Newcomers to watch
SI.com scours the nation for the next Clarett
Updated: Friday August 22, 2003 2:09PM
By Luke Winn, SI.com
It's high time we latched on to a new freshman phenom, what with the luster of last season's darling, Maurice Clarett, wearing off in the face of eligibility issues. What we need is a fresh golden boy, someone to take the nation by storm from the get-go.
We scoured the nation for the freshest blood -- redshirts and backups need not apply -- finding the true freshmen and juco transfers who are already making a buzz. When all the hype -- the recruiting rankings, the grainy prep video tape -- gets thrown into the D I-A fire, which ones will turn into stars?
It all starts with a certain quarterback in Gainesville, Fla. His name?
Chris Leak, QB, Florida, Freshman
By all accounts -- and by now there are plenty of them -- Leak is the true freshman to watch in the 2003 class. Perhaps the most coveted quarterback recruit in the nation, Leak committed early to Florida and made the Gator playbook his bible soon after. He's currently battling untested sophomore Ingle Martin for the starting job, but Leak's insatiable appetite for workouts and game film has paid dividends thus far: In Florida's first scrimmage Aug. 13, he completed his first nine passes for 199 yards. Gator fans eagerly lap up each new tale about the phenom, including how he spent his 2003 spring break watching tape of the UF offense in Gainesville. Some have called Leak a robot. Soon they may just call him "starter."
Reggie Bush, RB, USC, Freshman
Under Norm Chow's air-it-out offense, the Trojans have strayed from the days of "Tailback U." But in Bush, a self-described "home-run hitter," USC may have the most electric freshman runner in the nation. On Aug. 10, the first day the Trojans practiced in full pads, Bush ran circles around the defense and drew rave reviews from head coach Pete Carroll.
''He shocks me every day with something,'' Carroll told the Orange County Register.. ''He's done some things, remarkable things, with the ball.''
Bush, a speedster who recorded the top time in California in the 100-yard dash (10.42 seconds) last year, still ranks behind sophomore Herschel Dennis on the depth chart. He'll be used as a kick returner in Week 2 -- Caroll doesn't want to overburden him in the opener vs. Auburn -- but it'll be nearly impossible to keep him out of the backfield against the Tigers.
Donte Nicholson, SS, Oklahoma, Junior
The Sooners return 10 starters from a defense Bob Stoops called his best ever -- not exactly an optimal personnel situation in which a "newcomer" can garner much hype. But strong safety Donte Nicholson, a coveted juco transfer, will probably start in the position once occupied by NFL first-rounder Roy Williams. Nicholson's strong spring drew rave reviews from Stoops and prompted Big 12 media to vote him the conference's preseason newcomer of the year.
"[Donte] is probably our most natural safety that we've ever coached, he's got great ability, great size and speed, but also has great understanding and picked everything up really quite easily," Stoops said.
Sophomore Eric Bassey, who occupied the spot in 2002, has moved to cornerback to make way for Nicholson, who will roam the secondary alongside free safety Brandon Everage.
Mario Williams, DE, N.C. State, Freshman
Williams' mere presence -- all 79 inches of him -- made an impact on his Wolfpack teammates when he enrolled early in December. "The recruits we're bringing in are unreal," tight end Sean Berton said back then. "Mario Williams looks like an NFL defensive end right now and he's 18 years old."
Williams isn't all size; he proved himself in the spring and has already been pegged to start the opener against Western Carolina on Aug. 30. Head coach Chuck Amato, formerly the defensive coordinator at Florida State, has only good things to say about his hulking rookie.
"I was fortunate to be around some of the best D-linemen in the country then [at Florida State]," Amato said. "Never did we have one come in looking like Mario. He has great vision. He sees so much. He might be playing a dive, and boom -- he sees something coming around and adjusts to a reverse and gets up the field."
Marvin Simmons, LB, Kansas State, Sophomore
When All-America MLB Terry Pierce left for the NFL after his junior season, Simmons, a heralded prep linebacker and later a star at Compton College, arrived to help fill the void. Bill Snyder makes a habit of wooing juco stars, but even by K-State standards, Simmons' path to Manhattan was abnormal. A Parade All-American MLB in high school, he signed with USC but never met eligibility requirements as a Trojan. He headed to junior college in Compton and proceeded to record 125 tackles and 13 sacks in his first season -- but KSU still stumbled upon him by accident. The 'Cats were pursuing another Compton LB when a coach there alerted them Simmons was still a free agent.
"I was under the assumption he was at USC as a guy that maybe was redshirting or something," Snyder said. "I had no idea he was available, and it happened just 1 1/2 weeks before the signing date, if that. We were just fortunate we found out."
