- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
On the heels of signing day, we often predict which players in the class might be impact freshmen. But the reality is there usually are not all that many. Sure, a good number of the ESPN 150 or even the ESPN 300 receive playing time in their first seasons, but pronounced difference-makers? Breakout players? There aren't many.
Take the Class of 2012.
Georgia's combo of North Carolina-raised backs, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, was the standard for freshman excellence. The pair combined for 2,144 yards and 25 touchdowns, making Bulldogs fans somehow forget that a promising young player, Isaiah Crowell, had been dismissed from the team. Without Gurshall -- I prefer Marley, but that's just me -- Georgia probably isn't oh-so-close to playing for the national title.
They already had their breakout seasons, although who is to say they couldn't exceed the high bar they set for themselves?
The same goes for Alabama back T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yards, 12 TDs) and Tide receiver Amari Cooper (1,000 yards, 11 TDs). And TCU defensive end Devonte Fields (10 sacks). From the ACC, Miami back Duke Johnson (947 yards, 10 TDs) and Maryland receiver-return specialist Stefon Diggs (848 yards, six TDs; 28.5-yard kick return average, two TDs) fit into the category.
Still, from all the freshman contributors in the country, that's a pretty short list of those who have "made it." Plenty from the '12 signing class will emerge this fall, as redshirt freshmen and sophomores, and you'll find below a sampling of those most likely to excel.
Here are my top 10 breakout candidates from the 2012 recruiting class, with a list of 10 more you should keep an eye on.
1. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri Tigers
Last season: 28 catches, 395 yards, 5 TDs
All right, so he wasn't the latest version of A.J. Green or Julio Jones (or Cooper, for that matter) as a freshman. But perhaps we shouldn't have been so presumptuous, what with Missouri's move to the SEC and Tigers quarterback James Franklin coming off shoulder surgery.
The SEC and QB play are still factors that could detract from Green-Beckham's sophomore season, but the 6-foot-6, 220-pound specimen showed signs of growth in the second half of the year. Seventy-five percent of his catches, 68 percent of his yards and four of his five scores came in the final five games, which followed a drug arrest and subsequent suspension that could have been something of a wake-up call.
Even though the progress was plodding, a lot of SEC coaches I've spoken with said they had to be aware of where Green-Beckham was on the field because of the size mismatch he creates. Perhaps, like the program at large, he needed time to adjust. Additionally, it will be interesting to see whether it makes any difference, one way or the other, that Josh Henson took over for David Yost as offensive coordinator.
2. Nelson Agholor, WR, USC Trojans
Last season: 340 yards, 2 TDs
Agholor was a hotly sought prospect out of Florida, and he sometimes demonstrated as a freshman why that was the case. Even though he was playing with two All-America-type receivers, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, Agholor managed to stand out. Lee will be back in 2013, but Woods left a void for Agholor to fill.
Receivers coach Tee Martin, who won a national title with Tennessee, saw development in Agholor's first season -- something that certainly could continue in his sophomore year, especially with Woods gone.
"He's definitely blessed with talent, he has the want-to and he prepares like a pro," Martin told our WeAreSC.com in November after Agholor's high point, a 162-yard game against Oregon. "When you do those three things, you're going to produce."
Agholor's versatility could be something USC continues to explore. For a time this past summer, when the Trojans were short on running backs, coach Lane Kiffin had Agholor working with the backs. When Silas Redd transferred from Penn State, it led Agholor back to the receivers. That flexibility because of his size -- he's a well-constructed 6-1, 185 -- could provide additional opportunities in an offense that figures to look somewhat different without Woods and Matt Barkley.
3. Trey Williams, RB, Texas A&M Aggies
Last season: 376 yards, 5 TDs
In an offense that featured the Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Johnny Manziel, and two other backs who finished with 800- and 400-yard seasons, it might have been easy to miss Williams as a freshman.
It might be more difficult to overlook him as a sophomore.
Defenses, surely, will be keying on Manziel's scrambling, so others likely will have to help the young quarterback. At running back, junior Ben Malena will be the steady option -- and Williams will be one of the team's home run threats. In his first season, Williams averaged 5.8 yards a carry, and five of his 65 carries went into the end zone.
What might hold Williams back? Additional competition. Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams and Oregon transfer Tra Carson create an absolutely loaded backfield for the Aggies, a borderline top-three team entering the season. One or two of those backs will join Malena as the primary options, and Trey Williams' experience as a freshman could push him forward.
4. Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington Huskies
Last season: 74 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 3 interceptions
Thompson is probably the most decorated freshman not to reach the "made it" category. But that's more of a compliment to his potential than anything else. He could go from a player some recognize as talented to someone on the level of Jarvis Jones or Jadeveon Clowney.
Football was the right call. The 18th-round pick by the Red Sox struck out 37 times in 39 at-bats in a short, short -- short! -- minor league stint. Again, football was the right call.
Thompson is 6-2 and 225 pounds, but he moves fluidly in the hybrid position in second-year coordinator Justin Wilcox's defense. However you classify the position, Wilcox wants to keep Thompson near the ball and allow his instincts to engage.
U-Dub coaches told me back in September that Thompson was playing a bit out of position to accommodate a young defense. He'll continue to settle in, playing a balance of linebacker and safety, as the Huskies accumulate players around him.
