Spring football is about to kick off for many more programs this week. That means we'll start to learn a lot more about which newcomers are ready to make an impact this fall. Here are the 10 most intriguing early enrollees to keep an eye on. (Note: I'm not included guys who were high school seniors in 2010 on this Top 10 list.)
1-Zach Kline, Cal, QB: It's been a loooooooong time since Jeff Tedford's team has had a really good QB. That last guy Aaron Rodgers left Cal after the 2004 season and it's been a bunch of misfires since. A lot of those quarterbacks who have had a shot at taking over, came to Berkeley with sizable credentials, but none of the other QBs Tedford has had since arrived more polished than the 6-2, 205-pound Kline. The Danville, CA native who has worked with former Cal coach Roger Theder for years, has good footwork, a quick release and is very accurate. Kline also seems to respond very well to competition. Zach Maynard, who had an up-and-down 2011, is the guy he'd have to overtake. Maynard, Tedford pointed out, did play better late in the season, but Kline is worth watching closely.
The Bears coach, whose teams have not finished in the AP Top 25 five years running now, has tried to temper some of the hype around Kline, by saying Maynard is still the program's starting QB. "I absolutely have concern about that," Tedford told reporters Monday about the lofty expectations on his young quarterback. "There's such a thing of putting too much on a kid early. I want him to come in here and be able concentrate on what he's doing and learn the offense and do his best without all the expectations."
2-Keith Marshall, Georgia, RB: Heading into the 2011 season, with the Bulldogs depth chart at running back depleted, the expectations on former blue-chip recruit Isaiah Crowell sky-rocketed. Crowell had some outstanding moments, but also was plagued by some issues of immaturity. If Crowell doesn't stay focused, he'll have a hard time keeping Marshall, a guy many recruiting analysts tabbed as the nation's top RB prospect in the 2012 class, off the field. Marshall is an explosive back with soft hands and great character (he had a 4.3 GPA in high school.) You just don't hear about many players these days whose GPA and 40-yard dash times are nearly identical.
3-Travis Blanks, Clemson DB: The last time we saw the Tigers defense it was getting shredded by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Going into the 2011 season, Clemson needed to replace three standout DBs who had moved on, especially All-American DeAndre McDaniel. The program really struggled in that capacity, finishing the season No. 81 in scoring defense and No. 74 in pass efficiency defense but help has arrived in new DC Brent Venables and this 6-1, 195-pound DB, who CBS Sports ranked as the country's No. 25 overall recruit and No. 2 defensive back.
4-D.J. Humphries, Florida, OT: One of two highly touted line recruits (Jessemen Dunker is the other) who has a legit shot to win a starting job this year on a Gator O-line that that was really, really shaky in 2011 and also has a new position coach. Humphries was a gem Will Muschamp's staff landed in North Carolina. He has long 6-foot-6 frame and nimble feet, making him a prototype left tackle as he continues to fill out. Humphries told Gatorzone's Scott Carter after Signing Day that he had already packed on 12 pounds since arriving in Gainesville.
5-Mario Pender, FSU, RB: Last year at about this time another early enrollee RB at FSU, Devonta Freeman was turning some heads. Freeman had a good season in 2011, but watch out for Pender. The guy is a blur, who is both quick and fast. In fact, sources at FSU say he's the fastest back the Noles have. In high school, he averaged 12 yards per carry.
6-Tee Shepherd, Notre Dame, CB: Even though QB Gunner Kiel is the ND newcomer who has grabbed most of the headlines, my hunch is the 6-1, 186-pound Shepherd will make more of an impact for the Irish in 2012. He is a terrific athlete on a secondary that not only has to replace both corners but was sorely lacking in the play-making department. Shepard made 10 career INTs in high school despite sitting out his senior year due to transfer rules.
7-Amari Cooper, Bama, WR: Coming off a national title season, the Tide has a bunch of starters to replace and there are a handful of eye-catching newcomers already on campus. T.J. Yeldon, a tailback and Chris Black, a wideout are two guys who came to Tuscaloosa with a lot of buzz, but it's Cooper and OLB Ryan Anderson who probably have the best shot to make an instant impact. Cooper has great ball skills and figures to be an immediate upgrade for a receiving corps that needs a spark.
8-Arik Armstead, Oregon, DL: Many projected the Californian as a top offensive tackle prospect, but he signed on with the Ducks, where he's seen Nick Alliotti's D have a lot of success with its' towering D-linemen. The 6-7, 282-pound Armstead, also a terrific basketball player, has a chance to boost a defensive end rotation that needs to replace Terrell Turner.
9-Raphael Kirby, Miami LB: One of eight early enrollees in Coral Gables, Kirby arrived with a very impressive pedigree. A product of Ga. prep powerhouse Stephenson High that cranks out D1 players, the 208-pound Kirby is undersized especially as Al Golden tries to turn the Canes into a more physical team. But the Canes are short on proven linebackers and Kirby is fast, smart and instinctive--traits that figure to remind folks around Miami of former standout Sean Spence, who just moved on to the NFL. Another newcomer generating some buzz inside the program is agile OT Ereck Flowers.
10 (tie)-Bri'onte Dunn, Ohio State, RB: Tim Tebow provided Urban Meyer's offense at Florida a physical inside rushing presence, and the new OSU coach will be looking for a back to deliver that for the Buckeyes to take some of the pressure off young QB Braxton Miller. The 220-pound Dunn is a load. He also made many OSU fans take a big deep breath when he eventually picked the Buckeyes over Michigan.
10-(tie) Matt Davis, Texas A&M, QB: New OC Kliff Kingsbury has four options to be the Aggies new quarterback in the new A&M offense. The 6-1, 205-pound Davis is a gifted dual-threat QB, like two of the other three guys he'll be competing with when spring ball gets going at the end of the month.