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May 18, 2009

Monday with Mike: Moving into the spotlight

Every season, college teams lose key players. And every season, somebody steps up to replace those key players.

Here's a list of 10 "known" players who were overshadowed on their own teams last season but still produced. Think of these 10 as moving from the shadows into the spotlight.

Oregon RB LeGarrette Blount: Blount was a 1,000-yard rusher last season while sharing time with starter Jeremiah Johnson, who also ran for 1,000. The productive duo was the main reason the Ducks averaged 280.1 rushing yards per game, No. 2 in the nation, and scored 47 rushing TDs. But Johnson is gone, and Blount is the full-fledged feature back now. Blount, a heavy-duty pounder, averaged just 10.5 carries per game last season; that number should climb to around 17 or 18 this season. If he can take the increased workload, the Ducks' running game will be just fine.

Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles: Broyles had a productive season as a redshirt freshman last season, finishing with 46 catches for 687 yards and six touchdowns in his role as the No. 3 wide receiver. This season, there will be more pressure on Broyles because he will be the No. 1 wideout with the departures of Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson. Broyles may not lead the Sooners in receptions tight end Jermaine Gresham was No. 2 in receptions for OU last season and easily could lead the Sooners this season but expect Broyles' reception total to climb to at least 70 and his touchdown total to reach double figures.

Florida TE Aaron Hernandez: Hernandez received a lot more playing time than expected last season after star tight end Cornelius Ingram blew out his knee in preseason camp. Hernandez ended up as the Gators' third-leading receiver. But No. 1 Percy Harvin and No. 2 Louis Murphy are gone, and it's possible Hernandez leads the Gators in receiving this season. He's extremely strong and physical, yet has the speed to get down the seam. He not only is a big weapon on shovel passes, but also can run past a linebacker and run over a safety on deep throws. Hernandez caught 34 passes last season, averaging 11.2 yards per reception. Look for the reception total to climb into the mid-40s and for the yards-per-catch average to climb at least a yard, maybe two.

Connecticut CB Jasper Howard: As usual, Connecticut played stingy defense last season, finishing sixth nationally in total defense and ninth in pass defense. Howard led the Huskies in interceptions with four and also had nine pass breakups. Part of his production came because opposing teams shied away from the other cornerback, Darius Butler, and threw more at Howard. This season, Howard like Butler a former south Florida high school standout will be the Huskies' shutdown corner. That means less balls will come his way. But when they do, expect Howard to be prepared. Like Butler, he has pro potential because of his ball skills and his return abilities.

Ole Miss OT John Jerry: When attention was focused on Ole Miss' offensive line last season, most of it was focused on Michael Oher, who ended up as a first-round NFL draft pick after a stellar college career. This season, the focus will be on Jerry, whose brother, Peria, also was a first-round pick last month. John Jerry is a massive space-eater who can engulf opposing defensive ends in the running game, yet has nimble enough feet to handle speed rushers as well. Look for Jerry to be on most All-America short lists at the end of the season and for him to eventually join his brother as an early round pick.

Texas DE Sergio Kindle: Kindle was one of the nation's most highly recruited linebackers as a high school senior in 2005, but in his first two seasons at Texas he didn't come close to living up to his high school reputation. Last season saw the arrival of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, and Muschamp unleashed Kindle on Big 12 quarterbacks. Kindle had 10 sacks and helped the Longhorns lead the nation in that category. Texas sack leader Brian Orakpo is gone this season, and coaches have moved Kindle to Orakpo's old defensive end spot and expect an increase in production. (Ironically, while Kindle is moving from linebacker to end to replace Orakpo, Orakpo is expected to move from end to linebacker in the NFL.) Kindle isn't going to wow anyone with his work against the run, but you can bet opposing offensive tackles and opposing quarterbacks are going to make sure they know where Kindle is on every passing attempt this season.

Texas Tech WR Detron Lewis: Usually, when a guy has 76 receptions for 913 yards, he gets a lot of notice. Not so for Lewis, who was lost in the considerable shadow cast by Michael Crabtree last season. Well, Crabtree is gone, and Lewis should be the Red Raiders' leading receiver this season. A 100-catch, 1,100-yard, 12-TD season is a legit goal for Lewis as he works with new starting quarterback Taylor Potts.

Utah DE Koa Misi: Paul Kruger led Utah in sacks last season, but he is off to the NFL early, and Misi who had three sacks, 68 tackles and three forced fumbles last season is the guy Utes coaches expect big things from this season. Like a lot of Utes defenders, Misi is a bit on the small side but runs extremely well. Look for him to again rack up more than 60 tackles but also look for his sack total to increase by four or five this season.

Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan: The Yellow Jackets had one of the best defenses in the nation last season, finishing 25th in total defense, 24th in rushing defense and 28th in scoring defense. But Morgan is the only returning starter on the line, and each of the departed linemen was drafted last month. Morgan had 51 tackles and seven sacks last season. It's vital for Tech that he put up similar numbers this season; the difference is that opposing offensive lines will make him a focal point of their preparation this season.

Virginia Tech CB Stephan Virgil: Virgil was a first-time starter last season and had a solid season, with 43 tackles and six interceptions. But they were six of the quietest interceptions in Hokies history because Virgil was starting opposite All-America cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris, who also had six picks and took two back for touchdowns. This season, with Harris now in the NFL, Virgil will be the corner everyone tries to avoid. He should be up to the task. He won't be thrown at as often, but he still will be productive for a Hokies defense that is expected to lead the way to another ACC title.

Whew, it's over
America is held hostage no more: Greg Paulus has chosen a new school.

Paulus, the former Duke basketball guard, has decided he will continue his college career this time, as a quarterback at Syracuse. Never have so many written so much about well, about a guy who hasn't played football in four seasons.

Look, Syracuse is bad. And Paulus was a high school quarterback of some renown. But come on. Are the Orange so bad that a slow-footed, 6-foot basketball player is going to walk on campus and start at quarterback? Syracuse is a major college program, right?

If Paulus does start at quarterback, that is a huge indictment of the recruiting abilities of former Syracuse coach Greg Robinson and his staff. That would mean Robinson and his staff couldn't sign and develop a quarterback who could beat out a guy who hasn't played football in four years.

Grid bits
The perusing of some schedules shows that on paper, at least most of the so-called "conference showdowns" are going to occur in October this season. For instance, a case can be made that California-USC is the most important regular-season game in the Pac-10, and it's on Oct. 3. In the ACC, Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech is Oct. 17. In the Big East, USF-West Virginia is Oct. 30. In the Big 12, Oklahoma meets Texas in Dallas on Oct. 17. In the SEC, Florida-LSU is Oct. 10. Only in the Big Ten is the showdown in November: Ohio State at Penn State on Nov. 7. The big games aren't as early in the non-"Big Six" leagues. In the Sun Belt, Arkansas State-Troy is Sept. 26, and in the MAC, Central Michigan-Western Michigan is Oct. 17. But the key showdowns in Conference USA (Houston-Tulsa on Nov. 7), the Mountain West (TCU-Utah on Nov. 14) and the Western Athletic (Boise State-Nevada on Nov. 27) are in November.

At a banquet in Philadelphia on Thursday honoring high school athletes, Penn State coach Joe Paterno told the Philadelphia Daily News it was time for the Big Ten to expand to 12 teams. "Sometimes you don't know all the reasons why something is how it is," he told the newspaper. "There's tradition, obviously. But situations change. You can't always do what was done 40 or 50 years ago." Paterno said the lack of a conference title game could be putting the Big Ten at a competitive disadvantage. The BCS started in the 1998 season, and since then, the national title game has included at least one team from a league with a championship game in every season but two (the 1999 and 2002 seasons). Paterno also said he planned to meet with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany this week at the conference's annual meetings and make another push for a playoff. "All the other divisions in NCAA football have playoffs. I really think a playoff is fairer," he told the Daily News.

Georgia announced suspensions for two players, tight end Bruce Figgins and defensive end Justin Houston, and their absences could pose problems in the Bulldogs' season opener at Oklahoma State - one of the best opening-week games of the season. Figgins has been suspended for the first six games, leaving the Bulldogs with one experienced tight end, Aron White. Figgins' absence also means Georgia will open the season with just three receivers who have more than four career receptions. As for Houston, he and converted offensive lineman Kiante Tripp were the only healthy defensive ends at the end of spring practice. Returning starter Roderick Battle missed the spring with an injury and is expected back for the season, but the other end spot could be problematic.

Delaware State is 0-1 before the season even starts. The Hornets a Football Championship Subdivision (i.e., Division I-AA) program signed a big-money deal to serve as cannon fodder for Michigan on Oct. 17. Problem was, they were scheduled to play Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference foe North Carolina A&T on that date. The teams couldn't work out a compromise date, so Delaware State said it would forfeit. That the Hornets would be willing to forfeit a conference game is big, considering they won the league and went to the playoffs in 2007.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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