Recruiting is fun to follow and cover (or, well, "fun" to cover), and recruiting coverage is always justified by the belief that recruiting is the lifeblood of college football. It is, to be certain, but the players you see sign with your respective schools of choice on Wednesday likely won't be the stars from Day 1 that you assume they will be.
Freshmen who make big impacts in college football are rare, and true freshmen are even rarer. Johnny Manziel was a redshirt freshman this year, not a true freshman, and many other talented quarterbacks (UCLA's Brett Hundley comes to mind) take redshirt years to get acclimated to college offenses. It's easier for a player at an offensive skill position or a physically mature defensive lineman to come in and overwhelm with speed or strength, and there were certainly some of those sorts of players on the field in 2012. But Sammy Watkins-esque players are rare, and typically need the right situation to succeed.
It's also easier for early enrollees to make big impacts early, and important to remember that some of the ballyhooed players making commitments on National Signing Day may not even play in their freshman years, while there are players on many campuses right now who opted out of the glitzy final commitment and enrolled at schools in January. Coaches love early enrollees for a variety of reasons, as I detailed at Alligator Army last week:
Early enrollees get, in effect, an extra semester of their freshman year, which is an extra semester of work in the weight room, an extra spring practice to get into the swing of things with coaches, and an extra semester of time in the classroom before having to practice all the time to get players off on the right foot academically. Those are all major benefits both for players and coaches, and when you combine them with the scholarship math early enrollees enable, it's no surprise that the trend is on the rise.
And early enrollees have been around longer and doing more than you think: The last three Heisman Trophy winners were all early enrollees, with Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel getting head starts at Baylor and Texas A&M and Cam Newton doing the same at Florida, though he would later transfer, and Jeff Driskel followed Newton's lead as an early enrollee at Florida ... after Newton followed Tim Tebow's lead as an early enrollee at Florida.
When trying to decide which freshmen your team will feature in the fall of 2013, consider which ones are already on campus, working hard and endearing themselves to the coaches.
Of course, a lack of early enrollment doesn't stop all-galaxy recruits from coming in and making waves. Here are, in reverse order, the 15 true freshmen that made the biggest impacts in college football in 2012:
15. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
Rivals Ranking: No. 1 (No. 1 WR), 5* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 1 (No. 1 WR), 5*
You know the nation's No. 1 recruit didn't have as great a year as expected when you can't remember how to spell his name, as I couldn't with Green-Beckham before looking it up. DGB wasn't b-a-d for M-i-z (s-o-r-r-y), leading the Tigers in receiving touchdowns with five and catching 28 balls for 395 yards, but a marijuana arrest led to a suspension, and Missouri's offense just wasn't very good in its first trip through the SEC, so this season was just an underwhelming one, given his talent. But it would have been a damn good season for nearly any other true freshman. Look for Green-Beckham to break out in 2013.
14. Ronald Darby, Florida State
Rivals Ranking: No. 68 (No. 2 CB), 4* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 25 (No. 2 CB), 5*
With three Rivals five-star prospects in Florida State's 2012 recruiting class, Darby emerging as the best freshman on the field was a bit of a surprise. But a secondary weakened by the sudden offseason departure of Greg Reid gave Darby an opportunity to step into a sizable role, and he made good on it, earning the ACC Freshman Defensive Player of the Year award.
13. Nelson Agholor, USC
Rivals Ranking: No. 18 (No. 3 WR), 4* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 31 (No. 3 ATH), 5*
Sure, Agholor was the third wide receiver in an offense that also had Marqise Lee, who turned in an all-time receiving season, and Robert Woods, who had turned in an all-time season the previous year. But he also continued the trend of USC freshmen wideouts having substantial success, with 340 yards on just 19 catches, an average of 17.9 yards per catch that outstripped both Lee (14.6) and Woods (11.1) and topped all Trojans. He'll step into a bigger role with Woods' departure in 2013.
12. Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech
Rivals Ranking: 3* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 944 (No. 52 RB), 3*
You haven't heard of Dixon, and that's fine, but the Bulldogs' newcomer running back ran for 1,194 yards, more than 100 per game, and scored a staggering 28 touchdowns, rushing for 27. Louisiana Tech had one of the nation's best offenses in 2012, to be fair, but Dixon made a difference in it. And to put his 28 TDs in perspective: Montee Ball, the FBS career touchdown leader, got his 28th touchdown in the second game of his junior season.
11. Early enrollee Keith Marshall, Georgia
Rivals Ranking: No. 48 (No. 2 RB), 4* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 12 (No. 1 APB), 5*
Marshall was an early enrollee, and was the faster half of the "Gurshall" combination that helped spur Georgia to the SEC East title, accumulating 759 rushing yards and eight touchdowns despite never getting more than 12 carries in a game. Marshall's stats would probably be significantly better, too, if not for the fact that he shared a backfield.
10. Jonathan Bullard, Florida
Rivals Ranking: No. 6 (No. 1 SDE), 5* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 13 (No. 1 SDE), 4*
It's hard to separate Bullard from his fellow Florida freshman, Dante Fowler Jr., but Bullard played earlier and was slightly better to begin the year, though he ended up recording slightly smaller numbers (27 tackles, five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks). Bullard had seven quarterback hurries to Fowler's one, though, and profiles as a lineman rather than a hybrid BUCK player going forward, which should make him slightly more valuable in the lineman-rich SEC. Eventually.
9. Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
Rivals Ranking: No. 28 (No. 3 WDE), 5* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 36 (No. 5 WDE), 5*
Fowler came on a little later than Bullard, but tallied bigger numbers (30 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) and looked more explosive coming around the edge. If Bullard's the bull-rusher on one side, Fowler's the terror who combines speed and power on the other, and both should be very good bookends for the Gators for at least the next two years.
