Most college football fans couldn't find Boise State running back Ian Johnson for much of last season.
Then they couldn't avoid him.
Johnson toiled in virtual anonymity in 2006. He led the nation in scoring, but he rarely played on national television. That all changed on Jan. 1, 2007.
After running into the end zone for a two-point conversion to give the Broncos a dramatic 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma, Johnson got down on one knee and proposed to Boise State cheerleader Chrissy Popadics on national television. The happy couple appeared on various morning news shows the rest of the week, briefly making Johnson one of the nation's most ubiquitous athletes.
While Johnson now is forever linked with that postgame proposal, we remember the guy who had thrived as one of the nation's most underrated players before earning that instant celebrity status.
And that's why we've decided to put together an entire team of outstanding players who rarely get the opportunity to perform on a big stage. They're the star performers for off-Broadway programs.
We didn't include Johnson because his status as one of the nation's most unnoticed players disappeared as soon as the Fiesta Bowl ended. We also didn't include anyone from Wake Forest – last season's other big Cinderella story – because the Demon Deacons played on national television quite a bit during their surprising run to the Atlantic Coast conference title.
This team instead focuses on players that most fans didn't get to see last season.
Maybe they're the best players on a BCS team that typically stays home for the holidays. Perhaps they're starring in a non-BCS conference that doesn't have a lucrative television contract. Or else they're at a program like South Florida that just recently began playing major college football.
Whatever the reason, these players rarely get the chance to enter the spotlight. But on the rare occasions that they do appear on national television, these guys are definitely worth watching.
Sure, you know about this guy by now. But how many of you have actually watched him? Although it might not make much sense on the surface to include a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate on this list of unseen stars, playing late-night games for Hawaii has prevented many college football fans from seeing Brennan in action. They've missed quite a show. Brennan led the nation in passing yards (5,549), touchdown passes (58), passing efficiency (186.0) and completion percentage (72.6) last year.
Fletcher rushed for 1,388 yards last year to set a Conference USA freshman record. Fletcher ranked 11th in the nation in rushing and led all true freshmen. Fletcher's big season included a three-touchdown, 177-yard performance in Southern Mississippi's 37-17 destruction of North Carolina State. Fletcher should team up with true freshman Antwain Easterling this year to give the Golden Eagles perhaps the best running-back tandem of any non-BCS team.
After just two seasons, Sutton already has gained 3,139 all-purpose yards to rank 12th on Northwestern's all-time list. Sutton was one of the nation's most explosive freshmen two years ago, when he rushed for 1,474 yards and 16 touchdowns. While he failed to match those numbers last year, Sutton still delivered a fine season that went unnoticed amid the tragedy that surrounded Northwestern's program in the aftermath of former coach Randy Walker's death. Sutton finished the year with exactly 1,000 rushing yards after gaining 172 yards against Michigan State, 168 yards against Iowa and 110 yards against Illinois in three of his last five games.
Vanderbilt's season-opening loss to Michigan last year marked the only time the Commodores played on national television. The Commodores haven't played on CBS since 2001. But that lack of visibility hasn't stopped Bennett from making a name for himself. Bennett enters his junior season just 48 catches and 1,071 receiving yards away from setting Southeastern Conference career records in both categories. He already is the only receiver in SEC history to catch 75 passes in two separate seasons. Bennett collected 82 receptions for 1,146 yards last year while catching at least four passes in every game.
Dillard helped make sure Rice earned its first bowl bid since 1961 last year by catching 21 touchdown passes, which set a Conference USA record. Dillard had 91 overall catches for 1,247 yards on his way to becoming Rice's first All-America receiver since 1958. Dillard has caught a touchdown pass in 15 straight games, which represents the second-longest streak in NCAA history.
This third-year starter was selected by Conference USA coaches as a first-team all-league player last year. Nelson led the Golden Eagles in receiving and proved his toughness by catching 36 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns despite fracturing a hand and spraining an ankle late in the year. Nelson also proved he could perform against top-level opponents by catching six passes for 85 yards in a season-opening loss to eventual national champion Florida.
By now, just about every college football fan remembers how Johnson scored the winning two-point conversion on the Statue of Liberty play that ended last season's Fiesta Bowl. But how many people could correctly identify Clady as the guy who made the critical block that allowed Johnson to reach the end zone? That huge play continued a season-long trend for Clady, whose consistent efforts at left tackle helped Boise State average 39.7 points per game to rank second in the nation in scoring.
Greco's predecessor at Toledo is Nick Kaczur, who now starts at left tackle for the New England Patriots. Don't be surprised if Greco soon joins Kaczur among the ranks of NFL starters. Greco has earned first-team all-MAC honors each of the last two seasons and is entering his fourth year as a starter. In his first year as Toledo's starting left tackle, the Rockets ranked 10th in the nation in scoring offense and allowed just 13 sacks all season.
Never heard of this guy? NFL scouts sure know about him. Legursky earned first-team all-Conference USA honors last year and could become one of the first centers taken in next year's NFL Draft if he has another big season. Legursky was a second-team all-conference selection two seasons ago in his first year as a starter.
This preseason first-team all-SEC selection is perhaps best known nationally as the subject of "Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," a book by "Moneyball'' author Michael Lewis that details the rising importance of the left-tackle position. It's a shame readers of that book from outside the Southeast haven't gotten much of a chance to see Oher in action as he develops into one of the nation's top linemen. Oher earned Rivals.com Freshman All-America honors as a right guard two years ago and made a successful transition to left tackle last season.
After alternating between left guard and left tackle as a sophomore, Williams played exclusively left tackle last season and emerged as one of the SEC's top linemen. Williams didn't allow a single sack in his final 11 games last season on his way to earning second-team all-SEC honors from the league's coaches. He graded out as Vanderbilt's top blocker in virtually every game last season.
