Tue Dec 21 03:59pm EST
Revisiting the best (and worst) of the season. Today: First-year freshmen and transfers who hit into the ground at full speed.
6a. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU.
Technically, Mathieu only started one game, against Louisiana-Monroe, but he was a fixture on one of the top defenses in the country from opening night, when he blindsided UNC quarterback T.J. Yates on a late corner blitz that (temporarily) sealed an LSU win. For the year, Mathieu was fifth on the team and tops in the secondary in tackles, tied for the team lead in passes broken up and was surprisingly active in opposing backfields, with 7.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.
6b. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue.
The Boilermaker D left a lot to be desired, especially over the course of a six-game Big Ten losing to close the year. But Allen started every game, finished third on the team in tackles and sealed his rising-star status with pick-sixes in back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Michigan State in November, earning him a second-team all-conference nod from Big Ten media.
5a. Michael Dyer, RB, Auburn.
Incoming hype notwithstanding, Dyer was largely overshadowed by the Tigers' supernova quarterback – and, to a far lesser extent, by the more explosive Onterio McCalebb – and didn't rack up some of the eye-popping numbers he might have in a less crowded backfield. Still, when you get a bear hug from Bo Jackson for breaking his freshman rushing record with three games to go in the regular season, you're off to a pretty good start.
5b. Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State.
Hillman rejoined the Aztecs in the spring after leaving the team at the start of the '09 season, and finished as the leading rusher both among Mountain West backs and all freshman backs nationally. Along the way, he did this en route to 228 yards and two touchdowns in a near-upset at Missouri:
That is all.
4. Robert Woods, WR/KR, USC.
Of all the star power the Trojans imported in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class – especially at wide receiver, where Woods was joined by fellow five-star specimens Kyle Prater and Markeith Ambles – Woods was the only member of the haul who clearly lived up to the hype, finishing his first season as the team's leading receiver and return man and as one of only 16 players in the entire country with 1,800 all-purpose yards.
Meanwhile, only one other member of the class (cornerback Nickell Robey) emerged as a regular starter, and the Trojans' other five-star signees either transferred (Seantrel Henderson), redshirted (Prater), dropped off the face of the earth (Ambles) or spent the year in and out of the lineup and/or Lane Kiffin's doghouse (Dillon Baxter). Woods came correct.
3. Roosevelt Nix, DL, Kent State.
No big schools were particularly interested in a 5-10, 237-pound defensive line recruit, but Nix was an instant hit in the MAC, racking up 20 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and the conference's Defensive Player of the Year award as a true freshman. Not coincidentally, the Golden Flashes suddenly led the league in rushing and total D after years of languishing in the middle of the pack, at best.
For the record, Nix is still only listed at 240, which may be pretty generous.
2. Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska.
Three years ago, David was an overlooked member of the stacked Northwestern (Fla.) class that won the mythical high school national championship in 2007 and subsequently migrated en masse to nearby Miami in 2008, where headliners Marcus Fortson, Jacory Harris and Sean Spence helped make the Hurricanes' '08 recruiting haul one of the most hyped crops in the nation.
David wasn't among the group bound for The U (he originally signed with Middle Tennessee State before taking a detour to Fort Scott Community College in Kansas), but he's well on his way to winning the reunion: In his first year out of the JUCO ranks, he led the Big 12 and finished fourth nationally in total tackles, racked up 11.5 tackles for loss, broke up eight passes, was tabbed by Big 12 coaches as a first-team all-conference pick and landed on a couple of All-America teams as the best player on a defense that finished in the top 10 nationally in yards and points allowed.
1. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina.
Lattimore didn't exactly catch anyone by surprise – along with Dyer, he was unanimously considered the No. 1 running back in the incoming class – but even the rivals who tried to recruit him couldn't have imagined the force (literally) he proved to be out of the gate. In his first SEC game, Lattimore ran 37 times for 182 yards, scored twice, and broke 29 tackles in a Gamecock win over Georgia. Against top-ranked Alabama, he came as close as any back in three years to cracking the century mark against the Tide with 93 yards on 23 carries, and also caught a touchdown pass in arguably the biggest win in South Carolina history. With the SEC East crown on the line at Florida, where Carolina had never won, he ran 40 times for 212 yards and three scores in a rout that sent the 'Cocks on to Atlanta for the first time.
Those were South Carolina's three biggest games at the kickoff, and Lattimore played a central, occasionally dominant role in all three, for a team that had consistently struggled to assert itself physically in the SEC. Not coincidentally, Carolina found itself playing for its first conference championship in 50 years. He doesn't have the jaw-dropping numbers at the top of the national leaderboards, and he was MIA in the loss to Arkansas (because of injury) and both losses to Auburn. But outside of Newton, almost no one else in any class had the same immediate impact on his team's fate.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.