Will Rashard Mendenhall jump to the NFL? If so, how does the Illini look next year? Who's the recruiting surprise this season? Can another sophomore win the Heisman in '08? How big of an impact is it for Auburn with the hiring of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin? I will answer these questions and more in this week's BLITZ!

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Where do you see the Illini ranked to start next year even if Rashard Mendenhall leaves? Also, how do you see the Zookers finishing off this class?
Champaign, Illinois

What a year the Fighting Illini had in year three with Ron Zook. They were obviously the huge surprise this season in the Big 10. How many out there in the college football world thought Illinois would finish second in the Big 10, beat Ohio State in Columbus and be playing in the Rose Bowl? No one.

I am not even sure the Illini coaching staff thought they would do what they did this past season and go 9-3. Usually, when you are rebuilding a program, it's year four when things take off. With Illinois it was year three.

Still, that natural progression of a young team should be there and the future is bright in Champaign whether Rashard Mendenhall returns or not. They are certainly a top 25 team without him and probably a top 10 with him. Mendenhall turned in his papers to the NFL and is waiting to see where he could go in April's draft. I would say at this point everything hinges on that and right now it's 50-50. But he did have a dominant year, rushing for 1,526 yards (6.2 yards per carry) and 16 touchdowns.

But there is more to Illinois than Mendenhall. Quarterback Juice Williams made drastic improvement as a sophomore, completing 57% of his passes for 1,498 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 774 yards and seven scores. Arrelious Benn was one of the top freshmen receivers in the country and he lived up to all the hype, catching 49 passes for 596 yards. Another star in the making is receiver Jeff Cumberland. If Mendenhall returns to Illinois they will have eight starters back on offense. Defensively, they will lose a super linebacker in J Lemen and both starting safeties. Cornerback Vontae Davis will be one of the top cornerbacks in the nation next season. They also have a lot of good, young talent on this side of the ball.

If Mendenhall does not return, Illinois will have to find a running back or go by the way of running back by committee. There is no incumbent. His older brother, Walter, is still there as is Daniel Dufrene. There will also be the incoming freshman running backs and they will have a chance to work their way into the rotation. Despite Williams at quarterback and Benn and the others returning at receiver, having a strong run game will be crucial for success.

Speaking of incoming freshmen, Illinois is reeling in another good recruiting class. At the time of this article they sit at No. 15 overall in the country and they are not yet done. They would love to close with players like running back Jamie Harper (Jacksonville, Fla.), wide receivers Kenny Tate (Hyattsville, Md.), A.J. Jenkins (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Cordale Scott (Cleveland, Ohio). They are also trying to turn Dan Hoch (Harlan, Iowa) and Will Compton (Bonne Terre, Mo.) away from Nebraska.

I am not sure what Mendenhall will do but I do know that Illinois is a team on the rise. We saw that this season and this is a program to watch out for in the future.

Dan Hawkins
It seems to me that Colorado is having a recruiting class unlike any other here in recent years. It is rumored that Darrell Scott almost seems set to join Josh Smith here in Boulder. If so where would that rank their recruiting class for this year in comparison to the other powerhouses such as Notre Dame and USC? Secondly, if the Buffaloes do land Darrell Scott, would Colorado fans be righteous in assuming that national title contentions are in the fold, especially considering the wonderful freshman class already here with the likes of a Smith, Kai Maiava, and Ryan Miller?
Boulder, Colorado

You know Michael every year there are teams that surprise you in recruiting. This season it's Colorado. Hands down. Though they currently sit fifth if you were to rank the Big 12 in terms of recruiting they are an impressive 19th overall and climbing. Under second year Head Coach Dan Hawkins the Buffaloes finished the regular season at 6-6 and much improved over last year. They also beat the Big 12 champs, Oklahoma and a good team in Texas Tech.

There is no question about it, Colorado is a program on the rise and it has everything to do with Hawkins, his staff, the schemes in place and recruiting. If you break down this class the Buffaloes are led by some very high profiled players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball in Jon Major (Parker, Co.) and Lynn Katoa (Salt Lake City, Utah). They are some of the most physical and active linebackers in the nation and members of the National Top 100. Another member of the top 100 is offensive tackle Bryce Givens (Denver, Co.).

Colorado has also benefited from the melt down in Lincoln. Despite the Cornhuskers falling apart this season Nebraska was putting together a nice recruiting class. But over the past two months their class has imploded. Givens was previously committed to the Big Red, as was defensive end Josh Williams (Denton, Texas). Williams is now committed to Colorado. On the other side of the ball running back Ray Polk (Phoenix, Az.) and offensive lineman Max Tuioti-Mariner (Corona, Calif.) highlight the offensive recruits thus far. Polk is one of the top running backs from the west of the Mississippi while Tuioti-Mariner is one of the most coveted guards in the nation.