Brandon Jacobs, RB, Auburn, Junior
Does Auburn really need another running back? Not especially; with its talented trio of Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Tre Smith, the Tiger backfield has a No Vacancy sign shining bright. Nevertheless, Auburn may make room for Jacobs, a stud juco back whose serious size and speed remind running backs coach Eddie Gran of former Ohio State star Eddie George.
"[Brandon] is a power runner, and even as big as he is, he still has really good feet in the hole," Gran said. "It's amazing that a big guy like him can carry so much speed."
But still, why go where playing time is bound to be scarce? It's a loyalty thing, according to Gran. The Tigers had recruited Jacobs out of high school in Louisiana and placed him in juco at Coffeyville. After seeing the success of former back Rudy Johnson as well as Williams and Brown, Jacobs felt "obligated" to come back, Gran said.
Jacobs is still listed at No. 4 on the depth chart, but Auburn insists that, between two-tailback sets and the "move" tight end position, Jacobs will have his opportunity to produce. After running for 119 yards on 25 carries in Auburn's spring game, it'll be hard to keep him on the bench.
Devin Hester, WR, Miami, Freshman
As a high school senior, Devin Hester was the man -- a Parade All American, SuperPrep's No. 1 Florida prospect, pegged as the 'Canes' next burner on kick returns and at wideout -- but that was two seasons ago. Hester's sub-par SAT score was red-flagged by the NCAA; consequently, he couldn't qualify academically at Miami. In the fall of 2003, a painful year away from football and three SAT attempts later, Hester finally joined the team. His first proclamation: "My goal this year is, the first kickoff I get I want to be a touchdown. That's what I'm looking forward to, that first kickoff." Hester actually did return his second kick -- albeit his second practice kickoff -- for a TD in the first week of camp.
"He is an extremely, extremely fast young man, fast beyond belief," wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson said of Hester. "He plays so fast I have to slow him down. We'll be facing a zone, and he'll take off right through it. He's like a young deer."
Hester was already making a strong case for playing time in fall camp, but injuries to fellow wideouts Roscoe Parrish and Jason Geathers virtually guarantee he'll see extended action at WR and on returns in the 'Canes' opener vs. Louisiana Tech.
John David Booty, QB, USC, Freshman
There are those who leave high school early -- by a semester -- to join a college squad for spring practice. And then, there's Booty. He skipped his entire senior season at Evangel Christian Academy and was welcomed with open arms by Pete Carroll and Norm Chow at USC. Why? For one, the phenom had been turning college coaches' heads ever since he was merely a ballboy at the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback camp; second, his bloodline -- older brother Josh starred at QB for LSU and now plays for the Browns; third, the fact that young Booty had, in his sophomore and junior prep seasons, thrown for 8,286 yards and 87 touchdowns and won two state titles. The young righty with a lightning arm was plagued with a sore back during fall camp and had to watch as junior Matt Leinart won Carson Palmer's old job. Still, Carroll expects big things from Booty.
"He's a natural thrower," Carrroll told The New York Times. "He has natural instincts for throwing the ball, all different kinds of throws, and putting the ball right on the money. He's not ready yet. But there's tremendous promise there for us and for him somewhere down the road."
FIVE MORE TO WATCH
Nate Robinson, DT, Rutgers, Freshman
Big Nate, the nation's No. 1 defensive tackle prospect, was originally bound for Miami. It's a long story, if you're interested.
Darnell Bing, S, USC, Freshman
Bing is the concensus replacement for two-time All-American Troy Polamalu, the former centerpiece of the Trojan defense. Bing was so sought after as a recruit that Mike Garrett, USC's athletic director and the 1965 Heisman winner, was willing to bring his No. 20 out of retirement so the rookie could continue to wear his high school digits.
Michael Bush, QB, Louisville, Freshman
Perhaps the top all-around athlete in Kentucky, Bush was named Mr. Football after throwing for 2.981 yards and running for 911 more. Bush's bid to instantly replace Dave Ragone, however, took a hit when junior Stefan LeFors, the front-runner in the Cards' QB race, completed 9-of-11 passes for 155 yards and two TDs in an Aug. 16 scrimmage. Bush, meanwhile, was 8-of-17.
Donte Whitner, S, Ohio State, Freshman
Whitner has the credentials to play for the defending champ -- he was the No. 1-rated defensive back propect in the class of 2003 by TheInsiders.com. A solid spring put him second on the depth chart at free safety behind Will Allen, and Whitner could see time as the nickel back in passing situations.
Lamarr Woodley, DE, Michigan, Freshman
Woodley was one of the Midwest's top prep players and Michigan's No. 1 recruit, but he spent his high school days as a linebacker. After only a few days of fall practice in Ann Arbor, he asked for a switch to DE, and made an instant impact. "In high school, 95 percent of time, I was rushing, and like playing defensive end, it's the same thing," Woodley told the The Detroit News. "So that's what I love to do -- rushing."
Luke Winn covers college football for SI.com.