NCF Nation: Larry Fitzgerald
It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.
NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.
Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.
"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.
Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.
"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."
Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.
Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.
"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.
"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.
"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."
Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.
"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.
Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.
"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.
"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."
Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.
The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.
The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.
"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.
Pitt and Bowling Green square off at 6 ET Thursday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Here are a few players, keys and storylines to watch when action kicks off in Detroit:
Who to watch: Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald takes the field for his final college game after a regular season that saw him win four national awards and earn unanimous All-America honors, becoming the school's first player to gain that distinction since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003. Donald is capable of changing a game in a number of ways, disrupting the backfield (26.5 tackles for loss) while taking down quarterbacks (10 sacks). And the man he will be chasing, Falcons signal-caller Matt Johnson, is a dual-threat gunslinger who is coming off a statement win in the MAC title game.
What to watch: Bowling Green returns to Ford Field less than three weeks after winning the league title in a surprising rout over Northern Illinois. Johnson, its quarterback, completed 21 of 27 passes and tallied 426 total yards and five touchdowns in the 47-27 upset. In his first full season as a starter, the sophomore has completed better than 64 percent of his passes for 3,195 yards with 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Johnson has rushed for 268 yards and five more scores as well. The undersized Harrisburg, Pa., native did not receive an offer from the Panthers coming out of Bishop McDevitt, and a number of his Falcons teammates from Pennsylvania were overlooked by the in-state school as well. This has not been lost on them as they look to take down an ACC opponent before entering a 2014 campaign with very large expectations.
Why to watch: As good as Johnson has been, Bowling Green has gotten this far because of its defense, which leads the MAC in scoring D, total D, rushing D and passing D. That last category is one to keep a close eye on, as Pitt boasts a pair of extremely talented receivers in Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, both of whom senior quarterback Tom Savage developed an early rapport with in his first year as the starter, helping the Panthers get to another bowl in coach Paul Chryst's second season -- no small feat considering the step up to the ACC this year from the Big East. Pitt also has a signature victory over Notre Dame on its resume.
Prediction: Bowling Green 31, Pitt 26. With interim coach Adam Scheier at the helm, the Falcons offense gets off to a hot start and delivers a win that leads to plenty of hype entering Year 1 of the Dino Babers era in 2014.
So when the 602 area code popped up on Floyd's cellphone shortly after 9 p.m. Thursday, the Irish's all-time leading receiver had to resist jumping for joy at the thought of playing in Arizona alongside one of his mentors.
"It's exciting just knowing that he's on the opposite side of me, one of the best receivers in the game," Floyd said. "It's a good learning experience for me to know that when I get down there I'll be able to learn from one of the best."
The Cardinals liked Floyd's 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame, as he figures to give the team the true No. 2 option it has lacked since Anquan Boldin, who in 2008 helped the franchise reach its first Super Bowl. Having Fitzgerald in touch with a fellow receiver in the leadup to this year's draft only made things easier for coach Ken Whisenhunt.
"I think it says a lot about Larry, that one of your best players is engaged, that he cares about what the team is doing, and that a receiver who wants the ball thrown to him every down is willing to bring in another guy that is obviously going to spread the receptions out," Whisenhunt said. "That says a lot. Larry is not as involved in the process as a lot of people like to think that he is, but certainly I think that Larry likes him, that Larry is going to take him under his wing, that is going to be important to Larry that this young man does well. I think that says a lot."
General manager Rod Graves said Floyd was simply too good to pass up at the No. 13 spot, and Whisenhunt was pleased with the way the record-breaking wideout handled the often-intense pre-draft vetting process about his string of alcohol-related run-ins with the law.
Pointing to Floyd's maturation, Irish coach Brian Kelly cited Floyd rallying the team in the wake of its midseason loss to USC, as the once-beleaguered star didn't let personal gains trump team ones despite BCS-bowl dreams all but gone.
"The things that Larry Fitzgerald already has, those are the things that Mike is going to aspire (to) and that is the technical aspect of the game," Kelly said. "I think you could consider Mike still a raw receiver in a sense that he can get better in the technical elements of route running and things of that nature. But he is certainly a guy that attacks the football and attacks defenders. And blocking, he is an outstanding blocker."
WHO TO WATCH: Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. He'll be the best player on the field every time he steps on it, and he'll have a chance to break an impressive record as well. In all 11 of his starts this season, he's finished with at least 100 yards receiving and a touchdown. If he does it against the Wildcats, he'll be the only player in FBS history to do it for 12 consecutive games. That's especially impressive considering the caliber of receivers who couldn't duplicate his feat: Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and Michael Crabtree, to name a few. The Biletnikoff Award winner missed one game for the Cowboys, who managed just 24 points in a win against Kansas State. The Cowboys haven't been held under 33 points in any other game, and have scored 40-plus points in eight games, ranking third nationally in scoring offense.
