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Published: Jan. 11, 2018 at 11:49 a.m.
Updated: Jan. 11, 2018 at 01:13 p.m.

CFB's freshman phenoms: Top 15 to watch in 2018 and beyond

Monday night's national championship game confirmed what those following college football have known for some time: If a freshman has talent, he's going to play now, not later.

Alabama freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa made the game-winning TD throw on Monday that everyone is still talking about, but other first-year contributors like receivers Devonta Smith (who caught Tagovailoa's pass), Henry Ruggs, and Jerry Jeudy as well as RB Najee Harris and OT Alex Leatherwood also made major contributions to the Tide's title win.

This is a trend all over the country, not just in Tuscaloosa. Today's freshmen are next season's super sophomores and will likely be the talk of the CFB world in the fall -- and maybe of NFL scouts a couple years from now. Here are my top-15 second-year players to watch in 2018.

15 Photos Total

  • With Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield around, it was tough for Sermon to get reps, much less hype. When he ran the ball, however, it was would-be tacklers getting a sermon courtesy of the freshman from Marietta, Georgia. He's a bruiser who averaged 6.1 yards a carry (121-744) and scored five touchdowns while also contributing as a receiver out of the backfield (16-139, two scores). With Kyler Murray potentially taking the reins at QB in 2018, Sermon might get more of the workload. 15

    Mark J. Terrill/USA TODAY Sports

    15. Trey Sermon, RB, Oklahoma

    With Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield around, it was tough for Sermon to get reps, much less hype. When he ran the ball, however, it was would-be tacklers getting a sermon courtesy of the freshman from Marietta, Georgia. He's a bruiser who averaged 6.1 yards a carry (121-744) and scored five touchdowns while also contributing as a receiver out of the backfield (16-139, two scores). With Kyler Murray potentially taking the reins at QB in 2018, Sermon might get more of the workload.

  • Ehlinger has the talent to be one of the top quarterbacks in college football. He'll face a challenge from Shane Buechele for the starting job in 2018, but as you can see, I think Ehlingher has the edge. While he's not the biggest offensive playmaker, he's a tough-minded, mobile passer who can beat defenses in multiple ways. His growth should be fun to watch over the next couple of years. 14

    Ray Thompson/USA TODAY Sports

    14. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas

    Ehlinger has the talent to be one of the top quarterbacks in college football. He'll face a challenge from Shane Buechele for the starting job in 2018, but as you can see, I think Ehlingher has the edge. While he's not the biggest offensive playmaker, he's a tough-minded, mobile passer who can beat defenses in multiple ways. His growth should be fun to watch over the next couple of years.

  • Dillon proved to be a one-man wrecking crew for BC this year, carrying the mail 300 times for nearly 1,600 yards and 14 scores. While he's not related to former NFL back Corey Dillon, it's tough not to think about the former Bengal and Patriot plowing through and striding past defenders when watching Dillon run the ball. 13

    Kathy Willens/USA TODAY Sports

    13. AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College

    Dillon proved to be a one-man wrecking crew for BC this year, carrying the mail 300 times for nearly 1,600 yards and 14 scores. While he's not related to former NFL back Corey Dillon, it's tough not to think about the former Bengal and Patriot plowing through and striding past defenders when watching Dillon run the ball.

  • Jackson's play flew under the radar a bit this season, but those that checked him out came back impressed. He was the only freshman to attempt 300 passes, completing 59.6 percent for nearly 3,000 yards. Jackson, a redshirt freshman, also can make hay with his legs, keeping defenses honest. The Hokies went 9-4 this season with him at the helm, and his game should only get better. 12

    Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

    12. Josh Jackson, QB, Virginia Tech

    Jackson's play flew under the radar a bit this season, but those that checked him out came back impressed. He was the only freshman to attempt 300 passes, completing 59.6 percent for nearly 3,000 yards. Jackson, a redshirt freshman, also can make hay with his legs, keeping defenses honest. The Hokies went 9-4 this season with him at the helm, and his game should only get better.

  • Opposing quarterbacks found out quick that picking on LSU's redshirt freshman cornerback was not a good idea. Williams has the quickness, length, tenacity, and hand-eye coordination to at least prevent completions, if not create the turnover. Here's yet another star corner coming out of "DB U". 11

    Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

    11. Greedy Williams, CB, LSU

    Opposing quarterbacks found out quick that picking on LSU's redshirt freshman cornerback was not a good idea. Williams has the quickness, length, tenacity, and hand-eye coordination to at least prevent completions, if not create the turnover. Here's yet another star corner coming out of "DB U".

  • The Bulldogs' run to the national championship game was greatly aided by the play of Thomas at right tackle. It's no surprise that many of the big runs put together by D'Andre Swift, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb came off blocks from the 6-foot-5, 320-pound freshman with long arms and nimble feet. He'll be a force to be reckoned with whether he stays on the right side or moves to left tackle. 10

    Ric Tapia/NFL

    10. Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia

    The Bulldogs' run to the national championship game was greatly aided by the play of Thomas at right tackle. It's no surprise that many of the big runs put together by D'Andre Swift, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb came off blocks from the 6-foot-5, 320-pound freshman with long arms and nimble feet. He'll be a force to be reckoned with whether he stays on the right side or moves to left tackle.

