Last year Myron Rolle popped up unexpectedly at Oklahoma's summer camp. Nobody from the Sooners staff knew anything about the New Jersey kid other than that he certainly passed the eyeball test.
But after a couple of practices, then-Sooner assistant Mike Stoops pulled Rolle out of his group and threw him in with some touted senior prospects so the OU staff could get a better gauge on just what had showed up on their doorstep. Sure enough, the rangy young DB blanketed the receivers at that level too.
He was mature, quick and had a frame bigger than any of the OU DBs. Rolle dazzled the Sooners staff so much that after the camp Bob Stoops sat down with the kid and his parents and offered the New Jersey product a scholarship.
Pretty heady stuff considering Rolle was about to begin his sophomore year.
He followed up that visit with a trip to Purdue where a similar scenario played out with Rolle leaving the campus with another scholarship offer.
This summer, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound DB showed up in Miami, clocked a camp-best 7.03 in the three-cone drill, locked up the best WR, Jessie Hester Jr., and took home overall camp MVP honors.
"My goal was to go down there and dominate and I think I did that," said Rolle, who by the way, also is a straight-A student, class president, editor of the school newspaper's sports section and even played the lead in his school's production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Rolle is interested in studying neurology in college. Some recruiters are hailing him as the best of the Class of 2006. More apt, Rolle is the class of the Class of 2006.
"This kid is off the charts," says one college recruiter. "He's got a great frame and can really close, but the thing you really love is his maturity. He is a great kid and all you hear about him is positives. This guy will do whatever he can to fulfill his potential."
No kidding. After returning from Miami, he's been spending hours on his own working on the footwork drills he picked up from Miami DB coach Tim Walton and Antrel Rolle (no relation), the team's All-American cornerback. This spring Rolle has even been driving two hours to North Jersey to work with a speed coach twice a week. Rolle, who will play this fall at The Hun School in Princeton, N.J., already lists 15 offers. Oklahoma, Purdue, Virginia, Iowa, Stanford, Wisconsin and Miami are included in that group.
After returning from the Miami camp, he will camp at Michigan, then visit Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Rolle also is heading to Tulane for the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine this July.
Rolle says he'd like to play safety in college, but feels he could handle the corner too.
"Most schools are recruiting me as a safety and they think I could be 225 or 230 by the time I get to college, but Notre Dame likes me at corner," he says. "They think I can be a Bobby Taylor type."
As for any tips on which school he's leaning to, don't expect a quick decision. He loves OU, but is interested in checking out all his options.
Scouting the walk-ons
Often lost in the buzz of Signing Day, are dozens of players who commit to 1-A schools from off the radar. Many show up as "invited" walk-ons and some, such as Wisconsin's walk-on-turned-All-American DB Jim Leonhard make huge contributions to their team and end up on scholarship.
No program has had better success in the last decade utilizing walk-ons than Wisconsin. Joe Panos, Donnell Thompson and Jason Doering all blossomed into standout players for Barry Alvarez.
After making some calls and doing some digging, here's a list of preferred walk-ons we think not only will win scholarships eventually but could emerge as starters down the road.
Given their history, it makes sense to start with the Badgers. The two best bets are FB Bill Rentmeester, a 236-pounder who ran for 20 TDs and almost 1,500 yards last year at Wisconsin's Beaver Dam High. Rentmeester is the quintessential physical, stick-your-face-in-there fullback, who figures to be groomed as Matt Bernstein's replacement.
At 5-10, Joshua Neal's height might've scared off some 1-A schools, but the 225-pound LB from Nashville, Tenn. reminds Badger coaches of Donnell Thompson in toughness and character. The son of former Badger Marvin Neal, a one-time Green Bay Packer, Joshua had 53 career sacks and 15 forced fumbles playing at a very competitive level in Tennessee.
One other future Badger to watch out for is Jeff Treslley, a 6-4, 185-pounder who bypassed an offer from Stanford to run track (he is a standout hurdler) to play free safety for his home-state school.
The rest of the list:
Marshall: FB/LB Ben Gum. Showed off his punishing running style hammering his way to 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns, en route to MVP honors in the recent West Virginia state all-star game.
Minnesota: LB Matt Nohelty. Turned down scholarship offers from Minnesota-Duluth and ND State after making 147 tackles and blocking six kicks last season.
