Alright, we’ve heard ad nauseum about Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Jahvid Best. But what about some of the under-the-radar stars of college football?
That’s what I’m here for. So I’ve scoured college football for what I consider the game’s hidden gems or players we haven’t heard a lot about yet, but will quickly. Without further ado:
Eric Decker, WR, Minnesota
Perhaps the best kept secret in college football since 2007, Decker has been absolutely prolific for the Gophers and is unquestionably the Big Ten’s best receiver.
At 6-foot-3, 220 lbs., Decker has a knack at finding the open space and uses his body to shield off defenders with aplomb. A senior, Decker led the Big Ten in receiving a year ago (84 catches, 1,074 yards and seven scores) and leads the conference again this year and is third in the nation with his 415 receiving yards through three games.
A versatile athlete, Decker is also an outfielder for Minnesota’s baseball team and was drafted by the Brewers in 2008 and the Twins this year. He showed off his arm against Cal by throwing a touchdown pass on a trick play. Simply put, he’s a playmaker.
And I can’t forget the 13-catch, 190-yard performance he put on my Indiana Hoosiers last season. Luckily for me, IU dodges the Gophers this year. There’s something demoralizing when a white receiver just absolutely dominates you.
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Replacing Chase Daniel was never going to be easy, but Gabbert has certainly made it look that way. Through three games this season, the sophomore signal caller has completed 62-of-91 passes for 747 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. Not a bad return.
Gabbert was absolutely lethal in in the season opener against Illinois on Sept. 5. In his first-career start, Gabbert went 25-of-33 for 319 yards with three scores and ran for another touchdown.
Terrelle Pryor might have grabbed all the 2008 recruiting headlines, but Gabbert might prove to be the better quarterback than the Buckeyes’ star. Ranked the No. 1 pro-style quarterback by Rivals.com in the class of 2008, Gabbert originally verbally committed to Nebraska, but when Bill Callahan was fired, he chose to stay close to home (Ballwin, Mo.) and committed to Missouri.
The Huskers’ loss is Mizzou’s program-sustaining gain. The Tigers are 3-0 and college football fans have a chance to watch Gabbert in action Friday night against Nevada (9 p.m., ESPN). I suggest you do.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, SMU
In last week’s 30-27 loss at Washington State, Sanders set a school and Conference USA single-game record with 18 receptions against the Cougars. That’s right 18 catches. Those 18 passes led to 178 receiving yards, which also made Sanders the leading receiver in SMU history.
For his career, he has 222 receptions for 2,844 yards and 28 touchdowns. Scary good numbers. On the season, Sanders has caught 35 balls for 392 yards. It’s understandable a player in C-USA can get overlooked, especially on a team that went 2-22 combined over the last two seasons. But Sanders is worth the notice.
Ryan Williams, RB, Virginia Tech
Starter (and Indianapolis native) Darren Evans went down with a season-ending injury before the year even got started. Enter Williams.
Williams, a redshirt freshman, was absolutely terrorizing in the Hokies’ spring game and earned a starting role in Virginia Tech’s season opener versus Alabama. He responded with 113 total yards and two scores in a tough Hokies’ loss. Now entrenched as “the man” for 2009, Williams has rushed 50 times for 342 yards (6.8 per carry) and has six touchdowns. He’s also caught four balls for 80 yards.
Having already played against two of the more traditionally stout run defenses (Alabama and Nebraska) and still managing to average more than five yards a carry in each game is impressive. The fact that he’s a freshman makes it even more impressive.
Williams, the No. 3 running back in the Class of 2008 by Rivals.com, has yet another tough task Saturday as the Hokies welcome a rejuvenated Miami to Blacksburg. Williams said he aggravated an ankle injury in Tech’s win over Nebraska, but should be ready to go when the 9th-ranked Hurricanes take on the 11th-ranked Hokies this weekend. Should be a good one.
Brian Rolle, LB, Ohio State
Just another in a long line of Rolle defensive standouts (he’s cousins with Arizona Cardinals safety Antrell Rolle), Ohio State’s version was primarily a special teams contributor his first two seasons. But an injury to Tyler Moeller and a distinguishing spring allowed Rolle to come out of nowhere to earn the starting middle linebacker job.
