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08 Aug 2007

10 Freshmen to Watch This Fall

Guest column by Brandon C. Williams

Long before he became the much-needed inside runner the Mean Machine was missing for their rematch against the Guards, Maurice Clarett was shredding Big Ten defenses en route to leading Ohio State to a national championship as a true freshman in 2002.

Not to be outdone, Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson ran for 1,925 yards the following season as a true frosh, taking the Sooners to the national title game.

Think Florida wins the national championship a year ago without the contributions of quarterback Tim Tebow, who looked (and played) like anything except a kid who eight months earlier was worried about what to wear to his senior prom?

The trend of impact freshmen is only gaining momentum, fueled largely by the ability of those who are able to graduate from high school early and participate in spring practice. Tebow took full advantage of that window, allowing the wunderkind to grasp Urban Meyer's complex offense in much the same manner Lindsey Lohan grasps visits to rehab -- except that in Tebow's case, the lessons tend to stick.

This fall is no exception, as several schools will rely on (pardon the Debbie Gibson reference) electric youth to come on strong and start living up to the expectations that made fans salivate once they made a commitment to play ball.

1. WR Arrellious Benn, Illinois: A freshman in name only, Benn -- the top receiving prospect in the nation -- is a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder who's built like a mob enforcer and has the game to turn around a Fighting Illini program that has been Big Ten fodder in recent years.

Three years from now, Benn's will be spoken with the same awe and reverence many used to speak of former Georgia Tech wideout Calvin Johnson last fall. Benn had 145 yards receiving in the Illini spring game and is entrenched in the starting lineup. It helps his cause that quarterback Juice Williams has the arm strength to let Benn do what he does best: go deep. Without Benn, Illinois is a 5-win team; with him, the Illini are a bowl-eligible squad on the first step toward challenging for a Big Ten title as early as next season.

2. QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame: Never heard of him? Then you should stop reading this.

Few quarterbacks have arrived on a college campus with more ballyhoo and expectations than the 6-3, 218-pounder from Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village, Calif. Clausen never lost a game as a three-year starter, completing his senior season with a TD-INT ratio of 49-6. Like Benn, Clausen was on campus for the spring. While his performance was hit-and-miss, he will enter the fall with a chance to be under center when the Fighting Irish open against Georgia Tech on September 1.

Before Beano Cook anoints him Savior of the Free World, keep in mind that he is only a freshman and that starring as a freshman on this level is much different for a quarterback than players at any other position. Also, take a gander at Notre Dame's schedule: After Georgia Tech comes roadies to Penn State and Michigan, followed by a homer against Michigan State before ending the month at Purdue. Unless he sets the world on fire, it's doubtful head coach Charlie Weis will throw Clausen completely into the fire, meaning redshirt frosh Demetrius Jones will get snaps as well.

He'll have several "Wow!" moments, but will sprinkle in a few "WTF?" moments as well. If there is a quarterback capable of delivering on his promise this early, the well-groomed Clausen's the (young) man.

3. QB Willy Korn, Clemson: The 6-1, 200-pounder from Duncan, South Carolina is the most decorated prep signal caller to hit Tiger Country since Steve Fuller three decades before. Korn is a rocket-armed blur who can also make things happen with his feet, which would give Clemson's offense an added dimension of big-play potential to compliment tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller.

Korn opens the season as the backup behind junior Cullen Harper, but fans will be calling on him right after Harper's first incompletion in the Labor Day opener against Florida State. Don't underestimate the impact offensive coordinator Rob Spence will have on Korn's process; he has a solid track record with first-year starters, and if Korn is in the lineup, the Tigers could quietly find themselves in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.

4 and 5. OL Michael Huey and Tray Allen, Texas: Mack Brown hates using freshman offensive linemen. This fall, the Longhorns head coach may have to embrace one of his prejudices.

Graduation and transfers have hit hard on the 40 Acres, and the lack of depth could be the difference between the Longhorns decorating New Orleans in burnt orange the first week in January or making another trip to the Alamo Bowl. No one needs to tell the Texas faithful about what life could be like if a missed block leads to quarterback Colt McCoy wearing street clothes on autumn Saturday afternoons.

