October 14, 2010

Leading 17-3 to start the third quarter of last Friday's matchup with Kansas State, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez handled the snap before bursting up the middle. The result was something to behold: the redshirt freshman sprinting through the heart of the Wildcats' helpless defense, six purple jerseys flailing at his back as he galloped 80 yards for a touchdown.

The scene was all too familiar for the K-State faithful, who witnessed Martinez explode for 369 total yards and five touchdowns in the Cornhuskers' 48-13 thumping -- in the process announcing to the entire pigskin-watching world: I'm here. Get ready.

In college football, experience is everything. There are few Carmelo Anthonys, Kevin Durants or John Walls. High-profile institutions like Alabama are fueled by the Greg McElroys of the earth, the battle-tested seniors who have paid their dues and earned their teammates' respect. Playing time is a rite of passage, and freshmen don't see much of it.

At least, they didn't. Over the past few seasons, underclassmen have increasingly begun challenging for -- and winning -- the opportunity to spearhead some of the nation's most prolific programs. The last three Heisman Trophy winners (Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Mark Ingram) were sophomores, the first underclassmen to claim the award in its 75-year history.

Soon, it may be a freshman's turn. Martinez leads a group of 10 high-impact newcomers who have done more than just bide their time on campus. They've owned it.

In Martinez, Nebraska may have finally found an offensive counterpart to match its formidable defense. A freshman quarterback out of Corona, Calif., Martinez has been electric through five games, passing for 660 yards while rushing for another 737. His speed and pocket presence have the Nebraska offense firing on all cylinders, and he's shown no signs of slowing down heading into a matchup with Texas.

Martinez did display poor decision-making during the team's 17-3 lackluster effort against South Dakota State, a game in which Martinez tossed two interceptions. But his torching of Kansas State quelled most doubters, and he has 5-0 Nebraska primed to make a run at a BCS bowl -- and possibly the national championship.

After darting onto the scene with a 182-yard, two-touchdown performance against SEC-rival Georgia, fthe reshman running back has remained the key cog in South Carolina's potent rushing attack. He's been a regular in the end zone, racking up eight touchdowns through the Gamecocks' first six games, including two in last week's stunning upset of top-ranked Alabama.

With South Carolina now ranked 10th in the nation, look for coach Steve Spurrier to keep feeding Lattimore the ball. He should prove instrumental in late-season showdowns with Arkansas and Florida, back-to-back games that will decide the Gamecocks' 2010 fate.

If Michigan State wants to build on its surprising 6-0 start, it's going to have to keep putting the ball in the hands its dynamic freshman tailback. Bell is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and has rushed for 549 yards in the Spartans' early season wins, including a 41-yard touchdown in Michigan State's win over rival Michigan.

Bell should have his way on Saturday against an Illinois defense that's surrendering 117 rushing yards per contest.

Once dubbed the "Reggie Bush of Orange County," San Diego State running back Hillman is sending shock waves through the Southern California football community. He's run for 594 yards in the Aztecs' first five games, many of which came during a mammoth 228-yard day at Missouri on Sept. 18.

San Diego State's offense has been streaky of late, but Hillman -- who runs a 4.39 40-yard dash -- could be very influential in late season games against TCU and Utah.

Another freshman from in a non-BCS conference have an immediate impact, the Troy quarterback has torn apart opposing defenses, accumulating 1,503 yards and an 11-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio during the Trojans' 3-2 start.

Robinson has faced relatively weak competition so far, which won't change in upcoming games against Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas. However, he'll face a stiff test when the Trojans travel to South Carolina on Nov. 20, where a standout performance could push Robinson into the national spotlight.

Though the Bulldogs have stumbled to a 2-4 start, Murray has displayed signs of promise. In last week's 41-14 rout of Tennessee, he showed pinpoint accuracy on a 22-yard touchdown strike to A.J. Green and flashed some speed during a 35-yard touchdown scramble.

Now with six games and 1,366 passing yards, Murray looks ready to compete in late-season challenges against Florida and Auburn, the two biggest remaining matchups on the Bulldogs' schedule. In an SEC conference that's been anything but predictable this year, a more confident freshman could pose problems for the visiting favorites.

The linebacker is part of a revamped Baylor defense that has stymied offenses, holding opponents to 19.8 points per game. Elliot has played a major role, tallying five sacks, seven tackles for loss and one forced fumble during Baylor's unanticipated 4-2 start.

He'll have to anchor that defense as the schedule intensifies, with showdowns against Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma still to come. Baylor will need to win at least one of those games if it hopes to earn its first bowl appearance since 1994.

One of the lone bright spots during Washington State's 1-5 start, the wideout has established himself as a downfield threat heading into the thick of conference play. His 6-foot-3 frame gives him a noticeable size advantage over most corners, which the Cougars have exploited for touchdown grabs of 68 and 48 yards early in the season.

As he continues to develop a rapport with sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel, Wilson could emerge as a top-tier Pac-10 receiver.

Phillips has been something of a revelation during Texas Tech's first five games, leading the FBS with four interceptions. A graduate of the same high school as former Red Raider Michael Crabtree, Phillips had a breakout game on Sept. 18 contest against Texas, when he picked off Garrett Gilbert twice, returning one 87 yards for a touchdown.

He'll have his work cut out for him on Saturday, though, against Oklahoma State's high-octane offense. The Cowboys are averaging a362 passing yards per game, and Phillips will be asked to shut down Justin Blackmon.

Overlooked entering the season because of his undersized 275-pound frame, the defensive tackle has overwhelmed offensive linemen with four sacks, two of which came in Arizona's statement win against Iowa.

The defensive line tandem of freshman Washington and senior Brooks Reed has created problems for opponents, and Washington's consistent pressure is a big reason why Arizona is allowing only 281 yards per game, 13th in the FBS. He should continue to disrupt the opponent during a manageable three game stretch against Washington State, Washington and UCLA before a November showdown with Andrew Luck and Stanford.

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