10 College Players Who Started Strong And Faded Down The Stretch
Momentum is difficult to maintain in any profession.
Heck, even I considered retiring after compiling the 50 greatest football players of the last 50 years. But the siren song of psuedo-sports journalism still calls to me.
Today, she asked me to list 10 college football players who started out the year riding a wave of good feeling, only to see the mojo fade as the season wore on.
Some of these kids fell hard. Some fell gradually, poetically, tragically.
And some are still falling, but don't tell them, or they'll just throw more interceptions.
Here they are, the 10 fastest starters and coldest finishers of 2009.
Tate Forcier, QB, Michigan
Two months ago (has it been that long? Yes, it's been that long), Tate Forcier was the hottest thing on Michigan's campus since...well, there's never anything hot on Michigan's campus.
Through four games he had seven touchdowns to two picks and two rushing touchdowns. I remember calculating that on that pace, he might be able break the record for most touchdowns in a season by a Michigan quarterback (25, split between Chad Henne and Elvis Grbac).
Instead, Forcier struggled through a shoulder injury and a concussion, was benched at the end of the Iowa game and kind of benched for the Wisconsin game, and threw two touchdowns in the entire month of October.
He's picked it up in the last few games, going 20/26 for 188 yards and making good reads against Wisconsin, throwing for two scores. If Michigan could play defense, he'd have this team on the upswing.
He and the Wolverines have one last chance to redeem a falling season this weekend. If he can't, those swirling rumors about a transfer might be all that remains of the September to Remember.
Taylor Potts, QB, Texas Tech
At season's start, Taylor Potts looked like the next link in an unbreakable chain of system quarterbacks (I mean that in the nicest possible way) at Texas Tech.
He threw for nine touchdowns in the Red Raiders' first two wins over North Dakota and Rice, and played a terrific game against the Texas Longhorns, going 46/62 for three touchdowns in the close loss at Darrell Royal Stadium.
But in that game, Potts got absolutely rocked on a late, high hit to the face by Sergio Kindle, and the evidence suggests his confidence still hasn't recovered.
After enduring another close loss to Houston during which he went 30/45 for 321 yards and one touchdown, Potts' stats, and his confidence, declined significantly.
Mike Leach removed Potts from the New Mexico game after the quarterback took two hard shots and suffered a concussion, throwing two interceptions to no touchdowns. Potts missed the next two games due to complications from the concussion, and returned for a shaky effort against Texas A&M.
In the film room, Coach Leach described Potts as "statue-like" in the pocket, and not in a good way.
Leach pulled Potts out of the A&M game at halftime (he was 25/36 for two touchdowns and two interceptions) in favor of Seth Doege, who didn't fare much better.
Potts is now the back-up to Steven Sheffield, who started the Oklahoma State game but was benched for inconsistency. Potts took over, leading the Red Raiders to the fifty yard line before throwing an incompletion on fourth down to end the game.
Unless Potts—or any of these other quarterbacks—can turn it on in time for the Oklahoma game this weekend, the Airraid won't overcome the snag, and the Red Raiders' only bounty on the season will be a cold, cold finish and a low-tier bowl game.
Jahvid Best, RB, Cal
Like the university he plays for, as soon as it seems like Best is about to break through, he comes up way short.
Best enjoyed preseason All-American hype and was a dark-horse Heisman candidate. He broke out in the Golden Bears' first three games, rushing for two, one, and five touchdowns, respectively, the last of which came on the road at the Golden Gophers' new stadium. Best accounted for all five of Cal's touchdowns in the 35-21 victory.
After USC's loss to Washington, the talk was that Best would help Cal to their first victory over USC and a shot at the Pac-10 title.
Instead, Oregon and USC kept Best and the Cal offense bottled up. Jahvid rushed for 55 and 47 yards in consecutive weeks without a score, and the Bears' preseason hopes were all but dashed.
Best's season never truly recovered, and though he subsequently upped his output in wins over UCLA, Washington State, and Arizona State, he suffered a gruesome season-ending injury against Oregon State that will probably complicate the remainder of his football career.
Jacory Harris, QB, Miami
Interceptions occur for different reasons.
Sometimes, your quarterback is just bad. He makes bad reads, throws poorly, throws late over the middle, lacks fundamentals.
And sometimes, your offensive coordinator is taking a lot of risks.
The Jacory Harris experiment at Miami is definitely the latter. Offensive coordinator and ex-NFL guru Mark Whipple is asking a lot of the talented young Harris.
When it works, it works. And when it doesn't, Harris throws four interceptions, including two pick-sixes, against UNC.
Harris was the subject of early Heisman chatter and had the Hurricanes looking like dark-horse BCS contenders, throwing field-stretching touchdowns against Florida State on Labor Day and Georgia Tech on Thursday Night Football to start the season.
