Ranking the 50 greatest true freshmen in college football history

NCAAF

Fifty years ago, the NCAA tied up a loose end. Having already ruled that college freshmen in other sports (and at other levels) would be eligible for varsity ball, it declared that the same rules would apply in major college football and basketball. In an effort to cut costs, it added an extra layer of lore to already lore-rich sports.

“It is not certain that all of the well known football and basketball powers will use players coaches may consider too inexperienced,” The New York Times reported in January 1972. “A recent poll of major college football coaches indicated they were 2 to 1 against using freshmen on varsity teams. … However, the N.C.A.A. members who passed this ruling were faculty athletic advisers, those members of college administrations concerned with saving money. Their feeling is that by eliminating freshman teams they will save money.”

Did this change cause a massive ripple? Not necessarily. College football wasn’t suddenly dominated by 18-year-olds. But without this change, the legend of college basketball Hall of Famer Quinn Buckner — who started for both the basketball and football teams as a true freshman at Indiana in 1972-73 — would have become less rich. Tony Dorsett wouldn’t have become the best running back in the country the moment he set foot on Pitt’s campus. Georgia wouldn’t have ridden Herschel Walker to the 1980 national title. And we would not have been exposed to quite as much greatness from some of the most incredible stars the sport has seen in the past half-century.

To commemorate the change, let’s make a list! Here are the 50 best seasons by true freshmen in major college football over the past 50 years. Some went on to illustrious careers at both the college and pro levels; others maxed out early. Let’s celebrate them all.


50. LB/RB Myles Jack, UCLA (2013)

A three-star recruit from Washington, Jack not only found enough playing time to finish fifth on the Bruins in tackles (76) and third in tackles for loss (seven) as a first-year star, he also ranked second in rushing touchdowns (seven). He had five tackles, 59 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 41-31 win over Washington. That game alone might have gotten him on the list.


49. OL Reggie Green, Florida (1992)

Former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil, working for ABC as a TV analyst, called Green the “best freshman tackle I have ever seen in college football” during a 1992 broadcast. He was a rock, capable of shutting down Alabama’s all-world end Eric Curry in the SEC championship game. By 1993, he was All-SEC, but unfortunately injuries slowed him down from there.


48. WR David Bell, Purdue (2019)

You won’t see many receivers on this list — players at this position rarely made any sort of measurable first-year impact until the 2010s, while running backs were leaned on heavily from the moment the rule changed. (I chose 10 RBs and could have chosen about 25 more.)

That said, Bell was a no-brainer. Filling in for an injured Rondale Moore, he gained at least 100 yards in six of his last nine games and finished with 86 catches, 1,035 yards and 7 touchdowns.


47. DE George Karlaftis, Purdue (2019)

Purdue’s 2019 signing class featured six four-star prospects; two became all-timers. While Bell was finding his way in the Boilermakers’ offense, Karlaftis was erupting for 17 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and an interception. He wasn’t just a playmaker, though. His elite motor and pursuit abilities helped him finish the year third on the team in overall tackles as a 265-pound defensive end.


46. S LaRon Landry, LSU (2003)

Nick Saban’s fourth LSU team surged from 8-5 to 13-1 and won a share of the national title, due in part to a dominant defense that was led by the blue-chip freshman safety. Landry recorded 76 tackles and two picks in the regular season, then keyed an utterly dominant performance against Heisman winner Jason White and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.


45. RB Todd Gurley, Georgia (2012)

Georgia’s scoring average jumped by five points per game in 2012, and the Dawgs came within seconds of a spot in the BCS championship game, primarily because of the work of this freshman from North Carolina, who needed only eight carries to gain 100 yards in his first collegiate game, then hit triple digits eight more times. He has 122 yards and two TDs in the SEC championship game against Alabama.


44. OL Brad Budde, USC (1976)

From 1972 to 1975, USC’s John McKay didn’t start a single freshman even though he had the option to. Budde gave McKay’s successor, John Robinson, no choice. The Kansas City product (and son of former Kansas City Chief Ed Budde) barged his way into the lineup and stayed there until 1979, when he was named a unanimous All-American and won the Lombardi Award.


