Da’Shawn Hand

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.

SEC schools once again dominate in recruiting rankings

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The SEC is home to seven of the top ten recruiting classes and all 14 SEC schools finished in the top 50 on the team rankings compiled by Rivals.com. Or, just another National Signing Day.

It is just silly how highly respected the SEC is viewed by the recruiting experts, and it does not appear there is much standing in the way any time soon. Worst yet for other conferences, the praise is deserved.

Alabama was once again crowned the recruiting national champions, their fourth straight such national title. The Crimson Tide highlighted their class with the signing of the top ranked player in the country according to Rivals, defensive end Da’Shawn Hand. Texas A&M signed the nation’s second-ranked player, defensive end Myles Garrett. LSU celebrated the signing of running back Leonard Fournette, the nation’s fourth ranked player. SEC schools thrived by keeping some of the top talent in its footprint close to home and capitalized by luring in some of the top players from outside the conference’s boundaries. Simply put, the nation’s best players are likely to be developed in SEC territory and those that are not are top candidates to move to the southeast.

In all, 45 players on the Rivals 100 signed with an SEC school. That leaves 55 players in the Rivals 100 for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac 12 (and Notre Dame) to battle over. Defensing national champion Florida State signed four of those players. Clemson got three. Ohio State had an impressive class with eight players from the Rivals 100, but the rest of the Big Ten was left in the dust. Urban Meyer’s SEC approach to coaching is having an effect with the Buckeyes, and it is little surprise why Ohio State is running away from the rest of the Big Ten. Meyer’s SEC flair is a difference.

The Pac 12 may have had a successful day across the country, including picking out some of the top recruits from under the SEC’s nose, but even with the kind of talent put together across the west coast conference it is clear the SEC is still the dominant force from top to bottom.

As far as surprises go there were not a whole lot to see in the SEC. Alabama getting linebacker Rashaun Evans right out of Auburn’s back yard raised some eyebrows but most of the day went according to plan. Tennessee made a bit of a statement in Butch Jones’ first full recruiting year with the Vols. Tennessee signed 31 players and finished with the third best recruiting class in the SEC despite having a losing record in 2012. The Vols added plenty of depth on the roster and should start to benefit from some of the new additions quickly. Among the signees at Tennessee are five-star wide receiver Josh Malone and five-star running back Jalen Hurd. Not one recruit added by Tennessee on signing day is below three stars according to Rivals. Just about every school succeeded in filling some needs, including Florida with the addition of dual-threat quarterback Treon Harris out of Miami. Harris had previously been committed to Florida State, so the Gators fill a need by benefiting from the Seminoles having a young Heisman Trophy quarterback.

Even despite looking like a mess of a recruiting class after James Franklin left for Penn State, Vanderbilt managed to keep the program above water on signing day. The Commodores may have fallen significantly in the team recruiting rankings over the last month, but ended the day with 12 four-star players and one five-star recruit, defensive back Jalen Tabor. Considering the circumstances, Vanderbilt more than survived a tough situation.

National Team Recruiting Rankings by Rivals.com

1. Alabama
2. LSU
5. Tennessee
6. Texas A&M
7. Florida
8. Georgia
9. Auburn
16. South Carolina
17. Kentucky
19. Ole Miss
29. Arkansas
35. Missouri
41. Mississippi State
50. Vanderbilt

Top recruit Da’Shawn Hand to announce decision Thursday

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The nation’s top college football recruit in the Class of 2014 will make his decision official on Thursday afternoon. Defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, of Virginia, will announce where he will be heading in 2014 live on NBCSN’s SportsDash with Yahoo Sports live Thursday at noon ET on NBC Sports Network’s SportsDash with Yahoo Sports and Rivals.com.

Hand is the top defensive end recruit according to Rivals.com, as well as the top recruit in the state of Virginia and in the nation. It is expected Hand will be choosing between Alabama, Florida and Michigan. LSU and USC may be upset picks. Hand just visited Florida this past weekend, so Gator fans are hoping something good came out of Saturday afternoon after seeing the Gators lose their homecoming game to Vanderbilt. Hand also visited Alabama in October and Michigan in September. Those are the only three official visits Hand made this season. Wherever he ends up going, he will be a force to reckon with in the trenches for opposing offensive linemen.

Hand’s decision will be made from his school’s gym at Woodbridge High School in Woodbridge, Virginia. He will be joined by his family, football teammates and coaches, the student body and marching band. It’s kind of a big deal.

For those who do not pay much attention to the recruiting game, Hand has been one of the top names in the Class of 2014 for some time now. The 6-foot-4, 248-pound defensive end was a standout player at the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge Presented by Under Armour at Soldier Field, and won defensive player at the three day event. He was recognized last year by Rivals.com as the High School Football Junior of the Year, and was chosen as a 2012 USA Today High School Football All-American.

You make the call. Which program is going to receive the commitment? Will there be any theatrics tied to the announcement?

Photo courtesy: Rivals.com