Santonio Holmes is a star. Not will be. Not could be. Nope, is. As in, the guy is a genuine difference maker and there aren't many of them in college football.
We must admit, we outsmarted ourselves when we left the Ohio State wideout off the preseason Hot 100 list. The thinking (or over-thinking in this case): Without Mike Jenkins around, defenses will focus all their efforts on locking up the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder. Well, if you watched the Buckeyes game against Marshall (10 catches for 218 yards, 2 TDs), you found out what many OSU people already knew, that containing Santonio Holmes just isn't that easy.
"'Tone is just smooth as silk," says Buckeye assistant coach Mark Snyder who recruited Holmes to Columbus.
Smooth is the perfect way to describe Holmes. He gets in and out of his cuts well, has wonderful body control and he has that one special quality all the great receivers have to have -- ball skills. He knows how to maneuver in traffic and make plays.
The Buckeyes are fortunate to have him. A Belle Glade, Fla., native, Holmes was interested in Miami, but the 'Canes seemed to be more smitten back then with Sinorice Moss and Darnell Jenkins so the Buckeyes got their man. While Moss had a huge game against FSU and Jenkins looks like he's ready to break through, Holmes is pushing Taylor Stubblefield (Purdue) and Michigan's Jason Avant and Braylon Edwards for the title of Best WR in the Big Ten.
"He's special," says OSU coach Jim Tressel. "He's not similar to Michael Jenkins, although he make plays like him. Some of the old timers here might compare him to Terry Glenn or Paul Warfield." Heady stuff right there.
Holmes is just one of a host of guys who has already emerged to fill a huge void and it's guys like him, the "step-up" guys, who enable great programs to reload not rebuild. Here are five other step-up guys who have caught our attention this season:
Biscuit Hagans, Virginia, QB: Yeah, Matt Schaub was smart and about as accurate as they come, but this one-time punt return man has been every bit as impressive in his own way running the UVa offense. Against UNC, Hagans went 10-for-12 for 209 yards and ran for another 30 on the ground. Even though he's built more like a TB than a QB at 5-10, 210, you can't knock his passing thus far -- 27-of-34 for 420 yards, numbers good enough to rank him third in the nation in passing efficiency with a rating of 192.8. He's also rushed eight times for 55 yards and a score and has yet to be sacked this season.
J.J. Arrington, Cal, RB: We remember asking Bear QB Aaron Rodgers this summer while on a golf course about how tough it would be to replace power back Adimchinobe Echemandu. Rodgers just laughed and said "Wait 'til you see J.J. Arrington. We'll be just fine." Boy, he wasn't kidding. On Saturday against NM State, Arrington went for 177 yards, giving him 358 in his first two games. Better still, he's got a ridiculous 11.2-yard per carry average.
Mike Goolsby, Notre Dame, LB: After arriving in South Bend with a ton of hype, Goolsby is finally shining. He, along with Brandon Hoyte, give the Irish an active 1-2 linebacker punch that is right there in the mold of Iowa's stellar tandem of Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. Against Michigan, Goolsby made 14 tackles, helping the Irish to hold Michigan to 56 rush yards on 30 carries. That makes just 78 yards rushing allowed on 65 attempts (1.2 yards per attempt) and five turnovers in ND's two games.
Tavares Gooden, Miami, LB: From special teams standout to prime-time every-down 'backer, the 6-1, 225-pound sophomore was a big reason why UM held the 'Noles and their great RB combo of Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker to 57 yards rushing on 35 carries. Maybe more importantly, Gooden sparkled in coverage, locking up Booker one-on-one when the speedy TB split out wide late in the game. Gooden and Co. will get another test this weekend in Louisiana Tech's Ryan Moats, the nation's top rusher (514 yards in two games), a player UM coach Larry Coker dubbed Barry Sanders Jr.
Alex Ligon, Colorado, DE: Colorado's offense has been horrible (the Buffs haven't scored an offensive TD in seven quarters), but they're 2-0, thanks in large part to Ligon, who made seven tackles, including three sacks for a loss of 26 yards last weekend. Ligon forced a fumble in the second quarter with one of his sacks. He has been the big-play man the Buffs thought they'd have in the since-departed Marques Harris.
Just how much of a splash has Georgia Tech freshman wideout Calvin Johnson made? Not only did the 6-4, 220-pound freshman manhandle Clemson for three TD grabs, including one right over Tiger star Justin Miller, but one ACC coach says he is already the most feared receiver in the conference. That's after just two games in his college career.
Even though last weekend's Texas-Arkansas game had its share of headliners (Cedric Benson, Vincent Young, Matt Jones), but the real star was Ahmard Hall, a little-used sophomore fullback for UT. A special teams headhunter, Hall didn't get to hit anyone Saturday night since all five Longhorn kickoffs went for touchbacks, but he made a bigger impact before the game. See Hall was a flag bearer carrying Old Glory leading UT onto the field in recognition of 9-11. He earned that honor because he is a Marine on inactive reserve.
Hall's story is as compelling as any on UT's roster. After earning All-District honors as a prep tailback at Angleton High (where he played in the same backfield with option QB Quentin Jammer) in 1998, Hall joined the Marines in 1999 and served for five years before enrolling at UT in the spring of 2003. He served in several missions around the world as a Marine and climbed to the rank of sergeant. Hall was involved in combat in Kosovo and later in the liberation of Afghanistan. He scored his first TD since his prep senior year in UT's season opener against North Texas, a two-yard run late in the game.
A walk-on who is on the GI Bill, Hall had three special teams tackles in the opener. He is expected to get a shot at the starting fullback job when three-year starter Will Matthews graduates after this season.
We thought Vernand Morency would be good, but we didn't think he'd be this good. Who knows maybe it'll be him and not Cedric Benson or Darren Sproles who proves to be the best back in the Big 12.
Maybe Arizona State is ready to make some noise in the Pac-10. We should see this weekend when the Sun Devils face Iowa. Keep an eye on ASU LB Dale Robinson, who has led the team in tackles for both games in his Sun Devil career. Against Northwestern, the 6-1, 235-pounder had two more TFLs (giving him 4.5 this season) and a few devastating hits, including one on Wildcat QB Brett Basanez to stop a drive. Robinson drew a flag for one shot on Basanez, but ASU coaches have to love the aggressiveness he's bringing to the team.
They may be 0-1, but the Florida State Seminoles showed they still have a championship-caliber defense against Miami. One of FSU's bright spots was the play of MLB Buster Davis. The stocky, pidgeon-toed sophomore from Daytona, who came to FSU with a big rep, but took two years to get comfortable, was all over the field Friday night. He notched seven tackles (2 TFLs) and broke up a pass. Not bad for a guy who didn't start the game. Although Davis proved to be such a force he is expected to start this weekend against UAB and should really help because of his surprising quickness and instincts.
Yes, Georgia DE David Pollack is a star, but the part of the Dawg defense we'd paid to see is the thunderous-hitting tandem of Thomas Davis and Greg Blue.
One-time fullback Jonathan Babineaux has been very impressive in his return from the knee injury that ended his 2003 season, racking up three sacks and 7 tackles for losses in Iowa's first two games. The 6-2, 280-pounder, who can still run in the 4.8-range and has overwhelmed opponents with his great first-step quickness, might overtake Anttaj Hawthorne as the conference's top DT prospect.
This week's most memorable sound byte comes from Virginia's Marquis Weeks, who took a kickoff one yard deep in the end zone, made a few nifty cuts and then outran the North Carolina defense all the way for the touchdown. Weeks' explanation to the Washington Post:
"That was just instinct. Kind of like running from the cops, I guess you could say."
The Heisman predictors are already coming out of the woodwork. The most eye-popping list we've seen comes from heismanpundit.com with a top five list of 1) Matt Leinart; 2) Cedric Benson; 3) Brock Berlin; 4) Vernand Morency; and then Kyle Orton at No. 5. Stunningly, Jason White, last year's winner, isn't even listed in the top 10, and just our two cents but if there is a 'Cane worthy, it's gotta be shutdown DB Antrel Rolle, who was hands down the best player on the field Friday night when UM beat FSU.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.