The ball rested on the turf just inside the 10-yard line, late in the first half against Washington State. At the snap, Cal quarterback Jared Goff faked a handoff and then immediately turned his shoulders to the right, and in the direction of the wide receiver wearing the No. 4 jersey on the periphery.
Kenny Lawler was effectively one-on-one with a cornerback as one of the nation’s most prolific offenses approached the end zone. A Cougars safety loomed over the top, but only kind of; his inside foot was set back toward the middle of the field, and the play-action froze him just enough as to be a non-factor. So Goff lofted a pass high toward the corner of the end zone, and it dropped, as if drawn by a magnet, into the right hand of its intended target. Lawler’s left hand, meanwhile, was deemed extraneous to this endeavor, or at least until he used both hands to point at himself in celebration as the crowd exulted.
“He’s got incredibly natural ball skills,” Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said in a phone interview. “He’s got the biggest hands of any receiver I’ve ever coached. He has great hand-eye coordination and he’s able to make catches most people couldn’t ever dream of.”
Through more than a month of college football, the central characters are emerging for the teams who appear to be contending for titles and jostling for playoff positioning. In the aforementioned anecdote, the star is the giver, not the receiver; the 6’4”, 215-pound Goff is driving the Golden Bears’ offense, Heisman Trophy chatter and the top of NFL mock drafts all at once. Given his 70.2% completion rate and 1,630 yards, it is not unwarranted. Goff’s team is 5–0 entering a showdown with unbeaten Utah largely because of him. Without him, those vague playoff dreams at Cal at gone.
But what of the supporting casts? They can be more than just supplementary elements in a successful formula; Lawler is indeed a specimen in his own right, even if he catches more passes than adulation. Of course, the lack of attention is often just a matter of what everyone chooses to pay attention to. So consider this a slight diversion before Week 6, in which we examine some of the unsung standouts among the nation’s top teams—players surely well-known to their respective fan bases but toiling in relative anonymity beyond that (listed in alphabetical order).
Ro’Derrick Hoskins, Florida State linebacker
Terrance Smith, probably the most talented cog in the Seminoles’ linebacker corps, has 3.5 tackles for loss in four games. Reggie Northrup is the leading tackler (26 stops) and has followed the arduous path back from a knee injury in the Rose Bowl. But it’s Hoskins, a redshirt sophomore, who has just as many tackles for loss as Smith and only two fewer tackles overall than Northrup. Thanks to Dalvin Cook and a defense that’s ranked 13th nationally, Florida State is hanging around the national discussion for now. That defense is working in no small part because a linebacker corps wracked by injury in 2014 is mostly healthy for 2015, Smith’s latest ding notwithstanding. And Hoskins has been more than solid so far in filling in where needed.
Justin Jackson, Northwestern tailback
The Wildcats can attribute their 5–0 start primarily to a stifling defense. But they do have to score some points, and Jackson grounds an offense run by a redshirt freshman quarterback—and helps prevent that offense from putting the defense in bad situations. The 5’11” sophomore’s 636 rushing yards rank 10th nationally, and he’s had at least 120 yards in four of five outings so far, even as Pat Fitzgerald’s crew searches for a viable backup to alleviate Jackson’s burden.
Desmond King, Iowa cornerback
“He’s a ball hawk,” Illinois coach Bill Cubit said this week, and he was not incorrect. The 5’11”, 200-pound junior has five interceptions to set the Hawkeyes and their top 20 defense on course for a potential Big Ten West title. He’s also helped spur Iowa’s turnaround on special teams. “Desmond King has given us a little bit of octane as our return guy,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. King is averaging 18.7 yards per punt return, tied for eighth nationally in that department, and 22.5 yards per kickoff return.
Kenny Lawler, Cal receiver
The junior has 27 catches for 399 yards with eight touchdowns, including more than a few of the spectacular variety described above. Maybe in another offense he’d be a greater focal point, but then again, another offense might not sling it around as often as Goff & Co. do. “The thing that’s made him so much better this year is that he’s taken great pride in getting better on the little things, the details,” Franklin said. “His stance, his release, finishing routes and especially making plays after he catches the football. When he gets in the red zone, he’s a guy who just has an incredible knack for body leverage. He and Jared have that special chemistry with each other.”
Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State linebacker
Arguably a stretch, as an all-universe recruit is hardly unsung. But ask yourself this: In a game of Ohio State Players You Can Name, how far down the list is the sophomore from Georgia who averages 10.8 tackles per game (tied for eighth in the country)? When Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer reviewed his team’s “champion” performances for the Indiana game, he noted McMillan, who recorded 14 tackles, had a migraine during the game. Basically McMillan is a severe headache even when he has one.
Jamal Palmer, Baylor defensive end
The offense stresses the functionality of scoreboards and the defense features a freak like Shawn Oakman on one side of the line. Has anyone noticed what Palmer is doing on the other side? The senior’s five tackles for loss and two sacks essentially match Oakman’s production (5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, albeit in one less game). Palmer has 10 quarterback hurries, according to Baylor’s official statistics; no one else on the defense has more than three. He may have come into his final season without much ado thanks to the season-ending knee injury he suffered five games into 2014. And the Bears’ capacity to churn out points will always dominate the conversation. But there is more than one playmaker on the defensive side of the ball, and more than one along the defensive line in particular.
Paul Perkins, UCLA tailback
The Bruins suffered a surprising setback against Arizona State last weekend, and Perkins managed just 63 yards on 18 carries on the day. Regardless, he’s basically a member of the Unsung Hall of Fame (which is just a coach house covered in ivy, containing used library filing cards for each enshrinee). Perkins’ 1,575 yards led the Pac-12 in 2014, but he was overshadowed nationally by tailbacks like Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman, both of whom finished in the top 10 of Heisman balloting. The arrival of Josh Rosen ensured Perkins would work in peace in 2015 as well.
Austin Seibert, Oklahoma kicker/punter
You only notice a kicker when he misses or a punter when he gets one blocked, etc., etc., blah blah blah. Thus far, Seibert hasn’t missed, hitting on all seven field goal attempts ranging from 20 to 44 yards. And he’s averaging 45.2 yards per punt (16th nationally) with eight kicks of 50-plus yards and nine of 21 punts landing inside the 20-yard line. Clearly, the Sooners’ fortunes will ride on Baker Mayfield, Eric Striker, Sterling Shepard, Samaje Perine, Dominique Alexander and many other down-to-down, frontline players. There also will come a time in Oklahoma’s playoff pursuit when it will need a kicker to win—or at least not lose—a game one way or another. So far, Seibert has demonstrated enough to stoke everyone’s confidence in that regard.
The Utah offensive line
Naturally, I had to pick one group of players who do their work in the trenches. The Utes have allowed just one sack in four games; only Air Force and Toledo have allowed zero. Meanwhile the offense is a top 20 unit at 38.8 points per game and the ground game churns out 204 yards per game (32nd nationally) at 4.77 yards per carry. (Perhaps not nearly a great number, but a decent one.) So Sam Tevi, Isaac Asiata, Siaosi Aiono, Salesi Uhatafe and J.J. Dielman get the nod.
Each week, The Walkthrough will talk to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. For Week 6, it’s Cal vs. Utah with Bears quarterback and Heisman hopeful Jared Goff facing a Utah defense that has recorded seven interceptions in four games as part of 11 overall takeaways, which ranks 12th nationally.
Tony Franklin, Cal offensive coordinator: “(Goff’s) body has changed. He’s gotten bigger. His arm is stronger. He’s always had a good, live arm, and the ball is coming out a lot better. He’s got three years in this offense, which is the first one I’ve had for three straight years. He knows it better than I do. He’s a guy I’ve given complete freedom to, to change whatever he wants to change whenever he wants to do it. A lot of the receivers he’s throwing to, he’s been throwing to for three years, and they have a chemistry with each other. He understands what they’re going to do when nobody else has a clue. I don’t have a clue half the time what’s going on. If you graded him right now on decision-making, the first year here he was probably like 60 to 70%, the second year he was probably 80 to 85%, right now he’s probably 95 to 100%. He’s made five or six wrong decisions all year, which is incredible. (Utah) is long. And a lot of times when guys are long—long legs, long arms—they’re able to almost sneak up on you and punch balls out. The great thing is we go against a team that right now is the No. 1 defense in causing turnovers. Our guys do a great job every day at it, and hopefully we continue to get better.”
