Welcome back to Three Downs and Punt, where we promise to let you spend the next few minutes reading a college football column that won't mention Jim Tressel or tattoo parlors.
Before we get started, I continue to receive some lovely responses to my last post, in which I said that USC head coach Lane Kiffin is on the hot seat. In the midst of the venom came this surprising correspondence from a reader named Hal from SoCal:
"Ryan, at first I wanted to print out your hot seat story, write f-bombs all over it and email it back to you. Then my wife pointed to the Trojans' 2011 schedule that I have taped to the fridge. I will admit, it looks rough. If we don't find someone who can block for Barkley it could get ugly. If that happens then you might not be wrong. But for now I still think you are a damn idiot."
To the plays!
First down: You don't know these names yet ... but you will
As spring practice hits full stride across America, the biggest names in college football are doing battle to take over the most cherished positions in the sport. The quarterback battles alone were enough to supply my man Bruce Feldman with this excellent pre-spring blog just a few weeks ago.
But there are always a handful of players who seem to come out of nowhere each fall, leaving us to say, "Why I have never heard of this guy before?" I'm talking about the players whose teams are looking to them to fill big shoes, bigger needs, and yet are still so unproven that the head coach has trouble remembering their names.
If you're a die-hard follower of the teams listed below, then sure, you've heard of them. But the national college football audience has no idea they even exist. And I'm not saying one of these guys is the next Cam Newton, but they are my candidates to go from "Who?" to headlines by September (Nick Fairley could also qualify).
Until now the redshirt senior has received recognition only as the old guy who played three years of minor league baseball before coming to Columbus. In three years as Terrelle Pryor's backup, he's attempted 47 passes, completing 25 and tossing cleanup TDs last season versus Eastern Michigan and the Purdue Boilermakers. Pryor is sitting out the first five games of the season because of that deal I promised not to write about, and it's a safe bet that the OSU coaches will give the ball to the former walk-on over Kenny Guiton and true freshman Braxton Miller.
Hal from SoCal was right. Perhaps the biggest issue for his Trojans this year will be finding help to protect quarterback Matt Barkley. That help is likely going to have to come from Walker and Hobbi, true freshmen who ditched hometown schools Ohio State and Arizona State Sun Devils (Hobbi chose USC in part because he wants to be an actor when he grows up ... seriously). Both are listed as guards, but here's betting that Hobbi will come out of two-a-days as the Trojans' starting center.
Most of the preseason Hokies hype will focus on quarterback Logan Thomas and his quest to replace Blacksburg legend Tyrod Taylor. But the coaching staff is more worried about its running game, which lost Darren Evans and Ryan Williams to the pros. Everyone knows that David Wilson is explosive, but history says that Tech is at its best when it has two backs going at once. Gregory, a redshirt sophomore who carried the ball just 23 times last season, is the one they'll be looking to in order to establish a two-headed monster.
How in the world is a Vandy quarterback not named Jay Cutler going to create national buzz? Let's start with his last name. Yes, he's the little brother of Aaron, Super Bowl MVP. One year ago he transferred to Nashville from California's Butte Community College, where he broke all of the passing records set by ... yep, his big brother. He was never really going to fit into the Bobby Johnson/Robbie Caldwell run-first offensive plan, but now new head coach James Franklin is in charge and the former Maryland Terrapins and Kansas State Wildcats offensive coordinator likes to throw it NFL-style. Vandy's not going to win 10 games, but it's not a stretch to think that Rodgers will end up giving SEC opponents some headaches.
Unless you're a big-time fan of the Northern California Football Association, you've likely never heard of Jantz. So here's some 2010 numbers that should get your attention: 3,075 yards and 23 TDs passing, 601 yards and 14 TDs rushing. Cyclones head coach Paul Rhoads was in the stands last fall when Jantz threw for one touchdown and ran for four more versus Fresno City College in the NCFA title game, and clearly the QB's production got Rhoads' attention. Iowa State ranked 99th in total offense one year ago en route to a 5-7 record against a brutal schedule. The opponents get no easier in 2011, but it won't be because Jantz doesn't know how to move the football.
Second down: The end of scissor lifts
The terrible tragedy of the death of Notre Dame student and videographer Declan Sullivan dominated the college football headlines late last October. This week the story quietly moved into its final stanza when the school announced it will no longer use scissor lifts to videotape practices, which has been the longtime standard operating procedure throughout collegiate sports.
Instead, the team is installing a system of remote-controlled cameras, mounted onto four poles and operated from a control room across the street. The system was designed by XOS Digital, with assistance from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the school's athletic video coordinator the past 20 years, Tim Collins.
Collins, who has not spoken publicly since Sullivan's death but has taken the situation extremely hard, is also an officer with the Collegiate Sports Video Association. The CSVA will hold its annual national conference in Denver on May 9-13. This year's meetings are expected to be extremely emotional as it will be the first time that the college video community, which rallied around Collins last fall, will be in the same place at the same time since the accident.
The official itinerary for the meetings has not yet been released, but among the top items on the agenda will be a presentation from XOS Digital and Notre Dame on the implementation of the new RC video system, which will have just been run through its first paces of Fighting Irish spring practice, which begins on March 23.
On Wednesday, Sullivan's family released a statement supporting the new video system.
Third down: Rounding 'em up in Charlotte
I had a nice chat last week with Brad Lambert, the just-named head coach of the Charlotte 49ers football program, which will play its first season in 2013. "I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be," he said with a laugh. "But I think if you talk to anyone that really knows me, I think they'll tell you that I've never been scared of work."
What you know about Lambert likely depends on where you live. In the southeast, he's known as a former Jim Donnan assistant with both the Marshall Thundering Herd and Georgia Bulldogs, and the man who helped lead the Wake Forest Demon Deacons' surprising success over the past decade as the team's defensive coordinator. If you're from farther west, then you may remember him as an all-Big 8 corner at Kansas State.
In the NFL, he's regarded as a diamond in the rough specialist, a point underlined by the star power that flew in for his announcement last Tuesday. Wake Forest alums-turned-NFL studs Alphonso Smith and Aaron Curry were there, as was Georgia Bulldog-turned-Tennessee Titan Will Witherspoon.
"Players love him because he was a player and still thinks like a player," Curry told me. "You can't lay down on him because you know how hard he's working for you. He specializes in seeing talent in guys that other people don't and then teaching you how to maximize that talent. The only D-I school that gave me a look was Wake Forest because Coach Lambert saw something in me that other guys didn't. That's the perfect kind of guy to build a program from scratch."
For more on Lambert the person, check out this great profile by David Scott of the Charlotte Observer. Rodeo? Really?
Punt: Opening the Dores to anyone
Give James Franklin credit. In an effort to find some sort of leverage in the power-mad SEC, he's going all out. Last month he even took a page out of Dick Vermeil's "Invincible" playbook and held open walk-on tryouts for the first time in Vanderbilt history. Call it smart or call it desperate, but I call it entertaining. And so will you after watching this vid from the Vandy athletic department.
For the love of all things football, can't we find a place on the team for Travis Cohen, the lovechild of Jeff Spicoli and "Survivor" contestant Boston Rob?