Whether they have five, four, three or no stars next to their name as recruits, expectations for true freshmen should be extremely low. It’s rare to see a first-year player take on a major role and produce at an average level, let alone an elite one.
Like in anything though, there are outliers in every true freshman class who surpass expectations and become an immediate impact player for their respective program. And with the help of PFF’s unique play-by-play grading system, we are able to best identify those players.
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Below is a ranking of the top 10 true freshmen in the 2021 college football season through the first seven weeks of play.
1. TE BROCK BOWERS, GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Bowers has earned an 89.4 PFF grade and generated 3.50 yards per route run so far in his true freshman campaign. That’s not just an unprecedented level of production for a true freshman, it’s at a level rarely obtained by any player at the position. Bowers leads all Power Five tight ends in both of those metrics after Week 7. With his speed, explosiveness and ball skills, Bowers fits the modern-day tight end mold. He’s destined to be a household name and is already a college football star.
2. QB CALEB WILLIAMS, OKLAHOMA SOONERS
Williams wasn't expected to play as a true freshman this season outside of garbage time, but after Spencer Rattler’s undisciplined playstyle remained to start the 2021 season, Lincoln Riley opted to give Williams the keys to the offense, which has paid off since the freshman had one of the best starting debuts of the PFF College era. Williams earned an elite PFF grade above 90.0 in Saturday’s win over TCU, as he orchestrated Lincoln Riley’s offense as a passer while making plays in the ground game. Williams completed 10 of his 14 passes over 10 yards downfield for 202 yards and four scores while taking two of his six designed runs for a gain of 20-plus yards. He has special arm talent and athleticism paired with poise beyond his years. It’s early, but Williams looks like one of the rare underclassmen quarterbacks who can produce at a top-five level nationally.
Henderson has only played six games at the collegiate level, and his name is already top 10-running back conversation in college football. Henderson has earned an 87.0 rushing grade while breaking 27 tackles, generating 18 runs of 10-plus yards and averaging 5.29 yards after contact per attempt on 69 carries. That yards after contact average is the second-best among Power Five running backs through Week 7.
The sheer amount of high-end reps from Tyleik Williams on just 94 snaps played in his true freshman campaign is almost hard to believe. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound interior defender’s upper-body strength paired with his advanced hand placement for his age has led him to a 90.5 pass-rush grade, 30% win rate and 15 total pressures on 60 such snaps. Ohio State has the most talented defensive line room in college football, and Williams has been the most impressive player of the bunch.
5. CB DENZEL BURKE, OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Burke came to Columbus as a four-star recruit with little expectations to play significant snaps in his first year due to playing primarily receiver in high school. Burke was thrust into the starting spot to open the year due to injuries at the position and is now one of the rising stars at cornerback in college football. Burke has been tested with 33 targets in six games, and he has handled that load with ease, allowing only 14 catches — none of which have resulted in a touchdown or explosive play of 15-plus yards. He has totaled five pass breakups to go along with an interception and is playing disciplined with just one penalty on the year. Burke looks like a seasoned veteran in press at the line of scrimmage and knows how to play the catch point. The fact he’s doing this while still being relatively new to the position is quite impressive.
6. WR XAVIER WORTHY, TEXAS LONGHORNS
Worthy is a slender speedster at 6-foot-1, 160-pounds. He’s earned a 76.1 receiving grade in seven games to start his collegiate career, and his speed isn’t his only quality trait, as Worthy looks more polished than most of his counterparts due to his route-running chops and ball skills. Worthy has broken nine tackles after the catch and averaged 9.3 yards after the catch reception in 2021 while gathering more deep receiving yards than any other true freshman in the country (175).
7. EDGE COLLIN OLIVER, OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS
Oliver, a four-star true freshman, is an explosive athlete who competed heavily in track and field. He earned a chance to get on the field right away as a true freshman, and he performed admirably. Oliver has earned an 81.8 PFF grade across 154 snaps in six games. He has earned a grade above 74.0 both against the run and as a pass-rusher, featuring 20 pressures generated and nine defensive stops.
8. RB JARQUEZ HUNTER, AUBURN TIGERS
Hunter’s hot start has cooled down the last couple of weeks, but he still holds a spot inside PFF’s top-10 graded Power Five running backs for 2021 (87.3). Hunter is tied for 11th in the Power Five in 20-plus yard runs this season (seven) despite only ranking 70th in total carries (70). He’s done a good job of taking advantage of the holes Auburn’s line has created for him, but he also has kept his feet churning after contact. He’s the only back in the Power Five who is averaging four or more yards before and after contact this season.
9. WR MARIO WILLIAMS, OKLAHOMA SOONERS
Williams has yet to start for the Sooners, but he has been a featured piece when on the field. The 2021 top-50 recruit has been targeted on 29.6% of his routes this season (29 of 98)— the highest among true freshmen and 10th-highest among all Power Five wide receivers. He’s been a quarterback’s best friend with zero drops on the year while generating a 121.1 passer rating on his targets. Williams, who owns a 79.9 receiving grade in 2021, is destined to become a featured piece alongside Caleb Williams in the next couple of years to come.
10. CB DUCE CHESTNUT, SYRACUSE ORANGE
While Chestnut has missed some tackles and given up a few touchdowns, it’s rare to see a true freshman make the number of plays he's making, specifically when he is playing off-zone. No cornerback in the Power Five has forced more passing stops playing in zone this season than Chestnut (11). Pair that with seven combined pass breakups plus interceptions overall, and Chestnut has earned a respectable 73.7 PFF grade through Week 7 (tied for 34th in the Power Five).