Say hello to Rutgers wide receiver Kenny Britt, the best player you've probably never heard of. The Scarlet Knights began the season 1-5, and though they have since reeled off five straight victories (thus making themselves bowl eligible), their dismal start has consigned Britt's exploits to the agate-type sections of your local sports pages. This is an injustice I am now going to correct.
Before Oklahoma stuffed Texas Tech last Saturday night, there was still a chance (albeit a small one) that a receiver -- in this case the Red Raiders' Michael Crabtree -- would win this year's Heisman Trophy. I'm not saying that Britt should be considered for the Heisman, but I am making the case that he stacks up very well against the likely Biletnikoff Award winner. While Crabtree's 18 receiving touchdowns dwarf Britt's meager five, there are other statistical departments that show how dominant Britt has been -- and keep in mind that Tech's offense is built around the passing game. Britt ranks sixth in the country in receptions per game (7.80); Crabtree ranks seventh (7.64). Britt leads the nation in receiving yards per game (119.10); Crabtree is ninth (97.45). And despite playing in one less game, Britt actually has actually outgained Crabtree through the air, 1,191 yards to 1,072.
I have been on hand to see Britt twice this season, and both times, it was eminently clear that he was the best player on the field, almost a man among boys. The first time was in a 54-34 thumping of 17th-ranked Pitt on Oct. 25. Against a defense whose safeties began the game overplaying the run, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior caught five passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns, including one on a 79-yard bomb from quarterback Mike Teel that saw Britt streak past a Panthers cornerback.
Last week, I was in Piscataway, N.J., to see Rutgers beat Army 30-3, and was treated to a virtual one-man show. Britt caught 10 passes for a career-high 197 yards, and put all of his prodigious physical gifts on display. On one 44-yard completion down the right sideline, Teel simply heaved the ball into the air and let Britt beat freshman corner Antuan Aaron -- who's all of 5-foot-9 -- to the ball. "You just have to give Kenny a chance," Teel told me afterwards. "He's so dominant that if he's not going to come down with it, nobody else is."
Britt is big enough to be a physical possession receiver, and fast enough-he runs the 40 in 4.4-to be a serious downfield threat. And you should do everything in your power to see him play this season while you still can. With Teel graduating and no heir apparent on the Scarlet Knights' quarterback depth chart, I can't imagine that Britt will be back next fall. And if he works to get his 40 time down into the 4.3 range before next year's NFL scouting combine, he's likely to be a first-round pick in the draft. Not bad for a guy nobody's ever heard of.
Of course, Britt isn't the only hidden gem in college football this season. Here are five more (in no particular order) to keep an eye on. Some pro prospects, some not, but all outstanding performers. Call it the 2008 All-Overlooked Team:
1. Mike Anello, CB, Notre Dame. On a team of blue-chip recruits who play like they just don't care, this 5-foot-10 unrecruited walk-on and one of the smallest players on the roster, stands out. Despite playing mostly on special teams, he is tied for 10th on the Fighting Irish in tackles (22), and has also recovered a fumble, forced two more and blocked a punt. If only Charlie Weis could get the rest of his team to play the game like Anello, Notre Dame might be ranked No. 1.
2. Jerry Hughes, DE, TCU. He hasn't registered a sack in two games, but still leads the country with 14 (1.17 per game). The 6-foot-2, 248-pound junior is the purple heartbeat of the top-ranked defense (first in rushing, 10th in passing) in Division I-A. Oh yeah, and he's also forced six fumbles
3. Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound senior has taken advantage of the major growth spurt he underwent as a redshirt freshman. He's now one of the most feared linebackers in the ACC. I saw him play against Navy earlier this season, and the Midshipmen seemed strangely averse to running to his side of the field.
4. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland. If he played for a more capable passing team (the Terps have attempted just 315 passes this year and completed just 57.5 percent of them) the 6-foot-3 junior with 4.2 speed would be known far and wide, and would certainly have much more than just 38 catches for 561 yards and five touchdowns.
5. Donald Brown, RB, UConn. I saw Brown play against a very fast Baylor team earlier this year and was impressed with his vision and speed through the hole -- especially since he's built like a cinder block. It's no accident that the 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior is the leading rusher in Division I-A (153.7 yards per game).
6. T.J. Conley, P, Idaho. Who? Where? The 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior from Walla Walla, Wash., leads the country in punting, averaging 47.4 yards per kick. More impressive: of his 58 punts, only four have bounced into the end zone for touchbacks; 13 have been placed inside the 20.
7. Eric Berry, DB, Tennessee. It hasn't been a banner year for the Volunteers, but the 5-foot-11, 195-pound sophomore strong safety has been a bright spot. He leads the country with seven interceptions, the last of which he returned 45 yards for a touchdown in last Saturday's 20-10 win over Vanderbilt.
8. Jarett Dillard, WR, Rice. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior is a one-man stat machine. His 17 touchdown catches this fall rank second in Division I-A, and his 57 career scoring passes are an NCAA record. He has 19 touchdowns altogether this season, with ranks him third in the country in scoring (10.36 points per game).
9. Joe Burnett, KR, UCF. He's returned 23 kickoffs this fall and made the most out of every one of them, ranking fifth in Division I-A with 29.87 yards per return, with two touchdowns (tied for the most in the country).
10. Stephen Anderson, LB, Army. Despite not playing in the Black Knights' first two contests, the 5-foot-10, 231-pound sophomore has forced five fumbles in nine games to lead the country (.56 per game).