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Spring Football 2023: 23 Impact True Freshman to Watch This Fall

Cormani McClain, Colorado

The transfer portal and NIL have thrown college football rosters into a constant state of frenzy. The constant state of chaos is making it more difficult for coaches to manage rosters, but also providing opportunities for true freshman. Even if a program makes in a transfer or two, spring practice and fall camp provide plenty of chances for youngsters to show what they can do, and hopefully slide up depth charts. There will be plenty set to make an instant impact this fall but in honor of the upcoming 2023 season, I decided to narrow it down to 23 in particular.

1. Caleb Downs, S, Alabama

The younger brother of former North Carolina star and current Indianapolis Colt Josh Downs, Caleb should have the chance to play right away as a true freshman. Both starting safeties from the 2022 team, DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle, are now in the NFL and Downs saw significant first team reps throughout spring practice. He's earned rave reviews from Nick Saban and former Alabama wide out Christion Jones compared him to Landon Collins, a multiyear Tide contributor who has had a successful pro career.

2. C.J. Baxter, RB, Texas

Bijan Robinson is officially an Atlanta Falcon, leaving a gaping hole in the Texas Longhorn offense. To make things worse his backup, Roschon Johnson, is also now in the pros, meaning the Longhorns are likely to lean on an unproven cast of characters in 2023. Sophomores Jaydon Blue and Jonathon Brooks are likely to get opportunities to show what they can do, but keep an eye on newcomer C.J. Baxter. A fringe five-star recruit, Baxter has all the makings of a workhorse tailback in the collegiate ranks with major upside. He could be a nice change-of-pace in the backfield for a Longhorn offense that is going to want to play fast and furious in 2023. 

3. Cormani McClain, CB, Colorado

There may not be a more talented 1-2 cornerback duo in college football than the pair Deion Sanders brought in to Boulder. Travis Hunter is the established name who may also play both ways this fall, but five-star frosh Cormani McClain is sure to play a key role on the Buffaloes, too. He may need to bulk up his 165-pound frame, but at 6'2" with elite ball skills, McClain has the raw tools to be a difference-maker from Day One. He was previously a cornerstone of Mario Cristobal's 2023 Class at Miami but his decommitment in January was one of the first major wins of the Sanders era.

4. Francis Mauigoa, OT, Miami

After allowing 36 sacks over 12 games in 2022, which ranked 109th nationally, Miami went into the offseason knowing they had work to do along the O-Line. Fortunately Mario Cristobal, who happens to be a former offensive linemen himself, happened to land arguably the top tackle in the Class of 2023 in Francis Mauigoa. The 6'5, 330 pound Samoan from nearby IMG Academy could slide in and start right away at right tackle, although he played primarily left tackle during his final season in the high school ranks.

5. Malachi Coleman, WR, Nebraska

There were a bunch of things that went wrong during the Scott Frost era in Lincoln, but one of the big issues offensively? The lack of a true game-changer at receiver. With the exception of Trey Palmer, who was a revelation during his lone year with the 'Huskers, Nebraska simply has not had a difference-maker that can regularly impact the game on the perimeter. That may be changing, as newcomer Malachi Coleman should provide ample fireworks. The Lincoln native is 6'4" and has a massive catch radius, although his shiftiness makes him a tough cover in the open field. He was a major get for Matt Rhule in his first recruiting class, the type of talent that can help shift the culture of a program.

6. Damian Henderson II, RB, Colorado State

It was a rough debut campaign for Jay Norvell at Colorado State, which was to be expected. Recruiting and talent development had seriously slipped under former head man Steve Addazio, leading to a 3-9 2022. The good news is that Norvell signed one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in program history over the offseason, punctuated by tailback Damian Henderson II. The blazing fast Henderson was a prolific high school player out of Los Alamitos High in California and has the opportunity to make an instant impact. Sure, Avery Morrow, the team's leading rusher from last year is back after rushing for 834 yards, but he doesn't have the position on lock. This was one of the worst rushing offenses in FBS football a year ago, and Henderson's addition should help turn that around.

7. Chris Culliver, WR, North Carolina

Drake Maye is expected to dot Heisman Trophy lists this fall before going on and being a high selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. However, there are significant questions facing the rest of this North Carolina offense. For one, offensive coordinator Phil Longo left for Wisconsin but just as important, the top two receivers are gone. Josh Downs is the major loss, a dynamic weapon who was often Maye's security blanket in 2022. Names like Kobe Paysour and J.J. Jones should step up, but it wouldn't be surprising if the Tar Heels also rely on a true freshman or two, such as Chris Culliver. The 6'3", 175-pounder has the potential to be a real weapon down the field and has fabulous instincts, playing on both sides in high school.

