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August 24, 2005

True freshmen taking over

Incoming freshmen are proving to be more and more prepared for college football every year and this upcoming season looks like it will only fuel that trend.

There were several deserving candidates considered for Rivals.com's top impact true freshmen and the 10 selected have earned or are competing for starting jobs. Some are even expected to be stars right away.

The new talent is also spread out. Three selections came from the SEC, two each from the Big Ten and Big 12 and one each from the ACC, Big East and Pac-10.

1. Jason Gwaltney (West Virginia)

Expect this five-star recruit to be carrying the Mountaineers offense by midseason. The 6-foot-0, 235-pound running back, who turned down scholarship offers from Ohio State and USC, is locked in a tight battle with junior Pernell Williams, sophomore Jason Colson and freshman Steve Slaton for playing time at the moment.

But, nobody in that group has Gwaltney's combination of size, strength and explosiveness. A north-south type of runner, he looks nothing like a normal freshman running back and can run right over linebackers. He is nursing a minor leg injury but has looked good in previous practices, impressing coach Rich Rodriguez with his ability to pass block - a key for any young running back to get on the field.

There has been talk of Gwaltney rushing for 1,500 yards and while that number is probably unrealistic he could rank among the Big East's leading rushers by the end of the season. Rodriguez's offense is designed around the running back and if Gwaltney can emerge from the pack in the first three games he will be the focus of the coach's game plans down the stretch.

2. Derrick Williams (Penn State)

No freshman may be more ready to make the jump from high school to college football. Ranked Rivals.com's No. 1 prospect from the class of 2005, the 6-0, 190-pound receiver is blessed with remarkable speed and athleticism, and after enrolling at Penn State in January, he immediately started working with the first team and looked like a star in spring practice.

Williams will be at the top of the depth chart when the Nittany Lions, who lack any experienced receivers, play host to South Florida for their season opener on Sept. 3, and will be one of the main weapons in their new offense, which will feature more spread formations. Questions remain about Michael Robinson's ability to play quarterback, but Williams also will be returning kicks and will find a way to make big plays whether Robinson is able to get him the ball or not.

3. DeSean Jackson (California)

This 5-11, 170-pound receiver might be the best playmaker on the California roster, and that includes dynamic running back Marshawn Lynch.

Jackson was the overwhelming choice for MVP honors at the U.S. Army All-American game in December and has been extremely impressive in practice. Bears coach Jeff Tedford has said that Jackson will play, but hasn't revealed how much just yet. With the loss of five solid receivers from 2004, he may start and put up some big numbers right away.

4. Toney Baker (N.C. State)

Veteran running backs wish they were built like Baker, whose muscular 5-11, 220-pound frame and great lower body strength give him an edge over the five other players competing for the Wolfpack's starting running back job.

Baker proved he is more than just a physical specimen in a recent scrimmage, rushing for a team-high 98 yards. He even juked the team's best defensive player, leaving first-team All-ACC defensive end Mario Williams in the dust during one long gain.

With such a crowded backfield Baker may not start, but he will earn significant carries right away, and his power and durability may make him the main man in the rotation before too long.

5. Justin King (Penn State)

Williams may get most of the publicity, but King, who also enrolled in the spring, may prove to be just as valuable this fall.

Ranked the No. 19 prospect from the class of 2005, the 6-0, 185-pounder will play at receiver, cornerback and also return kicks. With the loss of Mark Rubin, one of the Nittany Lions' few experienced receivers, who underwent season-ending ankle surgery earlier this week, he will be playing mostly on the offensive side of the ball, especially in multiple-receiver formations.

6. Marlon Lucky (Nebraska)

Bill Callahan is going to find a way to get the ball in the hands of Lucky, regardless of where he chooses to play the No. 2-ranked running back from the class of 2006.

The 6-0, 200-pound prep star from North Hollywood, Calif., has been handling a large amount of carries in practice and taking some big hits in the process. But, with the return of 1,000-yard rusher Cory Ross in the Cornhuskers backfield, he may make a bigger impact at receiver and kick returner initially. Blessed with great hands, he will be used at a handful of positions.

7. Demetrice Morley (Tennessee)

The Volunteers may have found their next star safety in their most recent recruiting class. A hard hitter who is fast enough to cover huge chunks of the field, the 6-0, 180-pound Morley has been one of the most impressive newcomers in practice. He already has earned time with the first team and the praise of Phil Fulmer.

Sophomore safeties Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart will probably start, but their spots atop the depth chart are far from secure. Look for Morely to be a part of the nickel and dime packages and if Hefney or Stewart struggle he may be the first to replace them.

8. Mike Davis (South Carolina)

Meet Steve Spurrier's new running back. With Cory Boyd suspended for the season, the Gamecocks new coach had to choose between a pair of true freshmen when it came to finding a starter for the back of his Cock 'n Fire offense.

The 5-10, 209-pound Davis, who is from Columbia, earned the edge over Bobby Wallace in practice. A punishing runner, he will give one of the game's best offensive minds another weapon to work with.

9. Barry Turner (Nebraska)

This is probably the most surprising name on this list. Turner, a three-star recruit, didn't arrive on Nebraska's campus with a huge amount of hype.

But, the 6-3, 250-pound defensive end has managed to create his own. He has impressed coaches in practice and despite a handful of veterans in front of him on the depth chart, he is going to play significant reps.

10. Michael Oher (Ole Miss)

Some of the biggest needs for the Rebels are on the offensive line, and they may have found an immediate solution at right guard. The 6-5, 330-pound Oher has looked superb in drills and in scrimmages from that position.

Offensive linemen normally redshirt regardless of size or ability, but Oher is far too capable to spend his first season on the bench. He will play in the season opener and could be starting by midseason.


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