NCF Nation: Ralph David Abernathy

Big East top freshmen in 2011

December, 14, 2011
Several true and redshirt freshmen made a big impact in the Big East this season. Who was the best of the best? Here are my top impact freshman, and one to watch in 2012.

Tops in 2011:

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Bridgewater won the Big East Newcomer of the Year award for good reason. He took over the starting quarterback job after leading the team to a victory over Kentucky and set the school record for passing yards by a freshman with 1,855. He also ranks No. 12 on the Scouts Inc., top 25 freshman players list. They say, "His ability to improvise when the play starts to break down is his greatest strength. He is able to buy time with his feet and he has the arm strength to zip the ball downfield when he rolls out."

Lyle McCombs, RB, UConn. McCombs was expected to share carries with D.J. Shoemate when the year began. But after Shoemate got hurt, the rushing load fell to McCombs and he delivered. McCombs led the Big East in rushing with 1,115 yards -- the ninth-highest single-season total in school history and the second among freshmen at UConn. He was a second-team All-Big East selection, and also ranked No. 3 in the Big East in all-purpose yards. He ranks No. 24 on the Scouts Inc., list. They say, "McCombs is an undersized back with a nice combination of quickness and elusiveness as a runner. He flashes exceptional lateral agility to make defenders miss in a confined area and has the acceleration to squeeze through tight creases."

Elkino Watson, DT, USF. Watson was part of the two-deep rotation and ended up with one sack and nine tackles for loss.

Ralph David Abernathy IV, KR, Cincinnati. Abernathy emerged as a top special-teams player, averaging 24.7 yards on kickoff returns. His long went for 74 yards this season, and he finished with 914 total yards on kickoff returns.

Dustin Garrison, RB, West Virginia. Garrison emerged from a trio of runners to be the top back for the Mountaineers, rushing for 742 yards and six touchdowns. His average of 5.5 yards per carry was the best among the top 10 statistical rushers in the Big East.

Dyshawn Davis, LB, Syracuse. Davis started all 12 games, recording four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Jeremiah Kobena, KR, Syracuse. Kobena led the Big East with 1,027 yards on kickoff returns, returning 45 kicks for an average of 22.8 yards. His yardage total ranks second on the Syracuse single-season record list and third on the Big East single-season list.

Yawin Smallwood, LB, UConn. Smallwood finished tied for No. 6 in the Big East with 94 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

Kaleb Johnson, RT, Rutgers. Johnson started all 10 games he played in this season for the Scarlet Knights, helping the offensive line improve dramatically from last season.

Eli Rogers, WR, Louisville. Rogers finished second on the team with 400 yards receiving and one touchdown, and emerged as a go-to player for Bridgewater.

One to watch in 2012:

Rushel Shell, RB. Shell, out of Aliquippa, Pa., is committed to Pitt and would no doubt come in and compete for the starting job should Ray Graham not return. There is plenty of talent at this position, with Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis returning, along with Malcolm Crockett. But Shell is listed as the No. 24 player on the ESPNU 150 rankings, and is one of the most complete backs in the class of 2012. Todd Graham will find a place for him if he lives up to expectations.

Final: Cincinnati 59, Akron 14

September, 17, 2011
The Bearcats had little trouble with Akron, rebounding from last week's disappointing loss to Tennessee with a 59-14 victory against the Zips.

Reserves played the second half after Cincinnati took a 49-0 halftime lead. The Bearcats built the lead to 59-0 before Akron scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Among the final highlights:
  • Cincinnati ended up taking the ball away six times, including three defensive scores, but the Bearcats also turned the ball over for the first time this season. They are now at plus-12 on the season in turnover margin.
  • Jameel Poteat scored his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 7-yard run. The true freshman led the team with 55 yards rushing. Fellow true freshmen Akise Teague and Ralph David Abernathy also got their share of carries.
  • Munchie Legaux and Jordan Luallen split time in the second half in relief of Zach Collaros. Legaux went 3-of-4 for 21 yards, with three carries for 2 yards. Luallen went 0-for-1 and had five carries for 17 yards.
  • Backup kicker Shane Popham also got into the game, making one extra point.

Big East weekend rewind

September, 5, 2011
Time to take a quick look back on Week 1 and look ahead to Week 2.

The good: The Big East went 8-0, joining the Big 12 as the only conferences to have a perfect record on opening weekend. Four of the wins came against FCS opponents and two against non-AQs. So the schedule was not the strongest. But the league should get credit for not having any bad losses. The ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten cannot say the same. Duke and Oregon State lost to FCS teams, and Indiana lost to Ball State. Of course, the biggest win belonged to USF, which upset No. 16 Notre Dame, 23-20. Syracuse deserves credit, too, for erasing a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat Wake Forest in overtime.

[+] EnlargeRay Graham
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicRunning back Ray Graham had a big opening game for Pittsburgh.
The inconsistent: Neither Pitt nor West Virginia showed the true potential of its offense. Perhaps expectations were way too high for both to come flying out of the gate as unstoppable forces of nature. It takes time for players to get adjusted to new systems. There were significant differences between what the two teams showed this weekend. Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri struggled. But Ray Graham proved he is going to be a valuable member of the offense, rolling up 201 yards on the ground. West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith made plays by himself left and right, thanks to a shaky offensive line. But the run game struggled mightily in three quarters -- just 42 total yards on the ground and an average of 1.6 yards per carry.

The unknown: There are only so many conclusions to make in Week 1. Rutgers rolled up 48 points and Cincinnati 72. But both played FCS opponents, so there is no real way of knowing where either team stands heading into big tests in Week 2. The Louisville offense sputtered in the second half against Murray State. The Syracuse defense struggled for three quarters. USF gave up more than 500 yards to Notre Dame. Connecticut has three quarterbacks but no starter.

The weather: South Florida and West Virginia endured significant rain delays in their games. The Bulls had some experience with that after waiting out a long weather delay before their first scrimmage of fall camp in Vero Beach. But the delays in Morgantown were much longer, and there was no choice but to call the game.

The freshmen: Plenty of true freshmen played this weekend with mixed results. Rutgers running back Savon Huggins had two touchdowns but only 32 yards on 10 carries. The West Virginia trio of Andrew Buie, Vernard Roberts and Dustin Garrison were up and down. Ronald Jones at Pitt and Ralph David Abernathy IV at Cincinnati showed terrific flashes as returners. UConn quarterback Michael Nebrich got his chance, going 3-of-8 for 60 yards with an interception. Louisville had receiver DeVante Parker score a touchdown, and B.J. Dubose made some plays on the defensive line.

Another helmet sticker: Tavon Austin returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score in West Virginia's rain-shortened 34-13 win against Marshall.

Week 2: Three games are on the slate against teams from other AQ conferences, and all three are on the road. Cincinnati is at Tennessee; Rutgers is at North Carolina; and UConn is at Vanderbilt. Even though Week 1 featured a game against a ranked team, this week is a more critical test for the league. None of the opponents are projected to win their conferences. But each has been to bowl games in the recent past. Plus, two of the games are against teams from the SEC. Sure, one of the games is against Vanderbilt, but wins against that league are always important.

Tennessee, North Carolina and Vandy opened with wins against FCS opponents. There were questions about the Tar Heels after the sudden termination of coach Butch Davis. Plus they have a first-year starting QB Bryn Renner. But he quieted some doubts after going 22-of-23 for 277 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against James Madison.

The other league games: FIU at Louisville; Maine at Pitt; Norfolk State at West Virginia; Rhode Island at Syracuse; Ball State at USF.