A bit undersized (5-foot-10), Rolle has replaced 2009 second round pick James Laurinaitis and has done much better than even the most optimistic Buckeyes fan could have hoped for. Rolle packs a punch in the middle of the field for Ohio State and leads the Buckeyes in tackles with 25. And it was Rolle who intercepted Navy’s late 2-point conversion attempt and returned it 100 yards the other way to preserve the Buckeyes win in the 2009 season opener.
In just three games, Rolle has gone from an afterthought for most Bucks’ fans to a defensive linchpin and another potential top Ohio State backer.
Kevin Riley, QB, Cal
Jahvid Best gets all the attention in Berkley, and understandably so, but Riley has been fantastic to start the 2009 season for the Bears.
Prior to the start of last season, Riley won an open competition with Nate Longshore to start for Cal. Riley started the first four games and passed for 735 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception. However, the QB guru that is Jeff Tedford, decided to reopen the quarterback competition for the 3-1 Bears.
Longshore and Riley pretty much alternated starts the rest of the way, killing any continuity the Bears’ offense needed. Cal finished the regular season 8-4 and had to settle for a Emerald Bowl appearance. Had they stuck with Riley, who knows?
With Longshore gone, Riley won the job outright this summer and the redshirt junior has completed 46-of-71 passes for 698 yards and five scores to zero interceptions.
Against Minnesota last week threw for 252 yards without a score. He let Best and his five touchdowns do the job against the Gophers. When you have a back as good as Best, sometimes the best thing your quarterback do is not turn the ball over, and so far Riley hasn’t.
Ralph Bolden, RB, Purdue
An unheralded recruit in 2008, Bolden has come out of nowhere to lead the Big Ten in rushing and is second in the NCAA with 421 yards. Bolden, who had just 16 carries all of last year, has kept top recruit Al-Terek McBurse (Rivals.com’s No. 25 running back in 2009) on the sidelines and has Purdue fans begging for more of a ground attack than they’re used to now that Joe Tiller is gone. Plus, having Joey Elliot as your starting quarterback would make anyone want to run the ball.
Bolden got fat on Toledo’s run defense in the season opener with 234 yards on 21 carries (11.1 per carry). He followed that up with another 100-yard effort at Oregon and posted 126 total yards in the Boilers’ disappointing home loss to Northern Illinois.
Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M
A physical specimen at 6-foot-3, 240 lbs., Miller is a pass rushing force as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, which Aggies’ coaches call the JACK position. Fitting, seeing as that’s what Miller does to opposing quarterbacks.
He had just five sacks in his first two seasons combined, but this year Miller has three sacks in each of his first two games and leads the NCAA in the statistic.
Miller started just four games as a sophomore last season, but still managed to lead the team with 3.5 sacks. He’s explosive and a quarterback’s worst nightmare.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Fresno State
For anyone who watched the Boise State-Freson State track meet last week, Mathews isn’t much of a secret anymore. The Bulldogs junior ran for 234 yards on just 19 carries (12.3 per carry) and scored on runs of 69, 60 and 68 yards. It really was ridiculous.
Mathews broke onto the scene with a great freshman campaign, rushing for 866 yards (6.0 per carry) and 14 touchdowns. He missed the final five games of the 2008 season, though he did rush for 606 yards and six scores. Currently the NCAA’s leading rusher, Mathews has 447 yards on 49 rushes (9.1 per carry) through the Bulldogs’ first three contests. His home run speed is evident and I wouldn’t bet against Mathews going all Chris Johnson vs. the Texans on anymore opponents this year.
Greg Alexander, QB, Hawaii
OK, we know. The Hawaii passing game provides some of the most inflated numbers in college football. There was Nick Rolovich, Timmy Chang and then Colt Brennan. All put up ridiculous numbers. Now, it’s Alexander’s turn.
Through three games this season, Alexander has completed 78-of-116 passes for 1,234 yards with nine touchdowns and two picks. Alexander is also the team’s leading rusher with 104 yards on 28 carries.
A senior, Alexander has thrown three touchdowns in each of the Warriors’ first three games. On Sept. 12, he put 453 yards on Washington State in a 38-20 win and he added 477 yards in a 34-33 loss at UNLV. Unlike Chang and Brennan, Alexander is built like a truck at 6-foot-4, 240 lbs. A JUCO transfer a year ago, Alexander started the last six games of the 2008 season and clearly has a solid grasp of Hawaii’s wide open attack. Which means one thing: gaudy numbers.