For all the hype and headlines that Wednesday’s National Signing Day brought, most of the prospects will be forgotten by next fall. Many will redshirt, others will serve as backups, some will never live up to their rankings. Unlike college basketball, in which five-star prospects often make an immediate impact, football is different.
But there are outliers.
Take last year, for instance. Two key players in the national championship game — Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and Clemson defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence — were true freshmen. Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa was a factor in the Buckeyes’ run to the playoff.
It’s about opportunity as much as ability. But sometimes, now more than ever, freshmen step in immediately and make a difference at winning programs, now more than ever.
Below are six signees who could follow Hurts, Bosa and Lawrence as breakout performers as true freshmen:
RB Cam Akers, Florida State
The Seminoles filled a potential hole in the backfield with the 5-foot-11 phenom, one of the most accomplished athletes in the history of Mississippi prep football. The consensus five-star prospect will be one of multiple players asked to replace Dalvin Cook, no easy feat, but he will have the benefit of playing alongside an experienced quarterback in Deondre Francois, and a rebuilt offensive line. An early enrollee, the U.S. Army Player of the Year could add another dimension to Florida State’s attack: A throwing running back. Not only did Akers run for 8,140 yards rushing and 78 touchdowns at Clinton High School, he also threw for more than 5,000 yards passing and 71 touchdowns in four seasons.
DE A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
Iowa’s first five-star prospect since 2005, the Illinois native should get reps immediately. He will be asked to help the Hawkeyes improve upon their 28 sack total a year ago. Coach Kirk Ferentz thinks so highly of Epenesa’s ability, he said his raw talent reminds him of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, whom he coached years ago with the Ravens.
WR Tee Higgins, Clemson
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has shown no hesitation throwing talented young receivers into the fire immediately — Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins played as true freshmen — and he will need to find replacements for Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and Jordan Leggett. The 6-foot-4 playmaker, ranked as the No. 2 receiver in the country by Rivals.com, is used to making an impact immediately, as the first player at his high school, Oak Ridge in Tennessee — where he also played basketball — to start as a freshman since 2012.
CB Jeffrey Okudah/Shaun Wade, Ohio State
Ohio State has become Defensive Back U in recent years, annually churning out pros. It has led to massive turnover, and yet somehow the Buckeyes’ secondary has remained elite. Five-star cornerbacks Okudah and Wade are the next generation, two defensive backs with great size (6-foot-1 or taller) ranked first and third at their position, respectively, by Rivals. With starting corners Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore entering the NFL draft, it wouldn’t be a surprise if either Okudah or Wade — or both — is asked to make a difference immediately.
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan
Jim Harbaugh’s success in his first two seasons at his alma-mater mostly has been based on a suffocating defense and sturdy offensive line. Now he adds an explosive skill position player in Peoples-Jones, Rivals’ top-rated wide receiver . The 6-foot-2 speedster, who can stretch the field, led Detroit Cass Tech to a state title, and finished his senior season with 60 receptions for 1,064 yards and 17 TDs while also intercepting four passes from his secondary spot. He could start from Day 1.
Three-star forward Derrick Walker, from Kansas City verbally committed to Tennessee on Friday, picking the Volunteers over St. John’s.
Seton Hall target Trevon Duval, a five-star point guard who attends IMG Academy (Fla.), took an official visit to Kansas on Tuesday and Wednesday. Duke, Baylor and Arizona are also involved.
Duke was at Archbishop Molloy in Queens on Tuesday to see junior forward Moses Brown and sophomore guard Cole Anthony, a pair of five-star prospects, while Maryland stopped by The Ranney School (N.J.) on Wednesday for five-star sophomores Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis.