10 True Freshmen to Watch in 2012
By Matt Smith
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SEC and ACC teams combined to sign a whopping 48 players in the Rivals.com Top 100 last year.
With all the attention of late being given to the 2013 class, it can be easy to overlook the class of 2012, most of which have just recently arrived on their respective college campuses. With every passing year, true freshmen are making more and more of an impact at the nation’s biggest program.
Last year, Sammy Watkins burst onto the scene at Clemson with a highlight reel of big plays, while Jadeveon Clowney played a key role in South Carolina’s defense that finished No. 3 nationally. Whether it be due to a position of need, injuries, or simply immense talent, coaches often must unleash their prized possessions at the outset of their first seasons.
SEC and ACC teams signed a whopping 48 players in the Rivals.com Top 100 last year. Some will be developmental projects, but these 10, among others, should make an instant impact on the gridiron this fall.
Clemson FS Travis Blanks
The Tallahassee native spurned hometown Florida State to sign with the Tigers, enrolling in January and going through spring practice. On a defense which lacks big-time playmakers, Blanks has an opportunity to contribute early. Returning starters Jonathan Meeks and Rashard Hall will likely retain their roles, but Blanks is more talented than both and will be asked to lead the unit in 2013 after Meeks and Hall leave. Hall is also still recovering from a knee injury suffered last season. At 6’1” and 195 pounds, Blanks gives the Tigers great versatility as both as a big hitter and a pass defender, and could play cornerback if a need develops.
Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon
Yeldon’s name first sent shockwaves through the Southland last winter, when he reneged on his commitment to Auburn and signed with rival Alabama. He joined the Crimson Tide in the spring, and gained 179 total yards in the team’s A-Day game. With Trent Richardson off to the NFL and Dee Hart only one year off of a torn ACL suffered last summer, Yeldon gives Alabama the second option in the backfield that head coach Nick Saban demands. Eddie Lacy should start, but Yeldon is a third-down back in a power back’s body. That’s a lethal combination that opposing defenses are going to have to counter both early and often this season.
Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham
This list wouldn’t be accurate if it didn’t include the consensus No. 1 player in the nation in the 2012 class. The player known by most as “DGB” (get it?) was thought to be favoring Arkansas, just down the road from his hometown of Springfield, Mo., but he opted to stay in state on National Signing Day. At 6’6”, Green-Beckham might be the most physically gifted receiver the sport has seen since Calvin Johnson. He did not have the luxury of going through spring drills, but is still expected to start right away in head coach Gary Pinkel’s spread offense. He’s not quite the burner that former Tiger star Jeremy Maclin was, but he’s much taller and rangier.
Florida State RB Mario Pender
The Seminoles offense was far from a thing of beauty last season, as the team sputtered to a 9-4 record after beginning the season ranked in the top five. That will have to change in 2012, especially the running game that ranked No. 104 in the nation. Along with sophomore Devonta Freeman, Pender will be asked to bring some life to the ‘Noles rushing attack. At 6’0”, Pender is bigger than Freeman, and the latter sat out the spring with a back injury. The status of James Wilder Jr. following an arrest and a subsequent probation violation leaves the team somewhat thin in the backfield.
Virginia Tech RB J.C. Coleman
Logan Thomas had plenty of complements in his first season under center with the Hokies, but now faces life without David Wilson, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. The team signed a pair of top running back recruits, but Drew Harris must spend the season at prep school. The team’s top two backs – Coleman and redshirt freshman Michael Holmes - have yet to take a college snap. Coleman is faster and shiftier than Holmes, while Holmes is stronger between the tackles, so both should see the field when the situation best fits their respective skill sets. A fast start from Coleman, along with help from a mobile Thomas, will go a long way in helping the Hokies overcome the loss of Wilson.
Georgia LB Josh Harvey-Clemons
Harvey-Clemons should escape punishment despite his presence at the arrest of Isaiah Crowell last week that cost Crowell his spot on the team, so the Valdosta native should be in good standing when the Bulldogs hit the practice field next month. With Cornelius Washington shifting to defensive end this season, there is ample opportunity for Harvey-Clemons to contribute at linebacker. He’s likely to play strongside linebacker, opposite sack machine Jarvis Jones. With his 6’5” frame, Harvey-Clemons could also see some time on offense in goal line situations.
Miami (FL) CB Tracy Howard
Plucking Howard away from presumptive favorite Florida on National Signing Day was a major coup for Al Golden and the Hurricanes. The five-star recruit and Rivals.com’s No. 1 cornerback in the nation could step right into a defense that needs major retooling. The term “shutdown corner” has all but gone away thanks to spread offenses and tougher pass defending rules, but Howard has the tools to be as close to that as there is in this era of football. The secondary is the only unit on the defense with any significant experience, but the cornerback position opposite Brandon McGee will be up for grabs. Expect Howard to quickly snag it in August.
Ole Miss DE Channing Ward
In both the 2012 and 2013 classes, new Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze has fared well on the recruiting trail despite the team going 1-15 in SEC play since 2010. His biggest get was Ward, who chose Ole Miss over Florida and LSU during the Under Armor All-American Game in January. At 6’4” and 250 pounds, Ward could develop into the type of elite defender that has defined the SEC’s recent era of dominance. He spent most of his high school snaps at linebacker, but is likely to play with his hand on the ground in Oxford. Kentrell Lockett is gone after an injury-plagued career, so the Rebels are looking for playmakers up front. Ward excels both when attacking and when dropping into coverage.
Arkansas LB Otha Peters
The Razorbacks tended to develop their star players under Bobby Petrino, often signing recruiting classes ranked in the lower half of the SEC. In Petrino’s final class before losing his job, the most notable signee was Peters, a linebacker who can help fill a position of need for a unit that lost mainstays Jerico Nelson and Jerry Franklin after last season. The Hogs were even forced to move starting defensive end Tenarius Wright to middle linebacker this season. Peters grew up less than an hour away from LSU’s campus in Covington, La., but was never offered by the Tigers, eventually choosing Arkansas over Tennessee. He should crack the starting lineup and have a chip on his shoulder by the time LSU comes to Fayetteville in late November.
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Randy Edsall didn’t hire Mike Locksley as offensive coordinator because of his play-calling skills (which helped him win all of two games in two-plus seasons as head coach at New Mexico). Locksley is a monster recruiter, and Edsall hopes to capitalize on the growing talent in the Washington, D.C. region. His plan came to fruition quickly with the signing of Diggs, a five-star receiver who chose the Terps over Auburn, California, Florida and Ohio State. Maryland needs all the help it can get after a 2-10 season in Edsall’s first year. If you’re looking for the 2012 version of Watkins, Diggs might be the guy. He’ll be a starter from day one in College Park.