By DUGAN ARNETT
By now, the projected stars of the 2010 college football season are pretty well established – Alabama’s Mark Ingram, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and Louisiana State’s Patrick Peterson certainly won’t be sneaking up on anyone.
But rarely does a college football season go by without a handful of newcomers emerging as impact players. Last year in the Southeastern Conference, it was Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman and South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and following another stellar year of recruiting by SEC coaches, this season figures to present a number of pleasant surprises, as well.
The following is a look at the five conference newcomers who could have the biggest impact for their respective teams come fall.
5. MICHAEL FORD, RUNNING BACK, LOUISIANA STATE: Following a redshirt season in ’09, Ford appears poised for a fruitful career in Baton Rouge. He rushed for 2,953 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at Leesville (La.) High in ‘08, including a 443-yard, six-touchdown performance in the final regular-season game of his career. And his 19-carry, 139-yard performance in the LSU spring game provided a glimpse of his potential. He’ll likely begin the season sharing carries with junior Stevan Ridley and senior Richard Murphy, but could find himself as the team’s feature back by the end of what should be a pivotal year for Les Miles’ program.
4. MATT ELAM, SAFETY, FLORIDA: The Gators stocked up on defensive line recruits in the Class of 2010, signing highly-touted prospects Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, but the biggest early impact could come from Elam, a safety who looks to have earned himself the starting nickel-back role. The 5-foot-10, 204-pound true freshman enrolled at Florida last January to get a jump-start, and coaches have been impressed with his abilities. He’ll have the good fortune of working with UF safeties coach Chuck Heater, one of the nation’s best, as well as learning from All-American candidate teammates Ahmad Black and Will Hill.
3. MARCUS LATTIMORE, RUNNING BACK, SOUTH CAROLINA: The prized recruit of the Gamecocks’ 2010 recruiting class, Lattimore arrives in Columbia with a good deal of hype and the ability, it would seem, to make an impact immediately. South Carolina has ranked last in the SEC in rush offense for the past three seasons (they were 91st nationally in ’09), and head coach Steve Spurrier, certainly, would like to change that. Enter Lattimore, arguably the nation’s top running back recruit. He’ll have to battle sophomore back Kenny Miles (117 carries, 626 yards last season) for supremacy in the backfield, but the former South Carolina Mr. Football has the size (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) and skill set to help put an end to the Gamecocks’ extensive run game struggles.
2. AARON MURRAY, QUARTERBACK, GEORGIA: A red-shirt freshman from Tampa Plant, Murray beat out junior Logan Gray, who will now seek playing time at wide receiver but remain Murray’s backup. In 2008, Murray beat out current Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert for MVP honors at the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback camp, the same award previously won by former UGA signal-caller Matt Stafford, and he arrived in Athens as the third-rated quarterback in the Class of 2009 (behind Gilbert and Southern California’s Matt Barkley). Murray will be playing behind an experienced offensive line – the Bulldogs return all five starters from last year’s unit – and have the luxury of throwing to arguably the nation’s top receiver in A.J. Green – and Gray.
1. CAMERON NEWTON, QUARTERBACK, AUBURN: Newton, of course, is no stranger to Florida fans and the Gators. Signed by Florida out of high school, Newton served as Tim Tebow’s backup in 2007, completing 5 of 10 passes for 40 yards and rushing 16 times for 103 yards and 3 touchdowns. In 2008, he was redshirted after the first game against Hawaii but was dismissed from the team for off-the-field trouble in 2008 and spent last season at Blinn College in Texas, where he led the program to a NJCAA national championship. The 6-foot-6, 247-pound Newton threw for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for 16 scores last season, and returned to the SEC this season for a chance to become Auburn’s starting quarterback. Blessed with a rare combination of size and speed, Newton, a junior, could be the surprise of the SEC this fall.
OTHERS TO WATCH
DeMarcus Milliner, defensive back, Alabama: While Alabama has a number of talented options to help fill the loss of nine defensive starters from last year’s team, the lack of experience in the Tide’s secondary gives Milliner an opportunity to see immediate playing time.
Vick Ballard, running back, Mississippi State: A junior college transfer, Ballard earned all-American honors after rushing for 1,728 yards and 22 touchdowns last fall and enters his junior season as a candidate for the team’s starting job at running back.
Ronald Powell, defensive end, Florida: True freshman Powell arrives in Gainesville as arguably the most high-profile recruit in a 2010 recruiting class filled with them, and the MVP of the U.S. Army All-American game could get the opportunity to play right away. From a physical standpoint, it’s always difficult for a true freshman to immediately have an impact in the trenches, though it’s hard to argue with Powell’s talents.
Sharrif Floyd, defensive tackle, Florida: Like Powell, Floyd possesses impressive ability and could battle for playing time from the get-go. One of four five-star recruits in the Gators’ ’10 signing class, he’ll join Powell and Easley to help make up what should be a standout defensive line for years to come.
Da’Rick Rogers, wide receiver, Tennessee: His recent arrest for his role in a messy bar brawl notwithstanding, Rogers enters the season as one of the SEC’s most game-ready true freshmen.