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Published: July 8, 2014 at 10:53 a.m.
Updated: July 8, 2014 at 12:13 p.m.

14 for '14: Impact freshmen in college football

» Complete 14 for '14 series

For College Football 24/7’s look at impact freshmen for the 2014 season, we chose players who not only have the talent to play right away, but who also are playing a position of need for their school and are expected to fill that void. Most are redshirt freshmen who have at least proven themselves on a college practice field for the last year, although a few are true freshmen who should see significant playing time, if not a starting role this fall. With that, meet the next wave of college football stars:

14 Photos Total

  • 14. CB Jermaine Kelly, Washington 14

    (Stephen Brashear/University of Washington Athletics)

    14. CB Jermaine Kelly, Washington

    Size: 6-1, 188 pounds. Freshman status: Redshirt. Why he’ll make his mark early: The Huskies lost most of their experience from last year’s secondary, opening an especially strong opportunity for Kelly. He was the defensive MVP of the scout team last year, showing promising ability as a cover man on the practice field. Kelly emerged from his competition as a starting corner exiting spring practice, and might also contribute in the return game. At 6-1, he has good length and will likely be asked to take on bigger receivers this fall.

  • 13. OL Darius James, Texas 13

    (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

    13. OL Darius James, Texas

    Size: 6-5, 320 pounds. Freshman status: Redshirt. Why he’ll make his mark early: Exactly where James will land on the Longhorns' offensive front won’t be settled until after fall camp, but the redshirt freshman is one of the most promising prospects Texas has on a line facing a great deal of turnover under a new coaching staff. James exited spring practice at offensive tackle, but with both guard spots also available, he could end up playing on the interior. New offensive line coach Joe Wickline likes versatility, and James brings that. As such, finding room for James in the lineup shouldn’t be hard.

  • 12. QB Kevin Olsen, Miami 12

    (Pat Carter/Associated Press)

    12. QB Kevin Olsen, Miami

    Size: 6-3, 210 pounds. Freshman status: Redshirt. Why he’ll make his mark early: The younger brother of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who also attended UM, is poised to replace Stephen Morris as the Hurricanes’ starting quarterback. To whatever extent a suspension from UM’s bowl game and a dismal performance in the Hurricanes’ spring game might serve as red flags, Olsen has reportedly countered with a newfound maturity and approach that helped him earn the starting nod by spring’s end. His primary competition for the job, fifth-year senior Ryan Williams, is recovering from an ACL tear.

  • 11. CB Jalen Tabor, Florida 11

    (Rob Foldy/USA TODAY Sports)

    11. CB Jalen Tabor, Florida

    Size: 6-1, 185 pounds. Freshman status: True. Why he’ll make his mark early: Tabor enrolled at UF early and participated in spring practice, allowing him to get an early foothold on playing time. Coach Will Muschamp had high post-spring praise for Tabor, who is stepping into a position of need for the Gators. UF lost some key experience in the secondary, including senior Jaylen Watkins and early-departing juniors Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Super sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III has a tight grip on one cornerback spot. Tabor could easily claim the other.

  • 10. WR Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M 10

    (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

    10. WR Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M

    Size: 6-5, 230 pounds. Freshman status: Medical redshirt. Why he’ll make his mark early: Seals-Jones gave Aggies fans a quick glimpse of his explosiveness last year with this 71-yard touchdown catch in the season opener against Rice. There won’t be any way to replace Mike Evans’ production, but with similar size, Seals-Jones at least figures to fill the role of a bigger, overpowering receiving threat who excels in short-yardage and red-zone situations. Like Evans, Seals-Jones will be a matchup nightmare for smaller cornerbacks.

  • 9. RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma 9

    (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

    9. RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma

    Size: 6-2, 211 pounds. Freshman status: True. Why he’ll make his mark early: Much like LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Mixon is a five-star running back recruit who is entering an ideal situation in which the bulk of experience at the position is gone. OU youngster Keith Ford is Mixon’s primary competition for a starting role, and he carried just 23 times last year. Mixon didn’t enroll early, so he won’t get a chance to show what he can do in pads until about four weeks before the season opens. But without an established veteran in his way, it shouldn’t take Mixon long to climb the depth-chart ladder.

