In the waning moments of Michigan's season-opening win over Connecticut, with most of the Wolverines bunched on the sideline and whooping it up, third-string quarterback Tate Forcier sat alone on the bench, a towel over his face. Approached on the field after the game by an annarbor.com reporter, Forcier said, "All you need to know is I'm out."
Sorry to hear it, Tate. Good luck in the Division formerly known as I-AA, or wherever you end up transferring. As the towel was lifted, so to speak, on a brand-new college football season last Saturday, it was more interesting to focus on which players were in. With such long-standing, headline-bogarting icons as Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford departing for the NFL, which fresh faces would fill the void? Who would emerge as the nation's new heroes, and who would stumble?
Fourth-ranked Florida pretty much cornered the market on stumbling. For most of its first post-Tebow outing, an unsightly 34--12 home win over Miami (Ohio), the offense appeared to be experimenting with blindfolds. But don't blame quarterback John Brantley. Tebow's successor spent much of his afternoon tracking down errant shotgun snaps from center Mike Pouncey, who suffered a sudden onset of whatever ailed Rick Ankiel. Meanwhile, in what amounted to his second chance to make a first impression, McCoy's heir, Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert, was good but not great. Alabama running back Trent Richardson was great ... while he played. Stepping in for his Heisman Trophy--winning teammate, Mark Ingram, who had minor knee surgery last week, Richardson gashed hapless San Jose State for 66 yards and two scores on 10 carries, at which point coach Nick Saban got his stud sophomore out of the game, keeping him fresh for Penn State on Saturday.
Kenjon Barner was on ice by halftime as well. That didn't keep the Oregon sophomore running back from putting up ridiculous numbers in a 72--nil beat-down of New Mexico. No matter how bad the Lobos are, and they are dreadful, it was a stunning statement by the No. 11 Ducks—a statement that can be boiled down to two words: Jeremiah who?
The freshest of the weekend's fresh faces was the smiling, dreadlock-framed mug of Denard Robinson, the 19-year-old sophomore who beat out Forcier in the off-season. With just 81 seconds to play in the new-and-improved Big House, the new-and-improved Robinson threw just his third incomplete pass (in 22 attempts), allowing UConn to take over on downs. As Robinson approached Rich Rodriguez on the sideline, the Wolverines' coach made a show of being angry with him ... for roughly two seconds, at which point RichRod grinned broadly, then dispensed an affectionate slap to Robinson's helmet.
Small wonder Rodriguez was smiling. In leading Michigan to a 30--10 win over the talented and well-coached Huskies, Robinson brought an end to Rodriguez's two-year search for a quarterback suited to run his up-tempo, zone-read spread offense. It took all of two possessions—during which Robinson rushed for 105 yards, including a 32-yard score, and passed for 44 while staking his team to a 14--0 lead—to snuff out any remaining talk of a QB controversy in Ann Arbor.
Yes, the Wolverines' defense is stronger than the one that gave up 35.4 points per game in its last five outings of 2009, all losses. (The team finished 5--7.) And yes, the offensive line is bigger, yet playing much faster, in Year 3 under RichRod. But the difference in this game was the quicksilver quarterback known as Shoelace, so nicknamed because he insists on playing with his cleats untied. Robinson finished with 197 rushing yards—a school best for a QB—on 29 carries while throwing for 186 yards and one touchdown.
But you expect Robinson, a speedster from Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High, to get yards on the ground. He's run a 4.32 in the 40. On his first carry as a collegian, a year ago, he zoomed up the middle for a 43-yard touchdown against Western Michigan. What no one expected was for the kid to come out in his first start under center zipping the ball with Brady-esque accuracy. Last season Robinson connected on 14 of his 31 passes—18 of 31 if you include his four interceptions (compared with two touchdown passes). "You could just see in spring practice," said Rodriguez, "he was starting to get a knowledge of not only what we do but how we want to attack defenses. He's gonna keep getting better."
"It's a totally different team because of the quarterback," declared a deeply impressed Huskies coach Randy Edsall. Indeed, Robinson stands to single-handedly alter the trajectory of the Wolverines who, like Penn State (page 44), were widely regarded as Big Ten pretenders due largely to quarterback concerns. Of course, there's plenty of time for this upbeat story to implode (see Michigan, Wolverines, 2009). In the meantime, says Rodriguez, his team would "feel good for a few hours and then get back to work."
