College News & Analysis

College Football: Looking back at the top true freshman classes of 2020

Nov 7, 2020; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) warms up before the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 college football season is now well in the past, and most fans are looking to the future of their favorite teams. And that future, for many, starts with the young, promising talent within the program.

There were a plethora of true freshmen who put their stamps on the college football world last season, many of whom were on the same team. With the help of PFF grades and advanced metrics available only to CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers, we review the top 10 true freshman classes of the 2020 season.

Editor's note: Available in PFF's new College Grades+ subscription, the College Player Grades products let users view season-to-date grades for the entire FBS and single-season grades dating back to 2014 for individual college football players.

ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Cornerback Malachi Moore and edge defender Will Anderson Jr. were not only one of the best defensive true freshman duos last season, but one of the best defensive duos period. Moore spent most of his time in the slot in 2020, forcing the most incompletions (11) from the position. His 79.6 PFF grade was the 18th-highest among all cornerbacks and second only to Ricks among true freshmen. Anderson was dominant in his own regard, generating 60 quarterback pressures in 2020, the most we have seen from a true freshman since 2014.

Quarterback Bryce Young was also part of the 2020 recruiting cycle and saw snaps in the backend of blowouts. Expect him to be the frontrunner for the starting spot in 2021.

LSU TIGERS

LSU has now had back-to-back seasons with the highest-graded true freshman cornerback — Derek Stingley Jr. in 2019 and Eli Ricks in 2020. Ricks saw 279 snaps in coverage, allowing just 13 catches on 28 targets for 237 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. He also notched four pass breakups, which aided in his stout 60.3 passer rating allowed on the season.

The younger brother of Georgia’s star edge defender Azeez Ojulari, BJ has also been productive on the defensive side of the ball. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder notched 24 quarterback pressures, four sacks and one forced fumble, disrupting offenses off the edge.

Tight end Arik Gilbert may be in the transfer portal, but he flashed his potential with the Tigers last year. He caught 35 passes for 368 yards, two touchdowns, 22 first downs and nine avoided tackles. Receiver Kayshon Boutte also saw playing time due to PFF’s No. 1 receiver in the 2021 NFL Draft, Ja’Marr Chase, opting out of the season. Boutte averaged 16.5 yards per reception and 7.0 after the catch on his way to 785 yards and five scores.

With Joe Burrow in the midst of his NFL debut season and Myles Brennan going down with a season-ending injury, LSU was down to its two true freshman signal-callers — Max Johnson and TJ Finley. Neither was too impressive, as both completed less than 60% of their passes, but Johnson was much more efficient once he entered the starting lineup. He threw for 1,069 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception while rushing for another 163 yards, two scores and even forcing six missed tackles.

OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Head coach Lincoln Riley is an offensive guru, and he added two more weapons to his arsenal in true freshman wide receiver Marvin Mims and running back Seth McGowan. Eight of Mims' touchdowns were targeted 20-plus yards downfield, tied with Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith for the most in 2020. McGowan flashed his athleticism, forcing 18 missed tackles on 58 carries while gaining 370 yards en route to three touchdowns.

Cornerback D.J. Graham also proved himself on defense, allowing just 10 completions on 22 targets for 86 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception, culminating in an outstanding 37.3 passer rating allowed.

CLEMSON TIGERS

Led by quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and defensive linemen Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, Clemson boasted one of the best, if not the best, true freshmen classes in the nation last season. Uiagalelei was thrust into a starting role for two games with Trevor Lawrence sidelined by COVID-19. And the backup impressed, completing 68% of his passes for 781 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and an 83.8 PFF grade.

He took the No. 4 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish to overtime before falling short, 47-40. Although Lawrence will be taking his talents to the NFL, Tigers fans should have the utmost confidence in their young signal-caller.

Meanwhile, Murphy and Bresee were simply dominant along the defensive line. Murphy recorded a 92.5 run-defense grade in his first collegiate season, the highest by a Power Five defender in 2020. Bresee was no slouch, either, producing an 81.2 pass-rush grade that ranked first among all true freshmen this season.

