Who are those guys? - the best players you've never heard of  

Posted by Walter

Garrett Wolfe RB, Northern Illinois

Well, if you've been reading this blog maybe you have heard of Mr. Wolfe as I have been touting his virtues all preseason. Playing in relative obscurity for Northern Illinois, Wolfe put up over 1500 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2005. Did I mention tht a knee injury sidelined him for 3 games? I didn't, oh well if he has played a full season we'd be talking about a 2000 yard, 20 TD back.

Wolfe stands only 5'7'' but he posseses the heart and game of a much larger man. Like most small backs, Wolfe has speed to burn. But perhaps more important for him is his agility and quickness. While differentiating between speed and quickness may seem like splitting hairs, Wolfe's ability to quickly accelerate to top speed allows him to hit the hold faster than anyone this side of Reggie Bush. And unlike Bush, Wolfe cannot be denigrated for not being a workhorse. Though he weighs only 170 lbs., Wolfe is one of the strongest players on his team. He is more than capable of withstanding the pounding of 30 carries a game (evidenced by his 107 carries, 700+ yards, and 9 TD over the final three games of the 2005 season), and is a much better between the tackle runner than he is given credit for. Like Warrick Dunn before him, Wolfe is stigmatized as only being an outside runner when in fact he reads blocks and finds inside creases as well as any back in America. Anyone who has ever played linebacker will tell you that short backs are hard to locate on inside runs, and if a small back has the intestinal fortitude to put his body on the line running between the tackles he can be very effective.

Top to bottom, Northern Illinois is a very strong team this season. Wolfe will be running behind a veteran offensive line anchored by future NFL stalwart Doug Free, and will also be aided by one of the best passing game in the MAC (preventing defenses from loading up in the box to stop him). Wolfe's coming out party should be Sept. 2 when his Huskies get a crack at #1 Ohio State. Given the veteran presence on Northern Illinois (especially on offense) and the 9 new starters on the Buckeye defense, Wolfe could have a monster day and anounce his presence as the premier back you've never heard of. And if Northern Illinois can somehow beat Ohio State (don't say it can't happen), Wolfe could find himself in NY for the Heisman trophy ceremony come season's end.

Davone Bess WR, Hawaii

With more NFL ready talent at the WR position than, perhaps, ever before, it is not suprising that more than a few receivers get lost in the shuffle. Fans, reporters, and scouts all get mystified by size at the WR position. And the 2006 college football season if rife with talented, oversized wideouts: Dwayne Jarrett (6'5''), Jeff Samarardzjia (6'5''), Calvin Johnson (6'3''), and Sidney Rice (6'3'') to name a few. And while Bess is not blessed with the same proportions as these higher profile players, he has managed to squeeze just as much productivity into his 5'10'' 180 lbs. frame.

Bess, a former high school QB, burst onto the scene as a freshman last season by catching 89 balls for 1124 yards and 14 TD. Hawaii head coach June Jones calls Bess the best WR he's ever coached. Given that Jones was a longtime NFL head coach and coordinator, that is truly "praise from Ceasar." With another year in Jones' wide open spread offense under his belt, the sky is the limit for the Bess-Brennan connection that is burgeoning as one of the nation's most prolific. And like all great players, Bess has proved that he is at his best against top competition. Against arguably Hawaii's two toughest opponents in 2005, Fresno State and Nevada, Bess combined to put up 26 catches for 329 yards and two scores. Since Bess sat out a year after graduating high school, he could opt to enter the NFL draft following this season. If he were to do so, he'd be a potential first round slot reciever in the mold of another former collegiate star relegated to obscurity because he played out west: Steve Smith (Utah).

Eric Weddle SS, Utah

My three favorite defensive backs in the nation are (in order): Brandon Merriweather of Miami, Antoine Cason of Arizona, and Eric Weddle of Utah (with Memphis' 6'3'' safety Wes Smith finishing fourth). As a coach and fan there are three traits I look for in defensive backs: (1) tackling ability, (2) ability to play zone, and (3) versatility. Weddle would get a check in all three. He starred last year as Utah's best cover corner, but is being moved to safety this season so he can be in position to make more plays sideline to sideline. Weddle's game reminds me a lot of the much more ballyhooed Michael Huff of Texas. He has the coverage ability to play any spot in the secondary and boasts linebacker like tackling prowess.

What sets players like Huff and Weddle apart, though, is their ability to make huge plays in several different phases of a defensive scheme. Last season Weddle put up strong numbers for a defensive back by posting 78 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 12 passes broken up. However, Weddle also registered 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and an amazing 11 tackles for loss. For his career, Weddle's numbers look more like a linebacker's than a cornerback's: 213 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, and 9 sacks. But unlike other players who rack up tackles in the secondary at the expense of giving up big plays in coverage, Weddle is a blanket in the secondary. In Utah's Emerald Bowl destruction of Georgia Tech, Weddle completely shut down Tech wideout Calvin Johnson, a player likely to be taken in the top 5 picks in the 2007 NFL draft.