8. Peyton Bowen, S, Oklahoma

After one of the craziest recruitments in recent history, Peyton Bowen is settling in at Oklahoma. He happens to join a deep and experienced safety room, one that includes Billy Bowman, Key Lawrence, and Texas Tech transfer Reggie Pearson. Even with all that talent ahead of him on the depth chart, Bowen may have highest ceiling of them all, and should vie for playing time right away. Even if it isn't at safety, expect Bowen to contribute, as he should also see action on special teams. 

9. Parker Jenkins, RB, Houston

One of the most surprising transfers of the spring session was Houston running back Alton McCaskill IV, who was the AAC Rookie of the Year back in 2021 before a torn ACL caused him to miss this past fall. Although McCaskill didn't take contact this spring, he was in line to reprise his role as feature back before the abrupt transfer decision. Houston responded by adding West Virginia's Tony Mathis Jr., who joins back up with Dana Holgorsen, but this room is still weaker now than it was at the start of the offseason. The opportunity is there for newcomer Parker Jenkins to make an impression, and the all-purpose back should take advantage. A Houston native, Jenkins is a track-and-field star who should be able to bring that speed on to the gridiron in college.

10. Duce Robinson, TE, USC

It's no secret that playing in a Lincoln Riley can be a boon for offensive playmakers, as he secured his third Heisman Trophy winner this past fall. Beyond what it can mean for a quarterback and their stats, Riley does an excellent job utilizing all the weapons available to him. That's good news for USC's collection of pass-catchers, which now includes true freshman Duce Robinson. The 6'6", 225-pounder chose USC over Georgia and others and enters a favorable situation. While Lake McRee may be ahead of him on the depth chart, Robinson's tools will make it difficult to keep him off the field.

11. Jonas Duclona, CB, Wisconsin

It's a new-look Wisconsin program, as Luke Fickell takes over in Madison. For all the talk of the offensive overhaul going on, expect there to also be significant changes defensively. Mike Tressel is likely to play more of a 3-3-5 look than what the Badgers had run in the past, which gives plenty of opportunity to an unproven, but talented, Wisconsin secondary. Expect several true freshmen to see opportunities, but Jonas Duclona is the one I'm watching. The three-sport athlete has the versatility to play just about anywhere on the field and could be used in some unique ways, giving Tressel a Swiss Army knife in the long-term.

12. Brock Taylor, K, Vanderbilt

Following the departure of former Alabama transfer Joseph Bulovas, who exhausted his eligibility, Vanderbilt is in search of a new placekicker. Things got a bit more interesting here after spring, as projected starter Will Faris underwhelmed in the spring game, potentially opening the door for newcomer Brock Taylor. It's a golden opportunity for Taylor, who was ranked as the No. 4 kicker in the Class of 2023. Taylor chose Vanderbilt over offers from Air Force and Tennessee Tech, but he reportedly had interest from a host of big-name programs, including Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

13. Jaden Rashada, QB, Arizona State

Jaden Rashada became a well-known college football name this winter due to the fallout of his botched NIL deal at Florida, eventually resurfacing at Arizona State. No matter your opinion on NIL and what happened in Gainesville, there's no denying that it was a win for ASU, landing a high four-star QB with tremendous arm talent. Now, Rashada enters a Sun Devils quarterback room that includes holdover Trenton Bourguet and Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne. Both have proven to be serviceable and have experience, but neither have the talent of Rashada. Don't be surprised if he's the guy by the season's end, especially with a new staff in place. 

14. Matayo Uiagalelei, DE, Oregon

D.J. Uiagalelei's transfer to Oregon State this offseason wasn't the only major news for the family in the state of Oregon. His younger brother, five-star edge rusher Matayo, also announced he would be attending school in the state, but at arch-rival Oregon. Don't be surprised if the younger Uiagalelei comes in and sees action right away, namely at the "Jack" end/linebacker position. South Carolina transfer Jordan Burch should see the majority of snaps to begin the year, but the powerful frosh is another guy who may end up being too good to keep off the field.

15. Kelze Howard, DL, Oregon State

While all eyes in the Pac-12 are focused on the likes of USC, Oregon, Washington, and Utah, don't be surprised if Oregon State emerges as a legitimate conference title contender. Jonathan Smith has built a consistent winner in Corvallis, and he continues to bolster the roster with talent. That now includes true freshman Kelze Howard, a disruptive defensive linemen who is the highest-ranked defensive recruit in program history. Howard's relentless nature should make him a force off the edge, and it seems likely he'll see playing time in 2023, even amongst an experienced Beaver defensive line group.

16. Zachariah Branch, WR, USC

Duce Robinson isn't the only newcomer to watch in this Trojan offense, as five-star receiver Zachariah Branch has the talent to terrorize opposing defenses in 2023. Branch, who hails from Las Vegas area powerhouse Bishop Gorman, is a bit of a smaller receiver at 5'10", but his speed and athleticism are elite. But, it's not just the burners that set Branch apart from his counterparts in the Class of 2023; he's a skilled route-runner with soft hands who should be able to acclimate to the college game quickly. With the Trojans replacing several key targets at wide out, most notably Jordan Addison, he's a good bet to make an instant impact.