TCU HORNED FROGS

TCU showed off a pair of true freshmen at running back this season, and neither looked their age. Both Kendre Miller and Zach Evans received 54 carries, averaged over seven yards per attempt and forced 14 missed tackles. Though both played above their class, Evans stood out, gaining 5.8 yards after contact per carry compared to Miller’s 2.7.

At receiver, Quentin Johnston showed off his after-the-catch and big-play ability. He caught only 22 balls on 41 targets but averaged 22.1 yards per reception and 8.9 yards after the catch per reception while forcing 16 missed tackles.

Edge defender Khari Coleman was also strong along the defensive line, earning a 79.0 run-defense grade behind 22 quarterback pressures.

NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH

The Fighting Irish enjoyed one of their best seasons in school history, finishing the regular season 10-1 and earning a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff. They would go on to be knocked off by the No. 1 ranked Crimson Tide, but Notre Dame had much to be proud of — including its 2020 recruiting class.

Tight end Michael Mayer stole the show at the position despite sharing the stage with 2021 NFL Draft prospect Tommy Tremble. Mayer was the leading receiver from the position, hauling in 42 receptions for 450 yards, two touchdowns and 30 more first downs. 

In the secondary, cornerback Clarence Lewis held his own against every opponent. Across 268 coverage snaps and 42 targets, Lewis allowed just 27 receptions and one touchdown while breaking up an ACC-best seven passes.

TEXAS A&M AGGIES

In arguably the team’s best season in the 21st century, the Aggies saw contributions from a couple of newcomers this past year. Among running backs with 40-plus carries in 2020, Devon Achane was the second-highest-graded Power Five player, behind only UNC’s Javonte Williams.

Achane was a big-play threat on every snap, as he averaged 8.5 yards across his 43 carries. He gained over 10 yards on 12 attempts and even forced 17 missed tackles in his limited playing time. The only thing that will hinder Achane’s output next season is sitting behind Isaiah Spiller, who has a stranglehold on the starting role and is a solid back in his own right. 

True freshman cornerback Jaylon Jones also made his mark. If you take out his second-ever collegiate contest against Alabama — in which he allowed three receptions for 84 yards and two touchdowns — Jones would be the third-highest-graded true freshman cornerback, behind Moore and Ricks. Outside of his bout with the Crimson Tide, Jones allowed 50-plus yards in just one other game — 51 against Florida in Week 6 — showcasing his consistency in coverage. 

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

The fourth and final SEC team on the list, Georgia was hampered by injury and inconsistency at the quarterback position in 2020 before JT Daniels returned and brought stability. However, throughout the up-and-down year, three freshmen, in particular, made Bulldogs fans excited for the future.

Receiver Jermaine Burton‘s 52 targets tied for the second-most on the team, but he managed to reel in just 27. He still racked up 404 yards and three touchdowns on the year, even moving the chains another 16 times. His best outing came against Mississippi State in Week 12, when he caught eight of nine targets for an impressive 197 yards and two scores. 

Tight end Darnell Washington may have caught only seven passes, but he made them count, as five picked up first downs. The real hype with Washington comes in his size; he is listed at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds. That frame is a nightmare for nearly every defensive back, and his athleticism will cause issues for linebackers. Keep an eye out for Washington as he matures in the Georgia offense. 

Last, but not least, is interior defender Jalen Carter. He generated 13 quarterback pressures and beat opponents on nine more occasions in which the quarterback threw the football away just before he could record a pressure. What makes his play even more admirable is that he faced SEC offensive linemen week in and week out.

TULANE GREEN WAVE

Tulane saw six true freshman play over 200 snaps last season, but only one earned a 70.0-plus PFF grade. Michael Pratt took over the starting quarterback role in Week 4 and never looked back. He completed just 55% of his passes, but he suffered through an outrageous 31 drops — second to UCF’s Dillon Gabriel (39). Despite his receivers' miscues, Pratt threw 20 touchdowns to just eight interceptions and added another eight scores on the ground. The Green Wave are in good hands with him under center for the foreseeable future. 

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