- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

LOS ANGELES — The 2003 college football season should be remembered as the year of the wide receiver.

Never before has the college game given us such a parade of playmakers at the thrill position.

After leading the nation in receiving yardage and touchdown receptions, Pittsburgh’s Larry Fitzgerald nearly managed the unthinkable and swiped the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore. At Oklahoma State, senior Rashaun Woods set an NCAA record with six touchdown catches against SMU. In the Big Ten, both Purdue’s John Standeford and Wisconsin speedster Lee Evans shattered the league’s mark for career receiving yardage. And out west, a trio of Williamses (Texas’ Roy, Washington’s Reggie and USC’s Mike) stunned both secondaries and scouts.

“It was easily the most talent-rich position in the college game this season,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said recently. “There’s a game-breaker everywhere you look.”

Said an NFC scout recently: “In terms of impact guys, it’s definitely the deepest position out there. If Fitzgerald comes out, I wouldn’t be surprised to see seven receivers taken in the first round [of next years NFL Draft].”

Six wideouts have been taken in the first round twice before (1988 and 2001). But with a record-breaking seven-player class potentially in the offing, this season’s group of targets has analysts wondering if the 2004 draft will join 1985 (Jerry Rice, Andre Reed, Al Toon, Eric Martin, Vance Johnson, Jessie Hester and Reggie Langhorne) and 1988 (Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe, Anthony Miller, Brian Blades, Brett Perriman, Quinn Early and Michael Haynes) in the landmark-class category.

“You almost hate to saddle this group with those kinds of expectations,” said draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. earlier this month. “But depending upon which underclassmen declare, that kind of talent and depth could be there.”

A pair of those coveted playmakers will meet in the Rose Bowl on Thursday, when mammoth Mike Williams and the top-ranked Trojans (11-1) face No.4 Michigan (10-2) and dynamic split end Braylon Edwards.

Both Williams (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) and Edwards (6-3, 206) are perfect examples of the new paradigm at the position — wideouts who are fast enough to run by defensive backs, large enough to go over them for receptions and strong enough to punish them after catches.

“It all trickles down from the NFL,” USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow said yesterday. “You watch guys like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens create instant mismatches, and you start trying to find guys like that on the college level. We decided to look at some guys who were primarily basketball players. The first time I saw Mike he was playing hoops in Tampa. He had such incredible footwork, agility and burst that you could tell immediately he’d be a monster on the football field. I couldn’t believe one of the Florida schools hadn’t already signed him.”

In fact, all three of the Florida’s football powers thought Williams was too slow to play wide receiver and too gawky to play tight end. Two years later, Williams already has established himself as one of best receivers in USC history. As a freshman, Williams amassed an NCAA-record 1,265 receiving yards as the favorite target of Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer. This season, Williams made first-year starter Matt Leinart look like a Heisman candidate, pulling down 87 passes for 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns.

And unlike Fitzgerald, the East Coast media darling who fizzled down the stretch with just 15 receptions for 205 yards in his last three games, the West Coast’s sensational sophomore finished with a flourish, pulling down 29 passes for 397 yards and seven touchdowns in USC’s final three games.

“It was no big deal, really,” Williams said yesterday of his sophomore campaign. “I had a decent year, solid, nothing spectacular.”

Anybody who saw the Trojans’ final game of the regular season against Oregon State begs to differ. During one 10-minute span of the 52-28 rout of the Beavers, Williams made an outrageous one-handed touchdown grab and devastated an Oregon State defensive lineman on a crack-back block, authoring arguably the most spectacular catch and pancake of the season.

“That guy is a serious force,” Notre Dame All-American cornerback Vontez Duff said after the Trojans spanked the Irish 45-14 on Oct.18. “No offense to Larry Fitzgerald, because he’s a great player, but we’ve now played Pitt and USC back-to-back and there’s no comparison between Fitzgerald and Williams. [Williams] is bigger, stronger and faster — end of story.”

Like Williams, Edwards arrived at Michigan amid little fanfare after a modest prep career at Detroit’s Martin Luther King High. If his size and speed (4.41 in the 40-yard dash) instantly made him a factor in the Wolverines’ rotation at wideout, his suspect work ethic made him a lightning rod for criticism from coach Lloyd Carr.

“Here’s a guy who led our team in receptions [67] and receiving yards [1,035] last year playing at about half speed,” Michigan assistant head coach Erik Campbell said before the start of this season. “He had only scratched the surface of his potential. He knew it, and we didn’t let him forget it.”

Last spring, Edwards told Campbell and Carr he was committed to earning the team’s coveted No.1 jersey (Anthony Carter, Derrick Alexander, David Terrell). Pleased with his increased consistency in preseason practice but still somewhat skeptical, Carr granted him the number heading into this season. And Edwards responded by hauling in 75 passes for 1,031 yards and 14 scores, earning first team All-Big Ten honors.

In deference to Carr’s wishes, Edwards talks sparingly to the media. And despite a season that landed Edwards among the Biletnikoff Award finalists, Carr was still only mildly satisfied with his primary playmaker.

“Braylon definitely improved this year, but he’s still got a lot of room to grow as a receiver and player,” Carr said. “You have to understand that he’s one of the most gifted kids we’ve ever had around here, and we’ve had some pretty good ones.”

Though he has one year of eligibility left in Ann Arbor, Edwards might choose to permanently escape the Carr doghouse and do that growing in the NFL, as virtually every draft projection lists him as a late first- to early second-rounder.

And Edwards knows Thursday’s showdown with Williams in the Rose Bowl could be the determining factor in his draft status.

“We both wear the same number, and we both want the same trophy,” Edwards said yesterday. “Something’s got to give.”

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