43. RB Jamal Lewis, Tennessee (1997)

Want to make a memorable impression as a first-year guy? Try rushing for 232 yards against Georgia in front of 106,656 fans. It worked for Lewis, at least. Lining up next to Peyton Manning, he finished his debut season with 1,364 rushing yards, 266 receiving yards and 9 combined touchdowns as the Vols won 11 games, won the SEC East and played in the Orange Bowl.


42. OL Jonah Williams, Alabama (2016)

Granted, he was only the second-best freshman in Bama’s 2016 recruiting class (we’ll get to No. 1 in a bit), but Williams combined innate quickness and power and film obsession with the dividends of Alabama’s weight room to put together an all-timer of a freshman year. Within two years, he was an All-American and top draft pick.


41. QB Chad Henne, Michigan (2004)

He never really improved — his passer rating was between 130 and 143 for all four years of his career — but Henne was a stunning success out of the gate. The blue-chipper from Reading, Pennsylvania, threw for 2,743 yards and 25 touchdowns and led the Wolverines to a 9-3 season. In a classic Rose Bowl loss to Texas, he went toe-to-toe with Vince Young, throwing for 227 yards and four touchdowns.


40. DT William Perry, Clemson (1981)

At 6-foot-3, 320 pounds, the player who would eventually be known as the Fridge was a game-changer. Danny Ford’s Tigers went from allowing 20.2 points per game in 1980 to 8.8 in 1981 thanks in part to the space-eater up front, who neutralized Nebraska’s Dan Rimington — the namesake of the award that goes to college football’s best center — in a 22-15 Orange Bowl win that clinched the school’s first national title.


39. QB Robert Griffin III, Baylor (2008)

The gem of Art Briles’ first signing class in Waco, Texas, RG3 threw for 2,091 yards and rushed for another 843. The Bears went just 4-8, but Griffin went a combined 38-for-50, with 132 rushing yards and six combined touchdowns, in near upsets of top-15 Missouri and Texas Tech teams, serving notice for what was to come. He won the school’s first Heisman three years later.


38. RB Maurice Clarett, Ohio State (2002)

In his first game as a Buckeye, the blue-chipper from Warren, Ohio (and future 30 for 30 subject), rushed for 175 yards in a blowout of Texas Tech. In his last, against Miami in 2002’s BCS championship game, he prevented a Sean Taylor pick-six by yanking the ball away from the Hurricanes star, then scored the national title-winning touchdown in overtime.

Clarett’s life has seen many twists and turns since his single collegiate season. But that season was just about perfect.


37. LB Randall Godfrey, Georgia (1992)

One of the most heralded recruits in the 1992 class, the Valdosta native was starting by the end of September and became the first true freshman to lead Georgia in tackles as a true freshman. He racked up 114 tackles in all and led the Dawgs to 10 wins and a No. 3 ranking in scoring defense. Only injuries kept him from four seasons of triple-digit tackles in his career.


36. DE Ross Browner, Notre Dame (1973)

After slipping to 8-3 and ranking 44th in scoring defense a year prior, Ara Parseghian’s Fighting Irish surged to 11-0 in 1973 with a defense that allowed just 8.1 points per game (fourth in the nation). The biggest difference-makers? A pair of freshmen. Cornerback Luther Bradley upgraded the secondary, while Browner, a future No. 8 pick in the NFL draft, immediately gave Notre Dame a level of pass rush it had lacked previously.


35. LB Ahmad Brooks, Virginia (2003)

Maybe the most highly touted recruit Virginia has ever signed, Brooks was an instant difference-maker, leading the team with 117 tackles, 10 TFLs and 4 sacks as the Cavaliers jumped from 50th to 26th in scoring defense and beat Pitt in the Continental Tire Bowl (in which Brooks had 12 tackles). He would go on to earn All-American status in 2004 and play 11 years in the pros.


34. CB Charles Woodson, Michigan (1995)

You don’t become the only defensive player in 60 years to win the Heisman Trophy if you don’t start generating attention immediately. A record-setting rusher from Ohio, Woodson came to Michigan to play defense and became a first-stringer almost instantly. He picked off five passes in his first season, including two in a 31-23 rivalry win over Ohio State.


