Which rookie will have the most impact on Mountain West Conference football this coming fall?
If you go by recruiting classes the past two years, so-called experts tip their hats to Utah and BYU. Both programs are on solid foundations, and true freshmen or even transfers will need to battle to break into starting lineups in these two local programs.
The remainder of MWC schools, however, need some stop-gap measures to cover some big holes. And coaches at those schools, most notably San Diego State and UNLV, have had to make a decision whether to go for quick fixes with junior college talent or bite the bullet and plan for the long run. Both chose the long run.
Here's a look at promising rookies, and who might make the big splash:
At Utah, it's wide receiver Aiona Key, a 6-4 speedster who could be a difference maker in the league.
The Ute offense thrives on misdirection and split-second timing. A receiver with this speed and size could throw a wrench into many a defense. The Utes also believe defensive lineman Dave Kruger is worthy of freshman-of-the-year honors.
At BYU, two redshirt freshmen could find roles and contribute. They include OL Matt Reynolds, a year off a mission, and JJ Diluigi, a former California Bowl star from Canyon High.
But former Bingham High kicker Justin Sorensen could make a case for freshman of the year if he starts delivering 55-yard field goals, something the Cougars absolutely shunned last year, shying away from attempts outside the 40.
Juco defensive lineman Bernard Afutiti will be new to the BYU program in two-a-days, but Snow College nose guard Tevita Hola has a spring practice under his belt. Both could prove key alongside MWC sack leader Jan Jorgensen.
At CSU, the Rams went heavy for offensive linemen after simply struggling to get control of the trenches. Also, they like freshman corner Brandon Owens and expect he could make a big impact in the secondary. On the other side of the line, a trio of JC defensive linemen were collected to make the Rams meaner Sevaro Johnson, Scott Albritton and Sam Stewart.
At New Mexico, the Lobos will miss receivers Marcus Smith and Travis Brown, so they brought in JC star Bryant Williams and expect him to be a big-play guy.
Watch for two freshmen, offensive tackle Bryan Bell and defensive end Jaymar Latchison, to challenge for freshman-of-the-year honors.
TCU likes freshman defensive end Brayton Broughton to step up.
It is tough to see any really new guys making a lot of noise at San Diego State or UNLV. Both schools invested in the future last year and recruited to build a base in 2007 and 2008. They don't want to push youth on the field too early.
MWC X-FACTORS: First, the level of recovery and enhanced accuracy and power of Ute QB Brian Johnson's shoulder, and second, the emergence of either Shea Smith or Eric Herbort at Air Force in replacing departed QB Shaun Carney. A third factor is TCU's offense or lack thereof.
UNDERESTIMATED: BYU's defensive line. After three seasons of starting freshmen, this may be the deepest and most talented unit Bronco Mendenhall has fielded. Gone is true freshman Ethyn Manumaleuna to an LDS Church mission, but Jorgensen now a junior returns as the league's sack leader. Former starter Russell Tialavea is back at nose guard after ACL surgery and joins experienced Ian Dulan, Rick Wolfley, Brett Denney and Mosese Foketi. JC guys Hola and Afutiti provide choices and competition that's been missing this decade in Provo.LIFE VEST: Could be needed at Wyoming, where Karsten Sween's inconsistency will be challenged by senior Ian Hetrick and sophomore transfer Dax Crum. If the Cowboys find an offense and can win road games, there could be a lot of sober joy in Laramie.
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