WHAT TO WATCH: Oklahoma State's offense. Dana Holgorsen is headed to West Virginia after the bowl game to become the coach-in-waiting, but he's sticking around through the bowl game to fulfill his duties as offensive coordinator. I wouldn't expect any big differences out of the Cowboys, but it'll be interesting to see if the transition for Holgorsen has been a distraction that manifests on the field.
WHY WATCH: Similar to the Insight Bowl, despite the pair of disappointing finishes, these are still two teams who spent time near the top of the polls this season. Arizona was 7-1 to start the season and a mainstay in the top 15 before the losing streak sent it south in the polls. Oklahoma State was inside the top 10 at the end of the season. Outside of that, these are two of the most exciting offenses in the country. Both teams threw the ball just under 500 times this season, and figure to do plenty of it in the Alamodome on Wednesday night. Arizona's Nick Foles and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden are two of the best around at doing it, and will get plenty of chances.
PREDICTION: Oklahoma State 37, Iowa 28. Arizona doesn't have anybody who can stop Blackmon (not that anyone else does), and the Cowboys' Big Three are too much for the Wildcats to keep up with.
Clemson, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, Arizona State and Penn State were eliminated in Round 2.
Georgia, Notre Dame, UCLA and Ohio State were pushed aside in Round 1.
Only Florida State, Pittsburgh, Miami and the University of Southern California are left.
Based on recent history, it’s a surprise the Panthers are still standing.
Next to college football’s teams of the 1980s (Miami), 1990s (FSU) and 2000s (USC), the Panthers stick out as much as Lane Kiffin sitting at a table of Hall of Fame coaches.
But here’s a brief history lesson to bring you up to speed on Pittsburgh football:
In the early 1980s, there probably wasn’t a better NFL factory than the Steel City’s university. Quarterback Dan Marino played there, along with fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers Russ Grimm and Rickey Jackson.
Who can forget Pitt’s stellar offensive linemen like Mark May, Jimbo Covert, Ruben Brown and Bill Fralic or its menacing defensive linemen such as Hugh Green, Chris Doleman and Sean Gilbert? Former NFL running backs Curtis Martin and Craig “Iron Head” Heyward played for the Panthers. More recently, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and cornerback Darrelle Revis starred at Pitt.
But if the survey were based on the last 10 to 15 years -- instead of the last three decades -- the Panthers wouldn’t have a seat at the front table.
FSU, Miami and USC are far and away college football’s best NFL factories during the last two decades.
The Hurricanes blessed us with alumni who won five NFL Most Valuable Player awards and made 100 Pro Bowl appearances. An alumni game at "The U.” would include a defense led by safety Ed Reed, linebacker Ray Lewis, and defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy. Try scoring against that unit.
The Miami offense would include quarterback Jim Kelly, tailbacks Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis, receiver Michael Irvin, tight end Jeremy Shockey, and tackle Bryant McKinnie.
Only USC can match that kind of star power. Four of the former Trojans drafted by NFL teams since 1979 are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: safety Ronnie Lott, tailback Marcus Allen, and offensive linemen Anthony Munoz and Bruce Matthews.
It’s probably only a matter of time before former Trojans Junior Seau joins his fellow USC alumni in Canton, Ohio.
Florida State, which won 10 games or more every season from 1987-2000 and won national championships in 1993 and ’99, produced NFL stars such as Deion Sanders, Derrick Brooks, Walter Jones and Warrick Dunn.
But many of FSU’s best players during the 1980s and ‘90s never found as much success in the NFL. Brad Johnson, the only former Noles quarterback to have sustained success in the NFL, didn’t even start during his senior season at FSU. Quarterbacks like Peter Tom Willis, Danny McManus, Danny Kanell and Casey Weldon had a cup of coffee in the NFL, but not much more.
What was the biggest surprise in the first round? No. 12 seed Ohio State over No. 5 seed Tennessee.
Ohio State’s lineup of Orlando Pace, Cris Carter, Chris Spielman, Eddie George and Robert Smith is as good as anybody’s, but Tennessee’s roster of NFL talent is arguably just as solid.
Besides, who doesn’t know the Buckeyes are going to lose to an SEC team every time?
You could almost make the list solely from Miami players between 2000 and 2003; the Hurricanes were that dominant with that many unbelievable athletes on the roster.
