Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Huskers out for revenge
By Bruce Feldman ESPN The Magazine
Nebraska folks have been looking forward to Saturday night's meeting with Penn State all summer. Who could blame them after the way the Nittany Lions blistered the Big Red 40-7 in a primetime national TV game? And from the looks of things this is a totally different Husker team JoePa's boys will be facing.
The biggest change is with new D-coordinator Bo Pelini's defense. Pelini, a Pete Carroll disciple, has unleashed a fast set of linebackers and that could spell disaster for a Penn State offensive line that uses five new guys, and quite frankly, looked lost last Saturday against Boston College.
We talked a little about OLB Demorrio Williams last week and sure enough, he went wild against Utah State, notching three sacks and forcing two fumbles in the first half. The move of the 6-foot, 215-pound Williams to DE in obvious passing situations has been a stroke of genius, but don't overlook MLB Barrett Ruud, who also has been freed up a lot this year.
The 6-2, 235-pound junior made a team-high 11 tackles while also forcing a fumble and breaking up two passes against USU. Ruud runs well, but he was bothered for most of last season having to play with a cast on his broken left hand. Pelini now is using Ruud further behind the line, giving him a better look at the offensive backfield and more freedom to run and play downhill.
This game will be even more compelling if JoePa relies more on talented freshman RB Austin Scott, who is -- by far -- his best runner.
As usual for a big game at the Orange Bowl, the Miami sideline looked like Hurricane Hall of Fame gathering. In addition to Bernie Kosar, Warren Sapp and dozens of others, one of the most vocal old 'Canes on the sidelines for Saturday night's manic comeback win over Florida was Melvin Bratton. A former superstar UM running back, Bratton was Willis McGahee some 15 years ago. He tore two knee ligaments while catching a pass in the 1988 Orange Bowl in which Miami beat Oklahoma for the national title. It was Bratton's last play for Miami.
Before the Orange Bowl, Bratton was a projected top-five pick. He was taken by the Dolphins in the sixth round of the '88 draft but opted not to sign. He went back into the draft and was taken by Denver in the seventh round the next year. Two years after starting for the Broncos in the 1990 Super Bowl, his career was over. Bratton ended up as a scout for a few NFL teams before his godson sparked an idea a short while back.
Turns out on Signing Day in February 2002, Bratton's best friend and former UM roommate Tolbert Bain was getting all styled up to take some pictures with his son, Travarous, a speedy cornerback, who committed to UM. Bain's old man, a former 'Cane cornerback, brought out his old Miami jersey. The younger Bain flipped. "Dad, that's worth about $250." When Bain shared the story with Bratton, the former tailback dropped his newspaper and a light bulb went off. College Throwback, an apparel business paying homage to old-school football heroes, was born.
Fast forward 18 months and thanks to the players' ties, they have signed up 29 former college football legends. Among them, FSU's Deion Sanders and his No. 2; Tennessee's Reggie White and his No. 92 and UM's Bernie Kosar and his No. 20. The players get a percentage of the jersey sales and an additional percentage goes to the school's athletic department in the player's name.
As the old 'Canes told their story about how fate found them, Bain looked outside at a yacht that cruised past the window of Fort Lauderdale's Marriott Marina. "Man, I'd like to have one of those someday," he said.
Bratton just laughed. "I thought I was gonna have one of those," he said smiling. "But I guess I wasn't ready. Maybe God thought I'd blow all the money back then."
Seeing Bratton and Bain (who is no longer allowed on the UM sidelines since he has a son playing), it got us to thinking which players this year have the potential to someday merit folk hero status. (And no, this isn't a best players list or anything like that, just guys we think have that mysterious Q-rating.)
Who would have thought Maurice Clarett's OSU jersey could go retro so fast?
1. Maurice Clarett, No. 13: Even if he never plays another down of college football, he will go down as an icon of sorts. Good or bad. That Grambling No. 13 that Doug Williams was showing off probably should be No. 1B.
2. Kellen Winslow, No. 81: The Vin Diesel look-alike may rub some folks the wrong way, but you can't deny he has 'it.' Who else gets on SportsCenter for making a one-handed catch on the sidelines while his unit wasn't even on the field like he did against Louisiana Tech.