The top 10 true freshmen in each offensive unit

QUARTERBACK
1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (2018)
2. Jalen Hurts, Alabama (2016)
3. Philip Rivers, NC State (2000)
4. Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma (1985)
5. Sam Howell, North Carolina (2019)
6. Robert Griffin III, Baylor (2008)
7. Chad Henne, Michigan (2004)
8. Chris Leak, Florida (2003)
9. Tommy Hodson, LSU (1986)
10. Josh Rosen, UCLA (2015)

RUNNING BACK
1. Herschel Walker, Georgia (1980)
2. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996)
3. Tony Dorsett, Pitt (1973)
4. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (2004)
5. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (2017)
6. Marshall Faulk, SDSU (1991)
7. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma (2014)
8. Maurice Clarett, Ohio State (2002)
9. Jamal Lewis, Tennessee (1997)
10. Todd Gurley, Georgia (2012)

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
1. Mike Williams, USC (2002)
2. Rondale Moore, Purdue (2018)
3. David Bell, Purdue (2019)
4. KD Cannon, Baylor (2014)
5. Marqise Lee, USC (2011)
6. Ronney Daniels, Auburn (1999)
7. Larry Fitzgerald, Pitt (2002)
8. Sammy Watkins, Clemson (2011)
9. Tamarick Vanover, Florida State (1992)
10. Calvin Ridley, Alabama (2015)

OFFENSIVE LINE
1. Orlando Pace, Ohio State (1994)
2. Bill Fralic, Pitt (1981)
3. Cam Robinson, Alabama (2014)
4. Jonah Williams, Alabama (2016)
5. Brad Budde, USC (1976)
6. Reggie Green, Florida (1992)
7. Andre Smith, Alabama (2006)
8. Winston Justice, USC (2002)
9. Korey Stringer, Ohio State (1992)
10. Mark Hutson, Oklahoma (1984)


33. DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee (2014)

A four-star freshman from the Nashville area, Barnett had three games with at least three TFLs and two with at least three sacks. He keyed a defense that improved enough to lead the Volunteers to their first bowl in four seasons. He finished his three-year career with 52 TFLs and 32 sacks (and then had a strip sack that clinched the Super Bowl as an NFL rookie).


32. QB Sam Howell, North Carolina (2019)

The first big-time, blue-chip signee of Mack Brown’s second North Carolina tenure, Howell threw for a combined 519 yards, four touchdowns and no picks as UNC scored tight wins over South Carolina and Miami to start his career, then finished the regular season with 401 yards and three scores against rival NC State. His final tally: an unfreshmanlike 3,641 yards, 38 TDs, 7 INTs.


31. WR Rondale Moore, Purdue (2018)

Plenty of great freshmen have had great games, but almost none have so thoroughly embarrassed a national power.

play

1:28

Rondale Moore catches the pass and breaks numerous tackles en route to a 43-yard touchdown.

Moore’s 12-catch, 170-yard performance drove a resounding 49-20 blowout of No. 2 Ohio State midway through his first season. He finished it with 114 catches, 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns — ridiculous numbers — but he might have made this list even if he’d just retired after the Ohio State game.


30. DE Simeon Rice, Illinois (1992)

The only freshman on a veteran defense, Rice wowed coaches from his first practice and wowed opponents soon after. He recorded three sacks in his first career road game (at Houston), finished the year with nine of them, and earned both second-team All-Big Ten honors and the conference’s freshman of the year award. He would earn the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award four years later.


29. S Tracy Saul, Texas Tech (1989)

A member of the Southwest Conference and Texas High School halls of fame and maybe the greatest Red Raiders defensive back ever, Saul exploded onto the scene with eight interceptions as a freshman, then hit that mark again two years later on his way to 25 career picks. No player has topped 22 since. He also was an immediately excellent return man.


28. LB Woodrow Lowe, Alabama (1972)

First, he became the first freshman (and one of the first Black players) to see the field for Bear Bryant at Alabama. Then he was named special teams captain after making every tackle on kicks in his first two games. By the end of the season — in which Bama came within four points of an unbeaten record — he was a starting linebacker. (For each of the next three seasons, he was an All-American too.)


27. CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech (2013)

Legendary Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster had to turn to a pair of freshman cornerbacks in 2013 — Fuller and Brandon Facyson — and while that almost always turns out horribly, the exact opposite happened in Blacksburg, Virginia. A blue-chipper from Baltimore (and one of many Fullers to play for Tech), Fuller picked off six passes (one more than Facyson) and added 58 tackles and 2.5 TFLs.