8. Shaq Thompson, Washington
Rivals Ranking: No. 4 (No. 1 DB), 5* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 4 (No. 1 S), 5*
All Thompson tallied in 2012: 74 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three picks, and a blocked field goal that turned into a Washington touchdown. So, yes, he basically made good on his ranking.
7. Devonte Fields, TCU
Rivals Ranking: No. 170 (No. 12 WDE), 3* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 112 (No. 4 SDE), 3*
TCU's not used to having great freshmen: typically, the Horned Frogs that have success do so after a couple of years in Gary Patterson's program. Fields is a massive exception to that rule, putting up 53 tackles, 10 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss, four pass break-ups, three QB hurries, and two forced fumbles. He was named Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, and got Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors from the Associated Press.
6. May enrollee Duke Johnson, Miami
Rivals Ranking: No. 30 (No. 1 APB), 5* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 19 (No. 3 APB), 5*
Miami fans looking for a spark to what had become a stagnant offense got one in Duke Johnson. He led the ACC in all-purpose yards with 2,060, and nearly matched his 947 yards on the ground with 892 on kick returns. He averaged just over seven yards per touch, and nearly seven yards per carry, both marks of an excellent open field runner. If Miami can continue getting him the ball in space, he'll continue to be dangerous.
5. Early enrollee T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
Rivals Ranking: No. 12 (No. 2 RB), 5* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 29 (No. 2 RB), 5*
Yeldon rushed for 1,108 yards and had 13 touchdowns, but his greatest utility to the Crimson Tide was as a change of pace for Eddie Lacy. As soon as Lacy would come out of the game, and defenses got a reprieve from his pounding style, the fluid and speedy Yeldon would enter, giving them a different set of nightmares.
Yeldon made the biggest play by a freshman in 2012, too, catching A.J. McCarron's screen pass and taking it to paydirt against LSU. It was one of just 11 catches Yeldon had on the year.
4. Todd Gurley, Georgia
Rivals Ranking: No. 42 (No. 5 RB), 4* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 74 (No. 7 RB), 4*
Here's some injustice: Gurley was the SEC's leading rusher entering bowl season, and wasn't selected to the All-SEC first team, with Alabama's Eddie Lacy and Florida's Mike Gillislee snagging the honors. And then Johnny Manziel ran for 229 yards against Oklahoma, taking Gurley's SEC rushing title away from him despite the Georgia rookie finishing with 1,385 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. It's just not fair!
Also unfair: Georgia having Marshall and Gurley in the backfield. While the two backs split time early, Gurley was being fed the lion's share of carries by midseason, and had more than 100 yards in five of his last seven games, and topped the century mark against both Florida and Alabama. Oh, and Gurley had more touchdowns and a higher per-carry average in his freshman year than Herschel Walker did as a freshman in 1980.
3. Leonard Williams, USC
Rivals Ranking: No. 53 (No. 5 SDE), 4* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 50 (No. 3 SDE), 5*
Want a great unsung freshman? Williams is your man, with 64 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, four pass break-ups, and a pick for a much-maligned USC defense that essentially wasted his efforts.
But the really funny thing about Williams is that he's not a West Coast product, like so many stars at USC: he's from Daytona Beach's Mainland High, and both Florida and Florida State were in on him, hoping to add another five-star player to their lines, before he picked the Trojans on National Signing Day. And Florida State could have theoretically had Williams, Fowler, Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman, and Chris Casher in one defensive line class, but instead ended up with two touted freshmen who made little impact and struggled for playing time behind upperclassmen (Edwards, Goldman) and a third who took an injury redshirt (Casher).
2. Stefon Diggs, Maryland
Rivals Ranking: No. 8 (No. 2 WR), 5* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 8 (No. 2 WR), 5*
Diggs shocked many when he chose to stay in state and opted for Maryland over Ohio State and Florida many days after National Signing Day in 2012. His play was less shocking, though it was definitely electric: Diggs had 54 catches for 868 yards and six touchdowns, production that was better than any two other Maryland receivers combined, and he added another 114 yards as a runner, 713 yards and two touchdowns as a kick returner, and 221 yards as a punt returner.
Sammy Watkins' freshman year was universally hailed as one of the best in college football history, and rightly so. But Watkins had 2,294 all-purpose yards in 13 games as one of a few talented Clemson players; Diggs had 1,896 in 11 games with very little around him and a converted linebacker at quarterback for some of those games. You can't pick wrong between the two players, but I think I'd rather have Diggs, sacrilegious as it sounds.
1. Early enrollee Amari Cooper, Alabama
Rivals Ranking: No. 45 (No. 6 WR), 4* | 247Composite Ranking: No. 45 (No. 5 WR), 4*
If there were a Heisman Trophy for true freshmen — and there probably should be, even if it's an informal one — it would go to Cooper, who got some luck (highly touted receiver DeAndrew White's early injury opened up a spot in the 'Bama receiving corps) and turned it into stardom. Cooper had 58 catches for 999 yards, and his 11 receiving touchdowns tied him for 13th nationally, but his impact was clear to anyone who watched Alabama play and had no idea of his numbers: he was the big-play threat in the passing game the Crimson Tide had lacked since Julio Jones left for the NFL.
Cooper enrolled early at Alabama, just like Yeldon, and wasn't quite as hyped as Green-Beckham, Diggs, or Agholor coming out of high school. But he's proof that enrolling early is good, that talent and hard work can get anyone a starring role, even at Alabama, and that if you, high school athlete, want to be great, Alabama is a great place to go.
Now, that's really just my list, and I know I've left off talented true freshmen; I'm already preparing to hear that Stanford's trio of offensive linemen, Florida's D.J. Humphries, and Ole Miss' Isaac Gross were all left off. Let me know which other ones I missed in the comments, please?