Huey (6-5, 290) and Allen (6-4, 300) are already on the two-deep charts; both were rated among the top prep offensive linemen in the nation (Allen was rated as the top guard). The incumbents -- Tony Hills and Adam Ulatoski -- have 14 starts between them. If injuries were to plague the line, Huey and Allen would immediately find themselves as major components to helping generate an offense whose skill position players rival with anyone's in the nation.

Allen has the best chance to make a major impact. He is exceptionally fast for his size and his aggressiveness will overcome any inexperience. Once he develops his technique, his path to playing on Sundays will be much smoother.

6. RB Joe McKnight USC: From the moment he steps on the field, McKnight will be haunted by the ghost of Reggie Bush. One look at McKnight's game film from John Curtis Christian High School in River Ridge, La., will make you understand.

McKnight has the rare acceleration and ability to make defenders look like Keystone Kops in the open field. His value is compounded by the fact he is able to play in the slot, line up outside and -- most dangerously -- return kicks, where his 4.3 speed leaves everyone holding their breath when the ball is kicked to him.

McKnight's biggest obstacle may not be Pac-10 Conference defenses. It will be working his way up in a star-studded bucket of crabs otherwise known as the Trojans' backfield, where he is one of 10 former prep All-Americans on the fall roster. Fellow frosh backs Marc Tyler and Broderick Green could have easily made this list, but McKnight's versatility will give Pete Carroll reason to find 10 to 15 plays per game for him. As deep and talented as USC's offense is, the addition of McKnight is like having Jessica Alba come to your door with Super Bowl tickets wearing nothing but high heels and a bathing suit.

7. LB Antonio Lowery, Rutgers: Lowery is the latest in a long, rich line of high school 'backers from the Miami area: swift, agile and hostile when it comes to stopping ball carriers. At 210 pounds, he is a bit undersized, but his speed and acceleration make him a vital asset to a Scarlet Knights team looking to prove that last season's 11-2 record was no fluke.

Lowery missed last season due to academic issues, but his ability to get to the passer off the outside edge will be a help to a defense that struggled to produce a pass rush in 2006. He opens the season second on the depth chart, but if Lowery is able to stay healthy, there's no reason to think he won't end the year not only as a starter, but as Rutgers' top sack specialist.

8. CB Eric Berry, Tennessee: That Berry is starting says volumes about his skills. One of the best pure athletes enrolling this fall, Berry -- the top-rated corner in the nation -- could have started at wide receiver for about 90 colleges this fall; instead, he will establish himself as one of the top cover men the nation.

The Vols already had one of the toughest pass defenses in the country, and the addition of Berry makes them even tougher. The 5-11, 195-pounder has 4.3 speed and the closing quicks to make up for mistakes. He's not a typical cornerback; Berry also played safety at Creekside High School in Fairburn, Georgia, and can hit with authority. He also has a 38-inch vertical leap.

9 and 10. DT D'Angelo McCray and LB Martez Wilson, Illinois: The Illini recruiting class was one of the best in recent memory, and this defensive duo is a reason why Ron Zook has fans and pundits looking at Champaign-Urbana with enthused eyes.

At 6-4, 290 pounds, McCray is a freakish tackle with the ability to devastate the interior with his pass-rushing skills. He projects as a tackle, but can also play end, due in part to his 4.8 speed. McCray's strength will be a load for seasoned linemen to contend with. He's already penned into a starting spot on the defensive line and has the potential to be a name Roger Goodell calls very early in the 2010 or 2011 NFL Draft.

Wilson may have been the best prep defensive player in the nation last fall. He has the size (6-4, 230) and speed (4.5) that makes personnel honks drool. He will be primarily an outside linebacker, but will line up at end as well. His ability to run with backs and some receivers will also make him valuable in coverage.

Wilson has the build to add weight; once he and McCray improve their basic techniques, this duo will be on its way toward causing unmitigated havoc across Big Ten backfields for the next three or four seasons.

Ten others to keep an eye on:

1. LB Rolando McClain, Alabama
2. QB Keith Nichol, Oklahoma
3. CB Gary Gray, Notre Dame
4. OL Ryan Miller, Colorado
5. DT Torrey Davis, Florida
6. QB/WR John Chiles, Texas
7. QB Stephen Garcia, South Carolina
8. DE Everson Griffen, USC
9. RB LeSean McCoy, Pitt
10. RB Mike Ford, South Florida

Brandon C. Williams is a freelance football writer and copy editor for the Houston Chronicle's sports section. Submit ideas or rough drafts of guest columns to info-at-footballoutsiders.com. And yes, we are looking to run more college football content this season.