26. RB Samaje Perine, Oklahoma (2014)

The load-carrying feature back has become rarer in the 21st century, but that just makes the 245-pound Perine an old soul. He rushed 34 times for 242 yards against West Virginia, 25 for 213 against Texas Tech and, in his masterpiece, 34 for 427 and five TDs in a record-setting performance against Kansas. He finished the year with an incredible 1,713 yards and 21 scores.


25. LB Marvin Jones, Florida State (1990)

Before finishing his career with basically every accolade imaginable — consensus All-American (twice), Lombardi and Butkus awards, etc. — the Miami Northwestern grad and future College Football Hall of Famer was a standout 17-year-old, recording 21 tackles in a single game (!!) and 133 in the regular season and leading the Seminoles to a Blockbuster Bowl win over Penn State in his hometown.


24. WR Mike Williams, USC (2002)

Everything I said above about few receivers making huge impressions before the 2010s? It doesn’t even slightly apply to Williams, who caught 81 passes for 1,265 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first season after moving from Tampa to Los Angeles. He immediately became Carson Palmer’s top weapon as Palmer won the Heisman and USC leaped from 6-6 to 11-2 and finished fourth in the AP poll.


23. RB Marshall Faulk, San Diego State (1991)

Recruited nationwide as a defensive player, Faulk instead chose the one school that wanted him as a running back. It turned out pretty well. In just his second game, he rushed for 386 yards and seven touchdowns against Pacific. By the end of the season, he had amassed 1,630 yards and 23 touchdowns in just 218 combined rushes and receptions, an all-time debut in what would become an all-time career.


22. CB Ricky Manning, UCLA (1999)

A scroll through Manning’s stat line catches you off guard. Two interceptions — one returned 83 yards in his first start — plus 53 tackles and a 10-yard punt return average? Pretty good for a freshman. Wait … he led the team with 10 tackles for loss, too? That can’t be right!

It was. And he accomplished all this after playing minor league baseball all summer.


21. OL Cam Robinson, Alabama (2014)

The pride of Monroe, Louisiana, Robinson was the No. 3 overall recruit in the 2014 class and played like it immediately. The 6-6, 320-pounder became the first freshman to start at left tackle for a Nick Saban team and dominated Florida’s star defensive end, Dante Fowler Jr., in just his fourth collegiate game. He allowed just three sacks all season.


20. QB Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma (1985)

With the signing of players like local star Troy Aikman, Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer began to drift from his wishbone and option ways. But when Aikman broke his leg early in 1985, Switzer put a freshman from Los Angeles behind center and won the national title with the option. Holieway rushed for 862 yards and eight scores, and while he completed only 24 passes all season, they went for 517 yards and five touchdowns.


19. S Robert O’Neal, Clemson (1989)

Big things were expected of the blue-chipper from Clarkston, Georgia, but it was still a surprise when he commanded a spot in the lineup and just … kept … picking off … passes. He had eight interceptions by the end of his first year, and the Tigers finished fourth in scoring defense, holding eight opponents to 10 or fewer points in a 10-2 campaign.


18. DT Ed Oliver, Houston (2016)

After a 13-1 campaign and Peach Bowl win, Houston head coach Tom Herman earned headlines by signing Oliver, a local product and top-five recruit. The freshman immediately lived up to all the hype, finishing third in the country with 22.5 tackles for loss and adding 5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 9 pass breakups. He was fourth on the team in total tackles, too, nearly unheard of for a 290-pounder.


17. RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (2017)

Wisconsin had to replace its two leading rushers from 2016. It officially took Taylor one game to get up to speed. He rushed for 223 yards and three scores against Florida Atlantic in Week 2, then hit Nebraska for 249, Purdue for 219 and Indiana for 183. He finished with 1,977 yards and 13 scores, and Wisconsin finished 13-1, just six points from an unbeaten season.


