By: Cole “The Curtain Guy” Schuette
When every new season kicks off in late August, each fanbase is filled with equal parts excitement and nerves. Gone is the familiarity of last year’s team thanks to graduation, the NFL Draft, and now, the dreaded transfer portal. In it’s place… the next wave of players looking to etch their name in to college football lore.
For most teams, the time has come to see those players who have sat for the past few seasons developing and honing their skills to finally show off all the work they put in. For some, however, those open spots on the field will be filled with the highly-touted freshman we followed so closely through high school, hoping they would commit to our favorite program.
Below I pick two freshman from each conference who I believe will make the biggest on-field impact for their respective programs.
Will Shipley: For the last three years, the Clemson knew exactly what it had in Travis Etienne, a do-it-all running back who could beat you catching the ball out of the backfield just as easily as he could running the ball. Over 6,000 yards and 78 touchdowns just walked out the door, leaving the Tigers with a huge hole to fill. In walks Will Shipley, a composite five-star and the number one all-purpose back according to 247 sports. The two sport athlete from Matthews, North Carolina is a shifty running back with good breakaway speed and provides D.J. Uiagalelei with another excellent pass catcher out of the backfield. I imagine that Clemson will start the season using a running back by committee approach but expect Shipley to become the front runner of the course of the season.
Leonard Taylor: After a mediocre 6-7 season in 2019, the Hurricanes bounced back with an 8-3 outing in the chaotic 2020 season. While there were a lot of improvements that paved the way for the bounce back season (like the scoring average increasing from 22.6 ppg in 2019 to 34.0 ppg in 2020), there were some set backs. Most notably, the rushing defense took a sharp drop, going from giving up 119.2 ypg in 2019 to 174.5 ypg in 2020. This was most evident in their three losses, where they gave up an average of 308.3 ypg rushing. Taylor, the 6’4″ 265 lbs hometown signee can provide an interior presence that is quick off the ball and wreaks havoc in opposing backfields. The general consensus from all of the recruiting outlets is that he needs to continue to add size and strength but I expect him to provide a spark to build off of the U’s 76th ranked rushing defense from a year ago.
Billy Bowman: You could probably walk by Billy Bowman (5’10”, 175 lbs) on the street and have no idea you just walked by one of the best pound for pound athletes in the country (#2 ATH according to 247). To be flat honest with you, I have no idea what position he will end up playing but watching his film, he could be a Chris Gamble (for my fellow Buckeye fans) type of player for the Sooners. The do-everything prospect could play slot receiver, all purpose back, slot corner, and return kicks/punts… all in the first quarter. With Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles entering the portal a few days ago, my gut feeling is that Bowman could make the biggest impact at slot-corner and kick returns. Regardless, with Billy Bowman and J’Tavion Sanders (Texas signee) on the field, the Red River Rivalry is going to be a lot of fun to watch for years to come.
Ja’Tavion Sanders: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… Texas is back. The Steve Sarkisian era is officially underway in Austin and while the talent level that Texas had grown accustomed to in the past is not quite there, there are still some highly-touted players roaming around the Longhorn’s facility. Sanders, who was listed as the #1 ATH in the country and former teammate of the #2 ATH above (imagine having to line up against those two on a Friday night… yikes) has immense potential on both sides of the ball. That is just what coach Sark is going to do, as he said he plans to utilize him as both a TE and WDE and determine what do from there. While all of the national pundits have their input as to which spot his skills best translate, it appears that wherever he puts his focus and energy, it will be hard to miss the 6’4″ 240 pounder out of Denton, TX.
Donovan Edwards: To say that the Wolverines struggled in 2020 would be a massive understatement. We were told all about their passing attack, how Joe Milton was the guy who could make every throw on the field and the key to unlocking the “speed in space” mentality that OC Josh Gattis had preached in the offseason. What we saw was a Michigan program that got away from what had been a major part of their success during the Jim Harbaugh era, running the football. Edwards, (the #3 ranked RB according to 247) enters a running back room that is currently in limbo. With Zach Charbonnet transferring to UCLA, Chris Evans off to the NFL, and Blake Corum getting limited touches last year, the West Bloomfield native has an opportunity to become the bell cow back for a program that ranked 94th in rushing yards per game in 2020.