Posted by: Guest on 08 Aug 2007

39 comments, Last at 20 Aug 2007, 5:28pm by hector

Comments

1
by Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 1:23pm

How does this list miss Graig Cooper at UM? Edgerrin James said that Cooper should be the starting tailback in front of his cousin "Sweet Baby" James - who had a phenominal year as a freshman.

2
by Chris Heinonen (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 2:04pm

And let's not forget Noel Devine at West Virginia. I might not like WVU, and I might think Devine is a head case, but with him in that already great backfield, WVU should do well this year I'd imagine and he'll get carries I'm sure.

3
by Nathan S (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 2:07pm

How did Noel Devine not make this list in WVU's already high-octane offense?

Is there no room for another RB or slot receiver?

4
by Nathan S (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 2:10pm

Ha. Shoot.

5
by Michael David Smith (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 2:13pm

I've become a fan of the "hire Ron Zook to recruit talent, then fire him and get someone else to coach 'em up" philosophy of building a college team. Worked for Florida, and I can only hope it also works for my Illini.

6
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 2:36pm

Not enough RBs on the list. In addition to Cooper and Devine, I'd add Brandon Saine at tOSU. To make room for these, I'd take off all 3 of the Illinois players-Benn because the Illini's biggest issue will be whether or not Juice Williams becomes a better passer, Wilson because he'll be switching from playing DE to playing LB, and D'Angelo McCray because the Illini missed out on Marvin Austin and everything I've read says he's the better prospect/player. I might also swap Lowery for USC's Chris Galippo, another LB, a higher recruit, who might not play much this year on a stacked USC D, but seems more likely to have a big impact the next couple years.

Has anybody seen any of these guys play in person? I saw Clausen and Korn on TV, but have no first-hand experience.

7
by Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 3:08pm

While I always appreciate low comedy at the expense of flailing celebrities, I prefer such jokes to make sense in context. That crack about Lindsay Lohan was just a cheap shot. Better to have said, "Tebow grasped Meyer's complex offense the way Paris Hilton grabs the cock."

8
by nikos (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 3:25pm

5: Seriously. Is there any other coach in recent memory who took Zook's amazing recruting prowess (without getting into whether or not you think he's dodgy)/complete inability to actually coach split to such extremes? It's fairly common in college basketball (rick barnes or bill self, for example) where, b/c talent trumps better coaching until the talent levels get pretty close, its' possible to be pretty successful relying solely on recruiting w/out being much of an xs and os strategist.

6: I'd be fine with swapping out McCray/Wilson for Austin, but Benn certainly deserves to be on the list, my argument being that he will be the biggest factor as to whether or not Juice Williams turns into a competent passer. Not to prematurely compare to CJ or anything, but I think Benn is another dude who'll be able to prosper even if he doesn't have a good QB a a la CJ with the beyond-hideous Reggie Ball.

9
by kevinNYC (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 3:34pm

I love Notre Dame, but there's NO WAY you can count on a TRUE freshman QB to make in impact in big time college football. When was the last time that happened? Georgia tried 2 other guys before Matt Stafford and he struggled A LOT before settling down at the end of the year.

Redshirt freshman are more likely to have an impact at the QB position. Two good examples are Mike Vick and Colt McCoy. Claussen might be good/great one day, but he sure as heck won't be in 2007.

10
by Ferg (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 4:19pm

OK, maybe I'm ignorant (actually no "maybe" about that), but: why hasn't a big-time program hired one guy to coach and another guy to recruit? The two skills are only tangentially related, so I don't know why they expect someone who's good at one to be just as good at the other.

11
by Diogenes00 (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 4:20pm

7. God, I'm still laughing.

12
by karl, miami (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 4:26pm

Harris:

Relax, dude. You don't even know her like that. Also, dead on with the Greg Cooper comment. Especially considering what Miami RBs have done in recent history (I do believe we had 4 RBs in the top-ten Fantasy Football RB list last year, and were it not for a knee problem such would be the case again this year! Free Clinton Portis!)

13
by D (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 4:30pm

#5 and #8

As a U of I student all I can say is you took the words out of my mouth.

14
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 4:32pm

Re #8
Fair enough. I thought Williams last year was just so inaccurate, though, that his accuracy has to improve just to make more passes remotely catchable. At 6'2" 220#, too, Benn is more Marquise Walker-sized than CJ.

