Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel
Wednesday November 4th, 2015

Florida State running back Dalvin Cook laughed for several seconds when asked if he's the best running back in the nation. He knew the question is essentially a referendum on whether he thinks he's better than LSU star and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Leonard Fournette.

The speedy Cook has fewer rushing yards (1,037) and touchdowns (11) than the bruising Fournette (1,352 yards and 15 touchdowns on 176 carries), but Cook has 49 less attempts. Yet he averages more yards per carry (8.17) than Fournette (7.68).

"Leonard's a great guy," Cook tells The Inside Read. "He's a great running back. All the comparisons and everything, everybody's going to have their opinion. We'll just have to see at the end of the year."

Cook has a prime opportunity Saturday to bolster his case when the Seminoles (7–1, 5–1 ACC) travel to face Clemson (8–0, 5–0), which earned the top spot in the first College Football Playoff rankings. The Tigers are fifth-best in the FBS in total defense (278.1 yards per game).

Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher calls it "a shame" that the 5' 11", 202-pound Cook hasn't garnered more attention nationally this season. The sophomore missed his team's 45-21 win over Syracuse last week with an ankle injury, and his status for Saturday is still unclear.

"The more I coach him," Fisher says, "the more amazed I get each week."

Whether Cook would play at all this season was in question until a jury acquitted him of misdemeanor assault on Aug. 25, less than two weeks before the season opener. He had been accused of punching a woman in the face outside a Tallahassee bar on June 23, but Cook maintained his innocence throughout.

"It's something that I'd never wish upon nobody," Cook says. "It was just a situation where you've got to let God take care of it. God was able to let the truth come out."

Cook was reinstated to the Seminoles after being cleared, ending his seven-week suspension from team activities.

"He doesn't lie to you," Fisher says of Cook. "He told us the situation and went and worked on his own. He kept himself in great condition. I think everything he said about the truth is exactly what happened. He's been tremendous. The kids love him."

During Cook's suspension, he leaned on his family and the Florida State coaching staff for inspiration. Both encouraged him to make sure that he worked out daily. "That was my drive," Cook says.

Cook was also motivated by knowing that his teammates were continuing to work during his absence. "I just love being around them," he says. "They're the reason that I go out and work everyday."

It's a mutual admiration that also applies to Cook's former teammates. When ex-Florida State star quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returned to Tallahassee for a game last month, he wore a Seminoles jersey with Cook's number 4.

It was a proud moment for Cook, who Winston told in advance that he'd be wearing his jersey to the game. "He easily could have put back on No. 5," Cook says of Winston's jersey number at Florida State.

Cook credits Winston for helping him make the transition to college when they played together last season. "That's my guy right there," Cook says of Winston. "Jameis put me under his wings. He told me to be the guy he knew I could be."

And that's already made Cook one of the top running backs Fisher has ever coached. "He's special now," Fisher says. "He's a complete back. He's a great teammate. He can catch it, block, run inside, run outside, makes big-time plays, does it in the red zone. It doesn't matter. He does it all."

Fisher also gushes about Cook's work ethic, effort in practice and grit to play through injuries. He points out that Cook's yards after contact are perhaps more impressive than his breakaway speed. Fisher is baffled as to why Cook hasn't received as much attention as other running backs like Fournette.

"It'll come in time," Fisher says. "You can't force that, but this guy is the real McCoy now. He really is."

And despite Cook's trouble this summer, Fisher insists that's not indicative of his star tailback's true character. Fisher tries to razz the quiet-natured Cook on occasion, but he usually just smiles back.

"He's such a good guy," Fisher says. "There's not much to give him a hard time about."

Cook though won't soon forget his courtroom appearance. It's made him more cautious about potential situations off the field and was another reminder of just how fleeting football can be.

"I'm very happy with myself," Cook says. "To go through all I have and be at this point is all God's timing. I'm just glad it timed up right. I'm just happy to be back out there."

