Spring football is all about hope for college football fans. It has little or nothing to do with next season’s opponents and everything to do with dreaming about next season’s potential. Everyone is optimistic. They start compiling what they think will be next year’s win-loss record with a special emphasis in the win column. They start thinking about division titles and championships much the same way parents hope that their three-year old might be the one that cures cancer. It’s a wonderful time of year.
All that hope and optimism starts with the players. A new starting quarterback that might be the next coming of Tommie Frazier. A running back that’s the next Ahman Green. A wingback/wide receiver with the playmaking ability of Johnny Rodgers. Nothing is beyond the realm of possibilities.
In the spring players tend to fall into one of two categories. There are those that have already made themselves known, having established their playmaking abilities in the previous season. Then there are the players that no one knows much about now but will probably know by the end of the 2009 season.
For those of us who write about college football, the categories have names. They’re known as the “Who To Watch” and the “Under the Radar” lists that we compile and then use throughout the offseason for points of conversation. We also share them with our upcoming opponents (and them with us) so that everyone sounds like we know what we’re talking about.
The “Who To Watch” list is a list of players who are not so much about making themselves known to fans as much as they are improving for next season and not getting injured. The “Who To Watch” guys are the most important players on the team. They’ll be important in the fall, but it’s the “Under the Radar” list that’s far more interesting in spring.
The “Under the Radar” players represent the hopes and dreams of next season - the little-known “rags to riches” guys that come out of nowhere to win games, break records and etch themselves in the hearts and minds of fans. The best way to determine who’s under the radar is by first establishing your “Who To Watch” list - thus eliminating a fair number from rags to riches contention.
Along those lines, here’s my “Who to Watch” list for the 2009 Nebraska Cornhuskers:
Ndamukong Suh - not everyone can spell his first name right, but if Husker fans haven’t heard of him they’ve just awoken from a two-year coma. The biggest news Suh could make this spring is by getting injured.
Roy Helu Jr - Helu had his break out season last year. This year he’s already on everyone’s radar. The same can be said about Quentin Castille, who showed his potential in the Gator Bowl. By the time the 2009 season starts, I’d expect you’ll see a fair number of national articles about them.
Mike McNeill - McNeill is another guy who had a break out season in 2008, although he’s not known nationally. For that reason he could fall into being under the radar. I don’t think so, but if you disagree, let me know. He’s the most dependable receiver the Huskers have so I feel he’s definitely a “Who To Watch” guy.
Zac Lee - hasn’t started a game and even though he breaks the rule I set about being established I’m not sure I’d categorize him as “under the radar”. The fact that he’ll most likely be the starter is enough that his name will be everywhere by the time next season starts (if it isn’t out there enough already). He will have more eyes on him at the spring game than the cheerleaders. By far.
Alex Henery - I know, he’s just a kicker, but you know darned well there’s at least one opponent who knows more about him than they ever wanted and would prefer to never hear his name again. Still, not many will include kickers in the “Who to Watch” category, even though Henery belongs.
Jacob Hickman - Hickman isn’t going to make many pre-season watch award lists, but he’s rock solid in the middle of the line. Besides that, what kind of Nebraska fan would I be if I didn’t include at least one offensive lineman in this category?
In the :Under the Radar" category:
Will Compton - Compton is projected as the Huskers future at middle linebacker. He was highly touted when he was recruited (remember the tattoo episode) and everyone has high hopes for him, mostly because no one wants opposing teams running up the middle.
Sean Fisher/Alonzo Whaley - Both of these guys essentially play in the outside linebacker position. If either develops into a strong defender, they’ll be seen blowing up quarterbacks and running backs for a few more years yet.
Ricky Henry - Henry has been touted as mean, tough, and fiery. All three describe what Husker fans want out of an offensive lineman, the kind of guy that can crush opposing defensive players and make them want to run away shaking.
Prince Amukamara/Anthony West - Amukamara belongs here for two reasons. First, he represents the hope of potential, and second, I’ll enjoy watching opposing writers continually get his name wrong. West is trying to come back from injury. You always hope there’s success in that. Plus, someone in the secondary must be responsible for covering the other team’s best receiver.
Marcus Mendoza/Antonio Bell - Running the ball successfully will be much easier if the Huskers can find a speedy and dependable receiver who becomes the break-away threat - the guy that the defense can’t cover. This position represents my single greatest hope because we’re going to need one in 2009.
A thing to note about making an “Under the Radar” list. It’s better if you list a large number of players in this category. That way, if anyone on the list has a break out season, you can tell everyone and their dog about how you knew that was going to happen. As long as they don’t notice you included everyone on your list, they’ll think you’re a football genius, and they’ll invite you to more parties.
Invariably you end up with at least one player that you’re not sure what to do with. For me that guy is Menelik Holt. Is he good enough to be on the “Who To Watch” list, or he still under the radar? The fact that he’s the most solid receiver we have means he belongs on the first, but I have reservations about putting him there.
Reality will come in the fall, but that seems so far away. For now, spring remains about unknown potential. Every season there’s a team that wins when no one thought it possible and there are players that make headlines when before no one knew their name.
I hope he’s on my list. I’m guessing you do too.