Re #9
Like him or not, think he'll be good or not, like ND or not, I think Clausen is the one guy who absolutely must be included on this list. He may not start, at least at the beginning of the year, but as an incredibly heralded recruit playing for the only team with its own network, but he has to be on this list. Note, too, that this article is probably aimed in part at people who don't pay that much attention to the Saturday game, or at least the seamy underbelly thereof that is recruiting.

15
by karl, miami (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 4:35pm

i hate writing like this. every one of these guys has a shot at taking his program to conference championships and a bcs bowl. it's just annoying - every bullet need not be written in hyperbole.

16
by dryheat (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 4:53pm

Without Benn, Illinois is a 5-win team; with him, the Illini are a bowl-eligible squad on the first step toward challenging for a Big Ten title as early as next season.

6 Wins is Bowl Eligible, correct?

like having Jessica Alba come to your door with Super Bowl tickets wearing nothing but high heels and a bathing suit.

And then more than made up for with that imagery, although you probably could have left off the last four words.

17
by Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 5:21pm

#12 I don't know her at all, but I know she grabs the cock. I've seen pictures.

18
by oljb (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 5:36pm

I'd like to also suggest that Noel Devine may make more waves than many of these folks.

Also, in terms of him being a head case, it's probably good to cut an AIDS orphan some slack on seemingly inexplicable behavior. From everything I've read recently, it seems like post-stealing-Deion's-car his act is together a little bit more.

19
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 6:29pm

Ron Zook is one of the worst "game coaches" in the Midwest. Illinois may well have some amazing talent. Zook will almost certainly fritter away 2-3 wins via dubious decisions if not outright bizarro world choices.

20
by karl, miami (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 8:21pm

harris, this is true. i have also seen the video. stand corrected. she grabs mad cock.

21
by Joe Delaney (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 8:49pm

#10: Most programs do have one guy who is the coach of the team and another guy who is the head of recruiting, they just don't call him "Head Coach Of Recruiting". Head coaches have to be competent at recruiting, and the most valuable coaches are those who are excellent at both the on-field coaching/game planning stuff and also the program building/recruiting stuff.

22
by Derek (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 9:17pm

Why write about Tebow when Percy Harvin was more influential for the Gators last year? 427 yards receiving and 428 yards rushing (10.4 ypc) when Florida didn't have an effective rushing game. I know he is the QB and thus must be praised but Tebow only threw for 350 yards (most of it against Western Carolina).

I wonder which one of these guys will be the next Fred Rouse (#1 overall recruit at FSU who was arrested for stealing from a teammate).

23
by Derek (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2007 - 9:20pm

Also, Juice Williams may have the arm strength to heave the ball deep to Benn but he certainly hasn't demonstrated the accuracy to reach him consistently. Juice's completion percentage last season was less than 40%. Ugh.

24
by Zac (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 9:42am

RE: 21. Some college teams have a guy called "Recruiting Coordinator" or something like that.

25
by Zac (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 9:53am

Re: 15. Did you read past the introduction? He mentioned guys from the past who had extraordinary freshman seasons. He wasn't saying everyone is going to have an impact like that. For the actual list of Top 10 prospects, the only guy who he said might lead his team to the conference championship is Korn from Clemson. The article mentions that half the guys on the list might not even start this year.

The reason they're on this list is because of their long term potential, not their immediate impact.

26
by Theo, Holland (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 10:53am

Harris.
I think I blew a funny fuse.

27
by Drew_BurgerMan_Bledsoe (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 12:44pm

Illinois needs Zook recruiting talent and John L. Williams coaching them.

28
by Jon (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 1:06pm

Wow, I'm stunned to see a Rutgers mention here.

Rutgers fans were very hyped about Lowery when he signed, but the year off has quieted enthusiasm a little. It will be tough for him to break into the two-deep. There's another hyped-LB on the team named Manny Abreu. The freshman most likely to start is OL Anthony Davis, who will get his feet wet at guard before moving to tackle next year.

29
by Tom (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 1:45pm

The thing about Illinois is, we aren't as fanatical as some of the bigger programs around us. A coach could survive here with 5-7 wins every year, and beating Ohio State once in a while. Champaign-Urbana is a pretty small town compared to a lot of schools, and we can't necessarily support a strong football program. I don't mean ticket wise, but it terms of holding 53 not-exactly-choir boys. For instance, I couldn't imagine what would happen with Maurice Clarrett had gone here.