Nebraska: P Dan Titchener. A second-team USA Today All-American punter, the Wyoming-native will battle junior Sam Koch and redshirt freshman Tyler Kesler for the vacant punting job.
Oregon State: LB/WR Slade Norris. Could've gone to small-school power Portland State, but says he has assurances he will get a Beaver scholarship deal in the future. Don't bet against it, he ran a 4.53 at a Nike combine in Seattle last year (the third-fastest time at the camp) and stands 6-3, 215.
Penn State: OG/DT Ross Muir. Impressed PSU coaches at their camp last summer. The 6-4, 275-pounder played on a team that struggled and has bulked up 20 lbs. since his season ended.
Virginia: FB/S Josh Zidenberg. A small-school star who ran for over 2,000 yards and 39 TDs last season, he had some 1-AA offers, but was thinking of going to Fork Union till UVa coaches said they'd give him a shot at fullback. The 210-pounder will probably redshirt and try to bulk up to 225.
Virginia Tech: LB D.J. Preston. A 6-2, 220-pounder whose older brother Jerome Preston and cousin Jesse Penn were both solid players for the Hokies.
Washington: TE/OLB Michael Gottlieb. An athletic 6-5, 220-pounder, who comes from the same school (Mercer Island) that produced U-Dub walk-on-turned-star LB Ben Mahdavi. Bypassed an offer from Boise State. Can also long snap.
Stanford has another prized O-linemen coming to The Farm. Jeff Zuttah, a top Michigan recruit from the Class of 2003, who is sickle-cell dormant and was never medically cleared by the Wolverines, has been green-lighted by the doctors at Stanford and figures to help an unproven Cardinal line. Some scouts considered the rock-solid 6-4, 295-pounder the top linemen in the northeast in 2003.
One-time Miami assistant Sonny Lubick has landed another punishing South Florida tailback in Gartrell Shavers. A pile-driving 210-pounder in the mold of former Miamian-turned-CSU star Cecil Sapp, Shavers led Dade County in rushing and was getting heavy interest from Ohio State and Florida, but when it didn't appear that Shavers would qualify, those schools backed off. When he made his qualifying scores, CSU got a late recruiting present five months after Signing Day.
The return of safety Chris James to Alabama probably won't shake up the Tide's depth chart much since Bama's two safeties (Charlie Peprah and Roman Harper) are as good as any tandem in the SEC, but don't overlook the impact the 6-0, 195-pound senior will have in Tuscaloosa. Last year Bama blocked five kicks, James got four of them. The Georgia-native had left school in the spring for personal reasons, but took classes at home to maintain his eligibility.
Rutgers thinks it unearthed another gem when the Scarlet Knights coaching staff conducted a trio of clinics in South Florida earlier this month. Damaso Munoz, a 5-11, 200-pounder who had eight forced fumbles last year at Miami Southridge, clocked a pair of 4.4 flats on the Knights coaches' stopwatches and earned a scholarship offer. Munoz, who probably will start out at linebacker, committed and has the Rutgers staff thinking it struck gold again. Last year, the Knights got in early on Fort Lauderdale-area TB Dmitri Linton, who went on to tear up Broward County and emerged as a blue-chip prospect.
Working at a magazine pace, you occasionally get to see a different side of the people you cover than when you work on tighter deadlines. I must admit one of my favorite people that I've written about is former Oklahoma tight end Trent Smith. I did a story with him before his senior year when I went flying with Smith, who had just gotten his pilot's license. Smith was an easy guy to like because he has such a quick wit, and he seldom held back. Smith seemed to have it all: he had been a key player on a national title team, reached All-American status, had a great supportive family, a bright pro future on the horizon and was even dating a former Ms. Oklahoma.
But 2003, the year he began his NFL career, was a nightmare. He wasn't drafted until the 7th round when the Ravens picked him -- about four rounds later than Smith had anticipated and that was a real blow to a guy who by his own estimation, had a pretty sizeable ego. Then, in his first preseason game, he was tackled after catching a 39-yard pass. A player landed on his left leg and immediately, Smith heard a series of 'pops.' He tried to get up, but couldn't. He was carted off the field and had sustained multiple breaks in his tibia and breaks and a spiral fracture on his fibula.
