Stewart Mandel can keep his job as steward of the SI.com All-America team. I'm happier choosing the annual All Two-Star (And Fewer) team, which honors the best underrated and -- in some cases -- completely unrated players in college football.
The 2012 team was especially fun to select. Walk-ons -- the smartest, best-looking players on any college football team -- filled several spots. How special is the moment for walk-ons right now? I had to leave one off the team because he was rated too high coming out of high school. I figured Missouri cornerback Randy Ponder would be a shoo-in for the 2012 team. Then I looked up his Rivals.com recruit profile and learned that Ponder was a three-star recruit with multiple FBS offers.
Walk-on or not, we can't have three-star glory boys on this team.
And now for the annual disclaimer: This team is made up of players who will play college football in 2012. I know former Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden didn't have a star rating. I know former Houston quarterback Case Keenum was a two-star. Please don't e-mail to remind me. Also, I know current Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland was vastly underrated coming out of high school. But as a three-star, he wasn't underrated enough.
QB Riley Nelson, Sr., BYU (Two stars in Class of 2006): Despite being named Utah's Mr. Football in 2005, this Parade All-American (as an all-purpose player) didn't get much attention outside of his home state. Nelson chose hometown Utah State, where his father, uncles, grandfathers and great-grandfathers had all been athletes, but he didn't plan to play immediately. He wanted to grayshirt and then serve an LDS mission beginning in June 2007. Instead, Utah State's backup quarterback was dismissed in April 2006, and Nelson decided to join the team immediately. He wound up starting the Aggies' final seven games. How old is Nelson? He got shellacked by Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan, who still had another season to play. Nelson transferred to BYU after a mission to Spain, and he won the starting job in 2010. But Nelson suffered a shoulder injury in the Cougars' third game, and then-freshman Jake Heaps ascended to the starting job. By the start of the 2011 season, Nelson was the backup quarterback and a gunner on the punt team. But after leading a miracle comeback against -- of course -- Utah State, Nelson made it clear he was BYU's best quarterback. He capped the season by channeling Dan Marino's fake spike to beat Tulsa. That's the kind of savvy the All Two-Star (And Fewer) team needs in its signal-caller.
RB Dominique Whaley, Sr., Oklahoma (Zero stars in Class of 2008): In the All Two-Star (And Fewer) hierarchy, walk-ons trump two-stars. (For some reason, there are no one-stars.) Furthermore, walk-ons who came from nowhere trump preferred walk-ons who were well known to the coaching staff for which they eventually played. For that reason, Oklahoma's Whaley -- a former Subway Sandwich Artist -- will be one of the 2012 team's co-captains. Whaley, an Army brat, never lived in one place long enough to establish himself as a player. Whaley played as a freshman at Langston, an NAIA school near Oklahoma City, but he left school when his parents were deployed to Iraq and Whaley moved to Texas to help his grandmother care for his siblings. He walked on at Oklahoma as a complete unknown. After practices in 2010, he walked across the street and made $5 footlongs. During those practices, Whaley shredded Oklahoma's defense. In 2011, he led the Sooners in rushing with 627 yards despite playing only six full games. Whaley's season ended when he broke his ankle on the first play of the Kansas State game. He'll miss spring practice, but Whaley is expected to return for preseason camp. The good news? He's been rehabbing this semester as a scholarship player.
RB Le'Veon Bell, Jr., Michigan State (Two stars in Class of 2010): Edwin Baker might have turned pro because he thought he was ready for a new challenge, or he might have left East Lansing because he knew he was the second-best back on the Spartans' roster. The 6-foot-2, 237-pound Bell averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 13 rushing touchdowns while splitting time with Baker in 2011. Bell, who also caught 35 passes, will be a greater focal point of Michigan State's offense in 2012. Bell grew up in the Columbus suburb of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and played at Groveport Madison High, but Ohio State never offered. Michigan State gave Bell his only Big Ten offer, and the Spartans beat out Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and Marshall for Bell.
