Ranking the 10 best true freshmen in college football

Steve Palazzolo brings you PFF's best true freshmen through 12 weeks of college play.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Ranking the 10 best true freshmen in college football

With only one full week to go, time is running out for the youngsters to make a push to make the list of top true freshmen in the nation. The group is filled with wire-to-wire talent, future stars, and emerging quarterbacks, all getting their first taste of rivalry week and playing games under the brightest of lights. The battle at the top is getting tight, others have tapered off due to injury, and still a few more are knocking at the door of the top 10.

Here’s a look at the top true freshmen in the nation after 12 weeks.

1. Derwin James, S, Florida State, +20.3

Part safety, part linebacker, part edge rusher. That’s what James brings to the table for the Florida State defense as he develops into a star right before our eyes. Few players have the ability to play deep safety on one play before dropping down and challenging offensive tackles in pure pass rushing situations, but James has performed well in any role thrown his way. His pass rush productivity of 32.5 ranks just ahead of PFF Dream Team safety Jeremy Cash, of Duke, as James has pressured the quarterback on 42 percent of his rushes. With positive grades in coverage and against the run, James is developing into one of the nation’s best playmaking safeties.

2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State, +19.4

A slight step back has Myles Gaskin right on Barkley’s trail to be named the top true freshman running back in the nation, but that doesn’t take anything away from Barkley’s impressive season. His elusive rating of 118.9 ranks seventh in the nation, as he’s forced 44 missed tackles on 147 attempts while averaging 3.8 yards after contact per rush. The future of the running back position looks bright in Happy Valley.

3. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington, +19.6

It was another strong performance from Gaskin against Oregon State, as he ran for 147 yards on 23 carries, moving his season rushing total to 983 yards to go with eight touchdowns. Gaskins has become the go-to guy for the Huskies this season, as his elusive rating of 101.1 ranks 19th in the league, and he averages 3.8 yards after contact per rush. When you size him up with Barkley, the numbers are very similar, and there will be a hotly-contested battle for the top running back spot, with one game left for each player.

4. Terry Beckner, Jr., DT, Missouri, +16.8

A knee injury has ended Beckner, Jr.’s season early, but it doesn’t take away from a strong freshman campaign. He was a key part of Missouri’s deep defensive line rotation all season, playing 325 total snaps and finishing with the top grade among true freshmen interior defensive linemen against the run, at +16.7. As a pass rusher, he tacked on three sacks and nine hurries on 167 rushes, and when he recovers, he’ll be a key part of Missouri’s run defense once again.

5. Jake Browning, QB, Washington, +18.8

Just as Gaskin is catching up to Barkley, Browning has been in a close battle with Josh Rosen, and this week gets the nod as the No. 5 overall true freshmen. Browning is grading at +15.2 over his last five games, bouncing back nicely from a tough outing against USC in week six. That stretch ranks 14th among all quarterbacks in the nation, and first among all quarterbacks in the Pac-12. For the season, Browning leads all true freshmen with an accuracy percentage of 67.7 when pressured.

6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA, +12.4

Browning’s late push should not take away from Rosen’s season, as the future appears extremely bright under center for UCLA. Rosen’s +17.5 grade against Power-5 teams leads all true freshmen, and ranks 10th among all quarterbacks in the nation. Rosen has shown good touch on his deep passes, but it’s been the intermediate level where he’s shined, going 53-for-83 (64.0 percent) for 966 yards and seven touchdowns.

7. Jarrett Stidham, QB, Baylor, +17.8

The only thing keeping Stidham this low on the list is a lack of early playing time, but he’s stepped in and performed well as Baylor’s starter the last three games, grading at +11.2 during that time. The system certainly helps by opening up the field like no other offense in the country, but it doesn’t take away from Stidham’s quick adjustment from the high school game. He already leads all true freshmen with 596 yards on deep passes (20+ yards in air) and his 57.1 accuracy percentage on such throws is by far the top mark. Unfortunately, Stidham got hurt in last week’s game against Oklahoma State.

8. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State, +13.5

One of the fastest starters in the freshman class, Sweat has played the run well as part of Florida State’s defensive line rotation, earning more playing time as the season has progressed. His +10.8 grade against the run leads all true freshmen edge players, as he can explode into blockers to re-direct them—or finish the play when necessary—as his run stop percentage of 8.0 attests. As a pass rusher, he’s notched 23 pressures on 247 attempts, good for a pass rush productivity of 7.1.

9. Trenton Thompson, DT, Georgia, +13.7

Thompson sat out last week’s game against Georgia Southern due to injury, here’s what we said last week: Similar to Beckner, Jr., Thompson has battled injuries and has been limited to only 25 snaps in the last two games. He made a midseason push up this list, and may have been ready to jump into the top three, had he not been slowed down. Still, the future is bright for Thompson, whose +11.9 grade against the run ranks third among true freshmen interior defensive linemen.

10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas, +7.3

Texas was on a bye to gear up for their Thanksgiving Day game against Texas Tech. Here are last week’s notes on Williams: Remaining status quo, Williams had another average game against West Virginia, but he’s still the top pass-protecting true freshman offensive tackle, at +4.7. He’s surrendered one hit and 10 hurries on 283 attempts, all the more impressive considering how long Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard holds onto the ball (3.19 seconds per dropback, fourth-highest in the nation).


First few out:

Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State

Kolton Miller, OT, UCLA

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • sureshot32

    Seems strange not to see USC LB Cameron Smith on here. Led the team in tackles and had a bunch of giant plays, including three picks in an upset win of then #4 Utah.