Illinois' Benn, ND's Clausen impact newcomers for 2007

Updated: June 22, 2007, 12:29 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Arrelious Benn should make an immediate impact at Illinois, but will Jimmy Clausen live up to the hype at Notre Dame? Will Noel Devine and Joe McKnight deliver at West Virginia and USC, respectively? Check out the freshmen you should be watching this fall.

1. Arrelious Benn, WR, Illinois
Benn, who enrolled at Illinois in January, should have a tremendous impact this fall because, frankly, he's better than the rest of the Illini's returning skill players. He was a major recruiting coup for Coach Ron Zook, after choosing Illinois over Florida State, Maryland, Miami and Notre Dame. Look for the 6-foot-1, 210-pound native of Washington, D.C., to become quarterback Juice Williams' favorite target.

2. Eric Berry, CB, Tennessee
Berry, one of the country's most highly regarded defensive back prospects, will have an opportunity to start in the Volunteers' revamped secondary. Free safety Jonathan Hefney is the only returning starter. If Berry can hold off a pair of junior-college transfers, he might be starting at cornerback by the Sept. 1 opener at California.

3. Jimmy Clausen, QB, Notre Dame
The California high school legend is in a three-man battle to replace departed Fighting Irish starter Brady Quinn. Clausen had surgery recently to repair damage in the elbow of his right (throwing) arm, which might prevent him from beating out Evan Sharpley or Demetrius Jones for the starting job before the Sept. 1 opener against Georgia Tech. Barring complications with the elbow, expect Clausen to be starting by midseason, though.

4. Graig Cooper, RB, Miami
Cooper might be the key to the Hurricanes turning around their fortunes during Coach Randy Shannon's first season. After enrolling in January, Cooper outplayed returning tailback Javarris James during spring practice. So much so that Edgerrin James, the incumbent's cousin, told Shannon that Cooper was a better runner during spring drills. The Memphis native attended prep school in New York last year, so he's more physically ready to go.

5. Torrey Davis, DT, Florida
The 300-pounder from Seffner, Fla., will be given every opportunity to produce on the defending national champions' rebuilt defensive line. Coach Urban Meyer expects as many as six freshmen to play on the defensive line this season, and Davis is the best of the bunch.

6. Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia
Mountaineers fans might have burned couches in celebration the day Devine revealed he had qualified academically to play this coming season. While the 5-foot-8 speedster from Fort Myers, Fla., isn't going to unseat Heisman Trophy candidate Steve Slaton in the backfield, he gives coach Rich Rodriguez yet another fast option in the spread offense.

7. Ronald Johnson, WR, Southern Cal
Johnson is so athletically gifted that Trojans coach Pete Carroll can't seem to decide whether to play him on offense or defense. The 6-foot, 177-pound native of Muskegon, Mich., runs the 40-yard dash in about 4.4 seconds and was coveted by Michigan, Ohio State and Florida, among other schools. The Trojans have a glaring hole at receiver with Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett departing, and Johnson might end up being better than each of them.

8. Willy Korn, QB, Clemson
After watching Will Proctor struggle throughout the 2006 season, Clemson fans couldn't wait for Korn to arrive this winter. Korn couldn't beat out Cullen Harper for the starting job during the spring, but he'll undoubtedly play this coming fall. Clemson coach Tommy Bowden won't be able to keep Korn on the bench -- and might not keep his own job if Korn doesn't perform well.

9. Joe McKnight, TB, Southern Cal
The New Orleans native was drawing comparisons to the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush -- and receiving phone calls from the current New Orleans Saints star -- before he ever stepped on the USC campus. McKnight joins a very crowded Trojans backfield this fall, with seven first- or second-year players battling for the starting job. But figure McKnight to make some kind of impact this season. Asking McKnight to beat out the likes of Chauncey Washington, Emmanuel Moody, C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford might be too much to ask, though.

10. Keith Nichol, QB, Oklahoma
Can the two-time Michigan high school player of the year make enough progress this spring to make a serious challenge at the starting job? Nichol had a trimmed-down playbook during the spring after enrolling early. But he still stayed in the hunt with redshirt freshman Sam Bradford and junior Joey Halzle as the Sooners search for Paul Thompson's replacement.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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