Prospect rankings and recruiting evaluations hold little weight once players step between the lines for the first time at the college level, but a number of true freshmen have already shown impressive development as difference-makers entering Week 4 of the season. The speed of the game has already slowed down for this group, which is the first thing you notice when newcomers begin to emerge as key components for their respective teams.
With the transfer portal bullying its way into talent acquisition, some of these freshmen are battling veterans for reps, and thus far, they are gaining the early edge. Many of these true freshmen stalwarts have already taken the national stage and made notable impressions against quality competition. And nothing screams, "Who's that guy?" like a game-changing play followed by hand gesture to quiet the crowd.
Grab a roster. It's time to get to know these first-year playres. Much of this list should fluctuate throughout the season, but those at the top are likely here to stay.
Freshman Power Rankings
1. Malaki Starks, S, Georgia: In his first college appearance against Oregon, Starks recorded an acrobatic interception and tallied eight tackles as a reserve. That led to him earning a starting spot. He then dominated his side of the field against South Carolina, picking off another pass on a wheel route thanks to an underthrown ball from Spencer Rattler near the Georgia sideline to spark the rout.
2. Nicholas Singleton, RB, Penn State: A five-star of few words since he stepped on campus, Singleton's workload of 10 carries in each of the first three games has resulted in a jaw-dropping 334 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He trampled Auburn for 124 yards and a pair of scores last time out, including a victory-clinching 54-yard rumble that emptied Jordan-Hare Stadium.
3. CJ Donaldson, RB, West Virginia: Opposing defenses shudder when this guy runs downhill at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds. He already has two 100-yard games and a team-high six touchdowns as the Mountaineers' top offensive threat. Donaldson, a former three-star prospect, is averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
4. Kelvin Banks, OT, Texas: Matched up with arguably college football's meanest front in Week 2 against Alabama, Banks more than held his own against Will Anderson Jr. and only allowed a single pressure. Left tackle is a spotlighted position, and Banks has been dependable for an offense that needs to do everything it can to keep Steve Sarkisian's quarterbacks off the ground.
5. Dane Key, WR, Kentucky: In need of a field-stretcher following the departure of Wan'Dale Robinson, the Wildcats offense and quarterback Will Levis are thankful for Key's emergence. He has scored in every game, and the Lexington native leads all Kentucky wideouts in catches, yards and touchdowns. Key out-muscled Florida's Jalen Kimber for a 55-yard score in Week 2 that was a game-changing play.
6. Nick Emmanwori, S, South Carolina: An unlikely starter this season, Emmanwori's head-turning play in fall camp forced him onto the depth chart, and he quickly made his presence felt with a key fourth-down stop in the opener. Three games into his career, Emmanwori leads the nation with 24 solo tackles and has made the most of his opportunity with the Gamecocks' first team after veteran R.J. Roderick went down with an injury early.
7. Dasan McCullough, LB, Indiana: One of Notre Dame assistant Deland McCullough's four sons, Dasan stuck to his Indiana commitment at his father's alma mater during the early signing period. The Hoosiers are certainly glad he did. The four-star defender already has a team-best three sacks, and Indiana is unbeaten.
8. Omarion Hampton, RB, North Carolina: The Tar Heels offense is well-equipped with playmakers this season, including redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye. Equally splashy has been the play of Hampton. He packs a considerable punch with his stocky 6-foot, 220-pound frame and is a red-zone warrior in this backfield. Hampton's five touchdowns ranks second in the ACC behind Clemson's Will Shipley.
9. Roman Hemby, RB, Maryland: This freshman has a chance to be a well-known name nationally if he knifes his way through Michigan's front seven this weekend. Hemby is averaging 9.2 yards per carry for the Terrapins and already has runs of 70, 50 and 33 yards this season. Two of those accounted for a pair of his five touchdowns.
10. AJ Swann, QB, Vanderbilt: The Commodores made the switch to Swann midway through the third quarter of a Week 2 loss at Wake Forest, and the rest is history. Swann led two touchdown drives against the Demon Deacons, and his four touchdown passes in last week's win at Northern Illinois pushed Vanderbilt to 3-1 overall. Alabama is up next for Swann and an improving offense.