Blake might not be well-known outside the Lone Star State, but he's the best player on one of the best defenses in the nation. Blake led the Mountain West Conference in tackles for loss (16½) and tied for the league lead in sacks (seven) last year to help Texas Christian rank second in the nation in total defense. He was named the Poinsettia Bowl defensive MVP last year after recording two sacks and helping hold NCAA rushing leader Garrett Wolfe to 28 yards on 20 carries. Blake teams up with Chase Ortiz to give TCU a defensive-end tandem envied by just about any BCS program.
Virginia illustrated Long's value to its football program by making him the only player on the cover of its media guide. The son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long turned down the lure of a big NFL payday to return for his senior year after collecting 12 tackles for loss last season. He almost certainly will get taken in the first round next year and could be one of the top overall picks.
Defensive tackles often are considered nothing more than run stoppers, but McClinton proved the exception to the rule last year when he developed into one of the Big 12's top pass rushers. McClinton recorded six sacks and 14½ tackles for loss while also forcing three fumbles and ranking third on the team with 51 total tackles.
North Carolina State hasn't done a whole lot of winning recently, but the Wolfpack sure have done a nice job of producing NFL defensive tackles. Top overall pick Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and John McCargo all went in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Pressley eventually should follow them into the pro ranks, but first he wants to help return the Wolfpack to bowl contention. The preseason all-ACC selection has averaged 43 ½ tackles over the last two years and was one of the few bright spots during his team's 3-9 season last fall.
Quick, name last year's NCAA leader in tackles. It wasn't Butkus Award winner Patrick Willis of Ole Miss. Nor was it Penn State's Paul Posluszny. That honor instead belonged to Bowen, who averaged 12.9 tackles per game and earned first-team all-Big 12 honors last year as one of the few bright spots in Iowa State's disappointing season. Bowen recorded at least 15 tackles in five different games last year, including a 20-tackle effort in a season-opening victory over Toledo.
This third-year starter and second-team all-SEC selection has made himself a probable first-day draft pick by delivering big performances against high-profile teams. He collected 13 tackles against Michigan last year, delivered 13 tackles and forced two fumbles against Alabama and collected a sack and an interception against Florida. The inclusion of three Vanderbilt players on this team indicates that perhaps the Commodores' hopes of earning their first bowl bid since 1982 aren't so far-fetched.
He has one of college football's shortest names and biggest games. Leman was a first-team all-Big Ten selection last year and ranked third in the nation with 12.7 tackles per game. Leman made the most of a rare nationally televised opportunity last season by recording a career-high 19 tackles – 3½ behind the line of scrimmage – and forcing a fumble in a loss to Ohio State. If Illinois can build some momentum from its surprising recruiting success, perhaps Leman will play on television a little more often this year.
The easy pick here would be Arizona's Antoine Cason, but we decided that Thorpe Award candidate got plenty of air time last year playing for a team that had five games nationally televised on cable or regionally broadcast by ABC. Lowery didn't get nearly as much exposure last year while tying for the NCAA lead with nine interceptions. Lowery picked off seven passes in his first four games last season and could join Cason as a first-round draft pick next year.
Kansas ranked last out of all 119 Division I-A teams in pass defense last year, but this guy shouldn't receive any of the blame for it. In fact, Talib developed into one of the game's top shutdown corners last year as he led the nation with 2.8 passes defended per game. Talib also earned first-team all-Big 12 honors after topping the conference with six interceptions despite playing in only 10 games. Talib broke up at least two passes in eight games and even lined up on offense and made a 42-yard touchdown catch against Missouri.
This fourth-year starter led Conference USA with seven interceptions last season while also collecting 67 tackles as the Miners' free safety. He also showed big-play ability on special teams by scoring on a 91-yard kickoff return against New Mexico State. Demps has recorded 203 tackles and 12 interceptions during an exceptional career that has made him a probable first-day draft pick.
After earning second-team all-conference honors from SEC coaches as a cornerback last season, Pegues is moving back to the safety position he prefers. Pegues picked off four passes last year and also limited South Carolina star Sidney Rice to two catches. Pegues also is a dynamic special-teams performer who ranked 10th in the nation last year in punt return average (14.0) and fourth in the SEC in kickoff return average (23.7).
There isn't a tougher kicker in the nation than Aguayo, who missed only two games last year after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his kicking leg while trying to make a tackle in the season opener. Aguayo wore a brace on his leg and made a 52-yard field goal against Texas Christian later in the season. Although he made only half his field-goal attempts last year, Aguayo underwent surgery last December and hopes to regain the form he showed in 2005, when he went 12-for-16 with a pair of 52-yarders.
Not only is Miller one of the best punters you don't see on television, he might be the best punter in all of college football. Miller's punting average of 46.3 yards last year ranked second in the nation to Baylor's Dan Sepulveda, now a member of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers. Twenty of Miller's 57 punts last year landed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Thigpen's average of 30.1 yards per kickoff return last year led the nation. He also was the only player last season who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns (against Ball State, Connecticut and Illinois). Thigpen displayed his versatility by becoming the first Hoosier since 1981 to reach the end zone on a run from scrimmage, a reception and a kick return in the same season. He gained 311 all-purpose yards – the fourth-highest total in school history – to help Indiana rally from a 25-7 deficit to beat Illinois 34-32.
Trimble led Army in receiving last year with 52 catches for 534 yards, but he perhaps is best known for his special-teams production. Trimble's average of 18.1 yards per punt return last year ranked second in the nation to California's DeSean Jackson. Trimble's big season included a 59-yard return for a touchdown against Baylor and a 78-yard return for a score against Virginia Military Institute.