Harris struggled against Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium, going 9 for 25 for 150 yards and an interception in the upset loss, and struggling against the blitz.
But he began to redeem himself with a win over the Oklahoma Sooners in which he threw for all three of Miami's touchdowns in the 21-20 victory.
The redemption hit a pothole when Harris threw two touchdowns and three interceptions in a 40-37 loss three weeks later at home against Clemson.
Miami also struggled to put away Wake Forest, though Harris was a stellare 22/43 for 336 yards and three touchdowns. But the interceptions continued to compile.
And it all came crashing down against UNC, when the two-pick-sixes were the margin of victory for the 3-3 Tar Heels.
With as fast a start as he had, the hype around Jacory was definitely unsustainable.
He will return for a promising junior season on a young, fast, and talented team, but Miami fans have to hope Whipple eases up a touch and Harris cuts down on the bad throws. Otherwise, Miami risks dealing with, well, too much risk.
Darius Marshall, RB, Marshall
As Darius Marshall goes, so goes the success of the Thundering Herd.
Darius is still second in Conference USA in rushing, and his production hasn't fallen off at quite the dramatic pace of some of the other players.
But he's had a very difficult November, and it's translated to some bad losses for Big Green.
After helping Marshall to a 5-3 start and a crack at the Conference USA East, including a 203 yard game against Memphis, the junior running back was held to 80 yards in a close loss to UCF (though he did go over the century mark on the season) and only 22 yards in a loss to Southern Miss. He left that game with a leg injury.
Coach Mark Snyder said he expects Marshall to play, but the junior is day-to-day. The Herd have two more tries at reaching bowl eligibility after a rough second half of the decade. Let's hope he makes it back in time to capitalize on the hot start.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Barkley looked every bit the next big USC quarterback coming off the epic game-winning drive against Ohio State and solid outings at Cal and Notre Dame.
Against Oregon State, Barkley was an encouraging 15/25 for two touchdowns, but also threw two nasty picks that kept the Oregon State Beavers in the game until late.
It was at Autzen Stadium that the true freshman's luster finally started to peel off. Though Barkley battled admirably against the crowd noise and the hungry Oregon defense, he and his offense could not keep pace with the Ducks' scoring machine.
The struggles against Arizona State, where Barkley was 7/22 for 112 yards, with the one touchdown coming off a screen—set up the meltdown at home against Stanford.
The interception returned for a touchdown he threw in the fourth quarter sealed the upset for the Cardinal, but Barkley had also taken a sack late in the second quarter while the Trojans were driving to make it 21-14, had thrown a pick in the first, and would throw another on the day.
He has now thrown an interception in six straight games, and faces another difficult road test at Tucson in two weeks before returning home to face UCLA.
Knowing how much Pete Carroll hates turnovers, that has to hurt.
Greg McElroy, QB, Alabama
At the beginning of the year, the Tide were fielding an offensive machine that was downright scary.
With game-manager John Parker Wilson at quarterback, Alabama was still the #1 team in the country last year. But junior Greg McElroy was actually looking like an improvement.
He made key throws against the highly regarded Virginia Tech defense, lit up North Texas for Alabama's largest point total in history, and outdueled Arkansas' Ryan Mallett for 291 yards and three touchdowns. He was stretching the field and showing remarkable accuracy and daring, the kind Alabama's QBs hadn't shown in years.
It was around the time of the Kentucky game that the word "confidence" started to come up. Which was odd, because why wouldn't he be confident? He had the top receiver and running back in the SEC to lean on if he needed to.
But confidence issues were there, for whatever reason. The next week at Ole Miss, McElroy was 15/34 for 147 yards and no touchdowns and no completion for longer than 16 yards. Tellingly, the Tide broke out the Wildcat formation (never a good sign).
It didn't help that the Tide would face the fierce Gamecocks' pass rush the following week. McElroy was held out of the endzone again, going 10/20 and throwing two picks. He also failed to complete a pass to Julio Jones. His favorite target? Mark Ingram, for two receptions and 22 yards. Again, the Wildcat came out to seal the win.
Then came the Tennessee game. Same old story: 18/29 for 120 yards, no TDs. That's less than six yards per completion, for those of you keeping count. And though McElroy didn't lose the game, he certainly didn't win it. Leigh Tiffin and Terrance Cody did.
Things allegedly recovered against LSU. McElroy was 19/34 for 279 yards and two touchdowns, and handled the blitz well, scrambling and picking up first downs like his doppelganger in Gainesville.
But look closer: first, there's a pick that's not being counted that likely would've tilted the game in the Tigers' favor, and second, McElroy's longest completion was on a wide receiver screen to Julio Jones.
Against Mississippi State, the recovery appeared complete. McElroy hit Darius Hanks and Julio Jones for long touchdowns and Marquis Maze for a long completion. Though he wasn't asked to do a lot, not a lot was necessary.
