Quarterback Jalen Hurts helped lead Alabama within one second of a 15-0 season and a national championship.
Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence – 79 tackles, including seven sacks on the season – was a key part of the Clemson effort that toppled the Crimson Tide in the title game.
Houston’s Ed Oliver was second in the nation with 23 tackles with loss.
Four just-out-of-high-school running backs rushed for 1,000 yards. In addition to Hurts, rookies took over quarterback duties at such schools as Texas, Georgia, Ole Miss and Oregon.
So, yes, true freshmen can – and will – make a huge impact on the standings and in the race for the College Football Playoff.
We asked our network of writers at The Sports Xchange for nominations on top freshmen, and here are 10 to know heading into 2017, with an eye on influencing the top of the rankings:
Florida State RB Cam Akers: The anxiety over the loss of running back Dalvin Cook was alleviated in the spring with the arrival of this five-star recruit who can lower his shoulder or use afterburners to pull away from defenders. Coach Jimbo Fisher has anointed junior Jacques Patrick the starter, but all eyes will be on Akers, who also shows good hands as a pass-catcher in fall camp.
Louisville OT Mekhi Becton: It’s not as if the Cardinals’ line made quarterback Lamar Jackson look good last season, as he was sacked 22 times just in the final three games. Here comes Becton (6-foot-7, 340 pounds) to hold down a tackle spot. “He’s a massive individual and he doesn’t have a lot of bad weight. He can really move with that frame,” coach Bobby Petrino said at the ACC Kickoff event last month. Petrino said Becton reminded him of Jonathan Ogden, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
LSU S Grant Delpit: He fits the physical profile as the next great one in the Tigers’ “Defensive Back U” tradition, with coach Ed Orgeron comparing Delpit to former LSU safety Jamal Adams. The coach adds that he considers Delpit a starter, even if it turns out that he doesn’t take the first defensive snap at free safety.
Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins: Starter Mike Weber is coming back from a hamstring injury, but that’s not why Dobbins deserves playing time. His speed and elusiveness will be evident in the opener at Indiana. “Don’t get me wrong, I like Weber and think he’ll put together a solid year,” an NFL scout told NFLDraftScout.com. “But he better because OSU has a freshman who is going to be on his heels for playing time. I’m telling you, he’s a dude. When I was in Columbus, this freshman was the guy who made me go, ‘Whoa.’”
Clemson WR Tee Higgins: How’s this for bold? Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he and his coaches believe Higgins is – or at least could be – the best receiver they’ve had with the Tigers. And they have had some great ones. Higgins (6-4, 200) looks the part of a big, smooth wideout with all the right intangibles. “He’s physical and I’m very encouraged by his toughness,” Swinney said. “He hasn’t backed down a bit. He has zero fear.”
Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy: He was the MVP of Alabama’s spring game – and teammates say he reminds them of current Tide star wideout Calvin Ridley. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention other Alabama true freshmen: running back Najee Harris, offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (a heartbeat away from being the starter), linebacker Dylan Moses and, perhaps even place-kicker Joseph Bulovas, competing for the starting job.
Michigan WR Donovan Peoples-Jones: The Wolverines need a go-to receiver, and Peoples-Jones, the top-rated receiver in the 2017 class, has flashed that potential since spring ball. Coach Jim Harbaugh says he figures to play four true freshmen receivers this season, with Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black likely to pay the biggest dividends.
Florida WR Kadarius Toney: Showing tantalizing skills as a quarterback in the spring, Toney is now dropping jaws as a slot receiver and all-purpose threat for an offense needing more flash. “He needs to touch it,” coach Jim McElwain said in a press conference this month. “It’s pretty cool to see him out there.”
USC DT Marlon Tuipulotu: USC is teeming with flashy offensive freshmen – running back Stephen Carr, wideouts Randal Grimes and Joseph Lewis – but Tuipulotu could have a bigger impact because of the need on the defensive front after losing 2016 anchor Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. If Tuipulotu doesn’t start, he figures to at least time-share with senior Josh Fatu.
Penn State CB Lamont Wade: The Nittany Lions have been buzzing about Wade since spring ball, and a season-ending injury to cornerback John Reid upped the stakes for Wade to use his speed in the secondary right away. Penn State seeks more playmaking from its secondary, with Reid and fellow true freshman Tariq Castro-Fields at the ready