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Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The Underrated Players of the Year

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Not everybody gets invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony or earns All-America or all-conference honors.

While stars -- playmakers on both sides of the ball -- are important, a team often thrives because of the lunch pail guys, players who do their jobs quietly and reliably off to the side and away from media and fan adulation.

Who played well in the shadows this season?

Here's a team-by-team list with their "Underrated Player of the Year."

Arizona WR Juron Criner: The 6-foot-4, 210-pound sophomore doesn't figure to be underrated for long. He led the Wildcats with 579 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, while 27 of his 43 receptions resulted in a first down or touchdown.

Arizona State LB Travis Goethel: Goethel, a senior, ranked third on the Sun Devils' stingy defense with 57 tackles, 40 of which were solo. He also had seven tackles for loss, one interception, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery. His responsibilities including the thankless job of taking care of the opposing tight end.

California RB Shane Vereen: Vereen, a sophomore, rushed for 830 yards and 10 touchdowns as Jahvid Best's backup and then the Bears' starter when Best went down with a concussion. He rushed for 193 yards and three touchdowns in the Big Game against Stanford. He also caught 22 passes for 224 yards, ranking third on the Bears, with two touchdowns.

Oregon LB Spencer Paysinger: Paysinger may have been the Ducks' best linebacker among three very good linebackers. The junior tied with Casey Matthews for third on the team with 72 tackles, with 6.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.

Oregon State LB David Pa'aluhi: Pa'aluhi, a sophomore playing in the shadow of celebrity linebacker Keaton Kristick, ended up second on the Beavers with 67 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He also had two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.

Stanford TE Jim Dray: Dray, a senior, is an outstanding blocker. He also caught 10 passes for 132 yards and three touchdowns, which ranked third on the team.

UCLA LB Akeem Ayers: Ayers, a sophomore, won't make this list next year because he appears poised for a breakthrough after leading the Bruins with 12.5 tackles for loss with six sacks and 66 total tackles.

USC LB Malcolm Smith: USC's defense seemed to play better when Smith was healthy. Despite playing in just nine games, he finished third on the Trojans with 66 tackles -- one behind MLB Chris Galippo -- with five tackles for loss and one interception, which he returned 62 yards for a touchdown against UCLA. He also had four pass breakups and a forced fumble.

Washington LB Mason Foster: Only Cal's Mike Mohamed has more tackles than Foster's 190 over the past two seasons -- and Mohamed edged him by two because he played in a bowl game. No. 1 in the Pac-10 last year with 105 tackles, Foster had 85 stops in 2010, which ranked second on the Huskies and seventh in the conference. He also led the team with three interceptions and set a school record with six forced fumbles.

Washington State S Xavier Hicks: Hicks' career hasn't always been smooth sailing, but the senior became a leader on the Cougars defense this season, ranking second on the unit with 81 tackles, including four for a loss. He led the Cougs with three interceptions and also forced two fumbles.