That's why Cook welcomes the debate about him and Fournette, who he watches film of regularly along with Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. Cook and Fournette spent time together when they played in the 2014 Under Armour All-America Game.

So what's Cook's opinion on whether he's the best running back in college football?

"In my eyes," Cook says, "yeah."

And this time, he didn't laugh.

Andrew Weber/Getty Images

Northern Illinois finds a new leader in QB Ryan Graham

As Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey sat on the team plane early Wednesday morning after stunning previously undefeated and No. 24 Toledo, 32–27 on the road, he proudly doted on his new starting quarterback Ryan Graham. The dual-threat redshirt freshman had just led the Huskies to the victory with two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter after he was forced into action in the first half when starter Drew Hare suffered a season-ending leg injury.

"He's got a lot of moxie to him," Carey tells The Inside Read of Graham. "He always has."

That was evident when Graham impressed Carey at one of the Huskies' camps two summers ago. Graham's father, Dan, had played center and tight end at Northern Illinois from 1983-87, so when Carey later asked Ryan if he wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps, he got an answer he'll never forget.

"Hell yeah!" Graham told Carey.

With that, the lightly-recruited Graham committed to Northern Illinois, where he had idolized former Huskies star dual-threat quarterback Jordan Lynch. Graham's uncle, Russ, also played at Northern Illinois as a safety and linebacker from 1979-82.

"We just loved him," Carey says of Ryan.

Carey loves the 6' 1", 214-pound Graham even more after Tuesday night's triumph. Defending MAC champion Northern Illinois (6–3, 4–1) has now won four straight games after three consecutive losses by a combined 20 points, which included a heartbreaking 20-13 defeat at Ohio State.

It's another reminder why Carey is sure to be in demand for Power 5 coaching jobs in the coming weeks.

"We keep getting better," Carey says. "Now Ryan has to get better. We want to be playing our best football at the end of the year. So far we're building up to that and we're getting there. November is what people remember, right?"

Carey won't soon forget Graham's brilliance Tuesday night in rallying the Huskies from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter. He finished the game 9 of 12 passing for 132 yards with a touchdown to go with 41 rushing yards on 10 carries. But most importantly, he was clutch during the Huskies's game-winning 70-yard drive that ended 1:59 remaining. He completed completed all three of his passes during the series for 60 yards.

"He's just a good kid," Carey says of Graham. "He's tough and has really grown up."

Graham entered this season as Northern Illinois' third-string quarterback and became the backup six weeks ago after the previous backup, Anthony Maddie, had season-ending back surgery.

"He's done a great job of being prepared," Carey says of Graham.

When Graham came off the bench against Toledo, Carey was purposely conservative offensively until he could talk to his new signal-caller at halftime. The Rockets led 17–16 at the break, and during intermission the two went over the game plan.

"He just had this look in his eye like, 'Yeah, I got this. I know this. I prepared all week coach,'" Carey says of Graham.

It showed on Northern Illinois' first play of the second half when Graham reeled off a 38-yard run. "In that moment you could tell all the blood was flowing in his body and the game started to slow down a little bit for him at times," Carey says.

Carey praised Graham for making his throws and executing the correct run plays. But Graham still has much to learn though when it comes to running with better tempo and having more overall urgency, according to Carey.

That's to be expected for Graham, who until Tuesday night had only played in mop-up situations this season. "He's just one of those feel good stories," Carey says. "He's just driven. A great student. All those clichés you can think of, this guy embodies them."

Carey rarely gives out game balls, but after Tuesday's win, he gave one to Graham, setting off a raucous team celebration. Afterward, Carey sought out Graham's parents.

His mother, Robin, had shed tears of joy, and his father was beaming with pride. Carey informed the couple that their son would be the starter the rest of the season.

"He's going to do great," Graham's father told Carey.

Not that Carey needs convincing after Tuesday night. Says Carey, "I believe him."

For a daily dose of college football insight, check out The Inside Read every weekday on Campus Rush.

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