3. Greg Jones, No. 6: Hercules in cleats. His annihilation of UNC safety Dexter Reid is the football equivalent to Vince Carter's facial on Frederick Weis. Maybe the best football highlight we've seen in years.
4. Larry Fitzgerald, No. 1: Has the work ethic, personality and talent to live up to his number. He's already make people in the Steel City forget Antonio Bryant.
5. David Pollack, No. 47: The SEC's top defender in 2002, he looks ready to make a run at another league player of the year trophy.
6. Jared Lorenzen, No. 22: As much cult hero as folk hero. He's big. He's talented. His beefy face looks like a loaf of fresh-baked bread inside that helmet.
7. Brad Smith, No. 16: He has a little of the Michael Vick factor. A few more performances like the one he turned in against Oklahoma last year and he'll become a household name.
8. Richie Incognito, No. 51: The name helps, but the ornery OT also must be making Dick Butkus proud that he wears 51.
9. Igor Olshansky, No. 53: OK, we had to pick one Duck because of those neon unis, and who better than bull-rushing Ukrainian who benches 515 pounds and loves to relax by throwing knives?
10. Jeremy Bloom, No. 15: Besides the fact that he might be the nation's slickest punt returner and that he'll probably will win an Olympic Gold medal some day, we found more than a dozen web sites devoted to the Colorado sophomore.
Speaking of cult heroes, you could probably add Columbia's No. 12. That's the jersey worn by reserve QB Matt Kaplan, who has made some news off the field since he is dating Ashley Olsen, one of the Olsen twins. Kaplan met her at tiny Campbell Hall High School in North Hollywood. "Matt was my prize recruit in 2002," says former Lion assistant Brian Yauger, who is coaching the Arvida Jets in Sweden this fall. Yauger was able to convince Kaplan to go to the Ivies over a ride to San Jose State. "It was funny, when I was recruiting him I noticed that the tailback was pretty good, and I asked about him. They said his name was something Washington." The kid was Denzel Washington's son.
LSU's D-line doesn't get the accolades that some defensive lines are getting, but they look like they could be as dominant as any crew around now that Marcus Spears and Marquise Hill are healthy. The 6-4, 297-pound Spears, a former prep All-American basketball player, was slowed by an ankle injury for much of the 2002 season. Last Saturday against Arizona, he had three tackles for losses, including a sack.
The 6-7, 295-pound Hill, a John Henderson-type talent, was bothered by shoulder and hand injuries last season. Together along with rugged DT Chad Lavalais, Nick Saban should finally be getting the heat he has been pleading for from his defensive front, especially when Hill is shifted to the edge on nickel and dime situations.
Oregon State QB Derek Anderson has gotten off to terrible start this season and one west coast coach we spoke with says he'd be shocked if the Beavers don't make a change sometime this fall.
"It does look like he has much confidence," says the assistant. "He's got a strong arm and he's very athletic, but he's never been very accurate and the thing that I think is gonna kill them is he's not only wild, but he tends to be wild and high -- and those are the ones that usually get picked. They must not have anything behind him."
Even though it wasn't a defensive play, Sean Taylor, Miami's uber-safety, certainly helped his rep as a playmaker Saturday night with an eye-popping long kickoff return where he broke seven tackles. But don't expect too many more kick returns from the explosive 6-3, 230-pound junior, who once scored a Florida state record of 44 TDs in one prep season. Taylor told us he'd rather save all his energy for defense, especially since UM has no shortage of lethal returnmen. "I need more rest," he said Tuesday after practice. "I'm sure I could go, but I wanna make sure I can be a little fresher."
On the other side of the ball, Miami's receiving crew has been pretty hobbled, but the 'Canes should get Jason Geathers, their most physical receiver, back Saturday against East Carolina. The 6-3, 220-pound senior, who has been hobbled by a sore hamstring since the start of fall camp, practiced Tuesday. Coach Larry Coker said Geathers caught the ball pretty well but added that he was tentative coming out of his breaks.
