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A call to arms

Marshall, Louisville QBs set to upstage predecessors

Posted: Monday April 15, 2002 11:56 AM

Offseason Beat

When the NFL draft takes place this weekend, two quarterbacks, Fresno State's David Carr and Oregon's Joey Harrington, are expected to be among the very top picks.

This, of course, is no unusual occurrence. You probably remember 1998, when Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Washington State's Ryan Leaf were the top two picks in the draft, or '99, when Kentucky's Tim Couch, Syracuse's Donovan McNabb and Oregon's Akili Smith went 1-2-3.

But you could probably win a fair amount of trivia contests by correctly answering the question, "Who were the top three quarterbacks selected in the 2000 draft?"

The answer is less obvious, both because the players hailed from smaller-conference schools and because they weren't particularly high selections. But at the time, Marshall's Chad Pennington (selected 18th by the Jets), Hofstra's Giovanni Carmazzi (49ers' third rounder) and Louisville's Chris Redman (Ravens' third rounder) were as prolific as QBs get in college football.

In particular, Pennington, a four-year starter, threw for a school-record 14,098 yards and was a Heisman finalist his senior year. Redman passed for 12,541 yards and set a Division I-A record with 1,031 completions.

Such once-in-a-lifetime-type players should, in theory, be darn near impossible for their teams to replace. Yet here we are, three years later, and the two highest-rated QBs by the NFL going into their senior years are none other than ... Pennington and Redman's successors.

While Florida's Rex Grossman and Miami's Ken Dorsey will grab the lion's share of hype at quarterback come fall, Marshall's Byron Leftwich and Louisville's Dave Ragone are already Mel Kiper's top two prospects for the 2003 draft. Not surprisingly, they have their respective schools dreaming of Heisman hardware.

Leftwich, who threw for an astounding 4,131 yards (breaking Pennington's school record), 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions last season and engineered the Thundering Herd's GMAC Bowl comeback from a 30-point deficit to East Carolina, even has his own bobble-head doll in production.

"My head's already big, but they're probably going to make it look even bigger," joked Leftwich, who was speaking literally, not figuratively.

Top Heisman Candidates for 2002
Tired of Heisman campaigns that begin way too early? Well ... too bad.
1. Ken Dorsey, Miami
Will get more credit with less support.
2. Rex Grossman, Florida
Zook says Gators will still throw it around.
3. Byron Leftwich, Marshall
Needs big performance against Hokies.
4. Eli Manning, Ole Miss
Has name value, but Rebs need more wins.
5. Onterrio Smith, Oregon
Ran for 1,000 yards as a backup last year. 
 
 

Truth be told, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Washington, D.C., native is staying remarkably grounded for a guy whose offense returns nine starters and three 1,000-yard receivers (including the bowl game, Darius Watts, Josh Davis and Denero Marriott).

"That stuff, I just try to stay away from it," Leftwich, 18-7 as a starter, said of all the hype. "Yeah, I've been working hard, have had some success in the past, but that means nothing for next year. I could go out there and stink it up. You never know."

Ragone, 6-4, 250 pounds and another third-year starter, has had similar success at Louisville, throwing for 5,684 career yards, 50 touchdowns and only nine interceptions while going 20-5 and winning consecutive Conference USA crowns. His spring, however, has been slightly more frustrating, with the Cardinals trying to break in four new offensive line starters and replace star receivers Deion Branch (1,188 yards last season) and Zek Parker (757).

Coach John L. Smith does not doubt Ragone can approach his previous production, though. For one, Ragone has made some important changes to his mechanics that will allow him to throw better on the run. And while there may no longer be one distinguished star like Branch among the receiving corps, opponents will have to prepare for as many as four or five different targets, such as high-rising basketball player Greg Tinch, 6-3 tight end Ronnie Ghent and 6-3 sophomore J.R. Russell.

"He's going to have to spread it around more," Smith said of Ragone. "Hopefully we can get good enough to protect for him to get that done. We may have to move him some, do some sprint outs, but that's not going to hurt him as far as his stock."

The similarities between Leftwich and Ragone don't end with big numbers.

Like BYU and Fresno State last year, and '98 Tulane and '99 Marshall before them, the two QBs' teams carry this season's best chances for a team from a non-BCS conference to crash party. To do so, we've learned, requires not only a perfect record but quality wins as well, and both the Herd and the Cardinals -- who will likely begin the season ranked in the Top 25 -- have that opportunity.

Marshall visits Virginia Tech for a Thursday night game on Sept. 12, while Louisville hosts Florida State in one two weeks later. The nationally televised games provide both teams a chance to not only boost their rankings but also garner valuable exposure for their purported Heisman candidates.