These problems might persist, they might not. Perhaps McElroy was unwilling to accept that he is, at heart, a trumped up game-manager. Perhaps he is more than a game-manager, but is finding that he just can't take the pressure.
Alabama is good, but they're not so good that they can just run Ingram at the Gators and expect to win. If Saban has repaired the problem, props to him. We'll know a little more about the state of McElroy's mind in the Iron Bowl.
If he struggles and checks down, watch out. But if he's still stretching the field, all is well.
Eric Decker, WR, Minnesota
It's hard to blame a guy for getting injured. But when your team's success is all but hinging on your health, injury just makes a cold finish feel that much colder.
Maybe that's why the Golden Gophers were losing to South Dakota State by a field goal well into last Saturday's game. Decker caught 43 passes through five games, including two for touchdowns, to keep Minnesota alive against the Golden Bears.
But arguably, Decker was already starting to fade before he injured his foot against Ohio State; blame it on the playcalling, or the fact that Decker is all Minnesota really has to offer in the offensive threat department, but a cold finish to the season might just have been in the cards.
He caught three passes for 50 yards—one for 47 of those yards—in Minnesota's comeback win over Purdue, and was held to only one catch for 42 yards in Minnesota's shutout to Penn State. Knowing what we know now—that Penn State's secondary, though solid, isn't as great as many people thought—only makes this lack of production more questionable.
Decker attempted some heroics in the Ohio State game, playing despite the foot injury. The Buckeyes, who were held to a field goal in the first half, still looked beatable—this was when they were still playing poorly.
But the injury ultimately ruled him out for the rest of the year, ending what was Minnesota's most prolific career from the wide receiver position six games too soon.
Ironically, QB Adam Weber had a better game once Decker was gone. In Minnesota's win over Michigan State at TCF Stadium, Weber threw five touchdowns, posted a better passer rating and landed a 400 yard game, something he'd never done with Decker healthy.
Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Locker was the darling quarterback of the early college season. His Huskies took LSU and Notre Dame to the wire, causing NFL pundits to drool and people who like it when USC loses to cheer.
But down the stretch, Locker and his team have struggled. They'll miss a bowl despite the 2-1 start and have gone 1-5 since scoring the 16-13 upset heard 'round the country.
In his defense, Locker is only partially to blame. The Arizona State loss was a fluke that came down to a defensive breakdown, and the losses to UCLA and Notre Dame came down to the final minutes.
Plus, Washington is fielding half a defense at best, and has yet to establish a good running game. It's a bad sign when Locker is your second most prolific rusher overall (although I do like Chris Polk, he's only scored three touchdowns on the year).
But Locker has struggled to mature past the bold play of his early games. And though the love from the NFL hasn't subsided, the tone has changed from "How high will Jake Locker go?" to "Should Locker stay another year?", an indication that something is amiss.
His only score against Oregon was in garbage time; he threw two costly picks at Stanford that put the ball too often in Toby Gerhart's hands; and costly picks and ineffective scrambles tilted the field position in Oregon State's favor, which the Beavers jumped on early.
The dimming of the lights might be more his team's fault than his, but that's what happens when you get off to a hot start. Just wait 'til you get to the NFL, kid. They'll eat you alive out there.
Chris Todd, QB, Auburn
I remember the groans from Auburn fans when hearing that Chris Todd—he of the 903 yard, five touchdown, six interception sacktastic performance in 2008—had won the job in camp over Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle. "Really?" Tigers fans thought. "We can't do any better?"
But Todd put on a September to remember, taking the Tigers to a 4-0 record and throwing for 11 touchdowns to one interception, including a four touchdown, 284-yard performance in the rain to upset a ranked West Virginia team at Jordan-Hare.
Todd remained steady against a good Volunteer defense, throwing for a touchdown, 218 yards, and no picks in the 26-22 win, and balancing the evident demands of the Gus Malzahn offense with aplomb.
Then, as my favorite blogger put it, the warranty ran out on his shoulder.
He was 15/28 for a pedestrian 133 yards in an uncompetitive loss to Arkansas, went 10/24 for 80 yards with an interception in a 21-14 loss to Kentucky, and got meatballed in Baton Rouge by an LSU defense that held him to eight completions for 47 yards and a pick.
He's bounced back—tentatively—throwing for a touchdown in Auburn's "upset" of Ole Miss, for four touchdowns against Furman, and for two more touchdowns (with two picks) in Auburn's loss to Georgia.
And there's still the Iron Bowl. A great game against Alabama won't etch Todd's name in Auburn lore, but any points will show progress after the Tigers got blanked last year.
It depends on which model of Chris Todd you get—the one with the permanent press, or the one that just tumbles dry.