July 20, 2007

Olin's Mailbag: The next star

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He will be working all summer to get you ready for the start of Fall practice.
Previous mailbags
July 13: Only time will tell
July 6: Serious fans dream big
June 29: The fool's gold
June 14: No luck at all

Even after a gourmet meal, dessert is still sweeter.

That's why Oklahoma State football fans must have felt like they were served crθme brulee in 1988.

In four previous football seasons the Cowboys had enjoyed excellent play from running back Thurman Thomas, who was named an All-American in 1987.

But his exit to the NFL opened the way for backup tailback Barry Sanders. Sanders responded by winning the '88 Heisman Trophy after posting the single most dominant season by a collegiate running back, rushing for 2,628 yards.

A similar scenario occurred in Southern California a few year prior.

Marcus Allen spent two years as USC's backup tailback to Charles White, who won the 1979 Heisman Trophy. When White left, Allen stepped into the Trojans' starting lineup and put together two amazing seasons. In 1981 he rushed for 2,342 yards to become the first collegiate player to surpass 2,000 yards.

The lesson is this: Even if a team loses a great player there is always the possibility an even better one will follow.

It happened at Oklahoma State.

It happened at Southern California.

Maybe it could happen at Notre Dame.

Need to score

Everyone doubts Notre Dame's chances this year due to the loss of so many players. But before (coach Charlie) Weis, who was (Jeff) Samardzija? What are your thoughts about their depth?

— Notre Dame fan Ron

I'll tell you who Samardjiza was. He was the guy catching all those passes from Brady Quinn, who is gone, too.

Maybe Charlie Weis will pull off an unbelievable coaching job this season and his young quarterback - whoever starts - will ease the loss of Quinn to the NFL, and all will be wonderful in South Bend.

That's a possibility. However, I can't get past the reality that the Irish were outscored 85-38 in their last two games of 2006, and now they're without last year's leading passer (Quinn), top two receivers (Samardzija and Rhema McKnight), top rusher (Darius Walker) and three starting offensive linemen, including two (Ryan Harris and Dan Santucci) who were NFL draft picks.

Of course, there is always the chance that the next starter will be better than the player he replaced. That was certainly the case when Quinn followed Carlyle Holiday, who finished his Notre Dame career as a receiver.

Still, with so many players gone and so few proven players coming up it's difficult to make a judgment on the Irish's starting lineup, much less their depth.

Notre Dame probably will have to rely on its defense, which may be disconcerting considering the Irish were 65th nationally in total defense last season.

Not the only factor

Why is every poll and everyone else picking Penn State to finish fifth in the Big Ten behind Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa?

Seriously, all except Michigan come to Penn State and all except Michigan have to replace their quarterbacks.

— Sid in State College

I can't speak for anyone else, but Rivals.com has Penn State ranked fourth in the Big Ten. However, we ranked the Nits 15th nationally, which indicates we expect them to be serious contenders for the conference championship.

True, all except Michigan must replace their quarterbacks. However, all but Penn State have proven running backs that an offense can be built around - Michigan's Mike Hart, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, Ohio State's Chris Wells and Iowa's Albert Young.

Aside from Hart, Michigan has a truck load of offensive talent with Chad Henne, Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington and Jake Long. Wisconsin returns 16 starters and has a huge offensive line. Ohio State's defense will be excellent and its advantageous schedule allows time for a new quarterback to settle in. Iowa returns 15 starters and doesn't play Michigan or Ohio State.

Those factors might have influenced others to rank those teams ahead of Penn State.

New in blue

Who will make a bigger impact on Michigan's defense this year - Austin Panter or Donovan Warren? And will Morgan Trent be able to stop anyone at all this season?

— Jeffrey in Honolulu

Donovan Warren, a five-star prospect from Long Beach, Calif., is the newcomer most likely to have an impact on a Michigan defense, which could use help at the corner. At some point he could challenge Johnny Sears for the starting job opposite Morgan Trent, who fared poorly against Ohio State and Southern California but was solid over the entire year.

Replacing David Harris at middle linebacker is a tall order, and Austin Panter will be one of the candidates. The coaches must like him. He's Michigan's first junior college recruit since 1996.

Hurricane warning

How big of an impact will Graig Cooper have on the Miami offense this year?

— Alex in Chicago

His impact should be significant. Cooper is so fast and elusive that tackling him is like trying to catch a fly with scissors.

Adding his speed to the offense can only be a plus. Last spring running backs coach Tommie Robinson said that Cooper and probable starting running back Javarris James will be on the field together in some sets.

Cooper also projects as a Devin Hester-type threat on kick returns, which will shorten the field and provide more scoring opportunities for the offense.

With Hester returning punts in 2004, Miami ranked second nationally with a 16.6-yard average. The Hurricanes also averaged 31.67 points per game.

Last season, the Hurricanes averaged just 7.2 yards per punt return and only 19.94 yards on kickoff returns and averaged just 19.62 points per game. Obviously, other factors were involved, but the fact remains a productive return game enhances the offense.

I anticipate Cooper will enhance Miami's offense.

Out of time

I liked the article about (Oklahoma coach) Bob Stoops and the pursuit of being the all-time winningest coach. But in fear of sounding like a scorned fan, why was (Texas coach) Mack Brown not found in your article?

The man has already amassed 180 wins in his career. He has the current longest 10-game winning streak in college football and even in a down year is good for eight or nine wins. While it is easy to point out that Mack does not have the greatest winning percentage, one must consider the teams that he coached early on when looking at the numbers in the loss column. If Mack continues to win 9 to 10 games a season he could easily retire as the winningest coach.

— Josh in Valparaiso, Ind.

No disrespect intended. Mack actually has accumulated 179 victories. Yet, the number I'm most wary about is 56 - his age when the season begins.

Brown does not strike me as the kind of guy who will coach into his 70s, but I've been wrong before.

If Brown keeps winning 10 games a season he can coach at Texas as long as he wants, and considering he has averaged 10 victories a season over the last 11 years there is no reason to believe he won't.

Therefore, if Brown chose to coach for 20 more years it's conceivable he could retire as college football's winningest coach.

I don't think Brown will coach that long, but he should not have been excluded from the list.

Lots of needs

What do you think about Tennessee's lack of experience at receiver and in the secondary this year? While Brent Vinson does have the speed to be a playmaker, I question whether he will have the strength to take a 7-yard curl, break a tackle and go the distance. Also, can Eric Berry really come in and be an immediate lock-down player in the secondary against SEC receivers?

— Mike at Andrews Air Force Base, Washington D.C.

Vinson has great speed and with a year at prep school he might have added the strength to break tackles and turn short passes into long gains. We'll have to wait and see.

The inexperience at receiver is a major concern in Knoxville. The absence of Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith not only leaves the Volunteers without their top three receivers from '06, but also raises the question of how effective quarterback Erik Ainge can be without them.

Defensively, I think Berry, a five-star prospect by Rivals.com, can come in and be a significant contributor and maybe even a starter. But a lock-down corner? That's probably expecting too much. He is, after all, a true freshman.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.

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