OT Justin Britt, Jr., Missouri (Two stars in Class of 2009): As a 6-5, 267-pounder in Lebanon, Mo., Britt had only begun to examine the recruiting process when the Tigers offered. The only place Britt had ever wanted to play was Missouri, so he accepted that offer immediately. No one else pursued the state champion wrestler very hard. It wouldn't have mattered if they had. In 2011, Britt was expected to play guard before a preseason injury knocked out left tackle Elvis Fisher. Britt, who now weighs 295, took over at left tackle and started all 13 games. He finished the year by holding his own against North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples -- a likely first-round draft pick -- in the Independence Bowl.
OG Patrick Omameh, Sr., Michigan (Two stars in Class of 2008): Omameh makes his second appearance on the team after starting 13 games at right guard and helping the Wolverines to a Sugar Bowl win. Michigan, Michigan State and Cincinnati were the only AQ-conference schools with coaches who believed the undersized (236 pounds) defensive end from Columbus, Ohio, would grow into something special.
OG Lane Taylor, Sr., Oklahoma State (Two stars in Class of 2008): Dipping into Texas to unearth hidden gems has helped Oklahoma State rise from Big 12 also-ran to Big 12 champion. Taylor is yet another one of those gems. The only other Big 12 school to offer the Arlington native was Kansas. Taylor won a starting job as a redshirt freshman and has started ever since.
C B.J. Finney, So., Kansas State (Two stars in Class of 2010): Finney, whose flat-top makes him look a little like Sgt. Carter from Gomer Pyle, declined an offer from Ohio University to walk on in Manhattan. The Andale, Kan., native grew up a Kansas State fan, and he's honored to play for Bill Snyder. But that haircut makes people think Finney works for Snyder. Though Finney was only a redshirt freshman in 2011, plenty of people thought he was a coach. "Sadly enough, I get told that all the time," Finney told The Wichita Eagle in August. "I guess I look like a coach. Between wrestling and football, people are always coming up to me and asking, 'Are you a coach?' No, I'm a player. A freshman, actually."
OT Ricky Wagner, Sr., Wisconsin (Zero stars in Class of 2008): Given the paydays earned by former left tackles Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi, it would seem logical that Wisconsin would have a stockpile of highly rated offensive linemen waiting to take over the position each time a first-rounder leaves. The Badgers do have such a stockpile, but Wagner, a former walk-on tight end, beat out all of his higher rated teammates. In 2012, he'll try to help the Badgers to a third consecutive Big Ten title.
WR Jared Abbrederis, Jr., Wisconsin (Zero stars in Class of 2009): A quarterback and track standout from Wautoma, Wisc., Abbrederis originally planned to walk on at Wisconsin. Not to the football team, though. Originally, Abbrederis hoped only to make the track team. But Wisconsin's football coaches offered a walk-on spot before preseason camp, and Abbrederis accepted. Abbrederis spent his freshman season fulfilling glamorous assignments such as simulating Wofford's quarterback, but he quickly proved himself in spring 2010 when he got a chance to play with Wisconsin's offense. In 2011, Abbrederis led the Badgers in receiving yards with 933 despite being the second option behind Nick Toon. In 2012, Abbrederis will be the first option in the passing game.
WR Cody Hoffman, Jr., BYU (Two stars in Class of 2009): Sacramento State would have been the only school to recruit Hoffman out of tiny Crescent City, Calif., had it not been for a local teacher named Terry Vance. Vance was a roommate of BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall when the men were students at Oregon State, and Vance took notice of Hoffman dominating his high school competition and contacted his former roomie. Now 6-4 and 208 pounds, Hoffman is BYU's top receiver and kickoff returner.
