Leonard Fournette

CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Impact Freshmen

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College football recruiting can be a cutthroat business. Every coaching staff is looking for the one player that can change the fortunes of its program.

In recent years, college football fans have seen freshmen such as Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston take their programs to the next level.

Incoming players now hold leverage when teams are recruiting them due to the program’s willingness to do nearly anything — within NCAA guidelines, of course — to acquire these types of game-changing talent. The promise that is most often made revolves around early playing time. More freshmen than ever are given starting spots from the moment they step on campus.

There will undoubtedly be numerous freshmen CFT could have pegged to make an impact this season. There will certainly be plenty left off this list that will. But here are the Top 10 impact freshmen we’ve identified entering the season:

1. LEONARD FOURNETTE, LSU, RB
This is the easy choice. Fournette was considered, at least by one of the major recruiting services, as the No. 1 recruit in the country. At 6-1 and 226 pounds, Fournette is a tailor-made running back for the SEC and LSU’s offense. Fournette also benefits from the Tigers losing two of the team’s top three leading rushers to the NFL. Fournette will still surrender some carries to Kenny Hillard and Terrence Magee, but the freshman is expected to get the bulk of the work. Another benefit for Fournette is playing in LSU’s run-heavy offense. The Tigers ran the ball 62 percent of the time in 2013. They should be expected to do the same behind the team’s massive offensive line.

2. CAM ROBINSON, ALABAMA, OT
During spring practice, the Crimson Tide held a competition at left tackle to replace Cyrus Kouandjio. Robinson, an early enrollee, was able to step in and claim the top spot on the depth chart. Very few offensive linemen are physically ready to start from Day 1, particularly at left tackle. Robinson, however, has a combination of size (6-6, 323 pounds) and athleticism that makes him a rare exception to the rule. Alabama head coach Nick Saban already complimented Robinson by stating, “He’s a very good pass blocker.” Whichever quarterback starts behind center this year for the Crimson Tide will know they have one of the most talented freshmen blocking their blindside.

3. RAEKWON MCMILLAN, OHIO STATE, LB
Since Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State, the coach’s goal was to become faster and more athletic on both sides of the football. Linebacker, in particular, was a sore spot for the team. Depth and play-making ability were lacking sans Ryan Shazier. While McMillan has yet to earn a starting spot, Ohio State’s coaching staff clearly has high expectations for the freshman. At the start of fall camp, McMillan was practicing with the the team’s veterans instead of with the other freshmen. Meyer stated his reason behind doing so was because McMillan acts like a “grown man.” A grown man that will eventually be asked to fill the role vacated by Shazier.

4. JABRILL PEPPERS, MICHIGAN, CB
The Wolverines’ defense was far too prone to giving up big plays against the pass last season. Peppers has the potential to be a dynamic play maker in the secondary to combine with the experience returning  at cornerback in Blake Countess and Ramon Taylor. Peppers’ athleticism projects to multiple positions in the secondary. He’s a cornerback by trade, but the Wolverines could start him at free safety to let him roam the field. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison could use him as the team’s nickel corner. Or he can do all of the above. Where the Wolverines will use Peppers will be decided throughout fall camp.

5. K.D. CANNON, BAYLOR, WR
The Baylor Bears can never have too much talent at wide receiver. Four of the team’s top five targets from last season return this fall. Although, there is one key omission. The team will be without the services Tevin Reese, who was a dynamic deep threat. Cannon has the potential to fill the role Reese left behind and take the top off of defenses.

6. DA’SHAWN HAND, ALABAMA, DE
Hand, who was rated as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 class by Rivals.com, may have been a little higher on this list if not for the depth Alabama already has along its defensive line. Although, with A’Shawn Robinson’s status currently up in the air, Hand should benefit from extra repetitions in camp and may be asked to make a bigger impact in the fall than initially anticipated.

7. JALEN TABOR, FLORIDA, CB
A year ago, Florida fans wondered how Vernon Hargreaves III would assimilate into the Gators’ lineup. For Hargreaves, it was a seamless transition, and he quickly developed into one of the top cornerbacks in the country. Florida’s coaching staff hopes Tabor will have a similar learning curve. The freshman will have an opportunity to prove himself after Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson left Florida for the NFL.

8. KYLE ALLEN, TEXAS A&M, QB
The last time Texas A&M had a freshman start at quarterback, he went on to win the Heisman Trophy. Granted, it was “Johnny Football” and he was a redshirt freshman, but these are the footsteps in which Allen will have to follow. Allen was considered the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation. Expectations will be very high for him to play this season, but he still has to beat out Kenny Hill for the starting spot.

