- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- There is a clock installed in the Rutgers football locker room, which has been ticking down for weeks to the team's season opener.
That clock is about to expire. The Scarlet Knights will take the field Thursday versus Norfolk State at Rutgers Stadium, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
For the veteran players, this will mark the beginning of another season. But for the freshmen, it will mark the commencement of their college football careers. And Rutgers' 2010 season could be greatly impacted by the play of a couple exciting newcomers: wide receiver Jeremy Deering and running back Jordan Thomas.
Deering and Thomas are two of only four non-redshirt freshmen to make Rutgers' two-deep depth chart to open the season. (The others are backup QB Chas Dodd and backup guard Betim Bujari.)
Deering -- a 6-foot-2, 203-pound native of Tampa, Fla., who was also recruited by the likes of Florida and Ohio State -- was ranked the No. 17 athlete in the nation by ESPN's Scouts Inc. coming out of high school. When sophomore starting wideout Tim Wright went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason and fellow sophomore Mark Harrison missed several practices with a head injury, Deering saw plenty of playing time with the first unit and was impressive.
"He is a very explosive athlete and he has a great way about him," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "He kind of just goes out and plays. He doesn't let circumstances dictate his behavior too much. Not to say that he didn't have the freshman big eyes when we started those scrimmages. He did, but he quickly came out of it."
Thomas -- who hails from Endicott, N.Y., near Binghamton -- actually began the preseason as a wide receiver but was moved to running back midway through camp and excelled. The 6-1, 205-pounder has breakaway speed; he was also a star track athlete in high school, setting a sectional record in the 200-meter dash at 21.5 seconds.
Schiano admitted Thomas was a pleasant surprise in the preseason.
"I am not surprised in his ability. He was the fastest kid in the state of New York. This kid can fly," Schiano said. "We just didn't know where he would play, whether it is wideout, running back, defensive back. ... I think he is at the position he should be. I think he is capable of being a really good running back."
Neither Deering nor Thomas will be starters, at least out of the gate. In the receiving corps, Harrison returned to practice this week and is expected to start opposite star sophomore wideout Mohamed Sanu on Thursday. Junior Joe Martinek, who rushed for 967 yards and nine touchdowns last season, will start at tailback.
But both freshmen should see significant playing time, especially in what should be a lopsided opener against a Division I-AA opponent (Rutgers beat Norfolk State 59-0 in 2007). Deering will be on the field whenever the Scarlet Knights go to three- and four-wideout sets, which should be often. And Thomas will be Rutgers' change-of-pace back, spelling Martinek.
Schiano is looking forward to getting the freshmen's feet wet and seeing what they can do. If they thrive -- as Sanu and starting quarterback Tom Savage did a year ago as true freshmen -- Rutgers could have as lethal an offense as any other team in the Big East.
"Generally, young people make errors that sometimes leave you scratching your head, saying, 'Why did you do that?'" Schiano said. "Every once in a while you get a guy like Ray Rice who doesn't do that. He just comes in and plays like a seasoned veteran. Do you have a couple of them in this class? I don't know."
The clock is ticking. We'll find out soon enough.
Freshmen Deering, Thomas could play key roles when Rutgers kicks off season.