Brian Leonard FB, Rutgers

On the off chance that you find yourself watching a Rugers football game, it will only take mere moments for Brian Leonard to announce his presence to you as the best football player on the field. Leonard's numbers from last season appear solid if not spectacular: 173 carries for 740 yards (4.3 yard per carry) and 11 TD, 55 catches for 568 yards and 3 TD. Look at his career numbers at Rutgers and you start to get more of the picture: 2352 rushing yards for 27 TD, 1574 recieving yards for 13 TD. Watch him play for a single quarter and there will be no doubt in your mind that the 6'2'' 235 fullback is as good a football players as you will find.

Leonard is so good in all phases of the game that he has never had the role as the featured back in the offense. He looks like a typical power runner and certainly performs his duties as a battering ram between the tackles, but Leonard also has suprising quickness and breakaway speed you would not expect from a man his size. Leonard sounds, looks, and play like a 200+ carry back for any team, but he doesn't get those carries and it's his own fault. In addition to excelling as a runner, Leonard is one of the best receiving backs in the nation. Leonard is very active in the screen pass game, and is as fluid a back catching the football and picking up blocks in the open field as we have seen since Keith Byars. However, unlike Byars, Leonard is a devestating lead blocker, another reason he loses carries. Leonard is a guy who was born to play in the NFL, and whichever team gets his combination of speed, toughness, and character will be getting themselves a hell of a player for the next 10 seasons.

Stephen Nicholas LB, South Florida

If Nicholas were a Wolverine (UM), a Longhorn (UT), or even a Commodore (Vanderbilt) everyone would already know his name. Yet, because he plays in relative obscurity for South Florida, Nicholas has been able to fly under the collective radar of casual fans. But learn the name now, as Nicholas is on the short watch list for the Butkus Award (although he is likely to lose out to Penn State's Paul Posluszny-no shame in that), and should be an early first day pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Due to the presence of fellow standout linebacker Ben Moffit, teams will be unable to focus all offensive attention on Nicholas. Assuming he stays healthy for the entire season, Nicholas' production could be unmatched on the national level.

At 6'3'' and 230 lbs., Nicholas is not huge, though he certainly has the frame to add extra weight (something the NFL absolutely loves). Many thought he would bolt for the NFL after last season, and one look at his staggering career numbers indicate he is ready to play on Sundays. In three seasons at South Florida, Nicholas has ammassed 224 tackles, 12.5 sacks, and an other-worldly 38.5 stops behind the line of scrimmmage. Nicholas is at his best when he can flow from the weak side and track plays down sideline-to-sideline. However, Nicholas has played both the strong side and weak side for South Florida, and has excelled at both positions. Nicholas possesses the rare combination of being a ferocious hitter, while playing under control. He rarely overruns plays or takes a false step. Nicholas is one of the few linebackers in the nation that can beat you single handedly and must be accounted for on every single play.

Jeff Rowe QB, Nevada

Maybe we should call Rowe the anti-Wolfe. Unlike the diminutive Northern Illinois tailback, Rowe is big.......real big. Rowe is a Drew Bledsoe clone standing 6'5'' and weighing in at nearly 230 lbs. Also like Bledsoe, Rowe plays on the West Coast for a team that isn't going to be featured in many preseason polls or nationally televised games (Bledsoe played for Washington State). The lack of media exposure hurt Bledsoe until his senior season when he ultimately became the first overall pick for the NE Patriots. While Rowe doesn't have Bledsoe's upside, he has the tools (size and arm strength) to blossom into a star NFL quarterback.

Unlike Bledsoe, though, Rowe is not a statue in the pocket. He has the ability to avoid the rush, and he also kicked in over 200 yards and 6 TD rushing in 2005. But Rowe is not going to be confused with Vince Young and the majority of plays he makes are through the air. Rowe has a lethally powerful arm, and in 2005 was finally able to improve his accuracy enough (62% completion rate) to cut down on his interceptions (which had been his biggest weakness). In fact, of the 10 picks he threw all of last season, 4 came in one game against Boise State. If Rowe continues to develope, he has the skills to put up all american type numbers this season in Nevada's wide open 3 and 4 WR sets. And with his arm strength and measurables, I would not be suprised to see Rowe shoot way up NFL draft charts into the early first day with a strong combine performance.

David Ball, WR, New Hampshire

As a Division 1AA player, it is not shocking to learn that virtually nobody has heard of this record setting receiver from Durham (NH). Ball, once deemed to slow for the big show, has proven every recruiting director wrong by putting up other-worldy numbers while playing in a UNH offense that is as talented as half the units currently playing in Division 1A. The near psychic connection between UNH quarterback Ricky Santos and Ball has developed into perhaps the best pass catching combination in all of college football.

At 6'3'' and 215 lbs. Ball has the size to be a dominating, physical receiver. Though his 40 time won't blow anyone away, Ball possesses the more important characteristic of "football speed". To draw an analogy, a player like Troy Willimson possesses a fast 40 time. A player like Steve Smith possesses great "football speed". Which would you rather have? Ball makes his living by running precise routes, and catching any football thrown anywhere near him. His profile suggests that he might be a good "Z" receiver going over the middle and catching jump balls in the endzone. While he would not doubt excell in either of those roles, watch one of David Ball's games and you will realize that he is perhaps more effective making plays down the field. Though lacking elite speed, Ball averaged over 15 yards per catch last season, proving that he is an invaluable asset in the vertical passing game. Assuming Ball stays healthy this season, he will no doubt surpass all of the NCAA career receiving records held by one Jerry Rice. That's kind of all you need to know about David Ball.


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