But there were several other outstanding players on other teams throughout the decade. When trying to pare down the top 10, I gave extra benefit to longevity. Many stars had amazing single seasons -- guys like Willis McGahee, Donald Brown and Elvis Dumervil -- but I leaned toward those who did it over a longer period of time. NFL production doesn't hurt one's case but is not a major determining factor; this is a list of the best Big East players, not top future pros.
So without further ado, here's my Top 10:
10. Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville: Brohm held the league's all-time career yardage mark before Matt Grothe broke it this past season. He led the Cardinals to the 2007 Orange Bowl title, and he still owns Big East records for passing yards in a career (9,956), season (4,024) and a game (555).
9. Mardy Gilyard, WR, Cincinnati: Gilyard's 3,003 career receiving yards rank just 40 yard behind the league's all-time leader, Rutgers' Kenny Britt. But he is also a two-time league special teams player of the year for his tremendous work on kick returns, and he was one of the main catalysts for the Bearcats' back-to-back Big East titles in 2008 and 2009.
8. Ken Dorsey, QB, Miami: Dorsey is the only Big East quarterback who can say he won a national title in the aughts. He finished his career with a ridiculous 38-2 record, was a two-time Big East offensive player of the year award winner, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and the co-MVP of the 2002 Rose Bowl.
6. Dwight Freeney, DE, Syracuse: Freeney was a holy terror on quarterbacks. His 34 career sacks ranks as the third most in Big East history, and he recorded 17.5 of them his senior year. He has gone on to stardom with the Indianapolis Colts.
5. Bryant McKinnie, OT, Miami: It's easy to forget the big guys up front sometimes, but it's impossible to omit McKinnie from this list. The 2001 Outland Trophy winner and two-time All-American did not allow a sack in his college career. He finished eighth in Heisman Trophy balloting in 2001 -- for an offensive lineman, that's staggeringly high.
4. Ray Rice, RB, Rutgers: Rice had two of the top three rushing seasons in Big East history and finished his three-year career with 4,926 rushing yards, only 113 yards behind all-time leader and four-year player Avon Cobourne of West Virginia. Rutgers' running game has sputtered ever since Rice left campus, and he has blossomed into a star at the next level.
3. Ed Reed, DB, Miami: Reed's Big East record of 21 career interceptions may not be broken for a long, long time. The two-time All-American had nine picks and returned three for touchdowns in 2001 alone.
2. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Pittsburgh: Fitzgerald finished second in the 2003 Heisman Trophy race and ought to have won it. His incredible season saw him catch 92 passes for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was almost as good in 2002, as well.
1. Pat White, QB, West Virginia: White may or may not be the best player on this list, but his accomplishments put him above the rest. He finished his career as the NCAA's all-time leader in rushing among quarterbacks, led West Virginia to two BCS bowl wins and went 4-0 in bowls as a starter. Maybe more importantly, he helped save the Big East by leading the Mountaineers to a win over Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl when the league's credibility and BCS status were in question. For pure impact and career achievement, White is the Big East's man of the decade.
Very honorable mention: Andre Johnson, Kellen Winslow, Willis McGahee and Jonathan Vilma, Miami; Donald Brown, UConn; Kenny Britt, Rutgers; Elvis Dumervil, Louisville; Antonio Bryant and Darrelle Revis, Pitt; Mathias Kiwanuka, Boston College; DeAngelo Hall, Virginia Tech.
That's my list. Who's in your Top 10 of the past 10 years?
There’s a natural tendency to overlook Dejuan Miller when considering Oklahoma’s speediest wide receivers.
|Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images|
|Oklahoma receiver Dejuan Miller scored his first touchdown against Kansas State.|
That is, until Miller lines up and actually runs a few routes.
“When people look at me, they automatically think I’m some kind of possession receiver,” Miller said. “But I ran track in high school. I can get out and run when I have to.”
That speed might be a stunner to some defenders. But it’s a natural advantage that Miller likes to spring on unsuspecting opponents.
“It’s fun and I love it,” Miller said. “When they see somebody 6-4 and 224 pounds they think I can just catch the ball. But it’s nice to surprise and shock them sometimes when I run.”
Earlier this season, teammates were mesmerized by his combination of size and speed. Several Oklahoma defensive backs compared him to NFL superstar Larry Fitzgerald because of his bountiful natural gifts.
But despite those tools and a strong effort in fall camp, Miller has had to wait his turn to work his way into Oklahoma’s receiving rotation.
