This one turned into a beast as I ran into a lot of close decisions and had to watch a lot of Wolverine Historian'd Michigan victories on the youtubes to get them right. The things I do for you people.
Rules: Scoring the way we might with Upon Further Review or Pro Football Focus, i.e. overall positive impact minus negative impact. Eligible seasons are those where the guy played with freshman eligibility (you can be a redshirt freshman but not retroactively). Also we're grading only on that freshman season, not what came before or after.
Freshman Eligibility: With a few wartime exceptions and some irregularities from back when college football was 'Nam, from 1896 (the formation of the Big Ten) until 1972 freshmen in football were not eligible to compete on varsity. Instead they had freshman teams, who often played on Monday nights. It's way beyond my capabilities for some offseason #content to read every account of every freshman game from the 20th century, so only varsity freshmen are going to count here.
Quarterback: Chad Henne (2004)
Lloyd Carr promised a battle for the job of replacing John Navarre. The candidates were RS sophomore Matt Gutierrez, who had never lost a game in high school, RS freshman southpaw (and future South Side-er) Clayton Richard, and the new five-star freshman yanked out of Penn State territory over the public objections of his head coach.
Coming out of spring the smart money was on Gutierrez, who'd wet his feet some in 2003. Nearing the end of fall practice that pick was locked in, and leaking out, along with rumors that the newcomer had replaced the future lefty reliever. Then during prep week to face Miami (NNTM) and Notre Dame, Gutierrez went down. A true freshman took the controls of the most NFL-like passing offense outside of the NFL.
Henne wasn't allowed to do much, especially early on. But he could do the one thing—the thing that would define his 2,743-yard, 25-TD (12-INT) freshman campaign. That is: throw it to Braylon. Henne's first long pass was a dead-on-balls fade to Braylon. His first touchdown was a 20-yard rocket to Braylon. His first 40-pass day included 18 in the direction Braylon. Of course, Braylonfest went in the direction of Braylon.
But as the season progressed Henne was picking up the offense. His Big Ten debut was a 16/26/236-yard performance against Iowa. He dispatched Indiana with lethal efficiency, and carried the offense the rest of the way. Though they lost to Ohio State (on a 27/54 day for Henne), a Wisconsin loss that day secured Michigan another trip to Pasadena.
Backup: Rick Leach (1975). Before I get attacked by an army of sexagenarians led by Dr. Sap, this is not a knock on Leach so much as recognition of Henne. If you did want to knock Leach, he wasn't much of a passer (32/100, 680 yards, 3 TDs, 12 INTs, 75.0 QBRtg) even in the context of his day. His rushing stats—611 yards/4.88 YPC and 5 TDs on 83 attempts—weren't great either. But the freshman had the right feel for the option, and that set up both RB Gordie Bell and FB Rob Lytle for 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Leach had a terrible Ohio State game, and while that motivated him to win three straight afterward, it didn't feel so great in '75.
HM: Tate Forcier (2009), Elvis Grbac (1989), Steven Threet (2008), Ryan Mallett (2007)
[AFTER THE JUMP: A more freshman year than 2004.]