May 27, 2009

Sometimes it doesn't take a star to save a season

There are no one-man teams. Georgia's Herschel Walker, Texas' Vince Young and Oregon's Dennis Dixon could be raised as compelling arguments to the contrary, but no one player no matter how amazing can make a college football team great.

An outstanding individual certainly can make a team considerably better, though. Georgia in 1980 and Texas in 2005 would not have won national championships without Walker or Young, and had Dixon not been lost to a late-season knee injury, Oregon might have won a national championship in '07.

Those are extreme examples. Sometimes, one player can mean the difference between a losing or winning season, between a bowl game or staying home for the holidays, between a new contract or a coaching search. There are several college football teams this season that appear to be solid, or even spectacular, in most areas, but one position usually quarterback is so unstable or uncertain that the entire team can suffer.

Quite often, these teams don't need a superior talent at the unsettled position to get out of limbo; rather, a consistently productive performer who isn't a liability can make a huge difference.

Here are five examples of players who don't have to be stars to make a big difference for their teams this season.

LB Tank Carder, TCU: Although quarterback Andy Dalton returns and the Frogs have exciting receivers Jimmy Young, in particular defense remains their forte. Last season, they held every opponent except Oklahoma to fewer than 17 points. TCU should be stingy again with All-America end Jerry Hughes providing a pass rush and cornerback Rafael Priest leading an experienced secondary. But the Frogs lost All-Mountain West middle linebacker Jason Phillips, so they could be vulnerable against the run unless Carder adequately fills in for Phillips, who started 50 of 51 games in his career. Carder, a sophomore, had nine tackles last season 75 fewer than Phillips.

RB Jewel Hampton, Iowa: Shonn Greene's early departure to the NFL leaves a void in Iowa's offense that Hampton hopes to fill. As Greene's backup last season, Hampton averaged 5.1 yards per carry while rushing for 463 yards on 91 attempts as a true freshman. His attempts could triple this season. If his yardage total does, too, the Hawkeyes have a shot to equal or better last year's nine-victory finish. Eight starters are back from one of the country's premier defenses. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi, leading receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and three offensive linemen including highly regarded tackle Bryan Bulaga return on offense. Iowa used a productive running game and sound defense to finish 5-3 in the Big Ten last season. If the Hawkeyes can manufacture the same formula this season, they will contend for the league title.

QB Zac Lee, Nebraska: If Lee, a junior who won the quarterback job during spring practice, proves a capable starter, the Huskers could win the Big 12 North. If he struggles, well, the Huskers could struggle, too. Overall, Nebraska looks good. The offensive line is solid, running backs Roy Helu and Quentin Castille form a nice one-two punch and there is a lot of potential at receiver. The defense will be strong up front and has gotten much faster entering its second season under coach Bo Pelini.

WR Greg Little, North Carolina: Wide receiver was the Tar Heels' strong point last season. But now that Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster are gone, it's a position of concern. Little could ease those worries. He's big, fast, has breakaway ability and is moving from running back to receiver, his natural position. The Tar Heels are loaded on defense, and T.J. Yates returns at quarterback. They need a productive deep threat to build on last season's eight-victory output.

QB Kevin Prince, UCLA: The Bruins have a good defense with All-Pac 10 honorees at each level tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter and cornerback Alterraun Verner. Terrence Austin heads a group of good receivers, and the offensive line gets a needed boost with tackle Sean Sheller coming back from injury and Colorado transfer Kai Maiava taking over at center. And though UCLA's running backs were woefully unproductive last season, there are some highly regarded prospects ready to step in, so there is a measure of optimism. That leaves Prince, a redshirt freshman who took the starting quarterback job from incumbent starter Kevin Craft in spring ball. Prince needs to avoid mistakes (Craft threw 20 interceptions last season) and make opposing defenses at least respect the pass.


