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Here Comes the Future: Five Freshmen Who Could Star in College Football This Season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Freshman year is supposed to be an adjustment period, a gradual transition from high school to college life — except, of course, for highly touted football recruits. Now more than ever, freshmen are expected to make an immediate impact — or in the case of redshirts, to wait for a year and then make an impact — as the number of underclassmen leaving for the NFL continues to soar. It’s become increasingly important for college football fans to be educated about freshmen going into a given season. Here are five ballyhooed newbies to keep an eye on in 2016.

Blake Barnett, QB, Alabama

Alabama has never enjoyed particularly great quarterback play during Nick Saban’s legendary tenure in Tuscaloosa. The likes of Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, and Jake Coker have been decent, but far from spectacular. As such, the possibility of an elite passer joining the Crimson Tide has always been an intriguing hypothetical: If Saban could build a dynasty — winning four of the last seven national championships — with merely above-average QB talent, then how good could the Tide be with a Heisman Trophy favorite under center?

This season, we might just get our answer. Barnett, a redshirt freshman and the top-rated pocket passer in the class of 2015, according to ESPN, is drawing rave reviews at practice and is in the mix to be named Coker’s successor. The 6-foot-5, 211-pound California native is the type of recruit who usually ends up at USC or Notre Dame (where he had been committed), and the prospect of pairing him with Alabama’s perennially excellent ground game is downright scary. Barnett threw for 3,404 yards as a high school senior in 2014. There’s no way offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can mess this up, right?

Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia

First-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart may have already notched his biggest win of 2016 by maintaining Eason’s commitment to Georgia in the wake of predecessor Mark Richt’s dismissal. The five-star pocket passer verbally pledged to the school way back in 2014, but engaged in a brief flirtation with rival Florida after Richt got canned last November. Still, Smart convinced Eason to stay between the hedges by hiring Jim Chaney as the Dawgs’ offensive coordinator and Sam Pittman as their offensive line coach. And now the Lake Stevens, Washington, native looks to be pulling away from senior Greyson Lambert in the competition for the starting job.

Eason, who passed for more than 10,000 yards in his high school career, has secured the endorsement of Dawgs legend Hines Ward, and has impeccable taste in emoji to boot:

Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State

When a targeting penalty in the Fiesta Bowl prematurely ended Joey Bosa’s illustrious career at Ohio State, little brother Nick channeled his inner Kylo Ren:

So far, Bosa the Younger has made good on his promise. On the first day of fall camp, Bosa stood out for looking “exactly like his older brother,” per Eleven Warriors. “His mannerisms, the way he walks, the way he runs, [the] way he tears through drills,” were reportedly all reminiscent of the no. 3 pick in April’s NFL draft. That’s in addition to his Twitter handle and interest in electronic dance music, and of course his position and his jersey number, 97.

No word yet on whether Nick plans to adopt Joey’s signature shrug celebration, but if he does, expect to see a lot of it for the Buckeyes this fall. He missed part of his senior season at St. Thomas Aquinas High with an injury, but had 56 tackles, including 29.5 for loss, as a junior.

Kyle Davis, WR, Auburn

Davis, a four-star prospect out of Georgia, has turned heads in practice and should make an immediate impact given Auburn’s recent losses at receiver. Senior wideout Tony Stevens has lauded Davis’s “tremendous” size, and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has raved about his physicality, which is often an issue for incoming true freshmen who play skill positions. If the Tigers are to rebound from last year’s disappointing 7–6 campaign, the kid who tallied 1,499 receiving yards over his career at Archer High in Georgia will likely play a starring role.

Despite undergoing offseason shoulder and foot surgeries, Davis is expected to be healthy by Auburn’s much-anticipated Week 1 tilt against Clemson. That has shootout written all over it.

Rashan Gary, DT, Michigan

Expectations are always going to be sky high for the nation’s top-ranked recruit, but Gary faces added pressure: He’s the face of Michigan’s Harbaugh Revolution. The 6-foot-5, 287-pounder sealed the Wolverines’ ascension into College Football Playoff contention with his commitment on National Signing Day, and he’s already slated to start for what could be the best (and blitz-happiest) defense in the FBS. Most importantly, his dab is on point:

Gary’s athleticism is widely regarded as “crazy,” which is something Michigan had recently been lacking before Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor. And while Gary has the frame of a linebacker, he’s been a pass-rushing monster on the line; he totaled 27.5 sacks over his junior and senior years at Paramus Catholic High in New Jersey. As an Ohio State fan, I’m positively terrified of Gary’s potential, and every Big Ten quarterback surely is, too.