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Recruiting class of 2001-the blue chips

CFN's 2001 Top 1-70 | Top 71-140

From the moment they first picked up a ball of any shape, they were the best on their block. The first to be chosen. A cut above their classmates. High school followed, and the accolades multiplied. No longer a neighborhood secret, their exploits drew statewide attention and headlines. Major universities from across the nation came calling with the promise of celebrity in the left hand, and a four-year scholie in the right. They adorned lists like Lemming’s Top this and USA Today’s Top that. All were blue chip recruits. Not one disappointed. And for those who aren’t already there, the NFL beckons much the way those eager programs did four years ago.

These heads of the Class of 2001 had something much tougher than a hard-charging linebacker or a silky smooth receiver to overcome. In a fish bowl that continues to shrink, they had to exceed sky-high expectations before their 21<SUP>st</SUP> birthday.
1. QB Matt Leinart, USC – Now that he’s returning for his senior season, Leinart has an opportunity to be cited as the most decorated quarterback in college football history. His achievements in two years have been staggering: A 25-1 record as the Trojan starter. 71 touchdown passes to just 15 interceptions. Two national championships. And one Heisman Trophy. He’ll enter the 2005 season as the most recognized name—and face—at the collegiate level.

2. DE David Pollack, GeorgiaPollack started four games as a freshman, and went on to terrorize SEC quarterbacks for the next three seasons. He became the standard for pass-rushers, collecting a career-high 14 sacks as a sophomore before attracting double teams most of his junior and senior years. A three-time All-American, he started 45 straight games, and capped a brilliant career by winning the Lombardi, Hendricks and Bednarik Awards last December.

3. LB Derrick Johnson, Texas – Johnson’s rare athleticism and penchant for forcing turnovers has drawn lofty comparisons to Lawrence Taylor. From the moment he was named Freshman All-American in 2001, the accolades flowed annually for the product of Waco. The two-time All-American and Butkus Award recipient led the ‘Horn defense in 2004 with 130 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and a phenomenal nine forced fumbles.

4. WR Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh – Fitzgerald played just two seasons in Pittsburgh, but that’s all it took for him to establish himself as the most complete pass-catcher in America. In 2003, he won the Biletnikoff Award and a spate of other honors after catching 92 passes and setting an NCAA record with a touchdown reception in 18 consecutive games. The No. 3 overall pick in April’s draft had 58 catches for 780 yards and eight touchdowns in his rookie year with the Arizona Cardinals.

5. DT Tommie Harris, Oklahoma – For three years, Harris was the heart of one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, eating up opposing blockers, and making plenty of tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He was a two-time All-American in Norman, and the 2003 winner of the Lombardi Award, given to the country’s top interior lineman. The first-round pick in last year’s NFL Draft started all 16 games for a Chicago Bear team that considers him to be one of the organization’s defensive building blocks.

6. RB Cedric Benson, Texas – Benson arrived in Austin idolizing former Longhorn Ricky Williams, and leaves with a legacy that approaches the 1998 Heisman winner. He ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons, capped in 2004 by more than 1,800 yards, 20 touchdowns and the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back. Williams is just one of four backs in NCAA history to run for more yards in a career than Benson.

7. TE Kellen Winslow, Miami – The premier tight end in the country for two seasons, Winslow was a two-time Mackey Award finalist, winning the trophy in 2003. For a player of his size, he was uncommonly athletic at Miami, which prompted the Cleveland Browns to select him with the sixth overall selection in last April’s draft. Winslow’s rookie season ended prematurely when he broke his leg in week two.

8. OT Shawn Andrews, Arkansas – A Herculean tackle, who became the definition of a road grader during his three years as the head Hog. His devastating blocking in the running game paved the way for back-to-back All-American seasons and a spot as a finalist for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award in 2003. Andrews was taken in the first round of last year’s draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, and earned a starting job before breaking his leg in the opener.

9. CB Marlin Jackson, Michigan – Jackson wasted no time rewarding Lloyd Carr for his recruiting efforts, starting seven games his rookie season, and finishing fourth on the team in tackles. He went on to become one of the nation’s most outstanding corners, establishing squatter’s rights on the All-Big Ten first team and earning All-America honors twice. Jackson projects as a mid to late first-round pick in April’s draft.

10. CB Antrel Rolle, Miami – Once stars like Sean Taylor, Ed Reed and Phillip Buchanon made their way to the NFL, it was Rolle’s turn to take center stage in the ‘Cane secondary. The three-year starter responded by finishing second to Carlos Rogers in the Thorpe Award voting last month, while being cited as a consensus All-American. He’s the model of an ideal pro corner, which should project him high into this April’s draft.

11. RB Steven Jackson, Oregon State – For two seasons, Jackson did the unthinkable in Corvallis, making Beaver fans forget about all-time leading rusher, Ken Simonton. In two seasons as the starter, he piled up huge numbers on the ground and in the passing game, despite getting questionable support from his offensive line. The first selection of the St. Louis Rams in last year’s draft really came on late as Marshall Faulk’s understudy.

