Talented freshmen set to make the leap to Sophomore stardom - Offense
By Rory Daniels
With only the big dance remaining in College Football, the season is drawing to a close. The break between bowl games and the National Championship gives us time to reflect on the previous year. In particular, we took a special interest in the freshmen that flashed in 2019. With potential draftees grabbing the headlines from here on out, it’s important not to forget the players that will likely star next season. We have highlighted five offensive players who look set for stardom after impressing this year.
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
It was difficult to predict the effect of Mack Brown’s coaching return to the Tar Heels. None of his roster would have known him as North Carolina head coach in their lifetimes and the college landscape had changed since Brown left Texas in 2013. However, Brown and his team had an impressive year finishing 7-6 with a win in the Military Bowl, improving on 2018’s 2-9 record. A big part of that was star freshman QB Sam Howell.
Brown can thank the dysfunction at divisional foes Florida State for Howell. Originally a Seminole commit, Howell was Mack Brown’s primary recruiting target on arrival. The charm offensive clearly worked as the four star QB stayed in state with the Tar Heels.
Howell’s impact was immediate. With a completion rate of over 60% he recorded 38 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. The season included taking ACC Champions Clemson to the wire before a dominant display (particularly Howell) in their bowl destruction of Temple.
Possessing elite arm strength it’s clear that Howell could develop into an NFL prospect over the next couple of years. He matches his deep ball ability with nice touch and the ability to move the ball on the ground. Despite being only 6’1 Howell never backs down from big hits, showing the toughness needed to lead a Power 5 team. With a good start to his collegiate career it’s not unreasonable to think Howell could help North Carolina challenge in the ACC, a division that has been a one horse race for too long now.
Noah Cain, RB, Penn State
You’d be excused if Penn State was the first place you looked for the next big thing at running back. While Saquon Barkley’s predecessors may not top his achievements as a Nittany Lion they seem to be making a good stab of it. Miles Sanders was impressive in 2018 and the talent on show in 2019 was equally efficient in the system.
Although Ricky Slade was pencilled in to carry the load it became more of a committee as the season progressed. Junior Journey Brown led the team but the most dynamic back appeared to be Noah Cain who grabbed any chance he got. Cain averaged 5.3 yards per carry and recorded 8 touchdowns in his first year.
He possesses great contact balance as a physical runner but shows the ability to cut decisively yet smoothly. Cain looks exactly the type of back that could carry the load for a Big 10 offense. He won’t have it all his own way in 2020. Journey Brown likely returns and gets first crack at becoming the lead back, while fellow freshman Devyn Ford may steal snaps also. However, it’s difficult to see someone as talented as Cain being kept off the field for long.
George Pickens, WR, Georgia
It’s unusual for a freshman to lead his team in receiving. What’s more unusual is to do it at the number 5 ranked team in the nation. That’s exactly what George Pickens did at Georgia this year. Although the receiving corps was decimated by injuries, Pickens achievements are not to be understated.
At 6’3, 190lbs Pickens is an athletic freak, physical at the catch point but fast enough to cause problems for any corner he faces. He has everything you would look for in a true number 1 receiver. During Georgia’s recent Sugar Bowl victory Pickens demonstrated his array of talents with a 12 reception, 175 yard and 1 touchdown MVP performance.
Georgia’s recent recruiting has been nothing short of sensational. Ranking in the top 3 for the last four years. Pickens could just be the jewel in the crown. It will be interesting to see how he performs next year as the offense could see some changes. Jake Fromm will depart for the NFL and that could be important for Pickens. Despite Fromm’s limitations, his experience and chemistry with Pickens was vital to their success.
Fromm’s depature leaves somes question marks. Stetson Bennett was the backup this year but got little chance to make an impression. Incoming freshman Carson Beck is a wildcard, but certainly has enough talent to get a shot at the job. Perhaps, the most intriguing possibility is the rumour of a graduate transfer. Whoever is signal caller, they will have a ready-made go-to target in George Pickens.
Evan Neal, OL, Alabama
Georgia wasn’t the only SEC giant to field a star freshman on their offense in 2019. Alabama has become accustomed to losing talent across the offensive line. What has been impressive is the way that they reload so effortlessly. This year it was Evan Neal who found himself slotting into the left guard spot. At 6’7 and 360lbs Neal is already built to NFL specifications.
That length means that Neal should project to be an offensive tackle. Those berths are currently filled by two players who should graduate to the NFL this year. Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick WIlls have been fantastically consistent and Neal should follow in their footsteps. Like Leatherwood, Neal came in as a freshman and learnt his trade inside, perhaps getting his shot at tackle as early as 2020.
Neal made ESPN’s Freshman All American team and had multiple games where he didn’t concede a penalty, sack or pressure. He is physical and strong, with the ability to ragdoll opponents and finish nasty. Neal’s long levers and initial jolt at the point of contact allow him to extend and control defensive linemen. If his first year is anything to go by, Neal should become the next Alabama lineman off the production line.
Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State
It’s difficult to find a more talented receiving group in the country than the one at Ohio State. How they continue to unearth such talent and replace it without skipping a beat is the envy of most programmes in the country. Their receivers vary from tall, physical contested pass catchers to those that excel in space. Wilson combines a bit of both.
Despite only being 6’0, Wilson is excellent in jump ball situations and on redzone passes. His dynamic ability with ball in hand is a big reason why he has featured on special teams. Wilson had his ups and downs on punt returns but it is clear that when he gets space he can take it to the house.
Wilson was the fourth receiver for the Buckeyes this year. Behind, Chris Olave, KJ Hill and Benjimin Victor it isn’t a great surprise. His contribution of 432 yards and 5 touchdowns won’t grab too many headlines but a few decisive moments showed the nation his potential. His 3 receptions vs arch rivals Michigan and a highlight reel grab against Clemson in the playoff semi-final were proof Ohio State had found their next number 1 receiver.
Next year promises to be much of the same for OSU especially on offense. Justin Fields has shown he is an elite quarterback and Wilson should lead the receiving line with Chris Olave. The fact that the Buckeyes added the number one receiving recruit in the country should strike fear into rivals hearts. Julian Fleming appears to be a special talent so it will be interesting to see if Wilson can establish himself and increase his market share.
formerly writing for the inside zone, rory will be breaking down college tape and keeping you up-to-date with all things CFB for the touchdown. an avid bengals fan, you can also find some of rory’s work at stripehype.com