Of course, they do still need to win.

"I'm kind of realistic here," said Ragone. "I understand we have to be 11-0 and I have to perform high every game [to win the Heisman]. That's something I'm not going to put on myself. I'm more concerned with wins."

Recent years have shown that it is at least possible for a smaller-conference player to get invited to the New York ceremony. Marshall has had two finalists, Randy Moss in 1997 and Pennington in '99, and in fact Leftwich said by watching Pennington's campaign unfold his freshman year he has a better idea what he's in store for this fall.

Whether or not either player actually comes close in the end, two very lucrative careers appear to be awaiting them.

In the meantime, their schools can only sit back and enjoy the chase.

"We don't want to make it evident to him; I'm sure he gets enough of fans talking about him every day at school," Louisville defensive end Dewayne White -- himself a Lombardi candidate -- said of Ragone. "But it's kind of neat knowing you have guy on your team up for the Heisman. You can tell your kids one day you played with that guy."

Illini reload

Few expect Illinois to repeat as Big Ten champion in 2002 -- which leaves the Illini primed to fly under the radar again.

Of course, the main reason for decreased expectations is the graduation of QB Kurt Kittner, the heart and soul of Ron Turner's program the past few years. His successor was presumed for some time to be Dustin Ward, but the junior faces competition this spring from transfer Jon Beutjer, an Illinois native whom you may remember starting four games for Iowa in 2000 (77-of-125, 841 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs).

In the first scrimmage of spring, Ward was 13-of-19 for 181 yards and a touchdown, while Beutjer went 12-of-17 for 141, one TD and one interception.

Beutjer isn't the only transfer looking at possible playing time for the Illini. Former walk-on Winston Taylor, from Eastern Illinois, is pushing returning starters Joe Bevis, Ty Myers and Jerry Schumacher at linebacker, while former Eastern Michigan tailback Ryan Clifford is expected to back up Antonieo Harris. Touted juco safety James McGill joins the fray in the fall.

While Turner is busy plugging holes between the hash marks, the strength of this team will be near the sidelines. The Illini return both starters at receiver, second team All-Big Ten selection Brandon Lloyd and Walter Young, as well as cornerback, where Eugene Wilson is a reigning All-American and Christian Morton was second team All-Big Ten.

Buffs 'D' up

Colorado's surprising run to the Big 12 championship last season was not without its flaws. In an effort to improve a unit that finished seventh in the league in total defense (357.3 yards allowed) and 10th in passing defense (228.6), coordinator Vince Okruch has shuffled several personnel.

Drew Wahlroos, the team's third-leading tackler last season as an outside linebacker, has moved to the inside, while Joey Johnson, the No. 4 tackler, has done the opposite, and Marques Harris has moved from defensive end to linebacker.

Among the most impressive performers on defense this spring have been three likely new starters: junior tackle DeAndre Fluellen, junior free safety Meford Moorer and junior end Gabe Nyenhuis, the latest of Gary Barnett's ex-Northwestern transfers.

Wake up and smell the Deacons

Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Maryland have all taken their turns in recent years. This season, it could be Wake Forest that grabs the ACC by storm. The Demon Deacons won four of five road games to finish 6-5 in Jim Grobe's first season at the helm.

Much like his teams at Ohio, which usually ranked among the nation's rushing leaders, Grobe's first Wake Forest team led the ACC (221.6 ypg) in that category. Both Tarence Williams, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2001, and Fred Staton, who gained 157 yards on 15 carries in Wake's spring game, return. So do third-year QB James MacPherson and WR Jason Anderson, who led the team in catches (28) and yards (472) as a freshman, though three starters must be replaced along the line.

MacPherson originally emerged as the QB in 2000 after now-Tennessee Vol C.J. Leak went down with a season-ending knee injury, but until the middle of last season was still sharing time with the more athletic Anthony Young. McPherson had a shabby 5/11 touchdown-interception ratio last year but made his mark by engineering a 24-point comeback against UNC and winning three of his last four starts.

McPherson's job now secure, Wake has been able to move Young to receiver, where he showed flashes of becoming a legit playmaker during spring practices.

"I think if you look at him out there, he's a pretty good-looking wide receiver," said Grobe. "Every day he makes a special catch. The thing from Anthony that we need -- like we needed when he was at quarterback -- is the consistency, not the flash-in-the-pan kind of stuff."

Stewart Mandel covers college football for CNNSI.com.

Got a comment, question or scoop for Stewart? Click here.

 
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