive end. The dynamic Anderson played with his hand in the dirt in high school and could either rotate in at Jack or spell two presumptive senior starters at outside ‘backer in D’Andre Walker and Walter Grant.
Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter both went on to the NFL this year, so there’s definitely an opening at linebacker for Anderson to shine as a situational pass-rusher and keep the Bulldogs’ front seven fresh.