It's only February, but National Signing Day might as well serve as the official starting point of the 2014 college football season. Top college recruits seem to come more prepared to play in college every year, and with redshirt freshmen winning the Heisman Trophy in back-to-back seasons, the next logical step in the future is for a true freshman to win it.
It's a difficult task, of course, one that still may be a long way off, but Adrian Peterson did nearly win it in 2004, finishing second to Matt Leinart. There's unlikely to be an instant Heisman winner among the class of 2014, which becomes official on Wednesday, but that doesn't mean a deep crop of players can't compete for starting jobs and make a significant impact as true freshmen.
With an eye toward the immediate future, let's sort through the overall recruiting rankings to identify the blue-chippers who are the best candidates to make names for themselves right away in 2014 -- meaning this is not a ranking of all the best players, but merely a guide to the players entering situations that best lend themselves to making an early impact.
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. One of the most important recruits in Les Miles' career, Fournette saved the state of Louisiana from a meltdown when he chose to stay home in LSU instead of going to Alabama to play for Nick Saban. Keeping the nation's No. 1 overall recruit -- according to Scout, 247Sports and ESPN -- home was obviously of the utmost importance no matter the situation, but Fournette became even more valuable to LSU after starting running back Jeremy Hill elected to enter the NFL draft. The Tigers have had no shortage of big, productive running backs through the Miles era, with a handful always seemingly available as part of a rotation in their power offense. Even with Hill and Alfred Blue gone that remains true with Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee returning. Still, Hilliard and Magee may have to remain rotational backs as seniors, because the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Fournette is too talented and explosive for his size to keep on the sideline. He will play right away, and he's likely the favorite to start for most of the 2014 season, with LSU probably set to go back to playing more power football thanks to the losses of quarterback Zach Mettenberger, and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, who could all be first-round picks.
2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. Clemson's good fortune with coaches may not last much longer, with offensive coordinator Chad Morris surely bound for a head coaching job one of these years. But for now Morris remains in place, and after the departure of Tajh Boyd, he has a new potential star to work with at quarterback. Watson, a versatile dual-threat from Georgia, will have to beat out senior Cole Stoudt and sophomore Chad Kelly, who was also highly touted out of high school, but it seems likely that he's Clemson's future at the position, and to help speed things along he's on campus already as an early enrollee. Clemson has significant overhauling to do with star receiver Sammy Watkins and 1,000-yard back Roderick McDowell gone, but Watson gives them a potential star building block who suits Morris well.
3. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M. Don't blame Johnny Manziel for Texas A&M's disappointing 9-4 season. The Aggies offense ranked fourth nationally in yards per play; the defense ranked last in the SEC in yards per play allowed and didn't have a player with more than three sacks in a futile attempt to replace 2012 All-American pass rusher Damontre Moore. It's not surprising that the offense has been well ahead of the defense, but last year the Aggies bottomed out, not doing anything particularly well with a relatively young unit. All of which presents a golden opportunity for a player like Garrett to emerge as a key player in 2014. An effective pass rush can go a long way toward masking other defensive deficiencies, and Garrett is the best bet to provide that boost as the consensus top defensive end recruit in the class.
4. Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama. It's not necessarily easy to break out as a star freshman at Alabama, because Nick Saban is too busy stockpiling No. 1 class after No. 1 class. There's always steep competition at every position, and, in fact, this year's class is being debated as his best ever. But if there's one position where Alabama faltered more than any last year, it's cornerback, which was exposed by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. That certainly can't sit well with Saban, who doubles as one of the nation's best defensive backs coaches. The Crimson Tide lacked a true top cornerback last year, and now they lose Deion Belue and John Fulton, creating room for an open competition at a position that was already a revolving door last year. Both Humphrey, from Birmingham, and Brown, from Texas, are five-star prospects, and they'll join a competition that includes sophomores Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson, among others, in a secondary that's wide-open aside from safety Landon Collins.
5. Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan. The Wolverines don't necessarily have an immediate need for a starting cornerback with Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor both returning, but Peppers is the type of player who could disrupt the status quo right away. They have the experience, but he has the most talent. After all, the dominant performance of Kansas State's Tyler Lockett in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the debacle against Indiana in October show that there's plenty of room for improvement in the Michigan secondary. Both Countess and Taylor are smaller corners at 5-foot-10, and Countess, an All-Big Ten performer, is already listed as the team's top nickel back as well. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Peppers is a different breed of cornerback who could be a shutdown cover corner on the outside or play anywhere really, and even if his snaps as a cornerback are somewhat limited at first, he's a dangerous runner who could boost a lackluster Wolverines return game and even play some offense if necessary. Modern college football calls for a lot of nickel packages, so we could see a good bit of Peppers on defense anyway, if he doesn't win a starting spot outright.
6. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida. While the Gators still attempt to figure out their massive offensive problems, at least they can be satisfied with their ability to attract top defensive backs. Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson left for the NFL, but by the end of the year true freshman Vernon Hargreaves had upstaged them as the team's best cornerback anyway. So, obviously Hargreaves has one corner spot locked down, but there's room for the 6-foot-1 Tabor, an early enrollee who originally committed to Arizona, to come in and compete for a sizable role, if not the other starting job, right away.