TE Ryan Griffin, Connecticut (Two stars in Class of 2008): Londonderry, N.H., isn't a recruiting hotbed, so coaches can be forgiven for missing out on the 6-6, 248-pound Griffin, who has the potential to play his way from two-star recruit to NFL draft pick. UConn and New Hampshire were Griffin's best two offers, and he chose the Huskies.
DE Nathan Brink, Jr., Michigan (Zero stars in Class of 2009): If all goes as planned, the 6-5, 263-pound Brink will take over one of the open starting jobs on Michigan's defensive line this spring. He spent 2011 as a rotation player, but even that is amazing considering the fact that Brink walked on at Michigan at 220 pounds. Brink, who also played basketball in high school, made his way to Ann Arbor from Holland, Mich., thanks to a Florida connection. Brink's high school position coach told MGoBlog.com that then-Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez knew Holland Christian coach Willie Snead from Snead's days as the coach at Glades Central in Belle Glade, Fla. That relationship allowed Snead, in his first year at Holland Christian, to finagle a walk-on spot for Brink.
DT Nikita Whitlock, Jr., Wake Forest (Two stars in Class of 2009): Whitlock is listed at 5-11, which means he's probably even shorter. Schools shied away from Whitlock because of his height, which is to be expected. While a too-tall nose guard presents his own set of issues, a 5-11 one probably can't carry enough weight to be effective. Wake Forest was Whitlock's only FBS offer, and that came at the 11th hour. "The reason I came to Wake was because it was either Wake or Iraq," Whitlock told the Winston-Salem Journal. He's serious. Whitlock told the paper that he had already spoken to an Army recruiter. If Wake coaches hadn't offered, Whitlock would have enlisted. Instead, Whitlock stunned coaches and opponents by dominating at 260 pounds. In 2011, he led the Demon Deacons in tackles for loss with 14.
DT Roosevelt Nix, Jr., Kent State (Two stars in Class of 2009): Only a few miles from where Le'Veon Bell got ignored by most of the Big Ten, Nix starred at Reynoldsburg (Ohio) High. Like Whitlock, Nix scared off recruiters with his lack of height. At a listed 5-10 coming out of high school, he didn't look the part of a college defensive lineman. He only plays like one. Nix -- listed at 6-0 and 244 pounds by Kent State -- didn't sneak up on anyone after winning the MAC's defensive player of the year award as a redshirt freshman in 2010, but he still played well despite being the focal point of opponents' gameplans in 2011. Nix led the Golden Flashes in tackles for loss with 17. He also forced three fumbles.
DE Ben Gardner, Jr., Stanford (Two stars in Class of 2009): Gardner, a Mequon, Wisc., native whose only FBS offer came from the Cardinal, let down a legion of fans before the Fiesta Bowl when he sheared the best mullet college football has seen since Steve Taneyhill kept his business up front and his party in the back at South Carolina. No matter. Gardner, who racked up 10 tackles for loss in 2011, will bring his more aerodynamic look back in 2012 as part of a front seven that could be one of the nation's best.
LB Khaseem Greene, Sr., Rutgers (Two stars in Class of 2008): Greene actually graduated from high school in Elizabeth, N.J., in 2007, but he spent a year at a Connecticut prep school to get his academics in order. Coming out of prep school, Greene had offers from Rutgers, Connecticut and Akron. He chose to return to his home state, and the Scarlet Knights are grateful. In 2011, Greene led Rutgers with 141 tackles.
LB Khalil Mack, Jr., Buffalo (Two stars in Class of 2009): Former Buffalo coach Turner Gill had to beat out Liberty to secure a commitment from Mack, who probably would start for all but a handful of schools in the country. As Tennessee prepared to face the Bulls last year, Volunteers coach Derek Dooley warned his offensive players repeatedly about No. 46. "He's a hard worker," Tennessee offensive tackle Ju'Wuan James told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "Coach Dooley said he's a guy that's on the wrong team." Mack finished third in the nation with 20.5 tackles for loss, and the 6-3, 248-pounder's ability to disrupt an offense makes him perpetually fearsome. How fearsome? Mack even seems terrifying as he strums a Jason Mraz tune.