9. QUIN BLANDING, VIRGINIA, S
Blanding has the potential to make a bigger impact on his particular program than anyone else on this list. Despite a 2-10 season last year, Blanding became the catalyst for a tremendous recruiting class for the Cavaliers. Blanding, a five-star recruit, has received first-team repetitions from the start of fall camp. If Blanding becomes the level of defender the Cavaliers expect, he can help push the entire program in the right direction.

10. ALLEN LAZARD, IOWA STATE, WR
When one is looking for impact freshmen, the first stop usually isn’t Ames, Iowa. Lazard is a completely different story. He chose Iowa State, because his brother was already on the roster. While the Cyclones are quite talented at wide receiver, there will be plenty of balls to go around in a passing offense under new offensive coordinator Mark Mangino. At 6-5 and 210 pounds, Lazard will be a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses.

Alabama claims top spot in preseason FWAA-NFF Super 16 poll

TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 13:  Amari Cooper #9 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates scoring a touchdown against Southern Miss Golden Eagles with Cam Robinson #74 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Make it a trifecta for the defending champions.

Just like the AP and Coaches’ polls, Alabama will enter the season as the No. 1 ranked team in the Super 16 poll, a joint venture between the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. (Full disclosure: both myself and CFT‘s Kevin McGuire are voters. I had Florida State at No. 1; Kevin chose LSU.)

The Super 16 poll mirrored both major polls as well by placing Clemson at No. 2, Oklahoma at No. 3 and Florida State at No. 4. The Super 16 mirrored the AP by selecting LSU over Ohio State to round out the top five.

The full poll:

  1. Alabama — 657 total points (26 first-place votes)
  2. Clemson — 628 (9)
  3. Oklahoma — 543
  4. Florida State — 542 (4)
  5. LSU — 510 (3)
  6. Ohio State — 468
  7. Michigan — 404 (1)
  8. Stanford — 343
  9. Tennessee — 330
  10. Notre Dame — 305
  11. TCU — 172
  12. Ole Miss — 171
  13. Michigan State — 168
  14. Houston — 160
  15. Washington — 111
  16. UCLA — 73

Iowa, Georgia, Oklahoma State and Oregon rounded out the leaders among the Also Receiving Votes crowd.

Oregon unveils Marcus Mariota Sports Performance Center

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 05: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Oregon Ducks scrambles in the first half against the Arizona Wildcats during the PAC-12 Championships at Levi's Stadium on December 5, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
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Oregon gave a lot to Marcus Mariota. But in the end, it’ll be the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner that will give more to his alma mater.

In addition to the aforementioned stiffarm trophy, the Tennessee Titans quarterback will serve as the namesake of the facility that Oregon has turned into its latest state-of-the-art toy. The 30,000-square foot renovation, funded by Phil Knight, is complete with all the bells and whistles that focuses on making Duck athletes the healthiest in college sports.

“The goal of this project was to create one space where we could utilize the most state-of-the-art technology to improve student-athlete wellness and emphasize our commitment to the health and safety of our student-athletes,” said Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens in a statement. “Thanks to the incredible generosity of Phil and Penny Knight, we now have a world-class facility that is going to take the student-athlete experience at the University of Oregon to a level not previously seen anywhere on the collegiate level.”

And, yes, it comes with plenty of Nike branding, complete with a new equipment room that boasts 2.5 miles of shelving on 19-foot ceilings.

“Our hope was to recreate a Niketown-like atmosphere, with bright lighting and a lot of energy to showcase all of the unique features of our uniforms and other equipment,” director of equipment operations Aaron Wasson said.

Oregon representatives took fact-finding trips to NASA and Australia to research facilities which, in my favorite anecdote, includes the ability to complete up to 500 loads of laundry at once.

SEC announces coaches’ all-conference teams

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 5: Wide receiver Calvin Ridley #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide carries the ball against defensive back Quincy Wilson #6 of the Florida Gators in the first quarter during the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome on December 5, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
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The SEC announced its coaches’ All-SEC selections on Thursday and, as you can imagine, these teams would be near impossible to beat on a field. Obviously, they’re stacked with the best players from college football’s most competitive conference. But they’d be extra-impossible to beat because the offense would take the field with 12 players on each side of the ball.

Some leagues name 15 or more players to their all-league teams, though, so the SEC isn’t the worst offender on the block. But, still, come on.