  • Dobbins ran for more than 1,400 yards for the Buckeyes, who needed a bellcow back with Mike Weber injured early on. There might be more competition for carries in 2018, but that doesn't diminish Dobbins' talent. His ability as a receiver should make him a valued weapon next fall, as well. 9

    Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

    9. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

    Dobbins ran for more than 1,400 yards for the Buckeyes, who needed a bellcow back with Mike Weber injured early on. There might be more competition for carries in 2018, but that doesn't diminish Dobbins' talent. His ability as a receiver should make him a valued weapon next fall, as well.

  • Only an ankle injury prevented Phillips from making a consistent impact with the Bruins as a true freshman. In the opener against Texas A&M, Phillips came out swinging with five tackles and 1.5 sacks. He finished with 21 tackles and 3.5 as he played through the injury in seven games, but I'll bet he'll be chasing Pac-12 quarterbacks quite regularly during his sophomore year. 8

    Justin Ford/USA TODAY Sports

    8. Jaelan Phillips, DE/OLB, UCLA

    Only an ankle injury prevented Phillips from making a consistent impact with the Bruins as a true freshman. In the opener against Texas A&M, Phillips came out swinging with five tackles and 1.5 sacks. He finished with 21 tackles and 3.5 as he played through the injury in seven games, but I'll bet he'll be chasing Pac-12 quarterbacks quite regularly during his sophomore year.

  • One of the top high school recruits in the country in 2017, Smith proved himself worthy of those accolades as a second-team All-SEC pick. He used his power at guard for the Vols in 2017, but could easily move outside in the future to combine his strength with his athleticism on the edge. 7

    Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports

    7. Trey Smith, OG, Tennessee

    One of the top high school recruits in the country in 2017, Smith proved himself worthy of those accolades as a second-team All-SEC pick. He used his power at guard for the Vols in 2017, but could easily move outside in the future to combine his strength with his athleticism on the edge.

  • It's amazing to think that a highly recruited running back at Florida State could have a 1,000-yard season without much fanfare, but that's the case with Akers. His elite speed, balance, and vision should gain him more notoriety in 2018 if the team can perform more consistently under new head coach Willie Taggart. 6

    Logan Bowles/NFL

    6. Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

    It's amazing to think that a highly recruited running back at Florida State could have a 1,000-yard season without much fanfare, but that's the case with Akers. His elite speed, balance, and vision should gain him more notoriety in 2018 if the team can perform more consistently under new head coach Willie Taggart.

  • Taylor earned the lead back role right away for the Badgers. He was one carry shy of 300 as a true freshman, and only 23 yards short of 2,000. He'll be the workhorse again in 2018 behind an experienced and talented offensive line, plowing over defenders using his strong lower-body build and running by others once in the clear. 5

    Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

    5. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

    Taylor earned the lead back role right away for the Badgers. He was one carry shy of 300 as a true freshman, and only 23 yards short of 2,000. He'll be the workhorse again in 2018 behind an experienced and talented offensive line, plowing over defenders using his strong lower-body build and running by others once in the clear.

  • Even in a backfield loaded with NFL talent, Swift's quicks and overall playmaking ability made him stand out. With Sony Michel and Nick Chubb gone next year, he'll be the leader of whatever committee Kirby Smart uses to take pressure off of QB Jake Fromm, providing balance to the Bulldogs' offense. 4

    Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

    4. D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia

    Even in a backfield loaded with NFL talent, Swift's quicks and overall playmaking ability made him stand out. With Sony Michel and Nick Chubb gone next year, he'll be the leader of whatever committee Kirby Smart uses to take pressure off of QB Jake Fromm, providing balance to the Bulldogs' offense.

  • Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer will have Haskins ready to play for his redshirt sophomore season. He saved Ohio State's chances to win the Big Ten championship with his play in relief of J.T. Barrett against Michigan. He'll have tough competition at his position, but I expect him to establish himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the country. 3

    Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

    3. Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State

    Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer will have Haskins ready to play for his redshirt sophomore season. He saved Ohio State's chances to win the Big Ten championship with his play in relief of J.T. Barrett against Michigan. He'll have tough competition at his position, but I expect him to establish himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the country.

  • Fromm has played very well for the Bulldogs considering his age, helping the team to the brink of a national title. He's a prototypical pro-style quarterback who also showed great poise and even some quickness as a runner for his size. He and rising junior receiver Riley Ridley could wreak havoc on SEC defenses next season. 2

    Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

    2. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia

    Fromm has played very well for the Bulldogs considering his age, helping the team to the brink of a national title. He's a prototypical pro-style quarterback who also showed great poise and even some quickness as a runner for his size. He and rising junior receiver Riley Ridley could wreak havoc on SEC defenses next season.

  • I don't think I really need to explain this one. A true freshman steps into the ultimate pressure cooker, with his team down at halftime of the national championship game, and leads them to victory with his quick feet and strong arm. His game-winning dropback, eye placement, and throw were textbook. He should be considered the 2018 Heisman Trophy favorite. 1

    Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

    1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

    I don't think I really need to explain this one. A true freshman steps into the ultimate pressure cooker, with his team down at halftime of the national championship game, and leads them to victory with his quick feet and strong arm. His game-winning dropback, eye placement, and throw were textbook. He should be considered the 2018 Heisman Trophy favorite.