Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Best True Freshmen in College Football History

Rob Joyce
January 09, 2019 - 12:08 pm

There’s a reason most true freshmen take a redshirt year in their first season in college football. Whether physically, mentally or both, 18-year-olds just aren’t ready to make the jump from high school to the FBS level right away. And in the case that someone is, it’s usually in a complementary role.

In other words, they don’t go and lead you to a national championship. Until Monday.

Winning the starting quarterback job for good in Week 5, Trevor Lawrence led Clemson on the war path to a 15-0 season, capped by the 44-16 drubbing of Alabama in the national title game. It has college coaches terrified of the fact that, by NFL rules, the 19-year-old Lawrence can’t declare for the draft until 2021. Just how good was Lawrence’s first season? It’s at the top of these other true freshmen who took college football by storm:

6) Marcus Dupree:

A true flash in the pan, Dupree is a “What could have been” case. The Mississippi native went to Oklahoma for the 1982 season and made the most out of his touches. He was only the starter from Week 7 onward, but still managed to compile 1,393 yards and 12 touchdowns, including a Fiesta Bowl-record 249 yards. That success was short-lived, however. He played just four of the first five games in 1983 because of injuries, transferred, never played another college down and had a USFL career cut short by a left knee injury.

5) Ron Dayne:

One of the great running backs in college football history, Dayne wasn’t the starter in the 1996 season for Wisconsin. He certainly finished it that way, though. A 2,109-yard and 21-touchdown season will do that. The NCAA record books indicate he technically had 1,863 yards in his freshman season, but that doesn’t include a 246-yard performance in the Copper Bowl against Utah. By the time he graduated he was a Heisman winner (1999) and a two-time Rose Bowl MVP.

4) Jamelle Holieway:

Troy Aikman was supposed to be the quarterback for the 1985 Oklahoma squad, but the freshman Holieway was thrust into action when Aikman broke his ankle in Week 4 against Miami, a Sooner loss. After that, though, Holieway ran the wishbone to perfection, going 8-0 as a starter the rest of the way as OU finished 10-1 and earned a spot in the Orange Bowl. Against Penn State, Holieway and the Sooners jumped out to a 16-10 halftime lead and won 25-10, enough to be named national champs. Until Monday Holieway was the only true freshman to quarterback a team to a national title.

3) Adrian Peterson:

(Photo by Khampha Bouaphanh/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Sipa USA)

A future Pro Football Hall of Famer, Peterson has been a star since the first day he stepped onto Oklahoma’s campus in 2004. In his true freshman campaign he finished third in the nation with 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns, an average of 148 yards per game. A consensus All-American, he led the Sooners to a Big 12 championship and a national title game loss in the Orange Bowl to USC.

2) Herschel Walker:

(Photo by Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS/Sipa USA)

Most freshmen can’t handle the physicality of the college game. Walker was far and away the exception to that in 1980 – the SEC couldn’t handle his physicality or blazing speed. He rushed for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns in 11 games and was a consensus All-American as Georgia took home its second claimed national title. He’d repeat that All-American status in ’81 and ’82, the latter of which he also won the Heisman.

1) Trevor Lawrence:

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kelly Bryant led Clemson to the semifinal last year, but within a month it was clear Lawrence was the better passer, he became the starter and Bryant transferred. After that, the Tigers’ offense became near-unstoppable en route to a second national title in three years. The true freshman from Georgia completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,280 yards, 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He picked apart Notre Dame for 327 yards and three scores, then torched the Alabama secondary even worse: 347 yards and three TDs.

The 2020 NFL season might be chock full of teams trying to Tank for Trevor.