7. Speedy Noil, WR, and Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M. Obviously, the Texas A&M offense is going to look a lot different in 2014, because replacing Johnny Manziel may be the most difficult task in college football. Senior Matt Joeckel is the Aggies' quarterback option with experience, but it's more likely that sophomore Kenny Hill, a talented dual threat who saw limited snaps as a true freshman, or Allen, prized pro-style 2014 early enrollee, will end up taking the job. Losing Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and left tackle Jake Matthews will undoubtedly create some rough patches for the Aggies, but Kevin Sumlin is a creative offensive mind, and his recruiting prowess gives the team many options to work with. One of those will certainly be Noil, a New Orleans product who lives up to his nickname as one of the fastest players in the class. Even if Noil is raw as a receiver and the Aggies are loaded with promising young receivers, Sumlin will likely work to creatively get him the ball in space as a Percy Harvin type who can move around the formation, aiding whoever wins the quarterback battle.
8. Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma. The Sugar Bowl win over Alabama finally proved that Trevor Knight is Oklahoma's future at quarterback, but now he needs a running mate in the backfield. Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch are all gone, as is star fullback Trey Millard, leaving a significant void as the Sooners try to develop the rest of their offense around Knight. Keith Ford, a four-star recruit last year, saw limited action in a reserve role and has to be the favorite for the starting job at this point. But even if Ford holds onto it, there's always room for multiple running backs to get involved, and Mixon, the MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, is a safe bet to get early playing time.
9. Andrew Brown, DT, Virginia. Look, it's Virginia. Virginia needs all the talented young players it can get. Coach Mike London is on the hot seat with one bowl appearance in four years and a dismal 2-10 campaign last year, so he can't afford to be complacent and patient with the standouts in this recruiting class. He convinced the 6-foot-3, 298-pound Brown to stay in his home state and play for the Cavaliers, and Brown's versatility and presence on campus for the spring should allow him to earn a role quickly for a team that needs all the help it can get.
10. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee. It's been a rough last decade for Vols fans, but even after last year's 5-7 season, Butch Jones clearly has the program headed in the right direction. With a top-10 recruiting class in place, Tennessee is getting an influx of young talent -- many of whom are on campus early -- with the 230-pound Hurd as perhaps the biggest prize. The Vols lose starting running back Rajion Neal, meaning Hurd can enter a competition in the spring right away to compete with senior Marlin Lane for the starting job.
11. KD Cannon, WR, Baylor. It's still amazing to say this, but if you want to be a highly productive receiver, go to Baylor. As Art Briles continues to churn out prolific offenses in Waco, he also continues to produce big-time deep threats at receiver, from Josh Gordon to Kendall Wright to Terrance Williams to Tevin Reese to Antwan Goodley. Recruits have wisely noticed, as the Bears landed five-star Robbie Rhodes last year and now bring Cannon, a four-star from Texas, into the fold. Cannon is somewhat undersized, but he's the type of explosive big-play threat this offense requires. There is plenty of competition, with Goodley, Levi Norwood, Rhodes and Corey Coleman all back, but Cannon will take a run at significant playing time, with quarterback Bryce Petty still in place to deliver him the ball.
12. Drew Barker, QB, Kentucky. Want to play early? Going to a place like Kentucky doesn't sound like such a bad idea. In need of a massive overhaul, Kentucky has gotten a jolt from the presence of coach Mark Stoops, who is poised to land a top-25 class in his first full year on the job with a program floundering at the bottom of the SEC East with back-to-back 2-10 seasons. There is competition, with Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith splitting time as sophomores last year and Patrick Towles also in the mix, but nobody stepped up and took hold of the job last year, and the Kentucky native Barker is in for spring to immediately mix up the race. Under the guidance of talented young coordinator Neal Brown, there's potential for this offense to take off with the right quarterback.
13. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina. The Tar Heels rushing offense fell apart after Giovani Bernard left for the NFL, dropping from third in the ACC in rushing to 11th, with quarterback Marquise Williams ultimately leading the team with 536 yards in 2013. Hope did arrive, however, in the form of T.J. Logan, a freshman who averaged 5.7 yards per carry in the final nine games. But Hood, at 221 pounds, could be a perfect running mate with the 180-pound Logan, giving the Tar Heels two backs whose styles complement each other well.
14. Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford. The Stanford offense under David Shaw has come to be known for its heavy emphasis on the tight ends, but NFL attrition took its toll and altered the scheme last year. The Cardinals lost Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo to the NFL in two years, and in 2013 the tight ends became non-existent in the passing game, with an emphasis on throwing deep to receiver Ty Montgomery instead. With all the wide receivers returning, including Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector, Stanford probably won't veer much from running up the middle and throwing it deep, but there's certainly room for a new tight end to step up and command pass targets. At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, Schultz gives Stanford one of the best tight ends in the class of 2014.
15. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State. The Seminoles are unfairly talented at almost every position, but they did take a hit at running back, where Devonta Freeman and James Wilder both chose to leave for the NFL draft. The cupboard is hardly bare with 223-pound senior Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 touchdowns, 8.0 yards per carry) returning, but Florida State will continue to roll with a committee approach if it can, and the dynamic Cook will push sophomore Ryan Green for touches.