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 Contact Us. And yes, we are looking to run more college football content this season.