NCF Nation: Larry Ford
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Who will be the next batch of players to post have breakthrough seasons? Unlike the top newcomers, which we explored on Thursday, this list is about players who have already seen some time on the field but may be about to make you sit up and take notice. This is a tough exercise to do before seeing players in the spring, but here are five early possibilities:
• Cory Grissom, DT, South Florida: He appeared in only one game in 2008 before being shelved by an ankle injury, for which he gained a medical redshirt. Bulls coaches love him and think he has the most talent of any of their young interior linemen. Look for him to fight for a starting spot on what could be the league's best defensive line in '09.
• Dominique Battle, CB, Cincinnati: Battle was named the Bearcats' newcomer of the year after playing in every game as a freshman, but he was overshadowed by Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith. With both those guys off to the NFL Draft, Battle should step right in as a starting corner. Cincinnati has shown it knows how to develop ball-hawking defensive backs, and the athletic Battle fits that mode to a tee.
• Julian Miller, DL, West Virginia: Miller was the Mountaineers' scout team defensive player of the year during his redshirt season, then played all 13 games last year as a backup, recording 3.5 sacks. He should challenge Larry Ford for the starting job at defensive end. On a defense that returns most of its starters from a year ago, Miller could be the biggest depth-chart mover.
• Andre Dixon/Jordan Todman, RB, UConn: Donald Brown cast a long shadow by leading the nation in rushing in 2008, so one or both of these guys might emerge in his absence. Dixon led the team in rushing two years ago and was second team All-Big East, but he vanished as a junior. Todman made a strong freshman debut and has the burst to excel in many roles in the Huskies' new no-huddle offense.
• T.J. Porter, WR, Pittsburgh: Porter backed up Derek Kinder at flanker last season but still finished third on the team in catches, yards and yards per catch. The graduation of Kinder and Oderick Turner opens up plenty of playing time for the Florida-bred speedster. And with defenses no doubt gearing up to double team Jonathan Baldwin, Porter could be in line for a big senior season.
Had they played it in the first week of September, the West Virginia-Auburn game would have attracted all the pomp and circumstance of one of the biggest nonconference matchups of the year.
Here on Oct. 23, though, as the two teams actually get set to face off in Morgantown (7:30 ET, ESPN), the game draws confused stares and shrugs. The Mountaineers (4-2) and Tigers (4-3) are two of only three teams, along with Clemson, who began the season ranked in the Top 10 and are now out of the polls.
"They've kind of stumbled as we've stumbled," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said.
The pratfalls have been remarkably similar. Both teams' troubles revolve around vastly disappointing offenses. The Tigers rank 97th nationally in scoring, while West Virginia checks in at No. 82.
The Tigers put up only three points at Mississippi State and 13 at Vanderbilt. The Mountaineers scored just three at East Carolina and 14 at Colorado. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville reacted by firing offensive coordinator Tony Franklin six games into his first full season. Stewart hasn't gone that far, but plenty of fans have called for the head of first-year playcaller Jeff Mullen. In an interview last week, Mullen told me, "it feels like I'm walking the Green Mile over here."
The Tigers have toggled between quarterbacks Chris Todd and Kodi Burns because of ineffectiveness. West Virginia quarterback Pat White missed the Syracuse game and parts of two others because of injuries.
"Auburn just hasn't been hitting on all cylinders," Stewart said. "We're in the same boat."
Tonight's game may have lost its marquee status, but it still holds some appeal. The poor play of both teams' offenses shouldn't overshadow how well their defenses have performed.