August 31, 2009

Freshmen set to make an early impact in 2009

There used to be a time when coaches hesitated before handing their most important jobs to true freshmen.

That time has passed.

Need any evidence about the importance of true freshmen in today's game? Take a look at the final Associated Press rankings last season.

Utah ended the 2009 season as the No. 2 team in the nation, while USC was ranked third. Each of those teams could open the season with a true freshman as its starting quarterback.

They won't be the only national powers relying heavily on at least one true freshman. As we head into the final days before the kickoff of the 2009 season, we've put together a list of 12 teams expecting big things from true freshmen this season.

We decided to add a 13th entry, but the uncertain status of one player caused us to put an asterisk next to his name. The players are listed alphabetically with the exception of our asterisked player.

USC QB Matt Barkley
From: Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei
Buzz: Barkley, the No. 5 overall prospect in the 2009 class, will become the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for USC. Barkley arrived on campus in time for spring practice and surged to the top of the depth chart when sophomore Aaron Corp missed two weeks of practice time because of a cracked bone below his left knee. USC coach Pete Carroll noted that the competition will continue at this position, so Corp still could win the job later this season, particularly if Barkley struggles Saturday against San Jose State.

Michigan QBs Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson
From: Forcier is from San Diego Scripps Ranch; Robinson is from Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High
Buzz: Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez still hasn't named a starting quarterback, but two of his three remaining candidates are true freshmen. Rodriguez has indicated Forcier, Robinson and junior Nick Sheridan will take some snaps Saturday against Western Michigan. Forcier, a four-star prospect, participated in spring practice at Michigan after rushing for 2,049 yards and passed for 7,448 yards during his high school career. Robinson, another four-star prospect, wasn't with the Wolverines for spring practice, but he has shown plenty of speed during summer workouts.

South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore
From: Rock Hill (S.C.) South Pointe
Buzz: Gilmore, a four-star prospect who was the No. 84 recruit in the class, arrived on campus for spring practice and almost immediately locked up a starting cornerback spot. Gilmore, a four-year starting quarterback in high school, also could earn some playing time on offense; he has taken some snaps as part of South Carolina's "Wild Cocky" formation, the Gamecocks' version of the Wildcat. Gilmore rushed for 1,331 yards and threw for 1,771 yards while leading South Pointe to a state title as a senior.

Pittsburgh RBs Ray Graham and Dion Lewis
From: Graham is from Elizabeth (N.J.) High; Lewis is from Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy
Buzz: We're listing these two guys in alphabetical order rather than the order in which they appear on the depth chart. Lewis gets the first crack at replacing LeSean McCoy as the Panthers' main running back, but Graham has performed well enough this summer to get plenty of carries as well. Lewis, who is 5 feet 7 and a three-star prospect, averaged 14.1 yards per carry while rushing for 1,243 yards as a senior. Graham, a four-star recruit, ran for 1,592 yards and averaged nine yards per carry as a high school senior, and sat out the entire fourth quarter in six of his team's 10 games.

Auburn RB Onterio McCalebb
From: Fort Meade (Fla.) High, then Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy
Buzz: New Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's search for weapons in his spread offense could cause the Tigers to play several newcomers. McCalebb's status as Auburn's fastest player could make him an ideal fit. He will have a role as a change-of-pace back who can catch passes out of the backfield, run reverses or even return kicks. McCalebb - a four-star prospect who was the No. 4 prep-school player in the nation - isn't the only freshman who should get plenty of touches for Auburn this season. WR DeAngelo Benton already has won a spot in the starting lineup. Benton was a former five-star prospect at Bastrop (La.) High School before also attending Hargrave.

Texas A&M RB Christine Michael
From: Beaumont (Texas) West Brook
Buzz: The Aggies desperately need to upgrade a rushing attack that ranked 115th out of 120 FBS teams last season, and Michael should provide an immediate upgrade. A five-star prospect who was the No. 22 overall player in the 2009 class, Michael ran for 2,583 yards and 53 touchdowns his final two seasons at West Brook. Michael - whose first name is pronounced Christian - should team with sophomore Cyrus Gray to improve a running game that averaged just 2.9 yards per carry last season.

