Best of the Best – Part I

Ndamkung Suh. (courtesy of Nebraska athletics)

Ndamkung Suh. (courtesy of Nebraska athletics)

As promised last week, this is the beginning of a two-part series on the Top 10 players I competed against and/or alongside. Originally, the thought was to fit all this information into one post. I didn’t have the room, plus, I wanted to share a personal anecdote behind why each athlete was selected.

I’ve started with the best five I played against. That seemed easier to me than ranking my teammates. In fact, I’ll simply choose the Top 5 in each category without specifically ranking them because all my teammates were valuable. Some of us played bigger roles than others, yes; but each position and each person filling them were crucial to our overall success as a whole. That’s a team.

Most of these names you’ll find familiar while for others Google may have to assist your recollection. Even I was surprised by the time I finished writing this, I said to myself, “Wow… we truly played against the best of the best.” Looking back on my career now and realizing that only fills me with more appreciation of the experience. ’05-’09 proved to be crucial years in Texas Longhorn football history; I’m so happy to have been apart of them. Perhaps, it won’t be long until another golden era of football returns to the 40 Acres.

The list:

Ndamukong Suh

I know all of you expected me to list Suh first because of the 2009 Big 12 Championship game. I actually considered not listing him simply because I didn’t have the opportunity to block him much. I was playing center; Nebraska’s DTs played so tightly over the guards we didn’t cross paths often. That being said, I would have been blind and severely wrong if I hadn’t listed him here first. He had 4.5 sacks on the biggest stage and earned a trip to the Heisman ceremony because of his performance — let the history books show I deserve (by far) the lion’s share of the blame. I myself am responsible for at least two of Suh’s sacks on Colt, if not more.

It was a different story when we played the Cornhuskers in 2007, but the stakes weren’t nearly the same nor were the players on the field. Suh didn’t truly blossom (or explode?) personally as a player until 2008. That was when Bo Pelini arrived in Lincoln and Ndamukong became a man-beast the Big 12 would never forget.

He lead Nebraska in tackles his junior and senior seasons. Think about how difficult that is to do from defensive tackle. … A linebacker or safety you’d expect, a defensive lineman leading his team in tackles is unheard of. Suh’s main attribute was his strength. The Cornhuskers defensive line read rather than attacked — which I hated. They didn’t fire off the ball determined to get penetration upfield, they were waiting to see what would happen and then react. Combating that style of play felt so foreign to me, and you have to play with incredible power to do so very well. Suh deserves every accolade he’s received (and I’d like to go back now to forgetting how great of a game against us he played).

Gerald McCoy

Playing against Gerald McCoy was a different experience altogether. Whereas Suh’s power was unmatched in college football, McCoy’s strength lied in his agility and speed. I remember in ’08 (the infamous “45-35” game) the first play from scrimmage we caught Austin English offsides — the defensive end who became Adam Ulatoski’s informal arch-nemesis. We had designed a cadence specifically saved for OU to slow down their ball-get-off.

Gerald McCoy. (OU)

Gerald McCoy. (OU)

I would sometimes say “GO” and then not snap the ball. I know that sounds simplistic, but every other time in the shotgun the play was activated on my first sound. The change-up became an invaluable weapon. If anyone jumped into the neutral zone I’d snap it and we’d get a free shot to throw downfield. If the pass was incomplete, or even intercepted, it wouldn’t matter because we’d have a free five yards regardless due to the initial offsides.

Austin English jumped, I snapped the ball, and then Gerald McCoy made me look silly. He slanted inside from a “3 technique” outside the left guard all the way down to the center. In doing so, he swam me in one fluid motion as I absolutely whiffed him. The first play from scrimmage against our most bitter rivals (who just so happened to also be the #1 team in the country) and I’m throwing a “look-out” block — a block you miss and subsequently yell “look out” to your quarterback because of.

McCoy knocked Colt to the ground as he got off the pass. It was a free five yards, but a costly hit that was completely my fault. Because McCoy caught me with too much weight forward, I knew he’d use he swim move again later on in the game. The next time I was ready, but I wouldn’t forget the quickness and agility with which he made me look stupid for the rest of my career. I never played against another DT that fast (who wasn’t named Roy Miller).