Now all Colorado fans are awaiting word on the nation's top running back, Darrell Scott (Ventura, Calif.). He is the nephew of current freshman receiver Josh Smith. The two are very close. Smith told me last January that there would be a good chance Scott could follow him (Colorado or UCLA at the time). That's why for most of the season I stated the Buffaloes where the dark horse with Scott. They are a dark horse no more and possibly the front runner. Scott was blown away on his official visit to Boulder and walked away claiming Colorado as his leader. He has since backed off that statement and now says there are four teams; Colorado, Texas, Florida and LSU.

Scott has already visited Texas and had a great trip to Austin. Obviously Texas is a school that has recruited as well as anyone this decade under Mack Brown and they have a shot.

So does Florida. Remember, Scott is from the Sunshine State (Tallahassee) and for a while very, very early in the process there was word that he favored the Gators. But that was then and this is now. Scott will visit Florida in January and he could also end up taking an official visit to LSU.

In the end I think it comes down to Colorado and Florida.

Certainly toping off this class for Colorado with a player like Scott would be big huge for Hawkins and his program. He would add more legitimacy to what they are trying to build, especially considering he is the No. 3 rated prospect overall. Scott is also an impact player (barring injury) that would definitely shine more light on the program.

Regardless of what happens with Scott you have to be impressed with what is going on in Boulder. This is a team on the rise that made big improvement this year. It's reflecting in recruiting as Colorado is the big surprise of the year. But you don't build a national championship team with one class. It takes several good ones. It takes consistency. That's what needs to happen and we are seeing the signs.

Will they contend for a national championship in the not so distant future? Hard to say. But after seeing what happened this year in college football and seeing programs rise from the bottom, like Kansas this season and Rutgers last year, anything is possible. And in Boulder there are many signs pointing that this team will challenge Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of their conference for Big 12 supremacy very soon.

Michael Crabtree
With Tim Tebow being the first to win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, are there any legit sophomore candidates that have a chance to rack up some unbelievable numbers and win it next year? Say maybe, Noel Devine?

You bring up an interesting question because we saw some unbelievable freshmen performances this past season from players like wide receiver Michael Crabtree, running back Knowshon Moreno and quarterback Sam Bradford. These freshmen standout but there are plenty more.

Crabtree had one of the greatest seasons for a wide receiver in the history of the college game, catching 125 passes for 1,861 yards and 21 touchdown passes. In the process Crabtree shattered a bunch of Texas Tech receiving records, made every All-American team and became the first freshman to ever win the Bilentnikoff Award.

Bradford led the NCAA in passing efficiency after leading the Sooners to 11 wins and the Big 12 title after throwing for 2,670 yards, 32 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions while completing 70% of his passes.

Moreno became the 10th running back in Georgia history to rush for over 1,000. He finished with 1,273 yards (5.3 ypc) and scored 12 touchdowns. Moreno didn't quite have the impressive numbers as Crabtree and Bradford but he really didn't become the Georgia go to guy until the midway point of the year. And when he did he was flat out dominant.

You also have to mention a few more players like wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, running backs DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy. Maclin finished the '07 season as the freshman national record holder in all-purpose yardage with 2,509 yards and was 2nd overall in NCAA averaging 209 all-purpose yards per game. He rushed for 309 yards and 4 touchdowns, caught 69 passes for 954 yards and 9 touchdowns, averaged 13.6 yards per punt return (2 touchdowns), and averaged 24.3 yards per kick return (1 touchdown). McCoy had the second best freshman rushing season ever in Big East history after running for 1,320 yards. He also established a freshman scoring record with 14 touchdowns. Murray established himself as one of the games most explosive and dynamic players. He rushed for 764 yards (6 ypc) and 13 scores and also averaged 29.3 yards per kick return while returning 2 kickoffs for touchdowns.

You mentioned running back Noel Devine. He showed flashes in '07, rushing for 519 yards and four scores while averaging an eye popping 8.7 yards per carry. Two things you need to watch for with Devine and his development next season. First, will Steve Slaton return to Morgantown? Devine was his backup this year. Second, who will be their new coach now that Rich Rodriguez is at Michigan and what kind of offense will the Mountaineers have? You would think they would run the spread, seeing that's the personnel type that they have previously recruited.

Sure Tebow will be the frontrunner going into next season but he certainly will have some great competition from this group, as well as older players like quarterbacks Pat White (West Virginia), Chase Daniel (Missouri), running backs Kevin Smith (Central Florida), Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois), and Steve Slaton (West Virginia) and others. (It's obviously still unknown whether or not some of these names mentioned above with opt for the NFL Draft.)

It should be a fun race to watch next season.

