- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
Be a hero.
Those three words are among the most repeated in the coaching lexicon. And while they are directed at everyone on the team, sometimes the person who steps up to become that hero is the person you least expect.
"The MVP trophies are always going to the guys who have the big stats and the big names," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said earlier this fall. "But in the locker room, everyone knows who the real hero is. A lot of times it's a guy who never even gets mentioned by the public or the media. It's the guy who makes the plays no one in the stands even notices, but everyone who plays with him and against with him knows exactly what he did.
"Those are the guys," Saban added, with emphasis, "that ultimately determine who wins or loses the game."
October is when those guys start to step up. When the meat of conference play begins, as it does this weekend, and nearly every big team faces a "Wipeout"-like obstacle course of opponents.
Who are the unsung impact players upon whom so many of those games might hinge? Here's our list of college football's top-five "unknown" players who could make a major impact in their teams' key upcoming games.
5. Dalton Santos, LB, Texas Longhorns
Forget the freshman's defensive numbers. That's not where he takes care of business. Opposing teams need to keep an eye on No. 55 when the surprisingly fast, 6-foot-3, 260-pounder is on the prowl on special teams, as part of Texas' famed "Wild Bunch" kickoff coverage squad. His pace is so frenetic and his hits so vicious that his teammates call him "Crazy White Boy."
So far, the Wild Bunch has allowed fewer than 19.2 yards per kickoff return, and that includes a 100-yard TD return by Ole Miss in Week 3. Throw out that return and Texas opponents are, on average, starting their drives around the 17-yard line.
How big is that? Take a look at their Big 12 schedule. Kansas State's Tyler Lockett is ranked No. 2 in the nation in kickoff returns. Also among college football's biggest threats are Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert (12th) and this weekend's return man, Tavon Austin of West Virginia (24th). What's the best way to slow down a video game-type Big 12 offense, besides keeping them off the field? Creating as deep of a hole as possible, physically and mentally, to start their drives.
"He is a tone-setter," said his head coach, Mack Brown. "A big play on a kickoff can change the momentum of a football game like no other play. You should see the team watching film on Sundays. They want to fast forward to the kickoffs just to watch Santos."
For more on Santos, read my man Max Olson's piece.
4. Quincy Enunwa, WR, Nebraska Cornhuskers
If you based your evaluation of Enunwa strictly on stats, you'd be underwhelmed. Through five games, the junior has 16 catches for 173 yards with one TD. In other words, a decent quarter for a wideout at West Virginia. That ranks him 290th in the nation in receiving and 25th in the Big Ten.
"That's all fine," said a Midwestern defensive coordinator. "But all you need to do to see his impact is look at the film and then tell me where Nebraska ranks in those same numbers when it comes to rushing. Especially long runs and runs to the corners."
The Huskers are ranked fifth in the nation in rushing, first in the conference, and have three players among the top-15 rushers in the conference. And that's with Rex Burkhead having missed two games.
So, what does one have to do with the other?
Continued the coach: "Watch Enunwa on those sideline runs. On any long run. He is a monster blocker downfield. He locks guys up and drives them. Or he'll block, move, and block again, way ahead of the play because he knows what should be coming behind him and he's already clearing the road."
Last year, Nebraska created a Perimeter Warrior award, given to the guy who does the best job of run blocking on the edges. The 6-2, 225-pound receiver won it by a landslide. As the Huskers hit the bulk of conference play, it will have to be Enunwa who helps turn solid gains by Taylor Martinez and company into spectacular ones.
3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama Crimson Tide
During SEC Media Days, Nick Saban caught the press corps off guard when he dropped Cooper's name in with the likes of quarterback AJ McCarron and fellow wideout DeAndrew White as the guys who had the potential to take the Tide offense to the next level.
For a month, McCarron and White took care of business while Cooper did nothing to warrant such praise. Then, against Ole Miss, the freshman hauled in eight catches for 84 yards and two TDs, the best day for an Alabama receiver in a year. Over the past two weeks, he has 13 catches for 149 yards after posting only five catches and 73 yards in the first three games.
And Cooper's sudden rise has come at the same time that White's season has ended, after he suffered an ACL injury in the Mississippi game.
"It's not like Alabama is going to suddenly turn into Oklahoma State," said an SEC defensive position coach. "But McCarron has really turned into a solid thrower. We know they can run the ball. Now Cooper gives them the potential for a genuine deep threat. If you're Bama, that's a bullet you only need to fire once a game and it's over."
2. Rahim Cassell, Tyson Coleman, Derrick Malone, LBs, Oregon Ducks
Defense is never going to steal the headlines in Eugene. But this year, the Ducks' D is quietly putting together a solid season, surrendering only 19.8 points per game and ranks 24th in both rushing and pass efficiency defense. Their game plan centers around rotating as many bodies onto the field as possible, utilizing the same wear-them-down philosophy as Oregon's legendary offense.
The anchor of the D is a trio of talented linebackers, Michael Clay, Boseko Lokombo and Kiko Alonso. But the three youngsters act not as backups, but more accurately as complements, having given the Ducks more defensive depth in the middle than they've ever had.
For an example, look no further than last weekend's game against Washington State. When Clay missed the second half with an injury, it was Malone, a sophomore, who stepped in, with assistance from Coleman and Cassell, both redshirt freshmen. They never missed a beat, giving up only seven points in the half.
That's precisely the kind of depth a team needs to get through the grind of October and November, not to mention what will be needed to potentially fend off Alabama's grindstone offense come January.
1. David Andrews, C, Georgia Bulldogs
Entering the 2012 season, the Bulldogs' biggest liability was supposed to be their offensive line, having lost three starters to the NFL. The biggest loss was center Ben Jones, oft-mentioned as the glue that held the entire offense together. But so far the Dawgs have been solid in the trenches, plowing the way for freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, and allowing only 1.4 sacks per game of quarterback Aaron Murray over the first five contests. The anchor of that effort has been Jones' replacement, 6-2 fireplug David "Boss" Andrews.
"I wouldn't say he's a beast, but he's quick," UGA head coach Mark Richt said of Andrews. "If you're quick and you get your hands and feet where they're supposed to be and you run 'em with enthusiasm and you know what you're doing, you can play center."
If Georgia is to going run the table in the SEC East, they're going to have to run it behind Andrews. That starts this weekend at South Carolina. The Gamecocks' famed defensive ends aren't going to allow "Gurshall" to get much around the corners. They're also going to be closing in on Murray in a hurry, which means Andrews will need to hold down the leading edge of the pocket so his QB can do work.
If he can do all of that, then the Boss will graduate to hero status.