NCAA athletes are youthful almost by definition. Though there are no formal age limits, the talent pool comes directly out of high school. As for MMA, there still are veterans inside the cage, but more and more we're seeing new faces entering with a new approach. Rather than growing up on wrestling teams or taking karate and then, much later, expanding their combative repertoire to compete in MMA, many of the younger fighters have been training in multiple disciplines since their school chums were playing Pop Warner.
So in building an MMA fighter out of collegiate parts, we're looking for energy, innovation and the high spirit it takes to win.
A cool-under-fire winner: Johnny Manziel
Call him Johnny MMA. The first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy or be named Associated Press Player of the Year, Manziel doesn't need anyone to tout his resume. But what's written on paper is beside the point, anyway. As prodigious as his numbers are -- 4,600 total yards and 43 touchdowns, between passing and running -- you've got to look beyond statistics to get a true measure of this kid. That, in itself, makes him like many an elite mixed martial artist.
A quarterback has to be a leader, by definition of the job, but Manziel has shown himself to be a capital-L Leader. Back on Nov. 10, he marched into Tuscaloosa to face then-No. 1, then-undefeated Alabama, and before the first quarter was over he had played a large role in putting Texas A&M ahead, 20-0, and in his teammates believing they could win. Beyond his 253 passing yards and 92 on the ground, the most significant number Manziel produced that day was a big zero. As in, no turnovers. As in, keeping things positive. The Aggies never stopped believing they could pull off the upset, thanks to their leader, and they did what they believed they could.
A fighter needs to believe in himself, too. He needs to remain composed even as punches and kicks are being launched toward him. He needs to remain focused on what he has to do to succeed. The fighter we're building surely could benefit from having some Johnny Manziel in him.
An opportunist: Ed Reynolds
Imagine a fighter who, when you have him backed into a corner, doesn't merely throw punches with enough oomph to get you off of him but fires back with a knockout blow. That's Ed Reynolds.
The Stanford free safety has six interceptions this season, which places him among the nation's leaders in stopping opposing offenses cold. But where the junior truly excels is in what he does with those interceptions. Whereas the NCCA Division I leader, Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, has returned his nine interceptions an average of 12 yards, Reynolds has taken his back 50, on average, with three touchdowns. Covering half the length of the football field every time you touch the ball? Talk about a punch in the gut of an opponent.
For Reynolds, son and namesake of the former Patriots and Giants linebacker, the 301 return yards leave him just 1 shy of the NCAA record. He still has the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin to try to add to his total. And after that we're stealing his nose for the ball, and his instinct for making the most of every opportunity, and making them part of our MMA fighter.
An inner tactician: Larry Kehres
A 63-year-old in the cage? No, we're not suggesting a comeback opponent for ageless Randy Couture. We're thinking strategy. We're thinking motivation. We're thinking that since we're building an MMA fighter from scratch, wouldn't it be cool for him to have an internal trainer and cornerman? Rather than him having to make it through a five-minute round before he gets his 60 seconds of mental rejuvenation and instruction for how to proceed, let's put a wise, trusted strategist and motivator right inside him.
That means we need a coach. But which coach? Nick Saban has won two national championships at Alabama (so far) and had one at Louisiana State, too. Urban Meyer led Florida to two national titles and led both Utah and Ohio State to undefeated seasons. Chris Peterson is 83-8 in seven seasons at Boise State. But they all look up to Larry Kehres.
Over 27 years at Mount Union, Kehres has gone 332-24-3 for an astounding winning percentage of .929. That makes Kehres the only coach (with at least 10 years on the job) who has bettered Knute Rockne. His Purple Raiders are the reigning NCAA Division III champions, a title they have won 11 times. They've played in the championship game for eight straight years and 16 times overall. That's a run of success that would make even Anderson Silva bow down in "I'm not worthy" adoration. Put Larry Kehres in his corner -- or inside his DNA -- and he'll forget he ever met sensei Steven Seagal.