Tony Franklin
What effect, positive or negative, do you think Auburn's hiring of Tony Franklin will have on recruiting and with their current offensive commitments? I would think the spread offense would excite most kids?
Maryville, Tennessee

I truly believe this is a terrific move by Auburn Head Coach Tommy Tuberville because Franklin is really one of the most underrated offensive minds in the game. It also shows you that the Tigers are being proactive and moving with the times and adjusting to what's going on the college football world. The spread offense or variations are spreading like wild fire through out the country. Why? Defenses have not figured out a way to stop it yet. When they do, another offense will come along and become hot.

Until then, it's all about being competitive both on and off the field. It kind of makes you wonder why it took so long because the spread is about speed and matchups and the conference with the most speed is the SEC.

And if you have the right quarterback in place with the spread, watch out. Look at Florida the past two seasons. Sure they won the national championship with Chris Leak starting for the Gators. But he's not the ideal signal caller for the spread. Tim Tebow is. Florida's offense was certainly more powerful this season then in their championship year. And Florida put up all those numbers this season with very little production from their running backs.

Another example is West Virginia. They are deadly team offensively with the spread with quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton.

Now it's coming to Auburn and some pieces are already in place. You almost feel like this has been in the works for some time. It appears Auburn quarterback Kodi Burns will be a real nice fit because of his great athletic ability. He will have growing pains but all young quarterbacks do and will need to work on throwing the football with a lot more consistency.

In terms of recruiting, this has got to excite those committed to the Tigers and will certainly help Auburn on the future recruiting front. Auburn is bringing in a couple of run/pass signal callers in Barrett Trotter (Birmingham, Ala.) and DeRon Furr (Columbus, Ga.) and they went the JUCO route for quarterback Chris Todd (Hutchinson, Ks.). Todd signed with Texas Tech, just missed on beating out Graham Harrell for the starting job and transferred to Hutchinson Community College. Keep an eye on this guy next season because he's got a big arm, good size and moves around pretty well. Auburn isn't strong right now at receiver but they will sign some talented players committed like Jarmon Fortson (Columbus, Ga.), Damion Allen (Orlando, Fla.), Jarvin Adams (Kennesaw, Ga.) and the nation's fastest prospect, Harry Adams (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.). Also headed to the Tigers is the versatile running back Reggie Hunt (Daphne, Ala.) and a power back with speed in Enrique Davis (Chatham, Va.). Remember, Auburn has some strong talent at this position already on campus.

Now they have the guy in Franklin to put it all together. Franklin had great success while at Troy. Troy's offense, which was last in the conference in total offense prior to his arrival, was second in the Sun Belt in 2006 and was first this season in total offense (453) and scoring offense (34). Troy was 17th in total offense and 25th in scoring offense in ‘07.

This is an interesting move and a bold move by Tuberville. He didn't sit on his hands and keep things the same. Tuberville made the move and got a good one to run the offensive show at Auburn in Tony Franklin.

Nick Crissman
Is QB Nick Crissman the real deal? Will he stay solid with whatever happens at UCLA?
Los Angeles, California

I don't think you need to worry about Crissman (Huntington Beach, Calif.). No one is more solid to the Bruins then Crissman. In fact, he has been one of their best recruiters as he has been burning up his cell phone trying to help keep this UCLA recruiting class together as the Bruins continue their coaching search. It's very doubtful he ends up elsewhere.

As far as his abilities he is the No. 8 ranked quarterback in the nation. Crissman has size (6-3/195) and pretty good athletic ability. He is an accurate passer, especially on the short and intermediate routes. Though he has an unorthodox release Crissman gets the job done. He shows good awareness in the pocket and can find his second and third option comfortably. Crissman is also an accurate passer while on the run or in a moving pocket and shows a good arm.

Daquan Bowers
How good will Daquan Bowers be and what kind of impact will he have?
Piedmont, South Carolina

Daquan Bowers is a defensive lineman prospect from Bamberg (S.C.) Ehrhardt High School. Bowers, 6-4 and 265 pounds, has committed to Clemson. He has the versatility to play inside or out. First and foremost this kid is a tremendous athlete. He also plays running back. Bowers is quick off the edge and uses his hands well. He can beat you with his power or speed. Bowers gives good effort and plays the run and rushes the passer equally well. Bowers also has range and the ability to chase the ball when the play is away from him. He is explosive, strong and fast. Bowers is also versatile enough to play strong side end or grow into a defensive tackle.

I really believe he will be an impact player for Clemson. The question is when? That depends on his adjustment to the college game, especially the speed. He also needs to continue to get bigger, strong and work on technique.

Are you hosting a recruiting TV show this season?
Jackson, Mississippi
I am the recruiting analyst of Comcast Sports Southeast's Inside the Huddle; Recruiting Edition. The show airs every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. eastern time. The focus is southern recruiting and we cover all the top prospects in the south as well as the teams in the SEC and ACC. If you have Comcast as your local cable T.V. provider then you can watch the show. Thank you.

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