  • 8. OT Cam Robinson, Alabama 8

    (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

    8. OT Cam Robinson, Alabama

    Size: 6-6, 325 pounds. Freshman status: True. Why he’ll make his mark early: Finding a replacement for Buffalo Bills second-round draft pick Cyrus Kouandjio was one of Alabama’s top objectives in spring practice, and it was none other than Robinson who emerged from spring drills as the first-team left tackle on the offensive line. Robinson will be a true freshman, but enrolled at UA in January in order to get an early jump on the competition with spring practice. That he did. True freshmen rarely start in the SEC at this position, but all signs point toward Robinson filling this key void.

  • 7. S Marcus Ball, Arizona State 7

    Arizona State University

    7. S Marcus Ball, Arizona State

    Size: 6-3, 216 pounds. Freshman status: Redshirt. Why he’ll make his mark early: Ball was well on his way to playing as a true freshman last year but a preseason shoulder injury put him on the sideline for the season. He participated in spring drills under non-contact status, but worked with the first team and is expected to start at safety this fall for the Sun Devils. Said secondary coach Chris Ball: "He brings a lot to the table. He'll be a big, big factor when we come back."

  • 6. CB Tony Brown, Alabama 6

    (Butch Dill/Assocaited Press)

    6. CB Tony Brown, Alabama

    Size: 6-0, 182. Freshman status: True. Why he’ll make his mark early: Both cornerback positions are wide open in Tuscaloosa, and the early-enrolling Brown looked as good as any corner the Crimson Tide had in the annual A-Day spring game. His man-to-man skills are outstanding, and under Nick Saban, he’ll learn the intricacies of aggressive bump coverage from the best. If the five-star recruit performs as well in fall camp as he did in the spring, he should nail down a starting role.

  • 5. DB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan 5

    (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

    5. DB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

    Size: 6-1, 210 pounds. Freshman status: True. Why he’ll make his mark early: Peppers won’t arrive in Ann Arbor until August, but every indication is this prized recruit will get every opportunity to play early, and could get practice looks in multiple roles from the Michigan coaching staff. Head coach Brady Hoke has proven to be unafraid to put true freshmen on the field, and the five-star recruit is regarded as the best athlete in the Wolverines’ signing class. He’s expected to practice first at nickelback. There is certainly no questioning Peppers’ speed. He recently ran a 100-meter dash in 10.52 seconds to earn a state track title.

  • 4. LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State 4

    (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

    4. LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

    Size: 6-2, 242 pounds. Freshman status: True. Why he’ll make his mark early: McMillan enrolled early and commanded a starting role in the OSU spring game, prompting the following endorsement from coach Urban Meyer: “He's in the rotation. He's going to play. Whether he's going to start depends on, you know him and Curtis (Grant) are in a battle.” Translation: Whether he starts or not, McMillan is too good to keep off the field. The five-star recruit will have plenty of help around him on what is expected to be one of the nation’s most dominant defenses.

  • 3. LB Matthew Thomas, Florida State 3

    Florida State Athletics

    3. LB Matthew Thomas, Florida State

    Size: 6-3, 224 pounds. Freshman status: Medical redshirt. Why he’ll make his mark early: Thomas has already proven he can carve out playing time on one of the nation’s most talented defenses, seeing limited action as a true freshman last year before shoulder surgery ended his season. While his presence might have been more of a bonus last year, it will be more of a necessity in 2014 as FSU looks to replace a vocal leader in Telvin Smith and a versatile starter in Christian Jones. Word around the Seminoles' campfire is that Thomas, one of the nation’s top linebacker recruits out of high school, is a star in waiting.

  • 2. CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson 2

    (Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports)

    2. CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson

    Size: 5-11,185. Freshman status: Redshirt. Why he’ll make his mark early: A preseason injury is all that kept Alexander from playing as a true freshman last year. And now that the Tigers are replacing two key performers at cornerback, Alexander is all but certain to start this fall. Coach Dabo Swinney has raved about Alexander’s performance in the spring. He was a highly-sought four-star recruit out of Immokalee, Fla. (the same school that produced former Colts star RB Edgerrin James). Don’t be surprised if he plays his way to Freshman All-ACC honors.

  • 1. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU 1

    (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

    1. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU

    Size: 6-1, 225 pounds. Freshman status: True. Why he’ll make his mark early: Just weeks before the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit signed with the Tigers in February, his path to playing time cleared in a major way as LSU running backs Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue both declared early NFL draft eligibility. If the remaining competition beats Fournette out for a starting role this year, it will be to just about every LSU fan’s surprise. At 225 pounds, the powerful five-star recruit had offers from every major program in the country. Left to battle the incoming phenom is veteran reserve Kenny Hilliard, the nephew of former Tigers and New Orleans Saints running back Dalton Hilliard.

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