- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Now that Edward has unveiled his freshmen of influence in the East this season, I’ll take my shot at those first-year players who will make the biggest impacts in the West.
Remember, we’re picking only true freshmen.
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: One of the key questions for Alabama heading into the season was who would emerge as the big-play threat in the Crimson Tide’s passing game. Enter Cooper, who’s drawn rave reviews from coach Nick Saban and several of Cooper’s veteran teammates. Even though a foot injury has hampered the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Cooper in recent days, he’s given the defending national champions confidence that they won’t be lacking when they decide to throw the football in 2012.
De’Vante Harris, CB, Texas A&M: The Aggies were able to pry Harris away from Oklahoma during the recruiting process, and it’s a good thing. He might very well be starting in the Texas A&M defensive backfield from Day 1. In fact, one of the first players Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin mentioned following last weekend’s scrimmage was Harris, who’s been hard to miss this preseason. He’s played like a veteran, challenges the receivers and has kept his mistakes to a minimum.
I'Tavius Mathers, RB, Ole Miss: Nagging injuries have limited junior running back Jeff Scott this preseason, which has provided a big opportunity for Mathers. Needless to say, he’s taken that opportunity and run with it. So has fellow freshman running back Jaylen Walton. Mathers, who’s right around 200 pounds, has shown the power and strength to get the tough yards, but he also has breakaway speed. He ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run in last weekend’s scrimmage.
Jalen Mills, CB, LSU: He’s not the biggest guy or the fastest guy, but Mills is a fierce competitor and an excellent tackler. Sound familiar? OK, it’s way too premature to compare him to Tyrann Mathieu, but Mills has been mighty impressive during preseason camp with his instincts and nose for the ball. With Mathieu gone, Mills worked with the first-team defense last Saturday during the scrimmage and is pushing to be a fixture in the Tigers’ secondary rotation this season.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: After enrolling early, Yeldon burst onto the scene this spring and had 91 yards receiving and 88 yards rushing in the A-Day spring game. He had the play of the game on a 50-yard touchdown reception and has picked up where he left off this preseason. The Crimson Tide aren’t short on talent at running back, but Yeldon is the kind of playmaker that demands touches. He’s explosive as a runner and also makes things happen after the catch. Saban will see to it that Yeldon is a big part of the offense.