“There was a frustrating point,” Miller said. “It was kind of like climbing a mountain and trying to stay positive every day and have positive outlook. I knew things would fall into place. I just needed my chance to shine and get a chance to play.”
That opportunity finally arrived last week when he produced a career-best nine receptions for 93 yards to help spark the Sooners’ victory over Kansas State.
His first catch was a 23-yard touchdown grab in which he broke several tackles. It was the first touchdown of his career.
Miller also produced three key third-down receptions on drives that led to Oklahoma touchdowns against the Wildcats.
“I feel like this was kind of my coming-out party, a chance to show what I could do,” Miller said. "It was huge because I’ve been waiting for a breakout game like that. I just wanted to showcase what I could do and be a playmaker for us.”
That development provides a capable No. 2 threat behind the speedy Ryan Broyles, who leads the nation with 10 touchdown receptions. The sophomore duo has Oklahoma fans excited about the future.
“Me and Ryan bring something different to the table,” Miller said. “He’s a natural playmaker and I think I bring more of a physical standpoint. I bring the physical and he brings flair and finesse. We kind of feed off each other.”
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones' connection with Miller in Oklahoma’s offense also appears to have grown in the last several weeks. Miller is listed as a first-string receiver on the Sooners' depth chart heading into Saturday's game at Nebraska.
"I always had confidence in him," Jones told the Tulsa World. "I've seen what he does in practice and what he's done since spring. He's a hard-working kid. He's going to make every play for you."
Miller was one of the three top wide receivers who chose the Sooners in the 2008 recruiting class along with Josh Jarboe and Jameel Owens. But Jarboe was dismissed from the Oklahoma squad two days before practice began last season when an expletive-laced rap video he had crafted ended up on the Internet.
And neither Miller nor Owens got much playing time last season as the Sooners preferred to use senior receivers like Manny Johnson, Juaquin Iglesias and Quentin Chaney.
“I was in kind of a rough situation last year because there were a lot of older guys in front of me,” Miller said. “I had to wait on my turn and be patient. I learned patience is a virtue.”
Family members in the Oklahoma City area were the major reason why Miller chose to leave his hometown of Metuchen, N.J., for the Oklahoma program. Among the other schools he considered included Penn State, Florida, Michigan, Boston College and Cincinnati.
But after the first big game of his career, Miller is happy he chose to come to Oklahoma -- even if he had to wait for his chance to play.
"I knew things eventually would get better,” Miller said. “It might be a rocky road, but I wanted to stick with it. I always had a good attitude because I knew it was just a matter of time before my chance would come along.”
If you've been watching the NFL playoffs, then you know that Larry Fitzgerald is the breakout star of the postseason thus far. Lots of analysts are now saying that the fifth-year Arizona Cardinals wideout has sprung to the head of the class among pro receivers.
|Larry Fitzgerald won the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award and the Biletnikoff Award in '03.|
None of this comes as a surprise to Pittsburgh Panthers fans, who watched Fitzgerald dominate in college during his two seasons on campus.
So the question I bring to you here today is this: Is Fitzgerald the best receiver in Big East history?
We had some fun during the season with the discussion about whether Pat White was the league's greatest player ever. It's easier to have these debates in the Big East, since the conference has been around for fewer than 20 years.
The case against Fitzgerald would be that he only played 26 games as a collegian. But there's never been a better receiving season in the league than what he produced in 2003, when he caught 92 passes for a ridiculous 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns.
His 34 career touchdowns are still the league record despite his short career. He also finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 2003 (behind Oklahoma's system-quarterback Jason White -- any chance we could get a recount?) and won the Walter Camp Award as the nation's best player.
Put it this way: Kenny Britt just compiled the second-highest season total for receiving yards in Big East history -- and he was 301 yards short of Fitzgerald's 2003 mark. Britt is the league's career leader in receiving yards, but his 17 touchdowns are half of Fitzgerald's total in one more season.
Other top candidates for the honor would include Antonio Bryant, Fitzgerald's predecessor as Pitt's No. 1 wideout; Miami's Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss; Louisville's Harry Douglas; Syracuse's Marvin Harrison; and West Virginia's Chris Henry.
I think it's a slam dunk to put Fitzgerald No. 1. If I had to rank the top six, it would look something like this (remember, we're talking college years only):
(Whew, that was more difficult than I thought. It's hard to imagine that I left Johnson and Wayne off there. Has any other league produced more top-flight receivers than the Big East in recent years?)
Anyway, that's my take. Do you agree that Fitzgerald is the best Big East receiver ever? If not, for whom would you vote? Hit me up with your thoughts and we'll hash it out before next week's Super Bowl.