May 1, 2009

Mailbag: Can Best break onto national stage?

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Some goals are so rare that only a handful of players can accomplish them in a given season.

Last season, only eight Football Bowl Subdivision players rushed for 1,500 yards. Seven of them had more than 200 carries. The one player who reached 1,500 yards in fewer than 200 carries is part of an even more exclusive group.

How exclusive? The answer is in this week's mailbag.

Best of the best

From John in Alameda, Calif.: It seems that California running back Jahvid Best flew totally under the radar last season. When was the last time a running back rushed for 1,500 yards and still averaged more than 8 yards per carry like Best did?

Considering Best didn't make any first-team All-America lists last season, perhaps he did fly under the radar and I do mean fly.

Best is one of the fastest players in the nation and definitely the most explosive. Even though he missed a game against Arizona State, he still rushed for 1,580 yards on 194 attempts an average of 8.14 yards per carry.

How rare is that? He's one of just three running backs this decade who averaged 8.0 yards per carry while getting at least 150 attempts.

In 2005, Heisman recipient Reggie Bush of USC averaged 8.7 yards while rushing for 1,740 yards on 200 attempts. In 2001, BYU's Luke Staley averaged 8.07 yards when he rushed for 1,582 yards on 196 attempts.

Some players have had higher averages, but not enough attempts. For example, Houston's Anthony Aldridge averaged 10.09 yards in '06, but only had 95 carries.

Obviously, Best is in rare company. He's no longer flying under the radar. If he duplicates last season's performance, he may join Bush as a Heisman winner.

Better later

From Joal in Daytona Beach, Fla.: Who are some underachieving and/or unproductive college players who went on to be stars in the NFL?

This question started a brain-storming session and sparked debate in the office. Here are some we came up with:

QB Tom Brady, Michigan: He was a productive player in Ann Arbor, passing for more than 2,500 yards as a junior and senior. He even earned honorable mention All-Big Ten acclaim. That's right honorable mention. Was he underachieving? That's subject to debate, but going off his college career, there was no reason to think he was going to become one of the best NFL quarterbacks. He's a four-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time Super Bowl MVP, and he was the NFL's MVP in 2007.

RB Terrell Davis, Georgia: Slowed by hamstring injuries, he rushed for just 445 yards as a senior after starting his career at Long Beach State. A sixth-round draft choice by Denver, he became the Broncos' leading career rusher with 7,607 yards and led them to two Super Bowl championships. He was a three-time All-Pro selection, a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year and the Super Bowl MVP in 1997.

RB Willie Parker, North Carolina: He rushed for 335 yards on 84 carries as a sophomore, but he never carried more than 83 times in a season afterward. Since signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent, Parker has developed into a two-time Pro Bowl selection, has helped win two Super Bowls and has posted the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history (75 yards vs. Seattle in Super Bowl XL).

RB Priest Holmes, Texas: Holmes wasn't drafted after an OK career at Texas (1,276 yards), where he was overshadowed by eventual Heisman recipient Ricky Williams. While playing for Baltimore and Kansas City in the NFL, Holmes rushed for 8,172 yards, was a three-time All-Pro and was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year.

WR Chad Johnson, Oregon State: He caught 33 passes for 713 yards as a senior. As a pro, he has 612 catches for 8,905 yards and 53 touchdowns. He's a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a three-time All-Pro.

Overnight improvement?

From Matt in Birmingham, Ala.: Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin made his point by recruiting a top-10 class, but do the Vols have a shot at the SEC title this year or possibly next?

It's funny, but soon after being named Phillip Fulmer's successor at Tennessee, Kiffin was getting ripped far and wide because of some controversial comments. He supposedly was in over his head. A newspaper columnist even wrote that Tennessee should admit its mistake and fire Kiffin just to avoid further embarrassment.

That was before Kiffin assembled a recruiting class ranked No. 10 in the nation, one that includes No. 1 prospect Bryce Brown. Kiffin doesn't seem to be in over his head anymore.

But as good as Tennessee's recruiting class was, it didn't include a quarterback. The Vols need one.

I won't be surprised if Jonathan Crompton bounces back from a dreadful '08 season and plays well in Kiffin's system. From all accounts, he appeared to be improved this spring. But I don't see him leading Tennessee to a conference championship, especially with Florida projecting to be meaner and nastier than it was in its two national championships seasons under Urban Meyer.

Kiffin incorrectly accused Meyer of recruiting violations. The Vols must travel to Gainesville on Sept. 19. It won't be pleasant. But Tennessee should have several good days this season. An eight- or nine-win season certainly isn't out of the question. That would be a great improvement over last season's five-win disaster.

A championship would seem unlikely in 2010, too. The Volunteers still will have quarterback questions and safety Eric Berry, arguably the country's best player at any position, likely will have left for the NFL.

But if Kiffin can assemble a few more good recruiting classes, Tennessee will be back in championship contention. He's working to catch up to Georgia, Florida, Alabama and LSU, but it's going to take time. Don't look for Tennessee in the SEC championship game for at least three more seasons.

Flying EMU?

From Nick in Milford, Mich.: I predict Eastern Michigan to end the 2009 season with a 7-5 record. I can actually see EMU defeating Michigan.

You had me going until the second sentence, Nick.

Michigan struggled mightily last season, even losing to Toledo, and finished 3-9. Of course, the same goes for Eastern. At least Michigan lost a close one to Toledo. Toledo blew out Eastern Michigan.

The distance from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor is only about 10 miles, but the football programs are miles apart, even after Michigan's poor showing in 2009. But your enthusiasm is admirable and may be rewarded. A bunch of starters return, including quarterback Andy Schmitt and leading receiver Jacory Stone. First-year coach Ron English did an excellent job as defensive coordinator at Michigan and Louisville and was an excellent choice for Eastern.

But Eastern Michigan hasn't had a winning season since going 6-5 in 1995 and hasn't won more than four games in a season in that span. Think baby steps.

Of course, Michigan has been victim to stunning upsets in each of the past two seasons Toledo last season and Appalachian State in '07 so it's possible.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at
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