Trying to decide what freshman will have an early impact can be difficult. First of all, the depth chart coupled with the quality of personnel at a given position must be in a state of flux. Also, certain positions just have a shorter learning curve than others. Below are five prospects that may be able to take advantage of these situations at their respective schools.
The lack of a consistent running game was evident this past year for Texas, which finished a surprising 5-7 just one year after playing in the BCS national championship game. Brown brings to the table the ability to make yards after contact and move the chains. He is the type of back that can wear down defenses by the third quarter and chew up time, while conserving the lead by not allowing the opponent's offense onto the field. For a big back, Brown also has soft hands, which should make him an every-down back. His affinity for smelling the end zone once the ball gets inside the 10-yard line will allow him to put points on the board while taking pressure off the passing game. He may not start the year out as the No. 1 back but could end up being the go-to guy by season's end.
This huge, athletic inside linebacker demonstrated during the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic that he thrives on contact. Johnson has the size and strength to bounce around in the tackle box while stuffing the run. His lateral movement is superior to most inside linebackers as he can chase down plays run to the boundary. The Rebels are surely in need of a difference maker on the defensive side of the ball after having a dismal 2010 season. Not only is he a sure tackler but an intimidator similar to Ray Lewis, someone who will knock the head off receivers willing to cross his path. Look for him to play early on special teams as he is worked into the staring lineup.
Regardless which side of the ball the Bulldogs play the speedy Mitchell, he will have an instant impact. Offensively Georgia is in need of sure-handed receivers that can make yards after the catch, something Mitchell did all season and at the Under Armour All-American Game. As a corner, he offers the Bulldogs excellent height and ball skills, which will make him a difference maker on the defensive side of the ball. Special teams will surely be an area that Mitchell will get a chance to show off his quickness and speed. Do not be surprised if he's returning kicks come opening day against Boise State. The sooner the coaching staff makes a decision on which side of the ball he will play, the sooner Mitchell will make his impact.
WR Sammy Watkins, Fort Myers (Fla.) South Fort Myers, Clemson Tigers
No receiver during the week of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl made defensive backs look as lost and deathly slow as Watkins did. He possesses the change of direction and acceleration that will leave defensive backs corkscrewed into the ground. His soft hands and body control allow him to make plays on underthrown balls. Though listed at a 4.5 40-yard dash, he proved to be impossible to corral once in space, squirting between defenders for huge chunks of real estate. Clemson is in dire need of a difference maker at receiver, especially since the Tigers will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. Look for Watkins to eventually become the No. 1 receiver for the Tigers during his freshman season.
Approximately 70 percent of the Oklahoma rushing attack is gone with the departure of future NFL draft pick DeMarco Murray. Yes, there are other backs Williams will compete with for playing time, but his size and speed combination clearly is at another level. He displayed superior acceleration getting to the corner and the vision to slice through the middle of the defense while at the Under Armour All-American Game. Williams is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield, which will create more early opportunities for playing time. His home-run speed may also get him looks as a kick returner. I don't expect him to be the starter right away, but he should gradually work his way onto the field once he shows off his big-play ability in an actual game. Oklahoma is loaded with experienced receivers and a veteran quarterback. This will allow the young backs to run wild.