I can already smell it – the fresh-cut grass and tailgate aromas. I can see it too – the clear blue skies awash in sunshine, the pom-poms and sea of whatever colors happen to belong to the home team, the tight spirals knifing through the air and the joyous, spontaneous eruption of a mass of humanity when the ball crosses the goal line.
And I can hear it as well, the echoes of pads crashing together, the shrieking whistles, the grunts and groans and screams of exhilaration, the horns and drums of the marching bands, and the five-syllable burst that tickled me most last season – “Sah-Mah-Jay! PEE-RINE!!!” – powering out of my man Gus Johnson’s mouth in delightful exuberance whenever the University of Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine slashed and dashed through defenses en route to his phenomenal freshman accomplishments of 21 touchdowns and 1,713 yards.
This time of year, with the NBA Summer League in full swing and Major League Baseball jogging into the second half of its marathon season, is all about getting excited for the start of college football for me.
One of last year’s most memorable moments was the Sooners’ Perine rushing for an FBS single-game record 427 yards and five touchdowns on 34 carries in a late November win against Kansas.
I’ve long been fascinated by freshmen that walk into college football and dominate, and last year’s talented crop of newcomers, headlined by Perine, did not disappoint.
Clemson’s Artavis Scott was a huge weapon in the passing game with 76 receptions for 965 yards. His seven-catch, two-touchdown, 185-yard performance in the Tigers’ win over South Carolina was one of last season’s hidden gems.
Georgia running back Nick Chubb was impressive, as was USC’s two-way threat Adoreé Jackson, who had 138 receiving yards and three touchdowns on offense and 49 tackles as a defensive back en route to earning PAC-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors. As if that wasn't enough to solidify his freshman resume, Jackson proved that he's probably the best athlete in all of college football with his performances in Track and Field this spring, winning the Pac-12 title in the Long Jump.
Three years ago, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to ever win the prestigious Heisman Trophy, but he was far from the first who actually deserved the award.
This year, keep your eyes on Florida State safety Derwin James, USC cornerback Iman Marshall, Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson. They should prove to be well worth the price of admission while making an immediate impact.
As we wait to see what first-year stud will rise to the top, I’ve put together my list of the best and most exciting freshman players that I’ve ever seen.
15. JAMELLE HOLIEWAY, Oklahoma, Quarterback, 1985 – Considered by many to be the best option QB to ever play the game, Jamelle remains the only true freshman quarterback to ever lead his team to a national championship.
14. MARVIN JONES, Florida State, Linebacker, 1990 – Known as the “Shade Tree”, Jones led the Seminoles with 133 tackles.
13. RAGHIB ISMAEL, Notre Dame, Kick Returner/Punt Returner/Wide Receiver, 1988 – The Rocket was the nation’s most electrifying kick returner, averaging close to 40 yards every time the opposing team kicked him the ball. He had to be accounted for at all times and was a major reason why the Fighting Irish won the national title that year.
12. MAURICE CLARETT, Ohio State, Running Back, 2002 – Clarett was a man amongst boys, even as a freshman. He was a force to be reckoned with on the Buckeyes’ national championship squad, scoring 18 touchdowns and rushing for 1,237 yards.
11. DRE BLY, North Carolina, Cornerback, 1996 – A first team All-American as a freshman, Bly led the country with 11 interceptions. He also had three multi-interception games and 13 pass breakups.
10. MICHAEL CRABTREE, Texas Tech, Wide Receiver, 2007– Crabtree was a quarterback coming out of high school and had quite possibly the best freshman season of any pass catcher in NCAA history with 134 catches, 22 touchdowns and 1,962 yards.
9. RON DAYNE, Wisconsin, Running Back, 1996 – The Great Dayne rushed for 18 touchdowns and 1,863 yards during his first year on campus.
8. HUGH GREEN, Pittsburgh, Defensive End, 1977 – There has never been a better defensive player in the history of college football. In his very first game, against Notre Dame, he had 11 tackles, two sacks and also blocked a punt. When his freshman year was done, he had 12 sacks, 21 quarterback hurries, five forced fumbles, an interception and 92 tackles.
7. RANDY MOSS, Marshall, Wide Receiver, 1996 – Before being a revelation to the casual football fan as a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL, Moss proved that he was an exceptional, once-in-a-generation type of talent during his freshman year at Marshall, where he caught 78 passes for 1,709 yards. He averaged 21.9 yards per catch and scored a mind-boggling 28 touchdowns.
6. MICHAEL VICK, Virginia Tech, Quarterback, 1999 – Vick led the nation in passing efficiency, passed for 2,065 yards and 13 touchdowns while running for 682 more yards and nine touchdowns while leading the Hokies into the national championship game against Florida State. But words and numbers do no justice to Vick’s freshman debut. His powerful arm, world class speed and Barry Sanders-like elusivity were an electrifying combination that hadn’t been seen before. Watching him made you believe that your eyes had the capacity to lie.
5. MARSHALL FAULK, San Diego State, Running Back, 1991 – In his very first college game, Faulk rushed for 386 yards and seven touchdowns. Yes, you read that correctly. He scored a total of 23 touchdowns and rushed for 1,630 yards.
4. ADRIAN PETERSON, Oklahoma, Running Back, 2001 – Peterson showed why his nickname was A.D., which stands for “All Day.” He rushed for over 100 yards 11 times while accumulating 1,925 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
3. JOHNNY MANZIEL, Texas A&M, Quarterback, 2012 – Love him or hate him, one thing you cannot hate on is Manziel’s college career, especially his freshman season. Johnny Football accumulated 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns as a runner. Oh, and he also threw for 3,419 yards and 24 scores. One of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen was against Alabama that year, when he locked up the Heisman by completing 24 of his 31 pass attempts for 253 yards and two touchdowns, while also adding another 92 yards on the ground.
2. JAMEIS WINSTON, Florida State, Quarterback, 2013 – Winston passed for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns while leading the Seminoles to an undefeated season and the national championship. In his very first game, against Pittsburgh, he completed an astounding 25 out of 27 pass attempts for 356 yards and four touchdowns, setting the tone for his miraculous year.
1. HERSCHEL WALKER, Georgia, Running Back, 1980 – If there was ever a better freshman football player in college, I’ve never seen him. Herschel had everything you could wish for in a running back: size, sprinter’s speed, unbelievable stamina, comic-book strength, toughness and power. He delivered Georgia it’s only national championship since 1942 while being universally recognized as the best and most dominant ball-carrier in all of college football. During the Bulldogs remarkable undefeated season, he ran for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns.