August 17, 2007

Olin's Mailbag: Dreams of youth

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He will be working all summer to get you ready for the start of fall practice.
Previous mailbags
August 11: The cost of losing
August 3: Immediate returns
July 27: August turns up the heat
July 20: The next star

High-profile recruits and high expectations go hand in hand.

But no matter how many stars are affixed to a prospect's name, the payoff is usually deferred for at least a year or two.

No doubt Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, Alabama offensive lineman Andre Smith, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller, Florida receiver Percy Harvin and Texas A&M running back Mike Goodson - among others - established themselves as freshmen.

But the Big Ten lists only 11 players who were true freshmen last year as offensive or defensive returning starters this season. The SEC only lists 10, although its list doesn't include Harvin - who played a huge role in Florida's national championship campaign. It also doesn't include former Arkansas quarterback Mitch Mustain, who started several games but has transferred to USC.

In many cases incoming freshmen sit out a redshirt year, just as Vince Young did at Texas. If true freshmen do play, it is usually in a backup role and on special teams - like Reggie Bush at USC.

Some freshmen, like Fred Rouse, don't work out at their original school. Others just disappear, like former Texas A&M five-star prospect Jorrie Adams.

Obviously it's never easy to project which true freshmen can immediately be a factor in their team's success.

But since you asked

Ahead of the game

What freshman will help his team the most this year?

Steve in Tyngsboro, Ma.

The inquiry did not specify whether redshirts should be considered. Typically, though, questions like this focus on true freshmen. That's the approach I'll take.

The two most high-profile true freshmen are Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen and Southern California running back Joe McKnight.

At some point this season - maybe in the opener - Clausen will likely emerge as the Irish's starting quarterback. Reports of a shoulder injury could certainly delay that, but he'll be taking over an offense that doesn't project to be overpowering.

Overall, Clausen's development figures to progress like Matthew Stafford's did at Georgia last year. Stafford struggled early, endured some growing pains, eventually took over as the starter and played very well at the end of the year.

McKnight has looked great at USC's camp. So great, in fact, that's probably a major factor in Emmanuel Moody's decision to transfer.

But McKnight is stepping into a situation that is already overflowing with running back talent, so you wonder just how many opportunities he'll have.

I'm inclined to go with Miami running back Graig Cooper, who was extremely impressive in the spring. He'll be used alongside starting running back Javarris James, and figures to give the Hurricanes another electrifying return man.

Cooper could have a big impact on special teams. The Miami defense should be so dominating that a good return specialist could routinely set up the Hurricanes with great field position.

Also look for Tennessee cornerback Eric Berry, North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin and Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn to make immediate impacts, too.

His own man

Les Miles' first two seasons at LSU have been successful by any measure. However, he just can't seem to get any attention as one of the elite coaches from most LSU fans or the national media. Why do you think that is?

Ron in Monticello

Miles' detractors feel he's just driving the car that Nick Saban filled with gasoline.

To fully understand that point of view would require a brief history lesson. Frankly, LSU was viewed as one of the more underachieving programs until Saban took over as head coach in 2000.

Oh sure, the Tigers would have a couple of strong seasons here and there. However, as the only high-profile program (sorry Louisiana Tech) in a state rich with high school talent, LSU never seemed to reach its potential.

Then, Saban arrived. He convinced Louisiana's top players to stay in state, and he won a national championship in 2003. Saban went 48-16 in his five seasons in Baton Rouge, and suddenly LSU was a national power.

When Saban left for the NFL's Miami Dolphins, Miles stepped in and the Tigers posted consecutive 11-victory seasons that included wins in bowl games.

However, Miles has yet to win an SEC title. He'll likely get the credit he's due when he wins a championship.

Too early to tell

Granted, I have a biased perspective, but I'm just about fed up with all the lofty preseason love being thrown at Wisconsin. I don't quite understand how one dream season vaults them into the top 10 ahead of Michigan, according to some. How can everyone forget that they lost their best player (Joe Thomas) and a steady, veteran quarterback (John Stocco)? Their star halfback (P.J. Hill) is overrated even in his coaches' eyes. Most have them ranked higher than a comparable Oklahoma team (strong defense, running game, big offensive line) even though any sane person would take OU in a heartbeat. How can you explain this nonsense?

Adam in Lehighton, Pa.

Wisconsin was eighth in the preseason rankings. Oklahoma was ninth, so obviously those teams are very comparable.

It's true the Badgers lost some excellent players, but what team didn't? Wisconsin returns nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters from units which were ranked second in the Big Ten (conference games).

Whether Hill is overrated is subject to debate, but he did rush for 1,569 yards - an admirable total at any level.

Although Wisconsin and Oklahoma are both replacing quarterbacks, at least Tyler Donovan started two games last year. The Sooners will go with a quarterback that hasn't played at the Division I level.

Also, remember that Wisconsin closed its season with a victory over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl. Oklahoma lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Other factors

With all these good recruiting classes that (Dave) Wannstedt has had at Pittsburgh, do you think this year they could possibly be a sleeper and break the top four or maybe three overall in the Big East?

Jason in Baltimore

Pittsburgh's last three recruiting classes were ranked by second, first and second among Big East teams. Whether those classes are ready to bear fruit remains to be seen.

The Panthers were set to bring back eight starters on offense, but Derek Kinder - their best receiver - was recently lost for the season with a knee injury. They will also have a new quarterback, so it's unclear what to expect offensively.

Seven starters return from last season's defense, which was reasonably effective until a November collapse in which the Panthers allowed at least 45 points in their last three games.

The number of returning starters would suggest the Panthers have a good chance of bettering last year's 6-6 record. But finishing in the upper division of the Big East standings is another matter.

The schedule calls for road games at Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia. Also, South Florida is coming off a nine-win season and could be even better this year.

Unknowns in Athens

Why do you think that the (Georgia) Dawgs are not getting any preseason love from writers? Why don't people realize the huge changes that coach Mark Richt has made in the last nine months and how the team's morale is higher than I can ever remember because of those changes?

Buck in Seattle

Maybe it's the changes in the offensive line. The Bulldogs figure to start a true freshman, redshirt freshman and junior college transfer up front. Upper-echelon teams usually have experienced offensive lines. That position alone is cause for concern.

Georgia also only has three returning starters on defense, which adds to the apprehension.

On the positive side, Brandon Coutu is a tremendous kicker and will provide the Bulldogs a significant advantage in close games. Also, quarterback Matt Stafford - who started consecutive victories over ranked teams to close out last season - could grow into an All-America caliber passer.

But Stafford will need more help from the running game, which was mediocre at best in 2006.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.

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