Lost in the shuffle of some terrific linebackers out west, namely Oregon State's Richard Siegler, Oregon's Kevin Mitchell, San Diego State's Kirk Morrison, USC's Matt Grootegoed and Stanford's Mike Craven, we couldn't help but notice Washington State's Will Derting who was all over the field against Notre Dame. The 6-foot, 235-pound redshirt sophomore led the Cougars with 10 tackles (eight solo) and made the pop on Carlyle Holiday that caused a fumble that Isaac Brown returned 12 yards for a touchdown and a 19-0 lead.
South Carolina is improved, but not sure I'd want to be Gamecock QB Dondrial Pinkins having to face Georgia and David Pollack next. Especially since the 'Dogs have held each of their first two opponents to under 75 yards rushing and Carolina receivers have dropped 17 passes in their first two games.
Michigan is trying blue-chip safety Prescott Burgess at inside linebacker. Burgess has the frame for the move at 6-3, 215 and we're told might be more suited to the middle. "He's a great specimen," said one Big Ten assistant who tried recruiting Burgess. "But we weren't sure he had the instincts to play safety. We thought maybe he'd be a better weakside linebacker, but I guess we'll see."
West Virginia trotted out its two big newcomers last weekend and it looks like big back Kay-Jay Harris (78 yards, one TD) and 6-5 wideout Chris Henry (two TD receptions) are ready to provide some balance to Rasheed Marshall and workhouse back Quincy Wilson.
Oklahoma State has two highly touted young D-linemen, DT Xavier Lawson-Kennedy, a thick run-stuffer and Brad Girtman, a relentless DE. But keep an eye on Marque Fountain, who last week got a sack and was the most impressive of the three.
As if USC didn't already have enough size in its secondary with 6-3 Darnell Bing playing centerfield, this week Pete Carroll moved 6-5, 220-pound linebacker Dallas Sartz to safety while Bing mends a sprained ankle. Sartz played FS in high school and does have the head to play back there we're told. He was a pretty big recruit for the Trojans two years ago.
John L. Smith has been searching for a game-breaker since arriving at Michigan State and it appears he's found on in speedy wideout Agim Shabaj, who probably will get a crack returning punts this weekend against Louisiana Tech. Shabaj isn't as reliable as Ziehl Kavanaght, but he is more more dangerous.
Three years ago ESPN The Magazine touted Arkansas freshman tailback Cedric Cobbs as a future breakout star. We looked pretty good a few months later when Cobbs won MVP honors at the Cotton Bowl. However, due to a host of injuries and some bad decisions, Cobbs has been virtually a non-factor for the Hogs the past two years. But last Saturday he showed signs that he might finally be ready to put it all together. Cobbs ran for 145 yards on 12 carries against Tulsa, flashing the wheels that Arkansas coach Houston Nutt was raving about three years ago. Cobbs is one of three forgotten former stars that we think are worth keeping an eye on.
The other two are Syracuse wide receiver/kick returner Johnnie Morant and Arizona running back Clarence Farmer. A former blue-chip wideout from New Jersey, Morant, the son of former New Jersey bodybuilder John Morant, had done almost nothing in his first three years with the Orange. However, last Saturday, the 6-5, 225-pound Morant piled up 291 all-purpose yards in the Orangemen's 49-47 triple overtime win over North Carolina. Morant had 160 yards receiving and two touchdowns and 131 yards on four kickoff returns.
Farmer's case is a little different. Two years ago he led the Pac-10 in rushing. He missed most of last season due to a knee injury and he eventually wound up in Wildcats coach John Mackovic's doghouse, which apparently is so big that if it were in Manhattan he could probably get $5,000 a month if he rented it out.
Farmer is a big-time talent. One Pac-10 coach we spoke with said he has first-round talent because, "he is an attacking back with terrific feet," however Farmer's relationship with Mackovic is so shaky that last month he declared he wouldn't talk to the Cats coach if he didn't have to talk to him.
Mackovic was running him behind Mike Bell, who also is a quality back, but when the sophomore hurt his arm against LSU, Farmer jumped in and gained 61 yards on eight carries. He did get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for spiking the ball after scoring on an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter. Just frustration built up, Farmer explained later. Here's hoping Farmer isn't kept on the bench because he's about the best reason to watch the Wildcats these days.
Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.