LB Daren Bates, Sr., Auburn (Two stars in Class of 2009): The All Two-Star (And Fewer) team may be running a nickel by next month. First-year Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder wants thicker linebackers on the Plains, and to achieve that end, VanGorder may have to move Bates back to safety, where he started as a freshman in 2009. That's fine. With so many pass-happy teams out there, we're more than happy to play with five defensive backs to get Bates -- who started on a national title team -- on the field.
CB Jordan Poyer, Sr., Oregon State (Two stars in Class of 2009): The Beavers beat out Idaho, Eastern Washington and Portland State for Poyer, who starred at Astoria (Ore.) High. Poyer was one of the few bright spots for Oregon State in 2011, and he was named to the All Pac-12 second team.
S Jordan Kovacs, Sr., Michigan (Zero stars in Class of 2008): Kovacs, another walk-on who came out of nowhere, joins Whaley as a co-captain. I first wrote about Kovacs in 2009 after he filled in admirably during the Wolverines' win against Notre Dame. Since then, Kovacs has developed into one of the Big Ten's best safeties. The kid who made the team from a student-body tryout has started 33 games, and he still has one more season to play.
S Hakeem Smith, Jr., Louisville (Two stars in Class of 2010): Smith followed his Big East Rookie of the Year season with a solid sophomore year. He finished second on the Cardinals with 84 tackles, and he broke up nine passes. The Cardinals plucked Smith out of suburban Atlanta without much competition. Smith committed to Steve Kragthorpe's staff, but he has grown into a star playing for Charlie Strong.
CB Darqueze Dennard, Jr., Michigan State (Two stars in Class of 2010): Dennard should thank Christian Bryant every day for choosing Ohio State. Had Bryant, a four-star cornerback from Cleveland, chosen Michigan State instead of the Buckeyes, Spartans coaches wouldn't have called Dennard in Dry Branch, Ga., days before National Signing Day with a scholarship offer. Dennard would have been choosing between Middle Tennessee State and Utah State. Instead, Dennard went to East Lansing, where he has become one of the Big Ten's best young cornerbacks. Dennard also managed to exact some revenge on the home state team that ignored him. In the Outback Bowl against Georgia, Dennard's third-quarter interception led to Michigan State's first touchdown. Later in the quarter, Dennard intercepted another pass and returned it for a touchdown.
P Ryan Allen, Sr., Louisiana Tech (Zero stars in Class of 2008): Wait a second. Where is LSU's Brad Wing? Well, this team has no place for hyped-up recruits who carried three stars with them to college. Allen, from Salem, Ore., walked on at Oregon State, but he didn't play in two years on the roster in Corvallis. So he transferred to Louisiana Tech before the 2010 season. In 2011, Allen won the Ray Guy Award. He pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 39 times and averaged 46.1 yards a punt.
PR Jared Abbrederis, Jr., Wisconsin (Zero stars in Class of 2009): He doesn't just catch passes. Abbrederis finished third in the nation in punt return average in 2011 with 15.75 yards a return.
KR John Evans, So., Western Kentucky (Two stars in Class of 2011): Evans finished second in the nation in kickoff return average with 32.2 yards per return, and he proved once again that Hilltoppers coach Willie Taggart knows his home region. Taggart, once a high school star in Bradenton, Fla., plucked Evans from nearby Sarasota. Iowa State, Marshall and Middle Tennessee State were also interested, but Evans bonded with Taggart.
PK Drew Alleman, Sr., LSU (Two stars in Class of 2008): The exclusion of everyone's favorite former Australian Rules footballer doesn't mean LSU's specialists won't be represented here. Rivals.com listed Alleman as a two-star recruit, but he has delivered a five-star performance. In 2011, Alleman made 16 of 18 field goal attempts and 62 of 63 PAT attempts.