Even with the microscope on recruiting these days, it's still almost impossible to accurately predict which players will make an immediate impact in college. The five-stars who look like obvious breakout players don't always break out, and inevitably, someone comes out of nowhere.
Consider last year's crop of Big 12 freshmen. Colorado tailback Darrell Scott seemed the clear preseason choice to become an instant star. Scott was the top-rated tailback in the class of 2008, and Colorado's backfield needed a playmaker. Yet Scott gained only 343 yards and was outrushed by fellow freshman Rodney Stewart. Meanwhile, at Baylor, quarterback Robert Griffin -- recruited by many schools as a receiver -- won the Bears' starting job by the second game and wound up being named the conference's best freshman offensive player by coaches.
With redshirts dwindling every year, these lists of potential impact freshmen keep getting longer. As preseason practice begins this year, a traditional Big Ten power (Michigan) has a true freshman leading its quarterback derby. A perennial top five program (USC) still may give a true freshman a look at quarterback. Meanwhile, the loaded defending national champ (Florida) hopes to get a significant contribution from a receiver who just arrived on campus in June.
Bearing in mind the most interesting potential freshman breakout star may start camp buried on somebody's depth chart, SI.com has compiled a list of the true freshmen with the best chance to become household names by November.
Everyone wants to know about massive freshman offensive lineman D.J. Fluker, but expecting a guy who never played offensive line before 2008 to step into the left tackle job the way Andre Smith did as a true freshman in 2006 is asking a lot. It's more likely Richardson, a 220-pound bruiser from Pensacola, Fla., will earn some carries as the Crimson Tide try to replace Glen Coffee. Richardson will compete with sophomore Mark Ingram and senior Roy Upchurch.
The defending champion Gators have only one question mark: at receiver, where Percy Harvin's departure to the NFL has left a sizable hole. Debose possesses speed and moves similar to Harvin, but few players have the skill set to be as dangerous as Harvin was in the run and pass games. Gators coach Urban Meyer has referred to Debose as a possibility at the "Percy" position, but another option is a more traditional split of duties with Debose playing receiver and sophomore tailback Jeff Demps taking over Harvin's rushing workload.RUBIN: Debose among players with biggest shoes to fill
McDaniel didn't enroll early, but if he treats FSU offensive linemen the way he did the blue-chippers at the Under Armour All-America Game in January, the 6-0 freshman from Greenville, Fla., will rocket up the depth chart. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, McDaniel already has wowed his new teammates and coaches with a 315-pound power clean. That's just more evidence of the explosiveness McDaniel showed as a star at Madison County High. If that translates to the college level, opponents will need to double-team him on almost every play.
Sophomore Jordan Jefferson is LSU's starting quarterback, but coach Les Miles knows the Tigers must get the ball into Shepard's hands. There had been much speculation over how LSU would use Shepard, but as fall camp began Miles said Shepard will start his career as a "quarterback only." Even under that restriction, Miles won't want to waste Shepard's gifts. "I think he's a tremendous talent," Miles said last month. "I think there's a definite challenge to our offense on how to use him, how to bring him along."
CORRECTION: It seems a reporter misquoted Miles, who has since clarified Shepard will indeed see time at positions other than QB. This makes sense for LSU, which needs to get the ball into the dynamic and versatile freshman's hands -- whether or not those hands are positioned under center.
Armstrong's Seminole (Sanford, Fla.) High teammate, Florida freshman Debose, got more attention during the recruiting process, but Armstrong is one of the most intriguing players in the class of 2009. He's 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds and he's athletic enough to play safety, linebacker, tight end or receiver. He'll start out as a safety for the Hurricanes, who showed last season they aren't opposed to throwing a true freshman into the fire. Armstrong may follow in the footsteps of linebacker Sean Spence, who proved he was a playmaker very early as a freshman in 2008.
