Top 10 Freshmen in College Football History
Herschel Walker vaulted Georgia over the top long before Johnny Football took home the Heisman.
By: Nathan Rush | 12/19/12, 6:05 AM EST
A freshman claimed college football’s most prestigious award for the first time ever this season when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy. But Johnny Football is nowhere near the first frosh to make a splash on the national scene during his rookie season. These are the 10 freshmen — of both the true and redshirt variety — who made the biggest impact in college football history.
1. Herschel Walker, RB, Georgia (1980)
Prior to winning the 1982 Heisman Trophy, Walker was the most dominant running back in the country as a true freshman in 1980. At 6’1”, 225 pounds, Walker possessed the size, speed and power to sprint past or truck through any defender standing in his way — just ask Tennessee’s Bill Bates. Walker rushed for 1,616 yards, on 5.9 yards per carry, and scored 16 total TDs while carrying Vince Dooley’s Bulldogs to a perfect 12–0 record and national championship season.
2. Marshall Faulk, RB, San Diego State (1991)
An unheralded runner out of George Washington Carver High School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Faulk exploded onto the scene in his first season with the Aztecs. In one of the greatest single-game performances by any player in any class, Faulk posted 37 carries for a then-NCAA record 386 yards and seven TDs against the University of the Pacific in just his second college game. Faulk finished his true freshman season with 1,630 yards from scrimmage, on 7.5 yards per touch, and 23 total TDs.
3. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M (2012)
The legend of Johnny Football has reached Paul Bunyan tall tale proportions — and rightfully so. Manziel completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 3,419 yards, 24 TDs and eight INTs through the air, while showing off the open field moves of a punt returner en route to 1,181 yards and 19 trips to the end zone on the ground. The Aggies’ redshirt freshman signal-caller’s signature game came in a 29–24 win on the road at Alabama, where Manziel completed 24-of-31 passes for 253 yards, two TDs and zero INTs, while rushing for another 92 yards and all but locking up this year’s Heisman Trophy.
4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma (2004)
“All Day” got off to a quick start with the Sooners, leading the country with 339 carries for a freshman record 1,925 yards and 15 TDs as a true freshman. Peterson led Oklahoma to a BCS national title game appearance, set the freshman record for 100-yard games in a single season with 11 and was runner-up to USC quarterback Matt Leinart in the Heisman Trophy voting — the highest a freshman had ever finished at the time.
5. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1996)
Although the “Great Dayne” went on to win the 1999 Heisman Trophy as well as a pair of Rose Bowl MVPs — one of only four players in history to repeat as the prize bloom in Pasadena — the New Jersey native never put up better numbers than he did during his freshman campaign for the Badgers. The 250-pound power back bowled over the competition with a career-high 1,863 rush yards, on 6.3 yards per carry, and 18 TDs. Dayne went on to set the FBS career rushing yards record, thanks in large part to his unbelievable rookie year.
6. George Shaw, CB, Oregon (1951)
The Ducks’ ironman is better known for being a quarterback drafted No. 1 overall by the Baltimore Colts in the 1955 NFL Draft, Shaw hauled in a freshman-record 13 INTs for 136 return yards in just 10 games as a freshman cornerback. The mark remains just one shy of the FBS all-time single-season INT record, trailing Washington’s Al Worley’s 1968 mark by only one INT.
7. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech (2007)
The first two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver, Crabtree won the triple crown of pass-catchers by leading the country with 134 catches for 1,962 yards and 22 TD receptions. After switching positions from quarterback to receiver, the redshirt freshman out of Dallas’ Carter High School quickly established himself as the greatest first-year receiver in college football history.
8. Michael Vick, QB, Virginia Tech (1999)
Vick’s reputation has always preceded him, but back in 1999 that meant something entirely different. The redshirt freshman out of Newport News, Va., was supposed to revolutionize the quarterback position with his cannon left arm and track star speed. The Michael Vick Experience was everything it was hyped to be, as No. 7 became the first freshman quarterback to lead his team to the national championship game, while also tying Herschel Walker’s then-freshman-record third-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting.
9. Maurice Clarett, RB, Ohio State (2002)
Although Clarett has become a cautionary tale and a punch line of jokes, he was the best player on Ohio State’s undefeated 2002 national championship team. The local product out of Youngstown’s Warren Harding High School graduated early, participated in spring practice and went on to rush for 1,237 yards, on 5.6 yards per carry, and 18 TDs in his first season for the Buckeyes. In the national title game, Clarett stripped Miami safety Sean Taylor on an INT return before scoring the game-winning TD in overtime — his final carry as a college player.
10. Andy Katzenmoyer, LB, Ohio State (1996)
The “Big Kat” wore two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin’s No. 45 jersey, became the first OSU freshman to start every game at middle linebacker and finished his true freshman season as a second-team All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Katzenmoyer had 12 sacks, including three in the Rose Bowl, for the 11–1 Buckeyes — whose only lost came at Ohio Stadium against Michigan in the regular season finale.
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