12. C Ben Wilkerson, LSU – Over the past two seasons, Wilkerson has been college football’s premier center, copping All-American honors twice and a share of the Rimington Trophy earlier this month. He’s an extremely athletic and agile lineman, who’ll be taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft if the knee injury he suffered last October doesn’t scare off too many teams.

13. RB Kevin Jones, Virginia Tech – The near-consensus top high school prospect of 2000 played up to his towering potential, even if he had to share the spotlight with Lee Suggs early in his career. When he finally flew solo in 2003, Jones soared to the Hokie single-season rushing record and a spot in the first round of the NFL Draft. Jones joined Barry Sanders and Billy Sims last year, becoming just the third Detroit Lion rookie to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

14. DT Shaun Cody, USC – Some Notre Dame fans still stew over the loss of Cody to USC four years ago. Whether he was inside or at end, he was a dominant lineman with the quickness to get after the quarterback and the strength to support in run defense. Cody rebounded from torn ligaments in his right knee two years ago to become one of the most feared tackles in the game, and a first-team All-American in 2004.

15. WR Michael Clayton, LSU – One of the many studs that made up Nick Saban’s impeccable recruiting class from four years ago. Clayton’s a dynamic all-around athlete, who ranks among the school’s all-time elite in most receiving categories, yet still made contributions on special teams and occasionally chipped in on defense. He repaid the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for choosing him No. 15 overall by setting club rookie records in 2004 for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

16. DE Marcus Spears, LSU – The country’s consensus No. 1 prep tight end wound up being a pretty good defensive end as well. Spears made the full-time switch to defense midway through his freshman year, and quickly grew into one of college football’s most intimidating pass-rushers. He led the Tigers in 2004 with 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks, en route to a spot on the All-SEC first team for the second consecutive season.

17. WR Reggie Williams, Washington – For three years, Williams went over and past defenders, justifying his status as the most sought after wideout from his graduating class. He was named All-American in 2002, and set numerous school records before departing with one season of eligibility remaining. Williams was selected ninth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in last April’s draft, but routinely struggled in his rookie season.

18. RB Carnell Williams, Auburn – A fractured fibula in 2002 and the presence of Ronnie Brown kept Cadillac from ever stockpiling a ton of individual awards, but he was a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and one the nation’s most dangerous runners whenever he lined up in the backfield. Williams has positioned himself to be one of the first backs chosen in the upcoming NFL Draft.

19. S Ernest Shazor, Michigan – All of the hype that surrounded Shazor’s decision to attend Michigan wound up being warranted. He’s a rare combination of corner quickness and linebacker toughness—wrapped up in a talented strong safety. Shazor elevated his game to All-American status this past year, prompting him to forego his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft. The Thorpe Award finalist won’t have to wait very long to hear his name called in April.

20. DT Anttaj Hawthorne, Wisconsin – A three-year starter, Hawthorne has been bedrock for the Badgers since landing a starting spot toward the end of his freshman season. Despite consistently drawing double teams the past two years, the All-Big Ten fixture has lived in opponents’ backfield. Hawthorne will attract plenty of interest from NFL GMs looking for a run-stuffer quick enough to also get after the quarterback.

21. OT Jonathan Scott, Texas – While still a shade raw, Scott has improved each year in Austin, and will be a lock for most preseason All-American teams after earning second-team honors this past season. He’s a tall, nimble tackle, who has helped pave the way for the resurgence of the Longhorn running attack the last two years.

22. QB Kyle Orton, Purdue – Orton closed out a schizophrenic career by throwing for 31 touchdowns and 3,090 yards, but might be better remembered for a cataclysmic fumble in the Wisconsin game that started a Boiler freefall. At the time, he was the trendy favorite to give Purdue its first Heisman winner. Orton started a bowl game in each of his four seasons, and rarely made mistakes, however, his career was not quite emblematic of the No. 2 rated quarterback of 2001.

23. DE Marquise Hill, LSU – The physically imposing end was bigger than most college tackles, yet nimble enough to create pressure as a pass-rusher. As a consensus Top 25 prospect, his Tiger career fell a little short of expectations, however, that didn’t dissuade the New England Patriots from making him the 31<SUP>st</SUP> pick in April’s draft. After spending most of 2004 on the inactive list, Hill might have been wise to remain in Baton Rouge for his senior season.

24. CB Ahmad Carroll, Arkansas – A phenomenal athlete with blazing speed, Carroll manned the Hog secondary for three years and was a superb gunner on special teams. The All-SEC corner left Fayetteville a year early, landing in the first round of the NFL Draft as a member of the Green Bay Packers. However, in year one as a pro, he was regularly exposed by veteran receivers and left many questioning his selection.

25. DT Lorenzo Alexander, Cal – Playing for a program known more for its high-octane offense, Alexander never quite got the pub befitting his talent and production. Since opting to remain in his hometown of Berkeley as one of the nation’s top-ranked tackles, he’s quietly anchored the Bear line in the shadows of more publicized Pac-10 linemen from USC and UCLA.