Terrence Lewis: Don’t look now but Mike Locksley is slowing dragging Maryland out of the basement of the Big Ten, one big time recruit at a time. Last year, he worked his magic by flipping then LSU commit Rakim Jarrett. The 4th ranked WR from the 2020 cycle had a solid freshman campaign, recording 17 catches for 252 yards (14.8 ypc) and 2 TDs in the 4 games he made an appearance. This time the big flip came on the defensive side of the ball, convincing the Florida native to take his talents to College Park instead of Tennessee. Lewis (the #1 ILB according to 247) is a speedy, long, defender who uses his athleticism to make plays all over the field. He can be used a variety of different ways in the second level and will be a much needed addition to a defense that gave up 32.0 points a game through five games last year.
Korey Foreman: You didn’t think I would make this list and not include the composite #1 player in the country, did you? Foreman arrives in LA as the first top five recruit for the Trojans since Iman Marshall (#1 CB, #4 Overall according to 247) in the 2015 class. The 6’4″ 265 lbs defensive end will have a ton of expectation placed on his shoulders but should provide a solid addition to a pass rushing attack that averaged 2.5 sacks a game last year. He is an athletic defender that possesses a quick jump off the snap combined with great technique that allows him to constantly live in the backfield. I really like what USC is building on defense and Foreman has the potential to be the cornerstone of that unit for years to come.
Sam Huard: In 2016, the Washington Huskies were the premier program of the West Coast. They had just won 12 games, won the PAC-12, and made an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Led by star quarterback Jake Browning, who was coming off an incredible season that saw him throw for over 3,400 yards and 43 touchdowns, the future looked bright on the offensive side of the ball. Unfortunately for UW fans, the following years did not live up to hype. Browning threw for a combined 5,911 yards over the next two seasons but only 35 TDs. Huard (#1 PRO QB according to 247 and highest ranked QB to commit to UW since Browning) walks into a open competition in the quarterback room and could take the spot from day one. The 6’2″ prospect has an efficient, effortless release with excellent accuracy and could provide a much needed spark for a passing attack that ranked 67th in the country in 2020.
Sage Ryan: That was one hell of a post-championship hangover, wasn’t it Tiger’s fans? LSU’s hopes for a repeat in 2020 left faster than that shoe Marco Wilson tossed (I had too… I regret nothing). One of the few teams that has a legitimate claim as DBU did not look the part last year, ranking dead last (130th) in passing yards allowed per game, giving up 323.00 per contest. A lot of this can be tied to CB Derek Stingley’s injury, coaching and player turnover, and most obviously, the pandemic. With Stingley postponing his NFL aspirations and Elias Ricks growing into his immense potential, LSU looks to return to peak form in the secondary. Sage Ryan (#2 SAF according to 247) could be an immediate answer at the Safety spot. The athletic and explosive defensive back can cover a lot of ground quickly and would allow his corners to play more aggressively. He also provides another interesting option for the return game alongside Stingley.
Tywone Malone: Lane Kiffin’s first year as the Rebel’s head coach was a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Ole Miss, at times, looked like it was turning a page, competing with and almost upsetting #5 Florida and #2 Alabama to start the season and then defeating #7 Indiana in their bowl game. They also had moments of absolute blunder, losing to both Arkansas and LSU. Just as with Miami FL, a major contributor to Mississippi’s poor defensive performances were due to their abysmal run defense. Ranked 103rd in the NCAA, they gave up 206.9 yards a game on the ground. Malone offers college ready size (6’4″, 305 lbs) with quickness and power that allows him to be used at multiple defensive line positions. He can provide an immediate boost to their run defense and hopefully allow his offensive counterparts to avoid having to win games through shootouts.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: TreVeyon Henderson (#1 RB, Ohio State), JC Latham (#1 OT, Alabama), Kingsley Sumataia (#6 OT, Oregon), JJ McCarthy (#3 PRO QB, Michigan), Thomas Fidone (#1 TE, Nebraska), Raesjon Davis (#4 OLB, USC)
247 Sports – https://247sports.com/