College News & Analysis

College Football: Highest-graded freshman at each position through Week 7

Dallas, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) drops back to pass against the Texas Longhorns during the Red River Showdown at Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

It has become more and more common for freshmen to contribute to their college football teams — look no further than Trevor Lawrence‘s record-breaking debut season with Clemson in 2018 or Derek Stingley Jr.'s pivotal first year with the LSU Tigers during their 2019 National Championship run.

This season has been quite different, with COVID-19 shortening the offseason and making it more difficult for freshmen to make a splash during Spring and Fall camps. But despite the circumstances, these freshmen have battled against the adversity and have made a name for themselves in their first season of action. Here is the highest-graded freshman at each position through Week 7 of the 2020 college football season.

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QB Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma

It has been a rollercoaster start for the Oklahoma Sooners and Spencer Rattler, to say the least. The Oklahoma quarterback has shown flashes of the elite prospect he was touted as coming out of high school, but he has also shown that he is still just a freshman making his first few starts in a year with a limited offseason.

Rattler's 90.1 PFF grade is the second-highest among all freshmen through seven weeks of the 2020 season. He also leads all freshmen quarterbacks in passing yards (1,186) and is tied first in big-time throws (11).

The lone mark on Rattler has been his tendency to put the football in harm’s way. Rattler has seven turnover-worthy plays through four games this season, which is well on pace for the most among Oklahoma quarterbacks since Lincoln Riley took over head coaching duties.

Rattler showed tremendous growth in the Red River Showdown against Texas. He was benched for a short while but turned it around in the second half and led Oklahoma to a four-overtime win, finishing the game with 260 total yards, four touchdowns and a PFF passing grade of 75.7.

RB Tank Bigsby, Auburn

Auburn fans have been rightfully disappointed with the team’s performance this season after starting the year 2-2, but one area to hang their hat on is the emergence of true freshman Tank Bigsby.

After receiving only six touches in the opening game against Kentucky, Bigsby has shown he can be that workhorse running back that is so coveted in a Gus Malzahn offense after leading the team with 55 touches in the past three games. Bigsby now has a 90.2 PFF rushing grade, the highest among all freshmen and the third-highest among the nation's running backs.

Since Week 5, Bigsby has tied for the lead in rushing yards with 288, and 196 of those yards have come after contact — the most yards after contact among freshmen running backs and seventh among all running backs in college football. He’s also forced 20 missed tackles on those runs (tied first in the SEC with Najee Harris).

The addition of offensive coordinator Chad Morris has expanded the running back’s role in the offense, offering more of a pass-catching threat to opposing defenses. Bigsby has 13 targets through four games, well on pace to be the highest among running backs since Malzahn took over in 2013, despite the shortened season.

Oct 10, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Oklahoma player Marvin Mims (17) scores a touchdown during the Red River Showdown college football game between the Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Texas Longhorns (UT) at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Bryan Terry-USA TODAY NETWORK

WR Marvin Mims, Oklahoma

The second Sooner to make the list on the offensive side of the ball, Marvin Mims has shown he has what it takes to become the next man up on the list of dominant wide receivers to come out of Oklahoma.

Mims leads all freshmen wide receivers in touchdown receptions with four on just 15 receptions. The first-year Oklahoma pass-catcher also ranks second in yards per route run among freshmen wide receivers (3.56), showing how efficient he has been when given the opportunity.

The freshman has faced off against single coverage on 20 snaps so far this season, but even that hasn't held him back — he is currently tied for first in touchdowns and ranks fifth in receiving yards among freshmen wide receivers against single coverage this season.

TE Arik Gilbert, LSU

Being the No. 1 tight end recruit from the 2020 class usually comes with high expectations, but Arik Gilbert has started to live up to them this season.

Gilbert replaces Thaddeus Moss at tight end for the LSU Tigers and has impressed in the three games played this season. He ranks second on the team in receiving yards and is tied fourth in 15-plus-yard receptions (5) among all tight ends in college football since the SEC kicked off in Week 4.

Gilbert’s 70.4 PFF grade is the highest among freshmen tight ends since Week 4. The former five-star recruit leads freshmen tight ends in basically every receiving category, including contested catches (6) and first-down receptions (10).

