March 04, 2010
New faces filling familiar templates as spring practice kicks off.
The Heir Apparent: You might remember him from such recruiting hype as "Parade All-American"; maybe he logged a meaningful series or two behind last year's star. Now he's living up to the hype, right? In fact, he's looking even better than the guy he's replacing! (Well, of course not right now; they're holding him back in practice, obviously.) But come on, man: Look at the size/arm/six-pack/trophy ram on this guy. He's obviously a star:
• Randall Carroll, WR, and Morrell Presley, TE, UCLA. The sketchy, injury-plagued quarterback situation ensured a depressed passing game under pretty much any circumstances, but with sophomore QB Kevin Prince and most of his offensive line moving into their second year as starters, Carroll and Presley -- both USC commits before spurning the Trojans for Rick Neuheisel last year -- have to begin to live up to their recruiting hype if the Bruin offense has any hope of turning a corner. Terrence Austin's graduation leaves an opening for Carroll not only at receiver, but also in the return game, where the similarly small-yet-speedy ex-blue chip can make a major impact (if he can refrain from twittering himself back into the doghouse.)
• Andre Debose, WR, Florida. Debose signed on last year to step in immediately as "the next Percy Harvin" -- he had the same build as the freshly departed first-round draft pick, the same style, the same five-star hype. He also had the same wonky hamstring as a true freshman, which introduced Debose to Dr. Redshirt a few days before the season opener.
As it turned out, the most glaring difference between the Gators' 13-1 national championship team in 2008 and the 13-1 SEC runner-up in 2009 was probably Harvin's absence from the lineup, depriving the offense of its go-to receiver, best running back and most consistent and versatile playmaker. Yards and points plummeted in SEC games, and there was no answer for Alabama when the ball started rolling downhill in the SEC Championship game. After six months on ice, Debose remains one of the most Harvin-like substances in the country, and if healthy could offer new quarterback John Brantley the reliable big-play option Tim Tebow so often lacked as a senior.
• Nico Johnson, LB, and Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama. Special teams mainstays were two of the five-star gems in the Tide's top-ranked freshman class last February, and might have made a more immediate impact on a defense that wasn't already loaded with eight senior starters and a pair of experienced juniors (linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson) bound for early entry into the draft. 'Bama remains an overwhelming preseason favorite despite the massive overhaul on defense and the Herculean task of the championship repeat -- even in the SEC, which hasn't back-to-back champs since 1997-98, much less in the BCS -- and every single one of those projections hinges on Johnson and Kirkpatrick immediately filling the All-American voids left by their predecessors.
• JaMarkus McFarland, DT, Oklahoma. McFarland was immortalized in 2008 by a Christmas Day article in the New York Times chronicling (among other excesses) his wide-eyed encounters with girls "romancing each other" on the recruiting trail. But the Sooners had no need to rush him into a rotation anchored by returning starters Gerald McCoy and Adrian Taylor, and McFarland's contributions were limited to a handful of tackles in blowouts. At 6'2"/295, he looks like McCoy in pads and is already penciled in to take over the soon-to-be top draft pick's position at nose guard, with similar expectations.
• Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska. The hometown product and second-generation Husker (Baker's dad, Dean, won the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award in 1983) was the first ever five-star prospect out of the state of Nebraska in 2008, back when he was projected as the next great Cornhusker offensive lineman. Instead, he chose to follow his brother Ty on defense, redshirted, and served as an understudy last year to the astonishingly productive, All-Big 12 tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick. Because of his production, Crick will probably get most of the attention as Suh's All-America successor, but Steinkuhler will be the one filling the great 'Kong's position on the line, and hoping for the same kind of breakout debut next to Crick that Crick had next to Suh.
• Justin Turner, DB, Michigan. Five-star classmate William Campbell's emergence on the defensive line will be another key for the Wolverines' second comeback tour, but the secondary remains such an ongoing disaster that some portion of Michigan fans rank Turner among the most important players in the program when it comes to saving Rich Rodriguez's job this fall, and that goes whether he winds up at cornerback or safety. Last year's redshirt is a concern -- how good can anyone who couldn't break that lineup really be? -- but Donovan Warren's early exit for the NFL means Turner is easily the most hyped athlete in the Wolverines' back four, and maybe its only hope of avoiding another season in flames. (No pressure or anything, kid.)