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10 freshmen you must watch this college football season

Footballs are lined up on the field prior to the game as the FIU Golden Panthers held their annual spring game on April 7, 2017, at Riccardo Silva Stadium in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

Football is ever-evolving, and as more players leave college early for the NFL (96 declared early for the 2017 draft, second most of all time) it also means that more players are being thrust into important roles earlier at the college level. Over the last few years, the likes of Leonard Fournette, Lamar Jackson, Myles Garrett and dozens of others have played major roles as freshmen before emerging as stars in subsequent years.

So, with a new crop of enrollees on campus, who are the freshmen to watch out for entering the 2017 college football season? Here are 10 who could have an immediate impact:

Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

On paper, losing the greatest running back in school history could be a problem for Florida State. But as the old saying goes, thankfully games aren’t played on paper. So, while Florida State could be concerned that Dalvin Cook now plays for the Minnesota Vikings, they aren’t, because a number of guys are ready to step up in his place. No one more so than Akers, one of the top prospects in last year’s high school class.

Akers is a school boy legend from Mississippi, where he actually spent his high school days as a dual-threat quarterback, putting up numbers that wouldn’t even seem real if they were simulated in Madden. Akers passed for over 8,100 yards and 78 touchdowns during his high school career, while rushing for 5,103 yards and 71 scores on the ground. And when it came to his college decision, Akers (smartly, as it turned out) broke the hearts of Ole Miss fans when he decided to go to Tallahassee as an early enrollee in January.

Once on campus Akers, switched from quarterback to running back and impressed in his first true action with the Seminoles with 87 yards in Florida State’s spring game. In the process, he impressed another guy as well — Cook — who said Akers has “greatness in him” after watching him play.

Jalean Phillips, DE, UCLA

The only player ranked ahead of Akers in the 247 Composite recruiting rankings? That’d be Phillips, a rugged 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end from Southern California.

Because he plays on the defensive line, it’s a little harder to quantify Phillips’ impact so far, but all early returns out of UCLA are that the true freshman is as good as advertised. He arrived for spring ball, and since fall camp opened up has been working with the first team, terrorizing older, more experienced offensive linemen in the process.

The Bruins will need that kind of effort when the season starts. They open against Texas A&M at the Rose Bowl on Labor Day weekend.

Darnay Holmes, CB, UCLA

We’re going to try not to double down too much on this list with multiple players from the same program. But when it comes to Phillips and Holmes, it is impossible not to. Both were not only highly recruited high school players, but also are guys who’ve seen immediate success on the field since arriving on campus.

Holmes comes from good bloodlines (his father, Darick Holmes, played for the Buffalo Bills during their early 1990s Super Bowl runs) but was slightly overshadowed at the high school level last year, where he played alongside Keyshawn Johnson Jr. at Calabasas High School. Holmes won’t be overlooked at UCLA however, where he worked with the first team defense throughout the spring and is doing the same early in fall camp. Also, don’t be surprised to see him contribute in the return game as well.

Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama

If it feels like you’ve been hearing about Moses for a decade, well, that honestly isn’t all that far off. Moses made headlines when he was offered a scholarship to LSU in the seventh grade (2012 to be exact). Flash forward six years and thousands of press clippings, and he’s finally on campus.

And not only is Moses on campus, but he plays a position of need in Tuscaloosa and should see the field right away. Alabama lost linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams to the pros, and while the team still has veterans (Shaun Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans), there are still snaps to be had at the position. Moses should get some reps there, as well as on special teams.

Also, since we’re talking Alabama, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention running back Najee Harris and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, both highly-touted freshmen who can – and will – see time at their respective positions.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

Dobbins wasn’t the highest-ranked recruit in the Buckeyes’ 2017 class, but is a perfect example of what can happen when talent and work ethic meet opportunity. With starting running back Mike Weber limited by injuries the last few weeks at fall camp, Dobbins has taken full advantage and has firmly entrenched himself as the No. 2 back in Columbus entering the season.

Urban Meyer has already gone on the record and said that he will play this fall, and even more impressively, Dobbins was the first freshman to have his “black stripe” removed from his helmet. For those who aren’t aware, that is a major honor in Meyer’s program, signaling that a freshman has done everything needed to be considered a “full-fledged Buckeye.”

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU

Speaking of under-recruited running backs who’ve taken their new teams by storm, meet Edwards-Helaire. He entered LSU as a 3-star local product from Baton Rouge, but through just a few short practices this fall, seems to have entrenched himself as Derrius Guice’s primary backup entering the season.

How good has Edwards-Helaire been? Well, we’ll turn it over to Guice, who told reporters earlier in the week, “The whole team hates him right now, defensively, because they still can’t find a way to stop him.”

At just 5-7,  Edwards-Helaire could be an asset in both the run and pass game this season.

Jhamon Ausbon, WR, Texas A&M

While the Aggies have been known for an attacking, high-scoring offense since Kevin Sumlin arrived in College Station a few years ago, here’s the surprising reality entering 2017: They return next to no production in the passing game. In addition to Trevor Knight’s departure at quarterback, the Aggies also lost four of their top five pass catchers from a year ago (the one guy who returned is Christian Kirk, who might just be the best wide receiver in college football).

But Kirk can’t do it alone, and thankfully he won’t have to thanks to Ausbon. The 6-2 freshman blew coaches away with his size and physicality in the spring, and Kirk has doubled-down this summer by discussing the work ethic and maturity that Ausbon has.

The Houston native, by way of IMG Academy in Florida, has already unofficially been given one of the starting outside wide receiver spots in the Aggies’ offense and should be a contributor starting Week 1.

Tyjon Lindsey, WR, Nebraska

Since Mike Riley took over at Nebraska, the recruiting upgrade in Lincoln has been noticeable. And no one was a bigger get in the class of 2017 than Lindsey. The 5-9 speedster was a bona fide star at high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Nevada, and was basically pursued by every major program in the country. He actually initially committed to Ohio State, before decommitting and signing with Nebraska last spring.

The Buckeyes’ loss was Nebraska’s gain, as the Cornhuskers not only got a star player, but also got one at a position of need. Nebraska’s passing game was anemic last season (it ranked 86th nationally), and in theory could have been worse entering 2017, with three of its top five pass catchers graduated.

Lindsey’s presence immediately gives new quarterback Tanner Lee a playmaker who can pick up big chunks of yards through the air.

Aubrey Solomon, DE, Michigan

When you lose 17 starters, like Michigan did off last year’s team, it means that a lot of young guys will be forced into action. It also means that – thanks to the No. 4 recruiting class in the country according to 247 Sports – we had any number of players to choose from when it came to the Wolverines’ most impactful true freshman this season.

While we could have gone with wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones or fellow defensive lineman Donovan Jeter, instead we go with Solomon, one of the most physically intimidating defensive linemen to enter college football this season.

Unlike so many others, Solomon didn’t arrive on campus for spring practice, but – as you can see in the video above – he is already making his presence felt. He also impressed his new teammates, including his roommate Rashan Gary, a former 5-star recruit himself, who has already called Solomon “a beast.”

Deommodore Lenoir, CB/KR/PR, Oregon

Both Lenoir and fellow true freshman Thomas Graham have impressed in Willie Taggart’s first fall camp at Oregon, and each could see playing time in the defensive backfield.

We’ll go ahead and give Lenoir the slight edge here, since in addition to getting time at cornerback, he should have a major impact on special teams as well. The Los Angeles native is one of the most athletically gifted players in this freshman class.

Aaron Torres is covering college football for FanRag Sports this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com.

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