Plus, we'll always be a basketball town first.

30
by DolFan 316 (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 4:13pm

#19:

About Zook: leading the Gators to 5-loss seasons with obvious national title-caliber talent and being the coach that started the whole "firecoachx.com" website craze is all you need to know.

31
by Will (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 7:21pm

I believe Gray is out for the year with an injury.

32
by Harris (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2007 - 10:28pm

#20: And again, cock grabbing brings people togther.

33
by dryheat (not verified) :: Fri, 08/10/2007 - 10:20am

"... the way that Paris Hilton grabs the cock." is officially my all-purpose metaphor of choice.

Thank you. I can't wait for my boss to ask me later if I've grasped the main concepts of the policy paper I've just received.

34
by Michael (not verified) :: Fri, 08/10/2007 - 10:21am

Donovan Warren, CB, University of Michigan...or did you miss the performance of Michigan's corners in their last two games of 2006?

35
by Conor (not verified) :: Fri, 08/10/2007 - 3:20pm

RE: 25

"The reason they’re on this list is because of their long term potential, not their immediate impact."

Why is the article titled "10 freshmen to watch this fall"? Where does it talk about their long term potential? I see references to "impact freshmen." and "This fall is no exception, as several schools will rely on (pardon the Debbie Gibson reference) electric youth to come on strong and start living up to the expectations that made fans salivate once they made a commitment to play ball."

Where does it say anything about long term potential? It seems pretty clear the article is talking about this season.

36
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Fri, 08/10/2007 - 5:35pm

Re #34
Yeah, Warren's another guy who could easily have been listed. In defense of excluding him: (1) Berry's Tennessee Vols have high-profile September games against nationally prominent Cal and Florida, for which he's expected to make an immediate contribution. Michigan's big September games are against a down Notre Dame team with an inexperienced QB and a Wisconsin team also with an inexperienced QB, nor does either team have a game-breaking WR like Jackson or Harvin. (Yeah, I know, Tebow didn't play that much last year.) (2) Michigan has to rebuild most all of its defense, particularly the DL, not just plug a hole at CB. If teams can run the ball successfully on the Wolverines, unlike last year, Warren won't matter nearly as much.

37
by Mike (not verified) :: Sat, 08/11/2007 - 3:23pm

(Note: I'm not an Illinois fan, just someone who thinks Zook gets a bad rap)

Let me clear up a misconception: Zook did not inherit national title talent at Florida. He recruited it there, and didn't get a chance to coach it as upperclassmen. UF's recruiting had fallen off in Spurrier's final years and Zook didn't inherit a team ready to win an SEC title, much less a national title.

I'm not saying I haven't questioned some of his sideline decisions. I have. But I've questioned some of Mack Brown and Pete Carroll's decisions too, and they have national titles. The man can recruit, he can motivate, and he built a pretty solid D at Illinois last year without a ton of talent. He'll build a scary D now that he's getting big-time talent and won't be fired before it can bloom. If I'm an Illinois fan, I can live with my head coach not being an X's-and-O's genius if he brings in great players and can motivate them. Like I said, working pretty well at USC and Texas.

I think Illinois wins 6 games this year, but starting in '08 I think Zook turns Illinois into a program that wins 8-9 games most years and occasionally wins a conference title. In other words, I think they'll take the spot of Iowa or maybe even Wisconsin in the Big Ten heirarchy.

As far as Juice's passing goes, Kurt Kittner was even worse as a true freshman and he turned out okay for the Illini. Illinois receivers dropped 46 passes last year, and Juice had a lot of throwaways when he was running for his life. The passing game was obviously a big problem last year, but Juice was only a small part of the actual problem. Arrelious will fix a lot of it, and Juice's natural freshman-to-sophomore progression will fix some of it too.

38
by Jason (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 5:05pm

Mike- You're way off. Not an Illinois fan my arse. Nobody outside that state remembers Kitner's freshmen stats.

He is a LOUSY game day coach.

He had a new Defensive coach that left already and was the reason for a one year blip. Next year when Illinois loses games they should win they will be all over him.

39
by hector (not verified) :: Mon, 08/20/2007 - 5:28pm

Don't force those pop-culture references, ace. Let them come to you.