Fans in Blacksburg know the exploits of David Wilson, but the folks in Pac-12 country wouldn’t know him from Wilson Pickett. And although Rex Burkhead may be on the verge of becoming a household name by now around the Great Plains region, he barely rings a bell to the guys over on the East Coast.
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This time of year, there are gobs of all-star-caliber players tucked away in every conference, who are busting at the chance to take their brand outside the region and showcase it to a national audience.
Clearly, they have the talent and they’ll have the chances to put it all on display later in the fall. Whatever shreds of anonymity these guys enjoy today could be long gone by early October.
RB Montee Ball and James White, Wisconsin
John Clay was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2009. And he won’t be missed by the Badgers — that’s how good Ball and White are in this offense. The duo was dynamic after Clay succumbed to an injury, rushing for 996 yards and 1,052 yards, respectively, and combining for 32 touchdowns. Ball is the enforcer, using a 5-foot-11, 236-pound frame to run through tackles and soften defenses. White, on the other hand, is more of a playmaker, a smaller back, with the extra gear to snap off long runs. The league Freshman of the Year, he runs low and can get to the outside in a hurry. Both were underclassmen in 2010, which means they’ll be jockeying for touches and national exposure for at least the upcoming season.
QB Tyler Bray, Tennessee
Bray was the best thing to emerge from an otherwise up-and-down season for the Volunteers. The backup to Matt Simms early on, he took over in October and wound up throwing for 1,849 yards and 18 touchdowns in just one half of his rookie season. Reminiscent of former Miami QB Ken Dorsey, he doesn’t quite have a rifle, but throws with accuracy and brings the poise of a veteran to the huddle. Once he adds more muscle and gets additional snaps behind center, he’ll be in a position to become the SEC’s premier hurler. While it’s very early in the process, it’s hard not to like the trajectory of a player who’s blossoming at a rapid pace.
RB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
Burkhead is just your typical Husker, always playing to the whistle, fighting for extra yards, and doing the little things to be successful. Now, that’s not to suggest that he lacks flash. The junior-to-be has a good burst of speed through the hole and will make people miss if they attempt to arm tackle. As a backup and the focal point of the Wildcat formation, he rushed 951 yards and seven scores, adding three touchdown passes on only four attempts. Just a solid football player by all measurements, he’s in line for an expanded role now that starter Roy Helu Jr. has exhausted his eligibility. With 20 or so carries a game, there’s no reason why he can’t he earn All-Big Ten honors by December.
RB Michael Dyer, Auburn
With Cam Newton headed to the NFL, Dyer is set to become one of the offensive stars of Auburn, if not the entire SEC. One of the nation’s blue-chippers of 2010, he had an auspicious debut, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and five scores. That his fourth 100-yard game of the year came in the BCS National Championship Game is an indication of his enormous upside. A compact athlete, who runs with great pad level, he’s difficult to hit straight on or arm tackle. Onterio McCalebb is going get some touches, but there’s no debating that Dyer is about to become a feature back and a prominent player on the national landscape.
QB Jeff Godfrey, UCF
While not the prototype at the position for SEC or ACC schools, Godfrey is just right for UCF. Built more like a cornerback than a quarterback, his modest size couldn’t prevent him from being the catalyst for the Knights offense his rookie year. After beginning the season on the bench, he seized the job and went on to finish atop Conference USA in passing efficiency. A tremendous all-around athlete, he also scrambled for 566 yards and 10 scores. His biggest asset, though, will never appear in a boxscore. Despite being just a year removed from high school, he plays with a tremendous amount of poise and leadership, guiding the program to 11 wins, a league title, and a Liberty Bowl upset of Georgia. Best of all, he’s only scratched the surface of his potential.
RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh
Dion Lewis’s surprising decision to turn pro early figures to be a boon to the career of Graham. At times the more prolific of the two runners in 2010, he darn near rushed for 1,000 yards as a second-year sophomore. At his peak in September, he gashed Florida International for 277 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, flashing his upside potential when the carries were there. He runs hard and with good pad level, getting out of the chute quickly and fighting for additional yards. Just because new head Todd Graham’s offensive system calls for a little more passing doesn’t mean the role of the backs is about shrink. In fact, Tulsa ranked No. 15 nationally on the ground a year ago, and Ray Graham’s soft hands will be an important component of the passing game.
WR Cody Hoffman, BYU
Last December’s New Mexico Bowl rout of UTEP provided a sneak peak of what to expect from the Cougars passing game over the next three seasons. Hoffman and QB Jake Heaps, a pair of first-year players, hooked up eight times for 137 yards and three touchdowns to finish first on the team in receiving yards and touchdown catches. A small-town recruit, with only one other offer from Sacramento State, it already looks as if a bunch of Pac-10 teams failed to properly measure his ceiling. At 6-4 and 205 pounds, he already has the size to outmuscle and play above opposing defensive backs. More important, he has the confidence of Heaps, which is going to make this a dangerous connection in 2011 and beyond.
RB Lamar Miller, Miami
Success for new coach Al Golden requires him to have a quality feature runner to carry the load on the ground. There’s cautious optimism that Miller will be that guy for the next three seasons. Arguably Florida’s best prep back of the 2009 class, he possesses game-changing speed in a solid 5-11, 210-pound frame. As a backup a year ago, he put down the ground floor of a promising career, rushing for 646 yards and six touchdowns on only 108 carries. With starter Damien Berry out of eligibility, Miller could be in line to handle the ball 20-25 times a game, a workload that could spell the end of his anonymity outside of South Florida.
WR Chris Owusu, Stanford
Andrew Luck has remained in Palo Alto, but last season’s top two receivers, Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen, have graduated. Someone needs to step up and be the recipient of all of those tight spirals. Enter Owusu, whose considerable talent was overshadowed by nagging injuries throughout 2010. He never quite got on track, failing to build on a terrific sophomore season and catching just one ball over the final four games. However, the speed and pass-catching talent are undeniable, and a long offseason to get healthy will be just what the playmaker requires. With 2009 as his only full year as a starter, Owusu averaged almost 20 yards a reception and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. And that was before Luck had grown into a can’t-miss NFL prospect.
RB David Wilson, Virginia Tech
Losing Ryan Williams and Darren Evans to the NFL draft hurts the Hokies’ backfield depth, but Wilson ensures there’s still star power at the position. He’s set to go from being one of the cogs in a backfield-by-committee to the offensive leading man in Blacksburg. A nifty playmaker, he has the wiggle to make people miss in space and the speed to simply outrace defenders to the pylon. The kind of versatile threat who simply makes things happen with the ball in his hands, he scored at least two times as a rusher, receiver, and returner, ranking third in ACC all-purpose rushing.
WR Robert Woods, USC
One month. That’s about how long it took Woods to show the rest of the Pac-10 why he was one of the most sought after wide receivers in America last February. The next Trojans star at the position, he parlayed outstanding speed and sharp instincts into a starting job not long after arriving from nearby Gardena, Calif. He wrapped up his debut with 65 receptions for 792 yards and six touchdowns, and was a threat as a kick returner. He looks effortless running routes and will only get better as he spends more time connecting with QB Matt Barkley. At a school accustomed to big-time receivers, Woods is next in line.