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.

Star WR Michael Pittman confirms he’ll play in USC’s bowl game

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(Pardon us as we’ve been catching up on a few things due to some very significant technical difficulties.)

USC fans can assuage their anguish somewhat over the retention of Clay Helton with the knowledge that one of their school’s most explosive weapons on offense will be available during the postseason. There, feel better?

After some uncertainty and speculation, Michael Pittman announced on Twitter this week that he will be playing in the Trojans’ bowl game. USC will face Iowa in Holiday Bowl Dec. 27, the first meeting between the football programs since 2002.

Pittman led the Trojans this season in receptions (95), receiving yards (1,222) and receiving touchdowns (11). The catches and yards led the Pac-12, while the scores were second.

The fourth-year senior was named first-team all-conference and is a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award.

FAU makes hiring of Willie Taggart as Lane Kiffin’s replacement official

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A week ago, it was reported that Willie Taggartbadly wants a second act” at USF.  While that job ultimately went to a Clemson coordinator, Taggart still ended up landing yet another gig in the Sunshine State.

With rumors swirling throughout the day, Florida Atlantic confirmed Wednesday evening that Taggart has been named as the Owls’ new head football coach.  Taggart replaces Lane Kiffin, who left shortly after FAU won the Conference USA championship game Saturday for the Ole Miss job.

“I’m grateful to Brian White and President Kelly for their belief in me to lead the football program at Florida Atlantic University,” a statement from Taggart began. “I’m looking forward to long-term success here. I think our players and the university deserve that commitment. Family is extremely important to me. I couldn’t do what I do without their love and support and all of us are looking forward to being here in Paradise for the foreseeable future.”

After four years as the head coach at South Florida, Taggart left USF for Oregon — for one season as it turned out as he pulled up stakes from the Pac-12 school for the Florida State job in December of 2017.  Less than two full seasons later, though, Taggart was shown the door by the Seminoles in early November.

Taggart is a native of Bradenton, Fla. and has deep, extensive recruiting ties in the state, which will only aid him in taking over a football program that has won two conference championships the past three years.

Taggart has never won a conference crown during his 10 seasons as a head coach, although he did claim a division title at South Florida in 2016.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have Coach Taggart on board to lead our football program,” FAU athletic director Brian White said in his statement. “Coach Taggart is a proven program builder who will develop strong relationships with our student-athletes and develop them as future leaders. His deep relationships around the state of Florida and the nation will be vital in recruiting as well. The traits he brings to the table will allow us to continue building upon our recent success.”

FAU’s Harrison Bryant named Mackey Award winner as nation’s best TE

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In a change of pace, we come to an award that doesn’t involve either Joe Burrow or Chase Young.

The John Mackey Award winner was announced earlier in the day Wednesday, with Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant claiming this year’s honor.  The Mackey is handed out annually to the nation’s top tight end.

Established in 2000, the 2018 winner was Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson.

This past season, Bryant caught 65 passes for 1,0004 yards and seven touchdowns.  Bryant led all FBS tight ends in both catches and receiving yards.

Bryant beat out seven other tight ends for the 2019 Mackey.

  • Hunter Bryant, Washington
  • Brycen Hopkins, Purdue
  • Brevin Jordan, Miami
  • Charlie Kolar, Iowa State
  • Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri
  • Colby Parkinson, Stanford
  • Giovanni Ricci, Western Michigan

Ole Miss announces future home-and-home with Oregon State

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With the 2019 regular season put to bed, there is some future scheduling news on which to hit — and some very rare news at that.

Wednesday afternoon, Ole Miss announced that it had reached an agreement on a future home-and-home series with Oregon State.  The Beavers will travel to Oxford Sept. 18, 2027, with the Rebels making the trek to Corvallis on Aug. 31, 2030.

The 2027 game will mark the first-ever between the football programs.

According to Ole Miss, they have played a current member of the Pac-12 just twice, with both of those games coming against Cal.  Those games, incidentally, came in the last three years, including this season.

Oregon State last played a team from the SEC in 1987 when they traveled to Georgia.  A team from that conference has never played in Corvallis.