By Matt Herb
Justin King has just one objective as the start of his college football career approaches. "He wants to be out there," said Terry Smith, King's stepfather and high school coach. "He wants to be on the field for the first play of his freshman season."
Depending on the outcome of the season's first coin flip, he might just get his wish.
A consensus prep All-American at Gateway High in Monroeville, Pa., King has aroused great interest since announcing in November that he would enroll at Penn State. Many believe he will have an immediate impact on the team, if not as a defensive back or receiver, then at least as a punt and kickoff returner, positions the Nittany Lions haven't had much success filling the past few years. No one associated with King has made any effort to discourage such thinking, even though it runs counter to the Lions' supposed belief in seniority above all else. Said Smith: "I think he's ready for something new."
Maybe Penn State is, too. Once known for their reluctance to put inexperienced players in harm's way, the Lions are finding that incoming freshmen often are prepared to play right away. In 2003, linebacker Paul Posluszny sparkled as Penn State sought to plug the holes in a porous defense. Last year, another true freshman linebacker, Dan Connor, stepped in and helped turn a promising defense into a terrific one.
King could be the next true freshman to capture the imagination of Nittany Lion fans. His credentials are sterling. He played offense, defense and special teams in leading Gateway High to the WPIAL Class AAAA title game last fall. He also received scholarship offers from 55 schools, amassing a collection of recruiting mail that weighed over 200 pounds.
Smith sees King playing on special teams right away and believes he could also contribute at cornerback early in his career. He hinted that King could see action on offense, noting that the young prospect scored 33 touchdowns for the Gators as a senior. That's 20 more touchdowns than all of Penn State's wide receivers have scored the past two seasons.
King has been looking ahead to the 2005 season for more than a year, long before he even knew where he would play his college football. During his junior year at Gateway, he began taking extra classes in hopes of graduating early and enrolling in college in time for the spring semester. He doubled up on English classes and spent many late nights studying. Even after all the academic overtime, he had to scramble to finish up his class work in December so that Penn State could admit him in January. It made for a frantic holiday season. "He had four papers due," Smith said. "Christmas was not a vacation for him."
Nor was January. King's parents had to move him into his apartment at University Park because he was in San Antonio playing in an all-star game. As soon as he returned home, classes began.
The payoff is likely to come in September, when Penn State opens its season against South Florida. The Lions were last in the Big Ten at returning kickoffs last year and were ninth at returning punts. Those numbers would appear to give King an opportunity, one he clearly hopes to seize. At the news conference in which he announced his verbal commitment to the Lions, King couldn't have been more blunt about his objective. "I think I have a really good chance at starting or seeing some playing time next year," he said.
So does Derrick Williams. Like King, the prep standout from Upper Marlboro, Md., fills a void. The Nittany Lions' wideouts amassed a combined total of six touchdowns last year, seven the year before. They have needed a gamebreaking receiver since the graduation of Bryant Johnson after the 2002 season. In Williams, rated the No. 3 prospect in the country by Scout.com and No. 1 by a host of other recruiting services, they may finally have one.
"No disrespect to any of the players at Penn State, but they don't have anybody like Derrick Williams there," said Rick Houchens, Williams' coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High. "He'll have a learning curve that he'll have to go through just like any freshman coming into college. But I'll tell you this: As soon as that kid gets comfortable, look out."
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