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Every college football season brings the next wave of All-Americans into the spotlight.
With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The Big Ten's most powerful program may have lost seven games last year, but Ohio State fans know exactly what a uber-freshman can do for a program. Braxton Miller claimed Freshman of the Year honors and is poised to run Urban Meyer's system to perfection this time around. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the Big Ten (listed alphabetically):
The Big Ten's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012
Austin Blythe, OL, Iowa
The Williamsburg, Iowa, product will be the baby of the All-Iowa starting offensive line in Iowa City. All five starters hail from the Hawkeye State and this redshirt freshman will lock down the right guard position. This is a unit under heavy scrutiny, however, as it finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last fall and 78th in the nation in sacks allowed.
Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan
Few players have entered college with greater expectations than the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cincinnati prospect. The true freshman enrolled early and made a big name for himself in spring ball with incredible instincts, physicality and explosiveness. He could force Kenny Demens to outside linebacker at best and will be the top reserve at worst. Bolden will be an All-Big Ten player very soon.
Darian Cooper, DL, Iowa
The 6-foot-2, 280-pound redshirt from famed DeMatha High School in Maryland is expected to start at defensive tackle this fall. This unit has been a huge area of strength under long-time coordinator Norm Parker, but with new play-caller Phil Parker in control, Iowa must answer questions along the defensive front. Cooper's work ethic and toughness will be a welcome addition.
Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan
The big wide receiver from West Des Moines, Iowa, will have a chance to play his way into the No. 3 wide receiver slot. He has been turning heads and making key catches in practice thus far and has put himself in the running for playing time. Denard Robinson and Roy Roundtree have been very complimentary of the 6-foot-2, 210-pound target.
Taylor Decker, OL, Ohio State
The elite prospect from Vandalio, Ohio, is in a heated battle to start at right tackle for the Buckeyes. He enrolled early and excelled in spring, entering fall camp as the No. 3 offensive tackle. Should the 6-foot-7, 310-pound true freshman continue to develop quickly, he could easily find himself starting against Miami (Ohio) in Week 1.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
The Kenosha, Wisc., freshman showed early on last fall that he has plenty of potential. He carried 20 times for 98 yards and a score before injuring his groin early in the year. He redshirted as a result and will enter this season as the No. 3 back. In a Wisconsin offense that wears out its backs, Gordon could be a huge reserve this fall — and is likely the second-most talented No. 3 RB in the nation (how is LSU's Kenny Hilliard not No. 1?).
Eugene Lewis, WR, Penn State
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Wilkes-Barre, Pa., native was going to fight for playing time even with Justin Brown on the roster. Now that Brown is in Norman, Lewis will be given plenty of chances to fill the void. His immediate impact should come on special teams, but reports from camp thus far indicate he may be further along than initially expected. And it couldn't come at a better time.
Akeel Lynch, RB, Penn State
Much like Lewis, Lynch may be thrust into the offensive huddle quicker than anticipated. Silas Redd bolted for USC, leaving Curtis Dukes and Bill Belton, both of whom lack elite-level upside, to vie for carries. Lynch might have more upside than either of the veterans, and if he can grasp the offense and pass protections quickly, could end up starting in Happy Valley.
Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB/DE, Northwestern
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound hybrid dynamo might be the most heralded prospect in the history of Northwestern football. He was a top-50 recruit nationally from Centreville, Ohio, and it shouldn't take long for him to bolster a weak Wildcat front seven. He will play some linebacker, but Pat Fitzgerald has stated that defensive end is his more natural position. Either way, his raw talent is a rarity in Evanston.
Ondre Pipkins, DT, Michigan (pictured)
The massive defensive tackle from Kansas City is expected to help plug the hole left by Mike Martin up the middle. A recent neck injury in practice put a scare into Maize and Blue nation and sent Pipkins to the hospital. All signs point to Pipkins being ready for the opener against Alabama, but how well an injured freshman's neck will be able to hold up against Barrett Jones, Chane Warmack and DJ Fluker remains to be seen.
Donovan Smith, OL, Penn State
The big fella from Owings Mill, Md., got all kinds of praise as a redshirt last fall. Now, it is time for him to step into the spotlight on the real football field. His 6-foot-5, 310-pound frame could make him a starting tackle right out of the gate against Ohio. If he continues his solid play, he will be more than simply a contributor.
Noah Spence, DL, Ohio State
Spence was the No. 1 defensive line prospect in the nation for a reason. He is an absolute monster. His size, strength, explosiveness and speed may force Urban Meyer to shoehorn him onto the field as a true freshman. This team is loaded with defensive line talent and there doesn't seem like a clear spot for Spence. But his raw physical skills might be too much for Meyer to ignore. Aldophus Washington might not be too far behind either.
Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
The leading receiver for the Buckeyes last year caught only 14 passes. So the need for a play-maker at the position is painfully obvious. Enter Michael Thomas. He may not be the most talented wideout in OSU history but he might be the best option on the roster as only a redshirt freshman. He built a great rapport with Braxton Miller in the spring and will be asked to play a big role in 2012.
Nick VanHoose, CB, Northwestern
The scout team super star from last fall nearly got his redshirt pulled halfway through the season. Yet, Pat Fitzgerald resisted and the result will be a polished all-league-type of player stepping into a starting role in his first year on the field. He has speed and quickness to burn — as his role as Denard Robinson on the scout team will attest to — and should be able to lock down one half of the field.
Dan Voltz, OL, Wisconsin
Voltz was the highest-rated recruit in the class for UW and the coaching staff learned very quickly that his lofty status was justified. He is pushing for playing time already and could force Travis Frederick or Ryan Groy to a different position in order to get the best five blockers on the field. For a true freshman offensive lineman to be able to crack the starting line-up at Wisconsin is no small feat and would be one of the top storylines in the Big Ten heading into the season.
Freshman Position Battles To Watch:
Andre Sims Jr., Aaron Burbirdge and Juwan Caesar, WR, Michigan State
Not counting inexperience at QB, this is the biggest area of concern for stacked MSU roster.
Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Spartan fans should be very excited about its future pass rush with these three dynamos.
AJ Jordan and Jordan Fredrick, WR, Wisconsin
No Nick Toon means there should be plenty of chances opposite Jared Abbrederis.
David Santos, Max Pirman, Michael Rose, LB, Nebraska
Might only be reserves in 2012, but these three are the future at the historically strong Cornhusker LB position.
Bri’Onte Dunn and Warren Ball, RB, Ohio State
Dunn has impressed in camp and appears to be clear of summer incident. Ball is fighting for time as well.
Jordan Lucas and Da’Quan Davis, DB, Penn State
Completely reworked secondary will open up chances for youngsters to contribute.
Other Names To Watch:
Deion Barnes, DL, Penn State
Adam Depietro, OL, Northwestern
Kyle Dodson, OL, Ohio State
Greg Garmon, RB, Iowa
Deonte Gibson, DE, Northwestern
Zeph Grimes, et al, LB, Illinois
Keith Heitzman, DL, Michigan
Darius Hillary, DB, Wisconsin
Jesse James, TE, Penn State
Kyle Kalis, OL, Michigan
Ted Karras, OL, Illinois
Dean Lowry, DL, Northwestern
KJ Maye, AP, Minnesota
Jephte Matilus, LB, Minnesota
Andre McDonald, WR, Minnesota
Drew Smith, LB, Northwestern
Ryan Watson, DE, Purdue
AJ Williams, TE, Michigan
Anthony Zettel, DL, Penn State
- by Braden Gall
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