Oregon State's Poyer headlines unsung heroes on BCS hopefuls
Heisman contenders have national name recognition, but they're not the only stars
Early surprises Oregon State and Florida have benefited from unheralded players
One Beavers defensive back looks poised to make the biggest second-half impact
As with any college football season, this year has been defined by its Heisman contenders. The race for one of the most storied trophies in sports has written much of the narrative of the first half, and the frontrunners have turned into stars. In August, Geno Smith, Manti Te'o and Collin Klein were standouts preparing for their senior seasons. By mid-October, they've become national sensations.
Of course, while Smith, Te'o and Klein deserve much of the credit for their team's respective success, they've had plenty of help. And some of it has come from unheralded sources. K-State safety Ty Zimmerman has interceptions in each of the Wildcats' last three games, while Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt -- who is starting to gain national recognition -- ranks among the FBS leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. The best players don't always wins games; the best teams typically do.
With that in mind, this week's Spotlight zeroes in on some of the first half's unsung heroes -- contributors who could take on starring roles during the national title hunt.
These five players from top teams are among those who deserve recognition for their impressive first-half performances, efforts that have boosted their programs' BCS chances.
P Kyle Christy, So., Florida: Last year, Brad Wing became a college football cult icon by establishing himself as the nation's most dangerous special teams threat. But while Wing has struggled in stints this season -- he averaged just 33.5 yards on four punts against South Carolina, pinning none inside the 20-yard line -- Christy has emerged as one of the premier field position generals in the SEC.
Christy is averaging 46.4 yards per punt, the sixth-highest total in the nation. He pinned LSU inside its own 10-yard line three times during Florida's Oct. 6 win over the Tigers, and he already has 11 punts of 50 yards or longer. Outside of quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Mike Gillislee and a handful of defensive headliners (safety Matt Elam, linebacker Jonathan Bostic and safety Josh Evans), Christy has been the most valuable cog behind the Gators' 6-0 start.
DE Scott Crichton, So., Oregon State: Crichton isn't an unknown quantity. He was named a Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention as a freshman and was listed on SI.com's Midseason All-America second-team Wednesday. But his impact can't be overstated. Crichton leads the nation with eight sacks through five games and has been a terror in the trenches to date. Just last weekend at BYU, his fourth-quarter sack on third-and-goal from the 10-yard line crushed the Cougars' upset chances.
Crichton bulked up during the offseason and currently has 11 tackles for loss, fourth in the FBS. And he could be primed to wreak even more havoc in the second half. He forced six fumbles in 2011 as a freshman -- four of which came after the midway point of the season. Along with corner Jordan Poyer (more on him below), Crichton has keyed the surprising Beavers' strong defensive start.
C B.J. Finney, So., Kansas State: Any mention of Kansas State this season elicits praise for quarterback Klein and coach Bill Snyder, and rightfully so. But another name should be added to that list: Finney, just a sophomore, has served as the centerpiece of one of the most dependable offensive lines in the country.
When Finney arrived in Manhattan out of Andale (Kan.) High in 2010, he joined the Wildcats' roster as a walk-on. The former two-star recruit redshirted before earning a starting spot last season, and he's trotted out with the first team in each of K-State's last 18 games. But most importantly, he's anchored the line amid transition. Fellow starters Clyde Aufner, Colten Freeze and Zach Hanson all graduated last spring, but the Wildcats have only come back stronger. They've allowed just four sacks through six games and have paved the way for the nation's 11th-ranked rushing offense, one averaging 248.5 yards per game. "I knew what was going to be expected of me as soon as the season was over last year," Finney recently told The Wichita Eagle. "I had to step up into that role and get other guys going."
WR Christion Jones, So., Alabama: Alabama's blueprint remains identical to that of past years: win with power running and suffocating defense. That's the strategy that carried the Tide to BCS titles in 2009 and '11, and that's the formula that has made them consensus national favorites again in 2012. However, in both of those seasons, the Tide also boasted dynamic special teams threats in Javier Arenas and Marquis Maze. And this year, 'Bama has another speedster to fill that role: 5-foot-11 sophomore Jones.
Though Jones is still emerging as an integral part of the passing attack (he has 11 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns), he's shown flashes of his immense potential. He currently ranks second on the Tide with 522 all-purpose yards, and he's already amassed 357 combined return yards and a score, the latter coming on a 99-yard runback just seconds after 'Bama faced its only deficit of the season at Ole Miss. His game-breaking ability could rise to the fore when the Tide face tougher SEC competition such as Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M in the second half.
TE Colt Lyerla, So., Oregon: In outscoring opponents 314-120 through six games, the Ducks have shown off a workhorse running back (Kenjon Barner), an explosive all-purpose threat (De'Anthony Thomas) and a much improved defense that shut out a potent Arizona attack during their Sept. 22 meeting. But they've also introduced a new weapon in Lyerla, a 6-5, 246-pound tight end who boasts the size and athletic ability to punish overmatched defenders.