The top 10 true freshmen in each defensive unit (and special teams)

DEFENSIVE LINE
1. Hugh Green, Pitt (1977)
2. Tommie Harris, Oklahoma (2001)
3. Ed Oliver, Houston (2016)
4. Simeon Rice, Illinois (1992)
5. Derek Barnett, Tennessee (2014)
6. Ross Browner, Notre Dame (1973)
7. William Perry, Clemson (1981)
8. George Karlaftis, Purdue (2019)
9. Roosevelt Nix, Kent State (2010)
10. Rodrique Wright, Texas (2002)

LINEBACKER
1. Andy Katzenmoyer, Ohio State (1996)
2. Luke Kuechly, Boston College (2009)
3. Anthony Simmons, Clemson (1995)
4. Marvin Jones, Florida State (1990)
5. Woodrow Lowe, Alabama (1972)
6. Ahmad Brooks, Virginia (2003)
7. Randall Godfrey, Georgia (1992)
8. Myles Jack, UCLA (2013)
9. Lucius Sanford, Georgia Tech (1974)
10. Will Anderson, Alabama (2020)

DEFENSIVE BACK
1. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU (2019)
2. Kenny Easley, UCLA (1977)
3. Robert O’Neal, Clemson (1989)
4. David Fulcher, Arizona State (1983)
5. Ricky Manning, UCLA (1999)
6. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech (2013)
7. Tracy Saul, Texas Tech (1989)
8. Charles Woodson, Michigan (1995)
9. Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida (2013)
10. Ralph Brown, Nebraska (1996)

SPECIAL TEAMS
1. K Cade York, LSU (2019)
2. PR Ryan Switzer, North Carolina (2013)
3. P Tom Tupa, Ohio State (1984)
4. PR Ted Ginn, Ohio State (2004)
5. K/P Austin Rehkow, Idaho (2013)
6. K Sebastian Janikowski, Florida State (1997)
7. KR/PR Raghib Ismail, Notre Dame (1988)
8. K/P Robbie Keen, Cal (1987)
9. K Evan McPherson, Florida (2018)
10. P Tory Taylor, Iowa (2020)


16. LB Anthony Simmons, Clemson (1995)

A product of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Simmons was one of the best linebackers in the country from almost his first snap. A menace from sideline to sideline, he was named national freshman of the year after making 150 tackles, 11 for loss. Somehow, he topped that number in each of the next two seasons, becoming one of the most celebrated linebackers of the decade in the process.


15. S Kenny Easley, UCLA (1977)

Teams weren’t throwing the ball a ton in 1977, which makes Easley’s exploits even more jarring: The freshman from Chesapeake, Virginia, picked off nine passes in 1977, earning his first of four straight appearances on the Pac-10’s all-conference team. (He was a three-time All-American too.) And after one of the most storied defensive careers ever, he was selected fourth in the 1981 NFL draft … and became an All-Pro by 1982.


14. QB Philip Rivers, NC State (2000)

One of the first big-name early enrollees in college football also became one of the best quarterbacks. He threw for 798 yards in his first two college games and finished the year with 3,054 yards and 25 touchdowns as NC State jumped from 6-6 and 96th in scoring offense to 8-4 and 25th. Two years later, he led the Wolfpack to their only season ever with double-digit wins.


13. DT Tommie Harris, Oklahoma (2001)

A ridiculous athlete and one of the top Texas prospects in the 2001 class, the speedy 275-pounder signed for the defending national champions and stormed into a lineup that already featured stars such as Roy Williams, Antonio Perkins and Rocky Calmus. He started every game as a freshman and finished with 18 tackles for loss as the Sooners finished second in scoring defense and won 11 games.


12. CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU (2019)

A top-20 recruit from Baton Rouge, Singley Jr. just kept getting better. He was good in September, recording 10 tackles with an interception. He was excellent in October, picking off three more passes as LSU positioned itself in the national title race.

From November on, he was the best defender in the country, locking down half the field and recording a pair of interceptions in an SEC championship-game blowout of Georgia as the Tigers cruised to the national title.


11. QB Jalen Hurts, Alabama (2016)

Given the keys to a national title contender, Hurts led the Tide to a 14-1 record and earned the SEC’s offensive player of the year award by throwing for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns and rushing for 954 yards and 13 more scores. He had some huge passing games — 28-for-37 for 347 yards against Mississippi State — and when the pass wasn’t working, he served as one of the nation’s best running backs.


10. OL Bill Fralic, Pitt (1981)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pitt had as much elite and future pro talent as any roster in the country. Fralic still became an immediate standout, replacing All-American Mark May with almost no drop-off whatsoever. By the end of his college career, he was a two-time unanimous All-American and saw his No. 79 retired at Pitt, then he became a four-time Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL’s all-1980s team.