Texas DE Alex Okafor
From: Pflugerville (Texas) High
Buzz: The Longhorns lost one of the nation's elite pass rushers when Brian Orakpo moved on to the NFL as the Washington Redskins' first-round pick. All-America candidate Sergio Kindle gives Texas at least one top pass-rushing threat, but Texas must find someone to complement him. That's where Okafor fits in. Okafor, a five-star prospect, was the No. 1 strongside defensive end and No. 14 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. He has won raves throughout the preseason.

Oregon State OT Michael Philipp
From: San Bernardino (Calif.) Arroyo Valley
Buzz: Philipp was ranked as the No. 1 guard prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, but likely will open his career as the Beavers' starting left tackle Saturday against Portland State. Coaches think Philipp (6-3/313) already has the size and strength to handle the physical demands of left tackle.

Tennessee WRs Nu'Keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague
From: Richardson is from Pahokee (Fla.) High; Teague is from Paris (Tenn.) Henry County
Buzz: RB Bryce Brown has received the majority of the preseason attention because of his eligibility scare and his status as the nation's No. 1 prospect, but depth concerns in the receiving corps could cause Richardson and Teague to play more in the early going. Tennessee has lost Austin Rogers for the entire season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and Gerald Jones (ankle) and Denarius Moore (foot) likely will miss at least the first two games. That puts pressure on Richardson and Teague - both four-star prospects - to contribute immediately. Richardson was the No. 68 prospect in the class. Brown and RB David Oku, a four-star prospect who was the No. 97 recruit in the class, also should get plenty of opportunities this season for Tennessee, which could end up counting on more true freshmen than any team in a "Big Six" conference.

Rutgers WR Mohamed Sanu
From: South Brunswick (N.J.) High
Buzz: Because he turned 19 the week before the start of his senior season, Sanu wasn't eligible to play as a high school senior. Sanu enrolled at Rutgers in time to participate in spring practice and made a successful transition from safety to the receiving corps. He likely will open the season in the starting lineup. Sanu, a former three-star prospect, has made the most of the opportunity created by the departures of Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood.

Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o
From: Honolulu Punahou School
Buzz: Notre Dame has taken its lumps against USC on the football field lately, but it won a key recruiting battle when Te'o decided to play for the Irish instead of the Trojans. Te'o made 129 tackles and 11 sacks as a senior. He signed with Notre Dame as a five-star prospect and the No. 12 overall prospect in the class. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis already has indicated Te'o will play Saturday in the Irish's season opener against Nevada. Don't be surprised if he starts. Te'o isn't the only Irish freshman who will make an impact this season. Nick Tausch has beaten out incumbent Brandon Walker for the kicking job.

Utah QB Jordan Wynn
From: Oceanside (Calif.) High
Buzz: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff still are debating as to whether Wynn or junior college transfer Terrance Cain will replace the departed Brian Johnson as the Utes' starting quarterback. Wynn's chances of winning the starting job received a boost when junior Corbin Louks - the only candidate with any Division I experience - announced he was transferring to Nevada. Wynn, a three-star prospect, enrolled early so he could participate in spring practice. Wynn passed for 3,336 yards and 32 touchdowns his senior year at Oceanside.

*Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict
From: Corona (Calif.) Centennial
Buzz: There's no doubting the impact Burfict could make as a freshman. Burfict, a five-star recruit, signed with Arizona State as the No. 9 overall prospect in the nation after recording 159 tackles as a senior. But Burfict still is awaiting word from the NCAA Clearinghouse on whether he will be eligible to play this season, though Arizona State officials are optimistic about his prospects. If the NCAA clears Burfict, he could team with Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel to give Arizona State one of the most formidable linebacking corps in the nation. Arizona State also is expecting big things from three-star freshman DT William Sutton, another Centennial alum who should earn immediate playing time.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for He can be reached at

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