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August 27, 2011

These guys out to make a name for themselves

By now, most casual fans know all about Oregon's LaMichael James, the 2010 Heisman runner-up and the nation's top returning rusher from last season.

Here's the real test: Can you name the returning player with the second-highest rushing total from last season?

Even die-hard fans who sit in front of the TV from noon to midnight each Saturday might not be familiar with Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey, who rushed for 1,649 yards last season. Rainey gained 155 yards against Nebraska and 184 yards against Kentucky, yet he's a household name only in his own household.

You won't find Rainey on any preseason All-America teams, but he holds a prominent place on our list of the nation's most underrated players.

There are plenty of reasons why these guys go underappreciated. Maybe they play on a losing team. Maybe they play for a conference whose games only show up on TV on weeknights. Or perhaps they're overshadowed by superstar teammates.

Maybe this is the year these guys become household names. Right now, they're the 12 best players you probably don't know -- but should.

WR Damarlo Belcher, Indiana
The buzz: He will be IU's go-to guy as a senior this fall. He was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection last season but should vie for first-team honors this season, as he is a great fit in new coach Kevin Wilson's spread attack. Belcher has great size (6 feet 5/214 pounds) and should set IU's career receptions record this fall; he has 164 catches and the record is 191 by James Hardy, like Belcher a native of Fort Wayne, Ind.

DE Vinny Curry, Marshall
The buzz: Curry emerged as a big-time playmaker as a junior last season, finishing with 12 sacks, 94 tackles, 16 quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles. His sack total was sixth-most in the nation. Curry had two sacks against both Ohio State and West Virginia and added 11 tackles and two forced fumbles against WVU.

RB Lance Dunbar, North Texas
The buzz: Dunbar has posted the third-highest rushing total nationally -- 2,931 yards -- over the past two seasons. Only Oregon's LaMichael James and Nevada's Vai Taua gained more. Dunbar followed up a 1,378-yard output in 2009 with 1,553 yards last season. Last season, he exceeded 200 rushing yards three times, including a season-high 270 vs. Big 12 member Kansas State. He had eight 100-yard performances, including 117 vs. ACC member Clemson.

CB Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt
The buzz: Hayward, a senior, is coming off his best season. He had 70 tackles, six interceptions, 11 pass breakups and a forced fumble last season; he was tied for fifth in the nation in interceptions, and the 11 breakups led the SEC.

WR T.Y. Hilton, Florida International
The buzz: Hilton is the reigning Sun Belt Conference player of the year. He scored 11 TDs last season -- five as a receiver, four as a rusher and two as a kick returner -- when FIU made its first bowl appearance. He is responsible for 29 TDs in his career, including 17 as a receiver. He plays in a ground-oriented offense, but he had 59 catches for 848 yards and the five TDs last season. The first time he touched the ball as a collegian, he returned a punt for a TD, against Kansas.

RB Doug Martin, Boise State
The buzz: Forget all the talk about Boise State's "finesse," pass-oriented offense. The Broncos love to run downhill and Martin is proof. He has rushed for 27 touchdowns in the past two seasons and became the Broncos' feature back last season, when he had 201 carries and 1,260 yards. He should be an even more important part of the offense this season because Boise's wide receiver corps is in flux.

G Ryan Miller, Colorado
The buzz: Colorado had a big-time offensive lineman (Nate Solder) go in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. Miller isn't quite as good as Solder, but he will hear his name called relatively early in the 2012 draft. Miller played his first two seasons at tackle, then moved inside to guard. He is an avid kite flyer -- but make fun of him at your own risk (he's 6-8 and 310 pounds).

CB Chase Minnifield, Virginia
The buzz: Minnifield is named after Chase Manhattan Bank, It's too bad Minnifield toils for a bad team because his sterling play too often is overlooked. His dad, Frank, was a longtime NFL corner, and with a good senior season, Chase could be a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft. He was fifth in the nation with six interceptions last season, and he added 48 tackles and four pass breakups.

DT Roosevelt Nix, Kent State
The buzz: Don't let the small size (6-0/250) or the MAC schedule fool you; this guy wreaks havoc in the middle. He was the MAC's defensive player of the year last season as a true freshman; the last Kent State player to win that honor was LB Jack Lambert in 1972. Nix had 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season to go along with 43 total tackles. Nix has excellent technique and an extremely quick first step.

OT Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State
The buzz: Osemele is massive (6-6/354) and an absolute road-grader in the running game. NFL scouts love the guy, but as a guard and not a tackle. He heads into his senior season having started 30 consecutive games at tackle for the Cyclones. Osemele's name is pronounced Kah-LETCH-ee Oh-sem-AH-lee.

RB Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky
The buzz: Rainey, a 5-7 senior, was the nation's No. 3 rusher last season for the Hilltoppers (137.4 yards per game). Lest you think he rolled up those numbers against inferior Sun Belt Conference competition, consider that he ran for 155 and a TD against Nebraska and 184 and two scores against Kentucky. He had nine 100-yard games and eight two-TD games. He has 2,847 career rushing yards, fourth-most among current players.

LB Bobby Wagner, Utah State
The buzz: Despite playing for a struggling program, Wagner has a shot at being named the defensive player of the year in the WAC because of his production. He simply always is around the ball; he heads into his senior season with 298 career tackles, with 17 tackles for loss, two interceptions, seven pass breakups and a forced fumble. He made 133 tackles last season.

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