9. RB Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (2004)

As good as quarterback Jason White had been in 2003, Oklahoma was held back at times by a merely decent run game. That was not a problem in 2004. Peterson not only stepped into the lineup as a freshman but carried a huge load, rushing 339 times for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns as the Sooners charged to 12-1 and a third Big 12 title in five years.


8. LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College (2009)

A Cincinnati native, Kuechly was a relatively anonymous recruit, choosing BC over offers from the likes of Duke and Illinois. But he instantly became one of the country’s best defenders, finishing 2009 with 158 tackles, 13 TFLs and a pick-six. And then he somehow got even better, averaging 187 tackles over his next two seasons, then becoming the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year by 2013.


7. RB Tony Dorsett, Pitt (1973)

Freshmen didn’t get too many chances to stand out during that initial 1972 season. Then came Dorsett. The pride of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, exploded for 1,686 yards and 13 touchdowns as the Panthers jumped from 1-10 to 6-5-1 in Johnny Majors’ first year in charge. By 1976, Dorsett was rushing for more than 2,000 yards and carrying Pitt to the national title. He rushed for 6,526 yards in college, then went for 12,739 yards in the pros. He was an all-time great, and it started the moment he set foot on campus.


6. LB Andy Katzenmoyer, Ohio State (1996)

College football had plenty of hard hitters in 1996 — Pat Fitzgerald, Peter Boulware, Chris Canty, Mike Vrabel — but Katzenmoyer was the most intimidating defender in the country from his first snap. His freshman stats were something you would expect from a video game create-a-player: 85 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 6 pass breakups. He took an already-loaded defense to a completely different level.


5. RB Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996)

Billed as a Jerome Bettis clone, the 250-pound Philadelphia native — and one of the best high school discus throwers ever — stuck with his Wisconsin commitment despite a late push from Ohio State and immediately began producing seemingly impossible stats. He rushed for 2,109 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman, then finished his career with 7,125 yards, 71 scores, a Heisman and a pair of Rose Bowl wins. Absurd.


4. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (2018)

One of the most highly touted recruits in history, Lawrence somehow lived up to the hype. He threw for 3,280 yards, 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions, and he somehow improved down the stretch: In his last four games, he completed 66% of his passes and threw for 1,185 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions as the Tigers charged to a 15-0 record and their second national title in three years.


3. OL Orlando Pace, Ohio State (1994)

Take it away, Luke Fickell: “Here’s a guy that’s 6-foot-8, 330 pounds — 50 pounds heavier than me — and I can’t even come close. I’ve always said, ‘God is fair.’ But I don’t know if I believe that anymore because I’m working my butt off and I can’t even come close to running with this guy.”

Maybe the best offensive lineman in college football history was the best from nearly his first practice in Columbus.


2. RB Herschel Walker, Georgia (1980)

My god, a freshman!

Sometimes the passage of time creates legends that surpass how good a player really was. That’s not the case with Walker. Georgia had gone just 6-5 in 1979 and might have done so again in 1980 if not for the impossibly strong freshman, who rushed for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns and saved an extra gear for whenever the Dawgs needed it. And in the Sugar Bowl, with the national title on the line, Walker fought through an injured shoulder to rush for 150 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-10 win over Notre Dame.


1. DE Hugh Green, Pitt (1977)

Jimbo Covert … Mark May … Russ Grimm … Rickey Jackson … Pitt was blessed with some of the best line talent that college football has ever produced in this era, but Green still stood out immediately. The Natchez, Mississippi, native was two players at once: On one hand, he was an elite and speedy linebacker who made 92 tackles as a freshman, then averaged more than 120 over the rest of his career. On the other hand, he was the best defensive end in the sport, credited with 12 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 21 quarterback hurries as a freshman, then replicating that for each of the next three seasons (four-year average: 13.3 sacks, 19 hurries). Linebackers weren’t supposed to be this dangerous, and defensive ends weren’t supposed to be this ridiculously fast.

Green was a second-team All-American in his first year, and honestly that might have been an injustice. But voters made up for it, naming him a consensus first-teamer for each of the next three seasons.

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