Sean Weatherspoon

Speaking of fast, Sean Weatherspoon was FAST — and the only linebacker you’ll see on this list. You probably remember Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy being drafted #2 and #3 overall in 2010. You may not remember Missouri’s defensive MVP being selected at #19 in the NFL draft in the very same year. Yes, believe it or not, the Big XII fielded elite defenses yearly at one time.

I remember traveling up to Columbia in 2009 to play the Tigers at home, their stadium appropriately dubbed “The Zoo.” We drummed them that game to the tune of 41-7 by the time the 4th quarter was over. We could have played a lot better in the second half and their nose tackle gave me trouble at times, but what stood out to me about Missouri was Weatherspoon — hands down. Weatherspoon was one of the only guys I simply bounced off of at first contact. It’s almost as if I was annoying him as he intently looked for the ball, so he shrugged me off. It was like he was too intensely focused to be bothered by the 300 pound OL named Chris Hall trying to get in his way.

He felt a lot like Sergio Kindle, if that makes sense. Weatherspoon was a physical specimen that played with great intensity whistle-to-whistle. For his sake, I only wish he had gotten to play on a better football team overall his senior year. His play deserved it.

Von Miller

My first start at left tackle came against the Aggies in 2007. To say “I was nervous” would be an understatement. It felt similar to starting at right tackle for the first time against the Sooners just a few weeks earlier. Playing on the outside meant I was “on an island” in pass protection. On the one hand, I liked playing tackle. Quickness and technique were my strengths as on offensive lineman, not size and raw power. I was physically better suited to combat defensive ends rather than defensive tackles the size of a small car. On the other hand, I was now solely responsible for Colt’s blindside at Kyle Field against our rivals.

Von Miller (A&M Athletics)

Von Miller (A&M Athletics)

What made things even more interesting was a true freshman defensive end named Von Miller. I had known who he was in high school, an undersized pass rusher out of Desoto. Miller wasn’t a starter yet in 2007, but I knew he was an incredible athlete that would be trouble if he ever developed in the weight room. He did. That’s why Von Miller was selected #2 overall in the 2011 NFL draft.

I competed against him 1-on-1 before he became the nation’s leading sack-master. It was Adam Ulatoski who bore the brunt of protecting Colt’s blindside against Miller then, and he did a great job of it. Even though Von’s career was only beginning, he had me absolutely beat on an inside move in the second half while we were down. Alarms were going off inside my head as I contemplated diving inside to try and position my body between him and Colt. I would look stupid, but whatever I could do to save our QB a hit and give more time would have been well worth it — but Miller simply stopped.

To this day I don’t know why. He just stopped his rush, watched the pass unfold for a half second, and then the emergency was over. Maybe Von realized he had to keep outside contain. Maybe his cleat fell off, I don’t know. Whatever it was I thanked the Lord as we jogged downfield for the next play. You’d have to ask Uli, but I doubt Miller stopped mid-play like that again in ’08 or ’09.

Torell Troup

This was a name I didn’t know my senior year in 2009, but I quickly began to study him when Greg Davis remarked Troup would be the best pure nose tackle I’d face all year. That’s quite a statement, especially when you consider all the defensive line talent playing in the Big 12 at the time. Only, Troup didn’t play in the Big 12.

Torell played for George O’Leary’s UCF Golden Knights. He was 6-foot-2, 315 pounds, stout, quick, and played with a low center of gravity. We were backed up on our own goal line once when we played them, and had inside zone called to the weak side of the formation. Troup was playing wide, shaded just on the inside of the guard. That meant I had a long way to go to get my facemask to his play side number. Doing so would cut him off from penetration (which we couldn’t afford being on our own goal line) and wasn’t made easier by the fact we were under center. I didn’t execute well.

Troup ended up three yards in our backfield by the time the RB was delivered the ball — talk about embarrassing for an offensive lineman. I should have sold out with all my weight and “gambled” in some sense. There’s a chance he could have slid back underneath me if I did so, meaning I could have completely whiffed and had him go unscathed — also resulting in embarrassment. Hindsight is 20/20.