He admits he was feeling miserable, coping with rehab and the 10-inch titanium rod and four screws stuck in his leg. The only thing that got him through the whole ordeal, he says, was that his family flew up to Baltimore to be by his side and keep his spirits up. But then, right before Thanksgiving, more tragedy struck. Smith's mother, who had been battling liver cancer, had to be rushed to the hospital. By the time Smith arrived, she was already in a coma. She passed away two weeks later.
Six months have passed now and Smith has realized his life has come full circle and suddenly everything makes sense.
"I think I got drafted in the seventh round because God wanted to humble me," he says. "The truth is I thought I was pretty special. Also, if I hadn't broken my leg, I never would have had the time I did with my mother -- to be there when she died and hear the stories about her that my dad shared with us. Today, I am more thankful than you can imagine for that injury."
It seems like more and more the Big Ten gets less respect by the year. Why is that and do you think there is a national title contender among them?
I don't think the Big Ten is quite as strong as the Big 12, SEC and now ACC. This year, one of the big challenges is that many of the top teams are trying to replace QBs who were starters for two and three years. From a larger perspective, another big reason is in part due to the resurgences of Oklahoma and Georgia, thus elevating the Big 12 and SEC, whereas in the Big Ten, one of its expected big boys, Penn State has been in serious decline.
As for the title contenders, I would not count out Ohio State. If Lydell Ross can give the Buckeyes a consistent ground threat and the new O-line jells, OSU could be a top-five team again because you can't underestimate a team that's so well coached and seldom misses tackles or beats itself.
Aside from the obvious (Adrian Peterson), which freshmen do you think will make an immediate difference?
Well Howard, since you stole one of my answers in Peterson, who supposedly will be OU's best back since Billy Sims, I'll go with these others:
USC DE Jeff Schweiger; Ohio State CB/KR Ted Ginn; Florida DE Derrick Harvey and LSU WR Xavier Carter, who by the way, just ran the fastest 200-meter time in Florida state history, going 20.49 seconds. Oh, and one other guy to watch: USC LB Keith Rivers. Anybody good enough to merit #55 at USC is probably good enough to crack this list.
We've gotten quite a few emails over the recent ESPN 25 show on the greatest teams over the past 25 years. Obviously, this makes for great bar talk. The two college teams that are most often mentioned are the Nebraska team from '95 that absolutely demolished Florida in the title game, and the '01 Miami team that destroyed No. 2 Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.
To me, that Nebraska team was the most dominant team we've seen. Tommie Frazier was an unstoppable college QB and Nebraska executed its system better than any team in the last-quarter century and that's what made them so great.
I think from a talent standpoint the Miami team was a lot faster and a lot deeper, although that doesn't mean they were a better team. Depending on your perspective, you could go by average victory margin or just by hunch. One other barometer to gauge talent is what these players became at the next level. That at least gives you a better indication of true talent, although that does slant against a program like Nebraska which isn't geared towards the NFL game.
And, of course, some bit players, guys who were at the time special teamers, like a Kellen Winslow II, later would go on to establish themselves as stars and that skews things even more. So, I think a more relevant question, one that is a little easier to answer, is which team was the most stocked?
You'd have to go with the 2001 Miami team, right? After all, they had 15 first-rounders (and two other probable first-rounders Antrel Rolle and Orien Harris were also on the roster.) They already have accounted for four Pro Bowls (two by Jeremy Shockey, one by Clinton Portis and one by Ed Reed). With those three stars, plus Andre Johnson, Bryant McKinnie, Jon Vilma, D.J. Williams, Sean Taylor, Willis McGahee and Winslow, this group could end up playing in 50 Pro Bowls combined. No other national championship team would be close to that.
But truth is, there is one college team that was even more impressive, more loaded. The 1979 USC Trojans, who went 11-0-1, but finished No. 2 behind Alabama. The '79 Trojans had 10 first-team all-league players that season, two Heisman guys -- Charles White and his FB, eventual winner Marcus Allen, and a crew that combined to go to a staggering 63 Pro Bowls: OL Bruce Matthews (14); OT Anthony Munoz (11); DB Ronnie Lott (10); DB Dennis Smith (6); DB Joey Browner (6); RB Marcus Allen (5); LB Chip Banks (4); OL Don Mosebar (3); OL Roy Foster (2); TE Hoby Brenner (1); RB White (1).
I don't think any college team will ever produce what this collection had. Again, we're not saying this was the best college team, but it was the best collection of talent and is certainly worth mentioning.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment comes out in the fall of 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.