T Warren McClendon, Georgia

Another year, another dominant Georgia offensive linemen. Warren McClendon has been a solid addition to the Bulldogs' offensive line in 2020. And while he did not open the season as the starter, he was brought in during the opening SEC weekend for a struggling Owen Condon and has not looked back since.

McClendon's 70.5 PFF grade leads all first-year players at the position through seven weeks, and the former four-star recruit has allowed the fewest quarterback pressures (5) among freshmen tackles with over 100 pass-blocking snaps.

G Willie Lampkin, Coastal Carolina

Willie Lampkin has been one of the most consistent guards in college football — not just among the freshmen. Lampkin ranks 10th in PFF grade (77.7) and is tied for seventh in pass-blocking grade (84.3) among guards with 150 snaps.

Lampkin has allowed the second-fewest pressures among freshman guards with 75 pass-blocking snaps (2), has allowed zero sacks and has yet to suffer a loss as a pass-blocker.

C Will Rykard, UAB

Will Rykard was another freshman linemen to begin the season not listed as a starter, but after some poor offensive line play, Rykard got his chance in Week 4 against South Alabama.

Since receiving his first start, he is the only freshmen center with at least 40 pass-blocking snaps not to allow a single pressure this season. His 74.3 pass-blocking grade ranks second among freshmen centers.

Sep 26, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Louisville Cardinals quarterback Malik Cunningham (3) runs the ball as Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Calijah Kancey (8) chases during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

DI Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh

Kancey, a former three-star recruit, has already exceeded his recruiting expectations. He is the 11th-highest-graded defensive tackle in all of college football and has also posted the fifth-highest run-defense grade (86.0) among defensive tackles.

Kancey has been absolutely dominant against both the run and the pass this season. He leads all freshmen defensive tackles in tackles for no gain or loss with seven, and he is tied first with 10 defensive stops. Kancey also has two sacks, two hits and eight hurries to his name across 107 pass-rush snaps, with those 12 total pressures leading the way among freshmen at the position.

Edge BJ Ojulari, LSU

Despite the LSU defense struggling this season, freshman BJ Ojulari has been a consistent contributor along the defensive line. The former four-star recruit ranks first among all first-year edge defenders with an 88.5 PFF grade and an 87.5 pass-rushing grade.

Ojulari pressured the quarterback nine times from Weeks 4-6, third among freshmen edge defenders over that span. Ojulari has not seen the same amount of snaps that other edge defenders have seen, but he has been highly efficient with his opportunities. He has generated a 37.0% win percentage (14.4 percentage points above second).

Ojulari has played 17 of his 46 pass-rushing snaps on third down, where he ranks ninth among all edge defenders with an 83.7 pass-rushing grade since Week 4.

LB Tyler Grubbs, LA Tech

Louisiana Tech freshman linebacker Tyler Grubbs has been one of the most utilized freshman linebackers in the country. Grubbs has played 286 out of 349 defensive snaps for Louisiana Tech this season — those 286 snaps rank second among freshmen linebackers in 2020.

Grubbs leads all freshmen linebackers in tackles with 39 — 14 more than second — and ranks tied fourth with four pressures generated.

Grubbs' biggest strength is his run defense, as evidenced by his first-place 73.8 run-defense grade. He has 15 defensive stops and six tackles for no gain or for loss, both of which rank first among freshmen at the position.

Sep 26, 2020; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; LSU Tigers cornerback Eli Ricks (1) celebrates after he intercepts a pass over Mississippi State Bulldogs wide receiver JaVonta Payton (0) during the second half at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

CB Eli Ricks, LSU

Ricks has been solid in coverage for the Tigers so far this season. The freshman has been targeted 11 times and has only allowed four receptions and intercepted two passes.

Ricks has proven to be trustworthy out on an island in single coverage. When targeted in one-on-one coverage, the former five-star recruit has only allowed three receptions for a 30% completion percentage, good for an 81.4 coverage grade — all first among freshmen cornerbacks with at least 10 targets.

S Anthony Wilson, Georgia Southern

Listed as a two-star recruit in the 247 Composite rankings, Anthony Wilson has excelled covering the back end in his redshirt freshman season. He has been excellent overall, ranking first with an 80.9 PFF grade and an 82.0 coverage grade. Wilson has allowed one catch on nine targets for -1 yard with five forced incompletions mixed in, all of which rank first among freshmen safeties.

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