Last season: 17 tackles (2 1/2 for a loss), 1.5 sacks
The position will look vastly different for the Seminoles than it did a year ago, which in effect opens the door for Edwards, who didn't have to do all that much as a freshman because of the experience in front of him.
But Tank Carradine, Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner -- who amassed 45.5 sacks the past two seasons, even though injuries were major factors for Jenkins and Carradine -- are headed to the NFL. Enter Super Mario. He got starts against Florida and in the Orange Bowl after Carradine injured his knee, and Edwards performed, collecting 10 of his 17 tackles in those games. He's a classic rush end, very much in the same mold as those he's replacing.
And that's good news for FSU given the turnover this offseason in Tallahassee. In addition to the players, position coach D.J. Eliot went with former defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to his new Kentucky staff. So the entire defense, like the end spot, will have a different feel to it.
6. Rushel Shell, RB, Pittsburgh Panthers
Last season: 641 yards, 4 TDs
With Ray Graham working his way back from a knee injury, Shell received a number of early-season opportunities. By the time Graham was running confidently, Shell had provided Pitt a two-headed system.
The Sept. 15 upset of Virginia Tech, in which Shell ran 23 times for 157 yards (6.8 yards a carry), seemed to indicate his potential. When Graham missed the bowl game, first-year coach Paul Chryst got Shell the ball 25 times.
"All I know is we had trouble tackling him," said one coach whose team saw Shell as a freshman. "He was smooth, the way he ran. Not undersized, not too big. He's going to be a really good player for them. Already is."
There's no safety blanket for Shell now. Without Graham, just like in the bowl game, it's Shell's turn.
7. Geno Smith, CB, Alabama Crimson Tide
Last season: 9 tackles, 2 pass breakups
Corner is a position of need for talent-rich Alabama, which saw Dee Milliner leave early for the NFL and Deion Belue, vulnerable but capable, often be targeted by opposing offenses. Belue will have chances to show progress, but Smith could soon become the rock that Milliner was. And Dre Kirkpatrick before him. And Javier Arenas before him.
It appears as though he's already done a good job of winning teammates over (check out the praise former tight end Michael Williams gave to Smith in the lead-up to Bama's BCS title game win), and it's clear there will be opportunity for him to shine. The Crimson Tide have ranked in the top 20 nationally of yards per passing attempt allowed in each of the past five seasons. Although it's a safe bet to say they'll continue that trend, it will require a cornerback or two stepping up. Smith looks as if he could be that guy.
8. Barry Sanders, RB, Stanford Cardinal
Last season: Redshirted
Got the name. Now he's got the opportunity. Stepfan Taylor held the distinction the past couple of years of being the most durable and quite possibly the most underrated back in the country. The Stanford machine kept churning without Andrew Luck, so it's conceivable that it will do the same -- with Sanders' help -- without Taylor, a riser on NFL draft boards.
Sanders isn't a Jr., which is something of a symbol. He's like his father -- a talented college back -- but there is a line for all the comparisons. He has repeatedly told reporters, and his coaches when they recruited him, that he wants to be his own man.
In something of a surprise development this week, and something that could help Sanders adjust and/or could have an impact on Sanders' playing time, he will be joined in the backfield by three-year veteran Tyler Gaffney. Gaffney is giving up pro baseball and will rejoin the team April 1, the school announced Monday. He was the team's second-leading rusher in 2011 and has 15 career touchdowns.
9. Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State Seminoles
Last season: 22 tackles, 8 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble
In 2012, Darby was already the ACC's defensive rookie of the year, but his performance can be built upon. For one, he had several near misses to snare his first career interception -- look at all those PBUs -- but never did bring one in.
Also, Darby played his first year with a hernia that required surgery in recent weeks. That's bound to inspire respect from his teammates as they continue to get to know him. Darby is expected to miss the spring, but he'll be healthier than he ever was as a freshman by the time preseason camp begins.
Greg Reid was an enigmatic figure in his time at FSU, but his ultimate dismissal forced Darby into action a year early. That might not have been an ideal situation in 2012, but it'll be a boost this season as the defense -- coordinator Stoops, perhaps most notably -- endures change. An ACC coach I spoke with this week said FSU was better off with Darby, raw as he might have been, over up-and-down Reid.
10. Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas Longhorns
Last season: 701 yards, 3 TDs
Some coaches and recruiting scouts I spoke with this past summer wondered whether Gray would be durable enough to make it through his Texas career. Gray, it turned out, was the most consistent of the team's backs. He put on some weight from the time of his arrival and finished the season with more carries than returning starter Malcolm Brown, who cannot seem to stay healthy, and steady sophomore Joe Bergeron.
Mack Brown said last week that he wants Texas to run a more up-tempo offense, but do not confuse that to mean he wants David Ash to drop back and throw on every down. To the north and east of Austin, Baylor and Texas A&M are running highly efficient fast-paced offenses that run and throw effectively. That will be the blueprint for the Horns, as well, if that's the direction they do in fact choose.
And Gray is central to the plan. He runs harder than his size -- 5-11 and 207 pounds -- might indicate, but his elusiveness (he had 151 receiving yards) is why he's a nice fit for a speedier system.
10 more to watch