Attention paid to college football recruiting has grown exponentially in recent years, largely due to online coverage. However, the role of freshmen in the college game has evolved, coinciding with the explosion in coverage.
Freshmen are better prepared to enter a lineup and make an immediate impact than ever before. Matt Barkley assumed the quarterback reins upon arrival at USC; Jadeveon Clowney was an instantaneous force on the South Carolina defensive line; T.J. Yeldon and Todd Gurley both easily surpassed 1000 yards rushing in their debut campaigns.
As high school prospects get better and better, a realistic question worth posing: can a true freshman win the Heisman?
Convention long dictated that an upperclassmen had to win the most coveted of college football’s individual awards. Tim Tebow’s historic 2007 campaign culminated in the first sophomore Heisman win. And it didn’t take long for the first freshman to claim the award, with Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel winning it as a redshirt this past season.
But Manziel, like Tebow, had a year of collegiate seasoning to his credit. Though he had no game experience, learning the craft in practices against Big 12/SEC talent. Is that year acclimating to the speed of college football an absolute necessity for a player to become Heisman caliber?
Not necessarily. Take Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who was generating stiff-arm statue conversation late into October 2011. Clemson dipped down the stretch, effectively silencing Watkins’ Heisman hype, but he’s proof that voters will overlook precedent if a true freshman proves worthy.
This year’s recruiting class might not be the group to make that history. Many of the top recruits are defensive players, which rarely garner any Heisman attention. There’s also an impressive crop of returning stars in the college game, including the aforementioned Manziel. But, as Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Tebow and others prove, a winner can emerge unexpectedly.
Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss Rebels
Not only would Robert Nkemdiche make history as the first true freshman Heisman winner, but he would be the only defensive-only player to claim it in the award’s history. That is, unless Hugh Freeze lines him up at fullback in JUMBO packages, which Nkemdiche did at Grayson High.
Nkemdiche is hardly a carbon copy of Clowney, the Gamecock sack machine who is in pursuit of the Heisman for himself this coming campaign. The Ole Miss freshman may not rack up the same kind of statistics, but if he’s an immediate cornerstone for the Rebel defense and notches some big plays in SEC competition, he already has the name recognition and intrigue vital to a Heisman campaign.
Thomas Tyner, Oregon Ducks
Local product Thomas Tyner has the qualities capable of filling the feature back role Kenjon Barner vacates. DeAnthony Thomas has yet to prove he’s an every-down back, working more effective in change-of-pace formations and as a perimeter receiving option. Someone will have to carry the load of Barner’s 1767 yards, or LaMichael James’ 2015, 1939 and 1714 in the three season prior.
That someone is Tyner.
Oregon’s offense is conducive to backs putting up big numbers, with both Barner and James garnering Heisman buzz. James was a finalist in 2010. Should Tyner integrate into the role, and the Ducks compete for the BCS championship, he’ll continue that trend.
Kelvin Taylor, Florida Gators
Running back Kelvin Taylor could prove football excellence is hereditary. The son of former Jacksonville Jaguar Fred Taylor followed in his dad’s footsteps, committing to alma mater Florida, where 2012 leading rusher Mike Gillislee vacated the starting running back job.
Taylor was a machine at the prep level, accruing 2423 yards (more than a first down per carry) and 42 touchdowns — yes 42 touchdowns — for Glades Day.
Max Browne, USC Trojans
Quarterback competition will be heated at USC next season. Max Wittek took over for Matt Barkley when the latter was injured late last season, but his struggles in the Sun Bowl gave Cody Kessler playing time.
The two returnees will jockey for the job, but five-star recruit Max Browne should factor into the discussion. Browne was a consensus nominee as this recruiting class’ premier Pro Set quarterback. He just exudes every quality that screams USC quarterback — and USC quarterbacks are almost always in Heisman discussions. With the Trojans returning Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and Silas Redd, the offense is not lacking in weapons to ease a true freshman’s progression into college play.