First-rate Wildcat

Though NFL mock drafts this early must be taken with a grain of salt, projections for 2010 are interesting in that Kentucky cornerback Trevard Lindley is seen as a first-round selection. That's significant because in the past 30 years, tackle Dewayne Robertson in 2003 is the only Kentucky defensive player drafted in the first round.

Last season, Lindley had four interceptions, 11 pass breakups and 39 tackles on his way to earning All-SEC acclaim and landing on some All-America teams. Lindley, a senior, has nine career interceptions.

"He makes amazing plays on the ball," said Kentucky defensive coordinator Steve Brown, who played cornerback for eight seasons in the NFL. "He's a better player than I was. I'm just as happy as hell he's back.

"Plus, he's a great guy. He was an introvert when he first got here and barely spoke a word. Now, he walks by me and says, 'Hey, Steven.' It's been great to watch him transform into a young man."

It would be even better for Brown and the Wildcats to watch him transform into a possible No. 1 draft choice.


The Edge

This week, it's Washington vs. Minnesota.

Each week, we'll match two teams to determine which has the edge in various categories. Got a matchup you want to see? Send it to olin@rivals.com and we'll work on it.

1. Head-to-head
Minnesota leads the series 10-7. The most recent game was in 1977 with Minnesota prevailing 19-17.
Edge: Minnesota
2. NFL first-round draft choices
Minnesota: 17 (most recently running back Laurence Maroney by New England in 2006).
Washington: 16 (most recently wide receiver Reggie Williams by Jacksonville in 2004).
Edge: Minnesota.
3. Former players to become NFL head coaches
Minnesota: Tony Dungy, Bud Grant, Bud Wilkinson.
Washington: Jim Mora Jr.
Edge: Minnesota (big). Grant and Dungy appeared in five Super Bowls between them.
4. Musicians
Minnesota: New Age artist Yanni.
Washington: Saxophonist Kenny G.
Edge: None. The winner is hair products. The loser is music.
5. "King Kong" cast members
Minnesota: Jessica Lange won a Golden Globe for "New Star of the Year Actress" for her part of Dawn in the 1976 remake.
Washington: Robert Armstrong, who played Carl Denham in the 1933 original version of the movie. He ends the movie with the line " 'Twas beauty killed the beast."
Edge: Minnesota. Lange went on to win two Academy Awards. Armstrong hit his peak in "King Kong."
6. Democratic Party leaders
Minnesota: Hubert H. Humphrey was vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democratic Party nominee for President in 1968. He lost to Richard Nixon. Walter Mondale was vice president under Jimmy Carter and unsuccessfully ran against Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election.
Washington: Henry "Scoop" Jackson was a U.S. congressman and Senator from the state of Washington who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and '76.
Edge: Minnesota, two vice presidents to none.
7. Former football player with a cool name
Minnesota: Bronko Nagurski.
Washington: Sonny Sixkiller.
Edge: Washington. The former Huskies quarterback's name inspired jerseys with "KILLER" printed under the No. 6.
8. Bowl record
Minnesota: 5-8.
Washington: 15-14-1.
Edge: Washington. The Huskies have appeared in the Rose Bowl 14 times compared to two for Minnesota. Washington also defeated Minnesota 17-7 in the 1961 Rose Bowl.
9. Iconic former coach
Minnesota: The Gophers went 93-35-6 from 1932-41 and '45-50 under Bernie Bierman. The Gophers claim three national championships from that era.
Washington: Under Don James, the Huskies were 150-60-2 from 1975-1992 and captured the 1991 national championship. James had just one losing season and went 10-4 in bowl games.
Edge: Washington. Yeah, Minnesota claims multi-national titles from that era, but none were with more than eight victories and there were no bowl games. Washington also should have been voted the '84 national champ.
10. NFL Hall of Famers
Minnesota: Bobby Bell, Carl Eller, Bud Grant, Bronko Nagurski, Leo Nomellini, Charlie Sanders.
Washington: Hugh McElhenny, Warren Moon, Arnie Weinmeister.
Edge: Minnesota.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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