Anyway, here’s the first team:

First Team Offense
QB – Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
RB – Leonard Fournette, LSU
RB – Nick Chubb, Georgia
WR – Calvin Ridley, Alabama
WR – Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
TE – O.J. Howard, Alabama
C – Ethan Pocic, LSU
OL – Cam Robinson, Alabama
OL – Dan Skipper, Arkansas
OL – Greg Pyke, Georgia
OL – Alex Kozan, Auburn
AP – Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

First Team Defense
DL – Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
DL – Jonathan Allen, Alabama
DL – Derek Barnett, Tennessee
DL – Carl Lawson, Auburn
LB – Reuben Foster, Alabama
LB – Kendell Beckwith, LSU
LB – Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee
LB – Jarrad Davis, Florida
DB – Eddie Jackson, Alabama
DB – Jalen Tabor, Florida
DB – Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
DB – Tre’Davious White, LSU

Specialists
PK – Daniel Carlson, Auburn
P – J.K. Scott, Alabama
RS – Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
RS – Evan Berry, Tennessee

The coaches’ selections speak to the power imbalance in the conference; 20 of the 28 first-team slots (71 percent) went to West Division players. Of the eight East players chosen, half hail from Tennessee. Alabama comprised a quarter of the team with seven selections, followed by LSU and Texas A&M matching Tennessee’s four — although A&M’s selections were really just Myles Garrett plus Christian Kirk in three separate positions.

The SEC’s season begins a week from tonight when Tennessee hosts Appalachian State (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) and South Carolina visits Vanderbilt (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

CFT Preseason Previews: Heisman Watch

TALLAHASSEE, FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Dalvin Cook #4 of the Florida State Seminoles runs for a 24-yard touchdown against the South Florida Bulls in the third quarter at Doak Campbell Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Tallahassee, Florida. Florida State defeated South Florida 34-14. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The 2015 season was the Year of the Running Back in college football. Alabama’s Derrick Henry became just the second ball-carrier to claim the Stiffarm Trophy since the turn of the century, and running backs accounted for the top two and five of the top eight voting slots. Three of those five are back this season. With that in mind, will running backs continue their forward momentum and claim back-to-back Heismans, and the first non-Alabama running back Heisman, since 1998-99? Or will quarterbacks wrestle it back? Or how about a wide receiver, an offensive lineman or a defensive…. okay, let’s keep this realistic.

Leonard Fournette, LSU RB: Undoubtedly the most talented player in college football. Problem is, he knows it. The talk of him sitting out the season to devote himself to a nine-month NFL Draft prep is an odd crusade for some in football, but it’ll never happen. Still, though, Fournette is already dealing with injuries this season. He knows the pot of gold awaiting him on the other side of that rainbow. Will he dig deep, put his head down and charge for those two extra yards, or will he opt for self-preservation and do his best to simply ride this season out?

Deshaun Watson, Clemson QB: He’s got the skills, and he’s got the tools around him. Better yet, Clemson’s defense will probably take a step back this season, meaning he could stay on the field for more fourth quarters as the Tigers pile on points to put people away. So, yeah, everything is here to make a Heisman run. On the other hand, how often does the preseason favorite actually win the Heisman these days? There was Marcus Mariota in 2014, yes. Before that you may have to go back to Troy Smith all the way back in 2006.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford RB: The quarterback is new. The wide receiving corps and offensive line are re-tooling. Everyone in the stadium knows McCaffrey is getting the ball as often as possible, and in as many ways as the Cardinal can possibly get him the ball. Should his numbers remain anywhere close to his 2015 statistics, McCaffrey could benefit from voters’ desire to choose a “throw-back” candidate.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State RB: Cook’s numbers from a year ago — 229 carries, 1,691 yards, 19 touchdowns, a ridiculous 7.38 yards per carry, a full foot-and-a-half more than the next closest runner with at least 225 attempts — were Heisman-esque, yet only good enough to get him to seventh place in last year’s voting. Do that again on a team that should seriously contend for a national championship and Cook may jump all the way to first.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB: The knock against Mayfield is that he’s a system quarterback. But if you’re going to be a system quarterback, what better system to run than one with two All-America caliber running backs, playing in a conference where 40 points a game is a baseline, and with one of college football’s strongest brand names on your helmet?

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB: Barrett has been oddly overlooked this preseason. All he did two years ago was toss 34 touchdowns against 10 picks, hit nearly 65 percent of his throws for nine yards per attempt, finish second nationally in passing efficiency whilst rushing for nearly 1,000 yards — all as a redshirt freshman.

Quick hits on the rest of the field:

Josh Rosen, UCLA QB: Maybe the best pro-prospect in college football, but NFL scouts may like him more than Heisman voters.

Royce Freeman, Oregon RB: The overlooked running back of 2015 — 1,800 yards, 17 touchdowns. But will the Ducks’ defense hold his candidacy back?

Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech QB: The most talented in the long line of prolific Red Raider quarterbacks. But can Texas Tech get enough stops to mount him a serious campaign?

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan ATH: Could he follow another Wolverine’s path to a do-it-all Heisman win?

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M DE: If the Heisman is going to a full-time defensive player, Garrett is it. But if Suh, Clowney, et. al., couldn’t break through that glass ceiling, why would Garrett?