Lyerla has 24 offensive touches in 2012 (12 carries, 12 receptions). He's scored five Oregon touchdowns. Expect the versatile sophomore -- who racked up 1,519 rushing yards, 352 receiving yards and 45 tackles as a two-way star during his senior year at Hillsboro (Ore.) High -- to continue to emerge as a red-zone matchup nightmare as the Ducks hit the teeth of their Pac-12 schedule.
Which underrated player will make the biggest second-half impact?
Like several of the players mentioned above, Oregon State defensive back Poyer is starting to generate some buzz. He leads the FBS with five interceptions through five games, and he's made many of his picks in pivotal moments: His third interception against Washington State clinched a 19-6 win, and his fourth-quarter pick-six at BYU capped last Saturday's 42-24 triumph.
Still, when talking about players responsible for the Beavers' resurgence, his name is often omitted from the list. It shouldn't be. Oregon State's pass efficiency defense has skyrocketed from 104th to 24th in the nation, and Poyer has been the man leading the charge.
"We came together at the end of last season after we lost to Oregon and finished 3-9 and basically told each other, 'We know this feeling and we don't want to feel like this again,'" said Poyer. "So this offseason, the leaders came up, guys like Markus Wheaton, Sean Mannion, me, Andrew Seumalo, we all came together and pushed these guys to work hard. It's really paying off for us."
His success is a product of several causes. First there's his motivation: representing his small community of Astoria, Ore., an inspiration detailed in terrific detail by Lindsay Schnell in The Oregonian. Then there's his work ethic, which has only improved after facing off against top wideout Markus Wheaton in practice every day over the past four years. But this year, there's also a new schematic wrinkle. Poyer has begun to line up in a newly utilized nickel position, a spot in which he's corralled all five of his interceptions. He says it's helped him see the field better -- a comfort level that could make all the difference in second-half showdowns with Arizona State, Stanford and Oregon.
"I'm able to just read quarterbacks' eyes," Poyer said. "Against Washington State, I had three interceptions. All three times, I just understood what was coming. When you're able to do that and you know you have help with the safety, it's easy to be athletic and make plays."
Here's a look at three under-the-radar freshmen who could factor into the BCS picture in the second half.
WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma: Sometimes overlooked behind freshman receiving counterpart Trey Metoyer, Shepard has quietly come into his own for the Sooners. The high school teammate of Stanford's Barry Sanders has 16 receptions for 206 yards and a touchdown, seven and 108 of which came during Oklahoma's Sept. 22 loss to Kansas State.
LB Isaiah Bruce, West Virginia: The Mountaineers defense has been anything but formidable, but the 6-1, 225-pound freshman has emerged as one of its few bright spots. Bruce leads WVU with 57 tackles through the first six games. He should only get better as the season wears on.
DE Sheldon Day, Notre Dame: Overshadowed on a defense that features Te'o, Tuitt, Louis Nix and Bennett Jackson, Day has shown glimpses of his pass-rushing potential. He's notched two sacks and 11 tackles in 2012 and could thrive under the tutelage of some of the Irish's veteran stars.
SI.com caught up with Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer before this week's game against Utah.
SI: Oregon State is 5-0 for the first time since 1939. When did you realize this team was capable of such a strong start?
JP: I would say in the offseason. We'd do a workout and then we'd do 7-on-7s or extra drills, and just the amount of effort that got put into that you could tell it was gonna be something special this season. We knew that people were doubting us and that motivated us even more.
SI: What's been the key to your individual success?
JP: I've been playing the game for a long time. I've been in [defensive coordinator Mark] Banker's system for a long time. And I go against guys like Markus Wheaton every single day and Brandin Cooks. Those two guys are two of the top receivers in the country. When you have the advantage of going against those guys every day, I take advantage of it.
SI: Despite having an accomplished career at Astoria High, you were initially written off by some D-I programs for playing at the Class 2A level. What does making it from a small school mean to you?
JP: I think that's made me who I am today. I got a lot of support from back home. It really motivates me a lot coming to practice every day knowing that I thought I had no chance in high school and now I'm here.
SI: Finally, I have to ask: How did Oregon State's postgame In-N-Out tradition come about?
JP: Guys in the past have gone to In-N-Out the night before the game and gotten some double-doubles. So coach Riley, he made a point: "Nobody go the night before the game. If we win the game, I'm buying the whole team In-N-Out." So that's where it started and that's where it's gonna finish. We're gonna keep winning and coach Riley is gonna keep feeding us some In-N-Out burgers.
There are plenty of other players who could have been spotlighted in this piece. Almost every team still in BCS contention has key contributors lacking proper recognition, an unfortunate byproduct of the mass of attention paid to each of the top team's stars.
But as the second half kicks off and the Heisman hunt intensifies, keep this in mind: Sometimes the lesser-known players make the biggest impact. When someone eventually hoists the crystal ball in January, it could have as much do to with a Poyer, Jones or Finney as it could a Smith, Te'o or Klein.