SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
8/18/2006 12:27:00 PM
Best Players You've Never Seen
Yvenson Bernard ran for 194 yards and two touchdowns (including this one) in an upset victory over Cal.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
I do my best to check in on as many different players and teams from around the country as possible each season, but inevitably there are some that will slip through the cracks. Looking at the various All-America and all-conference teams this preseason, I realized there were several notable performers who, because their team wasn't exactly worth watching last season, I've never seen play. And I'm guessing, unless you’re a fan of one of their teams, you haven't either.
I'm looking forward to checking them out when the season gets under way.
Yvenson Bernard, RB, Oregon State: Bernard finished ninth in the country in rushing as a sophomore (1,321 yards, 13 touchdowns), but he did it for a 5-6 Pac-10 afterthought. If the Beavers get back on the right side of .500 this season, we'll be seeing a lot more of Bernard.
Dan Bazuin, DE, Central Michigan: Bazuin was second only to Louisville's Elvis Dumervil in sacks (16) last season. The last great MAC pass-rusher, Western Michigan’s Jason Babin, put up similar numbers in 2003 and became a first-round pick of the Houston Texans.
Patrick Willis, LB, Ole Miss: This one I really feel bad about -- I probably should have seen the nation's leading returning tackler (128 in 10 games) at some point last season, but the Rebels were so darn awful. We'll probably be checking them out early for Willis and Brent Schaeffer.
Josh Beekman, G, Boston College: It's not that I didn't see B.C. last season, I just wasn't watching the offensive line. Beekman is drawing raves as a first-team preseason All-America and may wind up the top-rated guard in next spring's draft. Definitely someone to keep an eye on.
Rafael Little, RB, Kentucky: The junior, who ranked fifth nationally in all-purpose yards last season (180.2 yards per game), has been described as Kentucky's equivalent to Reggie Bush. He's supposed to be extremely exciting to watch – even if it means watching a Kentucky game.
Who are some other stars-in-the-making who you feel have slipped under the radar? As a guideline, don't bother nominating anyone whose team is in the preseason top 25.
Troy Smith was named Fiesta Bowl MVP last January, throwing for 342 yards and two touchdowns.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
When I met up with Troy Smith in Columbus last month for the feature story that appears in this week's Sports Illustrated, I told him I wanted to experience a typical day in the life of a star quarterback. Three hours later, I found myself standing in a parking lot loading stacks of dry cleaning into the back of his car.
Ever read US Weekly? You know that section of photos they run at the front, "Stars: They're Just Like Us?" If I had a camera with me, I could have filled an entire section solely with Ohio State's quarterback. We spent the whole afternoon driving around the city (I never figured out if he was lost or just wandering) running errands -- the nutrition store to buy protein shakes, the Verizon store to fix an Internet account, the bank (this one took an especially long time, because Smith couldn't find a National City branch to save his life) and the dry cleaner. And while this may not sound particularly glamorous, all that time in the car made for some good conversation.
We talked about football, obviously. We talked about the tribulations of his childhood (he grew up in one of the poorest parts of Cleveland). We talked about his infamous misdeed with the booster. Smith, a comic-book fanatic, asked me about my job and admitted that what little understanding of journalism he had was gleaned from the Spider-Man movies. At that point I made the mistake of asking him if he'd seen the Superman movie. "C'mon, man -- Superman is overrated," he said. "He's the most athletic guy in the superhero world, by far. He's the fastest, he's the strongest -- but people beat him up. I don't understand it. And he has the worst anti-problem: kryptonite. Who can get kryptonite? Only one dang person can get kryptonite!"
Smith, whose grin rarely leaves his face, knows the national college football scene cold and loves to talk about other players and coaches. He is close friends with one of the Big Ten's other star quarterbacks, Michigan State's Drew Stanton, dating back to their time as roommates at the high school Elite 11 camp. They talk nearly every week during the season. At one point during the ride, another close friend, former OSU star and current Indianapolis Colt Mike Doss, called to say hi. Smith clamps up a little, however, when you bring up the subject of Vince Young, to whom he is constantly compared. "Different states, different teams, different quarterbacks," said Smith. In fact, despite his running prowess, he says he'd much rather pass 50 times a game than take off running for 150 yards. "What about designed runs?" I asked. "Don't you like those?" He smirked at me. "C'mon -- what do you think?" "I don't know, if I could run like that, I'd probably enjoy it," I replied. "Nah," he said. "That's the third option [behind throwing and handing off]."
The Buckeyes don't necessarily need him to run like Vince, but if they hope to live up to SI's billing as the nation's No. 1 team, they're certainly going to need him to lead like Vince. For all its talent, OSU will still be very much a work in progress early in the season, particularly on defense; they'll need Smith to pick up where he left off at the end of last season, when he torched Michigan and Notre Dame for a combined 745 yards of offense.
Smith has been extremely serious about the task at hand this offseason, so much so that our day of shopping -- which was to be followed by a PlayStation "date" with cornerback Donald Washington, then evening film study -- truly was representative of his decidedly unglamorous off-the-field life these days. No clubs. No parties. A big night out, he says, is a trip to the movies. "A doctor will go through eight years of [school] to reach their maximum potential. They don't play around," said Smith. "I have to do X, Y and Z to reach my maximum potential, to hopefully be in a situation where I can set my family straight [financially]. I've only got about [five] months left to finish on a positive note here." How positive? Check back Jan. 8.
Michigan couldn't stop Northern Illinois RB Garrett Wolfe last season. How will Ohio State fare next month?
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images
While I usually travel to a game most Saturdays, I like to stay home and camp out in front of a TV the first Saturday of the season in order to get a first glimpse of as many teams as possible. In terms of this year's opening Saturday, there are three games -- USC at Arkansas, Notre Dame at Georgia Tech and Cal at Tennessee -- getting the lion's share of attention, and rightfully so. But that doesn't mean some of the lower-profile games won't be equally intriguing.
Here are a few more under-the-radar Sept. 2 matchups I'm looking forward to:
∙ Northern Illinois at Ohio State: You won't have to wait until the following week's Texas game to get a read on the Buckeyes' rebuilt defense. Right off the bat, they're faced with the nation's leading returning rusher, Garrett Wolfe (175.6 yards per game), who sprang for 148 yards on just 17 carries in last year's opener at Michigan.
∙ Utah at UCLA: The first test for new Bruins QB Ben Olson -- who would have faced the Utes eventually had he stayed at BYU -- comes against a tough Utah pass defense led by preseason All-America defensive back Eric Weddle. I actually consider the Utes to be the favorites in this one, but maybe I'm underestimating the Bruins.
∙ Stanford at Oregon: I guess when your conference goes to a nine-game schedule, you don't mess around. This one might look like a mismatch, but remember, the Cardinal came on strong the second half of last season, beating Arizona State and taking both UCLA and Notre Dame to the wire. I'm also excited to see Ducks RB Jonathan Stewart in a featured role.
∙ Akron at Penn State: Remember a few years back when Toledo went to Beaver Stadium and shocked the Nittany Lions? I don't think that's going to happen here, but Penn State would be wise not to take the defending MAC champions lightly. It will be interesting to see star Zips QB Luke Getsy go against the Lions' rebuilt secondary.
There are plenty of others as well. What game are you most looking forward to opening weekend?