John Pease, Utah defensive coordinator: “(Safeties coach) Morgan Scalley and (cornerbacks coach) Sharrieff Shah are really good coaches, that’s one thing, and they do a lot of ball drills. They’ll do drills where (players) will just run down without looking and everybody will say, ‘Ball!’ and they’ll turn and locate the ball. Turnovers just don’t happen. They’re a function of doing it in practice over and over again. (Utes cornerback Marcus Williams) studies film, he finds out what routes look like, combination routes that people are running. It’ll buy you a step or two. That’s all you need to do. So many balls are so close, if you can get that step, you’re going to make some plays. Goff has got a really fine arm. He can throw the ball from the hashmark to the far sideline on a frozen rope. That’s a real plus. And he really understands coverage—he picks that up right away and usually gets the ball to the right people. I mean, seven out of 10 times, he’s making the right decision. I don’t think you can get in one coverage and let him know you’re in that coverage and get away with it. There are some things you like coverage-wise, but you can’t go on one diet with him because he’ll figure it out real, real quick and he’ll start scalding you.”
• Washington at USC: The Trojans can’t get caught in a look-ahead with games against Notre Dame, Utah and Cal immediately following this one—not if Steve Sarkisian wants to stay on terra firma.
• N.C. State at Virginia Tech: The Hokies are in a tailspin with a dreadful offense that managed just 100 total yards last weekend. With three of four on the road coming next, this a must-win. But it’s a must-win against a solid team with the nation’s 17th most-efficient passer in Jacoby Brissett.
• South Carolina at LSU: The game formerly known as LSU at South Carolina. But fatal flooding and statewide emergencies put the location of a football contest in proper perspective. Still, the way things are going for the Gamecocks on the field, the result might be the same no matter where the game’s played.
• Baylor at Kansas: Does the Memorial Stadium scoreboard incorporate a ‘100’ emoji?
• Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas): The Longhorns probably felt rock bottom arrived at TCU last weekend. Then they started sniping at each other on social media early this week. And now here comes the nation’s No. 12 offense, primed to break through the bedrock to excavate a new sub-basement.
• Georgia Tech at Clemson: Despite the Yellow Jackets’ three-game losing streak, it’s a potential trap game for the Tigers after an emotional win over Notre Dame that pivoted the season toward the playoff.
• Georgia at Tennessee: Last weekend undermined everyone’s confidence that the Bulldogs are legit national title contenders. But they can still win the East and make an appearance in Atlanta. That work starts in Knoxville.
• Navy at Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish smothered Georgia Tech’s option attack in September, so they have the plan in place to deal with the Midshipmen. Lingering saltiness from a mistake-filled loss at Clemson should preempt a look-ahead to USC.
• Northwestern at Michigan: BIG TEN POWERS COLLIDE is what no one would have said about this game before the season. Do you have to put the winner firmly in the playoff discussion?
• Oklahoma State at West Virginia: The Cowboys have survived, barely, against Texas and Kansas State. Win in Morgantown and they might be having a charmed season. The season-ending knee injury to Mountaineers safety Karl Joseph, who was in the midst of another All-Big 12-caliber season before it, is as helpful to Mike Gundy’s crew as it is gutting to Dana Holgorsen’s.
• Arkansas at Alabama: This felt like a game in which Bret Bielema’s struggling team could play spoiler until Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide obliterated Georgia to suggest that they’ll be too increasingly locked in for anyone to spoil anything.
• TCU at Kansas State: The Wildcats nearly beat Oklahoma State on the road with their 19th-string quarterback. The Horned Frogs need to come back to earth quickly after dismantling Texas and recognize the peril that awaits in Manhattan.
• Florida at Missouri: The flu slammed the Gators last week. Prosperity might be the new affliction. “There’s nothing wrong with getting your belly rubbed,” Jim McElwain said earlier this week. And there’s no tougher task than posting a statement win at home and then going on the road the next week while everyone is telling you how great you are.
• Miami at Florida State: Is something physically wrong with Everett Golson? The Seminoles had 13 fewer first downs than Wake Forest last weekend while at least one observer noted that Golson didn’t throw much in pregame and his in-game passes lacked their usual zip.
• Cal at Utah: This could be a Pac-12 title game preview. It could also be the start of a stretch (followed by matchups with Arizona State and USC) that convinces more people to vote the Utes No. 1 in the polls, including the playoff selection committee members.
The hair-raising end
Chaos, chaos, everywhere there’s chaos in college football. What we know has the half-life of a hydrogen-7 radioactive isotope (23 yoctoseconds for those who didn’t already know). But some teams, soon, will separate themselves, right? Right?
It’s Week 6. As W.A.S.P. might ask: Who has the guts to be somebody?