One popular postgame question: Will Shoelace start tying his shoelaces? In the pile after a whistle, Robinson reported, frustrated Huskies would periodically shout, "Take his shoe! Take his shoe!" When he ran for one of Michigan's 28 first downs, one actually did.
On the sideline, according to quarterbacks coach Rod Smith, Rodriguez repeatedly said, "He's going to tie his shoes next week."
"I'm not changing a thing," vowed Robinson after the game, flashing that smile.
The truth, of course, is that he already has.
In a kind of nondebut debut that Texas coach Mack Brown referred to as his "first fair start," Gilbert was solid and unspectacular, completing 14 of 23 passes for 172 yards in the fifth-ranked Longhorns' 34--17 defeat of pesky Rice.
The unfair start, to follow Brown's thinking, was Gilbert's turn as a long reliever in last January's BCS title game. When Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus knocked McCoy out of the game on Texas's first possession, Gilbert, then a true freshman, was thrown into the mix.
He is the son of Gale Gilbert, who played quarterback for a decade in the NFL. Before that, Gale was Cal's quarterback against Stanford on the day of The Play—the five-lateral miracle that ended with a pretzeled trombone and an epic Bears victory. Garrett led his high school team, Lake Travis, on the outskirts of Austin, to back-to-back Class 4A state titles. It's tempting to say that he was born for that moment in Pasadena when Brown said, "Garrett, get your helmet!" But the truth is, he was a bit overwhelmed. "His eyes were as big as silver dollars," recalls Brown. Then, of course, Gilbert couldn't find his helmet, forcing the Horns to burn a timeout while a search was conducted. (The lid was under the bench.)
After a fairly catastrophic first half, Gilbert settled down, rallying Texas from an 18-point deficit to within a field goal. The Longhorns lost 37--21, but Gilbert had gained "instant credibility" with the team's older players, according to Brown. Throughout seven-on-seven drills during the summer, defensive backs Aaron Williams and Chykie Brown took special pleasure in baiting the genteel Gilbert, trash-talking him, hoping to get him to flash some anger.
One day, he did. While Ned Flanders himself would find Gilbert's trash talk tame and ineffectual, it did help solidify his leadership role.
After throwing four interceptions in the BCS title game, Gilbert was pleased to have zero picks against the Owls. His stats would have been more garish were it not for Brown's determination to restore balance to an offense that, under McCoy, "drifted away from the running game." While the Longhorns rushed for more yards (197) than they gained through the air (172), Gilbert struggled to find a rhythm, mixing several beautiful throws with a handful of passes that reached their receivers on the first hop.
Turning in a far less auspicious debut was Florida's Brantley, who'd been pulled aside by his senior center earlier in the week. "Play your game," counseled Pouncey. "Don't try to be anyone else."
Actually, it might have helped if Brantley had tried to be former Gators hoops star Joakim Noah, the better to corral Pouncey's dozen or so botched shotgun snaps, which, along with Florida's eight fumbles (the team lost three) gave the offense the appearance of "incompetence," as coach Urban Meyer put it. Florida had 13 yards of total offense at halftime—25 after three quarters—against a MAC team that lost 11 games last season.
The Brantley-led attack was sure to differ markedly from Tebow's. While Tebow was a power rusher who also happened to call the signals, take the snap and throw, "I'm not going to be running the ball," says Brantley. With him under center, the offense will turn to the play-action scheme that Chris Leak ran in 2006. And if it continues to grind its gears, Brantley will be booed, as Leak sometimes was, by Gators fans who wanted to see more of Tebow. (The Tebow figure in this updated scenario is true freshman and rugged run-pass threat Trey Burton.)
Brantley still frequents the Outback Steakhouse he and Tebow used to patronize. They'd go at 4:30 p.m. and grab a corner booth in a futile attempt to avoid autograph seekers. These days Brantley's Outback visits excite considerably less fanfare. No fanfare at all, to hear him tell it. The women who serve him meals at his dining hall believe he is a swimmer. He felt slightly less anonymous a few months back when a stranger asked, "Has anyone ever said you look like John Brantley?"
Brantley jeopardized his anonymity in August, when he cultivated a wispy, feeble growth on his upper lip, "a tribute to my dad and [my] high school coach," he explains. Shortly after unveiling the Branstache, as it came to be known, its owner passed for three touchdowns in a Saturday scrimmage. But Brantley shaved it by the time the team broke camp. Should Florida's offense struggle on Saturday against South Florida in Gainesville, there will be one obvious solution: Bring back the Branstache.
Standing on the Oregon sideline in shorts and a T-shirt on Saturday was sophomore running back LaMichael James, who must have experienced conflicting emotions during the Ducks' blowout of New Mexico. Suspended for the season opener after pleading guilty last March to a misdemeanor harassment charge stemming from a conflict with an ex-girlfriend, James had graciously texted his understudy and fellow sophomore, Kenjon (the Burner) Barner, the morning of the opener. "[James] just told me to go out and have a good game, that he loved me and he was hoping the best for me," Barner recalls.
Sure, James hoped his friend would play well. But this well? A converted cornerback and one of seven children, including five boys ("I grew up with a lot of people to run from," he jokes), Barner rushed for 147 yards on 17 carries and four touchdowns in 20 minutes.
He scored on runs of one, 25, 10 and 41 yards before taking a 60-yard screen pass to the house. Asked by a reporter to recap each score in 25 words or less, Barner got off to an O.K. start. On the one-yard plunge: "My line did a great job holding their blocks. They opened a nice hole." On the 25-yarder: "It was an inside play, but I got outside ... I think."
And what about the 10-yard TD less than a minute later? Pause. "I'm sorry," the Burner said. "I can't say that I remember. They're all kinda running together."
Perfectly understandable. At one point Barner scored three touchdowns in the span of six minutes, six seconds. "After the off-season we had," he says, "it was nice to get out and start playing some football."
The legal woes of James were eclipsed by the ongoing saga of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl last season but was suspended for 2010 when he pleaded guilty to a second-degree burglary charge. On June 9 coach Chip Kelly kicked Masoli off the team after he was cited for marijuana possession. "Jeremiah was a great quarterback," says Barner, "but Darron Thomas and Nate Costa are great players and leaders. We're very confident in the guys we have in this room."
Yes, the Ducks are in for a much stiffer test at Tennessee this Saturday, but James will be suiting up. Kelly will use the Burner as a so-called Taser—a kind of slot receiver--end-around threat. Barner and James have also been lining up in split-back formations in practice.
"We run the ball 40 times a game," says Kelly. "One guy's not gonna carry the ball 40 times a game." Since he arrived in Eugene as an assistant three years ago, Kelly points out that the offense has always had a "1A and 1B" running back. This season he's got two 1A's.
Top-ranked Alabama, likewise, is loaded at that position, and remains so even after the Tide's biggest scare. In a practice five days before the season opener, Ingram tried to turn the corner on a sweep. Spun around by a defender, the reigning Heisman winner suffered slight cartilage damage in his left knee. Ingram was in surgery the following morning. While the junior was definitely out for 'Bama's opener, Saban would not foreclose the possibility that he might return for Penn State.
"When Mark went down, I was shocked," says Richardson. "I was sad for him. But I still have to go out there and play the football I know how to play."
If he lost any sleep over Ingram's absence, he was probably in the minority in 'Bama Nation. The truth is that no team in the country, with the possible exception of the Carolina Panthers, is better equipped to withstand the loss of its feature back. Notwithstanding Ingram's possession of a certain 25-pound bronze doorstop, there's not a lot of drop-off from him to Richardson, an impossibly buff, 5'11" 220-pounder out of Pensacola, Fla.
"Great player, great person," Jimmy Nichols reminisced last week. Nichols coached Richardson at Escambia High, which happens to be the alma mater of Emmitt Smith. "Emmitt had the ability to run over you or run away from you," says Nichols, "and Trent has those same abilities." In truth, the coach adds, "There's not many I put in [Smith's] class, but Trent's one of 'em. He's bigger, faster and stronger than Emmitt."
In his junior and senior seasons at Escambia, Richardson rushed for a combined 3,580 yards and 41 touchdowns. He once ran for 419 yards in a game. "And he was doing it by himself," marvels his coach. "If we'd blocked anybody, he would've gone for 600."
Richardson's older brother, Terrell, is a three-year starter at defensive end for Louisiana-Lafayette, less than 60 miles from Baton Rouge. In 2009, LSU fans got their hopes up, believing that Trent might wish to matriculate near his brother. As is his wont, Saban stuck it to his former employer, wooing Richardson to Alabama. There came a day near the end of the recruiting process, Nichols recalled, "when I had 15 Alabama coaches in my office. They were just makin' sure."
Coming off the bench as a true freshman, Richardson rushed for 751 yards despite averaging just 10 carries a game. 'Bama fans still talk about his 52-yard touchdown run against Arkansas, the one in which he broke four tackles before arriving in the secondary. His 49-yard scoring burst opened the floodgates for the Tide in the BCS title game. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and one got the impression that Saban sometimes had to work to keep the freshman's numbers down.
That was certainly the case on Saturday, when the head man barely allowed Richardson to break a sweat. It was also smart: With Ingram on the shelf there was no need to risk Richardson's health in what amounted to an exhibition game. Alabama won 48--3.
Did it drive him a little crazy, standing on the sideline? "A little, at first," Richardson admits. "I'm a football player. But this way we got Eddie some good game experience"—redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy racked up 111 yards on 13 carries—"and I got to save my legs for next weekend."
'Bama's depth at running back is but one of the problems the Nittany Lions' defense must confront. Greg McElroy, the Tide's second-year starter at quarterback, looked much more comfortable on Saturday attacking the defense down the field—not one of his strengths last year.
"Our quarterbacks and receivers are looking good, our line's playing great," Richardson says. "We could be pretty good."
The Tide is back, in other words, and possibly better than ever. While not an especially fresh concept in college football, it is a reality that must be ... faced.
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Should Florida's offense struggle on Saturday, there will be one obvious solution: Bring back the Branstache.
And Introducing ...
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson wasn't the only player to announce himself on the national stage with a breakout performance. Here are four others who started 2010 in style
DE Wayne Daniels, TCU, Senior
All-America sack master Jerry Hughes is gone, but stepping into his role as lead pass rusher is this 6' 2", 250-pound force, who was a frequent visitor in the Oregon State backfield during the No. 6 Horned Frogs' 30--21 win last Saturday. Daniels (96), who had just 6½ sacks entering the season, racked up three tackles for loss, including two sacks; forced a fumble; and helped TCU limit Heisman Trophy candidate Jacquizz Rodgers to 75 yards on 18 carries. Frogs coach Gary Patterson has a reputation for developing defensive players; Daniels is his latest discovery.
QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, Freshman
Coach Bo Pelini started neither Zac Lee, the incumbent at QB, nor Cody Green, the top backup in 2009. Instead he went with Martinez, who was a running and passing wizard against an overmatched Western Kentucky defense. The 6'1", 205-pound speedster accounted for 263 yards of total offense, including 127 on the ground (on just seven carries) and three touchdowns in a 49--10 blowout. If Martinez can come close to keeping up that pace, he could be the final piece in the offensively challenged Cornhuskers' championship puzzle.
QB Cameron Newton, Auburn, Junior
The transfer from Florida (via Blinn College in Schulenberg, Texas) got almost as much coverage in Alabama this summer as the Gulf oil spill. Last Saturday the 6'6", 250-pound Newton lived up to the hype, passing for 186 yards and three touchdowns as well as running for 171 yards and two scores as the Tigers cruised by Arkansas State 52--26. His performance led a victory parade of first-time starting SEC quarterbacks, who finished the weekend 5--1.
DE Olivier Vernon, Miami, Sophomore
Vernon's glory may be short-lived. He saw many snaps because fellow end Andrew Smith sat out with an arm injury, but Smith should be back for Saturday's showdown at No. 2 Ohio State. Still, the highly recruited Vernon made a push for more playing time with a team-high 3½ sacks against Florida A&M. (The Hurricanes had eight.) This week Miami will need all the edge-rushing help it can get against quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes.
Photograph by BOB ROSATO
ROLLING ON Even though the Tide had to play without its injured Heisman winner, Richardson (3) didn't allow the running game to suffer a drop-off.
TO THE HOUSE A record crowd of 113,090 watched Robinson scamper 32 yards for a score, igniting a Michigan team that had long been looking for a leader.
SIMON BRUTY (GILBERT)
QB QUANDARY While Gilbert (7) and Texas stuck to the ground game, Brantley was stuck to the ground as he repeatedly had to run down faulty snaps.
[See caption above]
STEVE DYKES/GETTY IMAGES
GANG GREEN Barner, who scored five TDs in a little more than a quarter, will play some slot receiver and share the rushing load when James returns.
RAY CARLIN/ICON SMI