Redshirt junior Nick Sheridan and fellow true freshman Denard Robinson will also get a chance to win the starting job, but while Sheridan was laid up with a broken leg and Robinson was finishing high school, Forcier was leading the Wolverines' offense during spring practice. That gives the San Diego native a huge edge going into camp. But can Michigan improve on last year's 3-9 record with such a young quarterback? If the offensive line improves, it can. Also, don't be surprised if another true freshman winds up contributing to the offense. Tiny tailback Vincent Smith was a blur during spring practice, and his speed could inspire some creativity from Michigan coaches. Of course, they'll probably be a little busy prepping Forcier for the pressure cooker that is starting for the Wolverines. "You get nervous as a coach when you talk about possibly playing true freshmen anywhere, particularly at quarterback," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said at Big Ten media day. "But I have all the confidence in the world that our coaches and Tate will put the work in to get ready."
Coach Charlie Weis pulled off a major coup when he convinced Te'o, a Hawaiian ranked as the nation's best linebacker prospect by Rivals.com, to come to South Bend. During spring practice -- when Te'o was still in high school -- Weis said he expected Te'o to come in and compete immediately. Weis just wasn't sure exactly where Te'o would play. "Manti's a person who can play Sam, Mike or Will," Weis said in March. "He can play any of those positions. I think what you do is find out where you're most vulnerable, where you're weakest, and then you put him at a position where he can compete."
Senior Dom Natale -- a great name for a player at Jersey's flagship university -- should begin the season as the Scarlet Knights' starter based on his play during the spring, but expect plenty of clamoring for the 6-4, 220-pound Savage if the offense falters. The competition for the job, which also includes all-name nomineeJabu Lovelace, will extend into camp, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano told reporters at Big East Media Day on Tuesday. "I'm not opposed to playing a true freshman there," Schiano said. "But you have to take into account, if you play a true freshman, that there are some things you're going to have to live with. Does that still give you the best chance to win? If the answer is yes, then you do it."
Gilmore, from Rock Hill, S.C., won a first-team cornerback spot in the spring and should start when the Gamecocks open against N.C. State on Aug. 3. But don't expect Gilmore to be limited to defense. He also should take snaps at quarterback as part of coach Steve Spurrier's "Wild Gamecock" formation. As Wild [insert mascot name here] formation names go, Wild Gamecock is second only to Virginia Tech's "Wild Turkey" formation, which features tight end Greg Boone.
Rivals.com's top-rated recruit in the class of 2009 dragged his recruitment into overtime, but the 6-foot, 215-pound Brown picked a program that could use a boost at tailback. Senior Montario Hardesty is Tennessee's only established back, leaving plenty of opportunity for Brown and fellow freshman David Oku to win carries during camp.
The Aggies averaged just 2.9 yards a carry last season thanks mostly to an offensive line ravaged by injuries. Texas A&M boasts a pair of quality backs in Cyrus Gray and Bradley Stephens, but the 5-11, 200-pound Michael possesses the strength to break tackles and the speed to break away for scores. Expect him to get a chance to earn carries in camp.
Coach Rick Neuheisel pledged to upgrade the talent at UCLA and he appeared to do that while recruiting the class of 2009, beating out USC for Carroll, Presley and Su'a Filo and Cal for Hasiak. Neuheisel will waste no time giving his top recruits a chance to play. He said during Pac-10 media day young linemen Hasiak and Su'a Filo would have a chance to compete for starting jobs immediately. Meanwhile, Carroll and Presley should have a place in a passing game now led by redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince.
Trojans coach Pete Carroll's "always compete" mantra means Barkley still may have a slim chance to unseat projected starter Aaron Corp. "To me, it is really clear right now," Carroll said at Pac-10 media day. "Aaron Corp came out of spring practice the No. 1 guy. But he wasn't that far ahead of Matt Barkley, which was a total shock to us." If Corp remains the starter, Carroll and his staff will face a tough decision over whether to make Barkley the backup or redshirt him and use Mitch Mustain or Garrett Green as the backup.
Wynn finds himself in a position similar to USC's Barkley. The early-enrollee from Oceanside, Calif., surprised coaches during spring practice and made it a three-man race to replace Brian Johnson. Junior Corbin Louks leads, and junior college transfer Terrance Cain also has a shot, but Wynn's quick progress has left Utes coach Kyle Whittingham with a more difficult choice.