17. Dante Moore, QB, UCLA

For the first time since his debut campaign in Los Angeles, UCLA head coach Chip Kelly is deciding on a new quarterback. Holdover Ethan Garbers and Kent State transfer Collin Schlee seem to have the early edge in the quarterback battle, but all eyes are on decorated freshman Dante Moore. One of the highest-rated recruits to ever sign with the Bruins, Moore is ranked as the No. 4 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite. He started varsity during his freshman season in high school and has wowed onlookers with his poise, touch, and playmaking ability. Could Moore start as a freshman once again, this time in college? Schlee may offer experience, but is completely untested in the Power Five ranks, so it feels likely we'll see some of Moore this fall.

18. Luke Hasz, TE, Arkansas

Following the departure of Kendal Briles to TCU, the Arkansas offense is set to undergo a transformation in 2023. New offensive coordinator Dan Enos is set to run a more traditional, pro-style scheme that features heavy two tight end sets. That's great news for true freshman Luke Hasz, as it should allow ample opportunities for the newcomer to make his presence felt. Hasz enrolled early at Arkansas and has impressed throughout spring practice, earning rave reviews from head man Sam Pittman. Per Pittman, Hasz still has to grow as a blocker, but his physical gifts make it likely we will see him early and often in 2023.

19. Pierce Clarkson, QB, Louisville

Jeff Brohm has returned home to his alma mater and is looking to bring his high-flying, aggressive offensive scheme with him. Unfortunately, his first Louisville team has an underwhelming quarterback room, with former Purdue and Cal transfer Jack Plummer as the presumed starter. Plummer does have an existing relationship with Brohm and has played in 29 games over his college career, but hasn't proven to be much more than a mediocre Power Five quarterback. There remains a chance he could be pushed by true frosh Pierce Clarkson, a three-star recruit from California powerhouse St. John Bosco. Clarkson is an untraditional quarterback, but is an athletic signal-caller that puts his team in position to win. He would be a bit different than what Brohm has used in the past, which may add an interesting element to this offense.

20. Jordan Knox, OG, Northwestern

Despite their struggles on the field the last several years, Northwestern has had multiple offensive linemen selected in the first round of the NFL Draft in Rashawn Slater and Peter Skoronski. They're expected to have a solid front once again in 2023, with three starters back in the fold. However, keep an eye on the right guard spot, where sophomore Josh Thompson could be pushed by true freshman Jordan Knox. Knox is the second highest-rated prospect in Northwestern's 2023 Class and despite the fact he played primarily tackle in high school, the expectation is that he will shift inside for college. At 6'3", 310 pounds, he already looks the part, and some feel he has long-term NFL potential.

21. Justice Haynes, RB, Alabama

Every year, a true freshman has a big showing in the spring game that leads to major hype for their debut season. This spring, Alabama tailback Justice Haynes delivered that performance, with three touchdowns in Alabama's "A-Day" spring game. Haynes isn't going to start as a true freshman; Jase McClellan is the clear RB1 entering 2023 and the Tide will also feature veteran Roydell Williams. However, injuries have been an unfortunate reality for Alabama's offense in recent years and given the offense we expect from new OC Tommy Rees, which should be ground-and-pound, Haynes will get action. I get the sense this situation is going to be similar to 2014, where T.J. Yeldon was the feature back but it was clear youngster Derrick Henry was set to overtake him. 

22. Cordale Russell, WR, TCU

After a miraculous run to the National Championship Game this past fall, TCU may be in store for a regression in Year Two under Sonny Dykes. That's not a knock against the program, but more of a reality for a team that is undergoing significant offensive changes. Kendal Briles takes over as the play-caller and Chandler Morris reprises his role as quarterback, but both will have to make do without one of the nation's best in Quentin Johnston. To make matters worse, Jordan Hudson, who looked like a prime breakout candidate, announced his decision to transfer this spring. That should open up doors for newcomers like Cordale Russell, a four-star recruit from Mesquite, Texas. Russell already is built like a seasoned veteran and has sky-high potential, plus a strong showing in the spring has TCU fans buzzing about what he can do in 2023.

23. C.J. Blocker, CB, Utah

Despite Utah's success in 2022, there was little denying that the pass defense struggled for most of the year. At nearly 223 yards allowed per game, they ranked 61st nationally, but had several rough performances that cost the Utes. Those struggles occurred with an NFL talent patrolling the back-end in Clark Phillips III, who is now in the pros. In short, other Utes are going to have to step up and play a larger role, which may include C.J. Blocker. The four-star from Texas committed to Utah over a host of Power Five programs and brings elite athleticism, even if he's a bit undersized for the P5 level at the moment. Considering Utah's 2023 schedule includes road tilts against both Washington and USC, they'll need Blocker and the rest of this secondary to grow up quickly and make some plays on the back-end. 

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