This week, we're taking a look at guys who have invested four or five years into their respective programs, and earned a spot as one of the greats after providing some big-time senior leadership.
Nick Florence, QB, Baylor: Florence is a great story of what college football is all about. When Baylor needed him, he stepped in and was ready to play as a true freshman in 2009 when Robert Griffin III tore his ACL. Then, when Griffin went down in 2011 with a concussion, Florence stepped in and tossed two long touchdown passes to help beat Texas Tech and preserve a 10-win season and a Heisman Trophy for RG III. With that game, though, he sacrificed his redshirt. Did he complain once? Nope. He gave it up when his team needed it, and this year he was honored as a member of the NFF Scholar-Athlete class, nominated for the Campbell Trophy, commonly known as the Academic Heisman.
Jake Knott, LB, Iowa State: Knott's got my nod as the toughest player in the entire Big 12, but a serious shoulder injury that required surgery finally kept him off the field. He's been a three-year starter for the Cyclones, but even opponents recognized the kind of player and teammate he was. Texas coach Mack Brown sent a personalized letter to Knott after his season ended. Knott broke his arm in spring practice and less than 24 hours later was back on the practice field encouraging his teammates. He's the same guy who dislocated his shoulder three times against Baylor last year and had a career game anyway. This year, he knew his shoulder needed surgery, but suited up one last time at home and helped beat the Bears and end his career in the right way.
Tanner Hawkinson, OL, Kansas: Hawkinson's seen a lot in his four years at KU. He's been under three different coaches and never got to play in a bowl game, but he's still remained one of the most consistent talents in the Big 12 and may have an NFL future to show for it. He started a school-record 48 games in four years along the Jayhawks' offensive line, and even helped recruit quarterback Dayne Crist to transfer to KU this year. More players like Hawkinson will help KU get back into Big 12 respectability and the postseason.
Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State: What else is there to say about Klein? He's put K-State on his back the past two seasons and helped Kansas State win its first Big 12 title since 2003 and notch 21 wins in two seasons. This year, he'll get to finish his career in the Fiesta Bowl against Oregon, and a win would basically seal the deal for the 2012 team as the greatest in Kansas State history. Klein began his career with a position move to receiver, earned spot duty alongside Carson Coffman in 2010, but showed he was more than ready to lead the team in 2011. He was better than anyone could have ever guessed, and his leadership on and off the field endeared himself to his teammates.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma: Jones' career began with a panic. A 2009 season began with national championship aspirations and a returning Heisman winner at quarterback in Sam Bradford. Jones was supposed to be in the background with a clipboard and a headset, learning from Bradford. Before halftime of the season opener at Cowboys Stadium, a banged-up Bradford led Jones right to center stage. He didn't win that game, but he's won a whole bunch since, including a pair of Big 12 titles. He's had up and downs in his career and made his share of mistakes on the field, but he'll leave the Sooners as a guy who matured greatly over his final three years and likely will have thrown for more passing yards than all but two quarterbacks in the history of FBS football.
Keep an eye out for Part II later this week.