An annual homage to the best college players who didn't make the NFL's draft-day cut.
In sports, there are few colder mistresses than the NFL Draft, the culmination of months of professional skeptics poking, prodding and magnifying every flaw of you favorite college star to determine who's too small, too slow, too injury-prone too dependent on a certain college system to make it at the next level. Sometimes, the answer is obvious. Sometimes, it's obviously arbitrary. Sometimes, it almost seems cruel: See Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, a former All-American who was diagnosed with bone cancer after passing up a certain spot in the first round in 2009 to return to school, who was just passed over completely this weekend despite beating cancer and returning to the lineup to help anchor the nation's No. 1 rushing defense last year.
Most draft snubs aren't that dramatic, or surprising. But as always, for college fans, the 2011 proceedings were as remarkable for some of the players who didn't make the cut as for the 254 who did:
• Quarterback: SCOTT TOLZIEN, Wisconsin. Tolzien never overcame the stereotype of the generic, unassuming, within-the-offense Badger quarterback who quietly leads nine-win seasons despite possessing almost no discernible talent — in other words, every Badger quarterback of the past two decades. But on paper he was better than all of his predecessors, finishing among the most efficient passers in the nation at the head of an offense that averaged upwards of 43 points per game en route to a share of the Big Ten championship and Wisconsin's first Rose Bowl berth in more than a decade.
• Running back: JOHN CLAY, Wisconsin. Clay followed prolific predecessor P.J. Hill as the Badgers' jumbo-sized back du jour, and now follows Hill in undrafted infamy after foregoing his senior season for a phone call that never came. Not that he didn't have reason to expect it to: Clay was the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2009, when he easily led the league with 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best back last year despite missing essentially the entire month of November with a knee injury.
Of course, it didn't help Clay's resumé when the offense exploded in his absence, with unknown backups James White and Montee Ball piling up more than 2,000 yards and 32 touchdowns for the year.
• Running back: NOEL DEVINE, West Virginia. The Mountaineers' mighty mite endured a gradual drift from the vaunted spread option scheme he signed up for as one of the most coveted backs in the 2007 recruiting class, but turned in back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2008-09 and went out last year as the second-leading rusher among all active players.
• Running back: VAI TAUA, Nevada. The only name ahead of Devine's on that list: Vai Tuau, who churned out 4,476 yards over the last three seasons as the resident workhorse in the Wolf Pack's unique "Pistol" attack, which finished among the top three rushing offenses and top five total offenses in the nation all three years.
• Wide receiver: JEFF MAEHL, Oregon. Maehl is the kind of receiver who gets instantly labeled as a "Wes Welker type," but Oregon's overpowering attack would have looked very different last year without his presence as a token downfield threat to make defenses pay for overplaying the spread option. His consistency in that role led to a school-record 12 touchdown receptions, a first-team All-Pac-10 nod and a feature turn in the BCS Championship Game, where he was on the receiving end of the longest play from scrimmage in BCS Championship history:
• Wide receiver: DANE SANZENBACHER, Ohio State. Another undersized white guy who defied the "possession receiver" tag, Sanzenbacher emerged as the Buckeyes' go-to playmaker as a senior with a Big Ten-best 11 touchdowns on more than 17 yards per catch, good for a first-team all-conference nod from league coaches and media. He had at least once catch covering at least 25 yards in nine of OSU's 13 games, most of them after a broken bone in his finger pierced the skin during a September practice.
• Offensive line: CHASE BEELER, Stanford. The former Oklahoma transfer was a consensus All-American at the center of a line that paved the way for Stanford to average 200 yards per game rushing in 2010 and allowed a mere six sacks all season. But even intimate physical proximity with scout favorite Andrew Luck couldn't convince anyone to pull the trigger on a 277-pound lineman usually described as "cerebral."
• Offensive line: RICKY HENRY, Nebraska. Size was no issue for Henry, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound former juco transfer who went out as a first-team All-Big 12 pick last year. Even by offensive line standards, though, his speed and agility apparently left too much to be desired.
• Offensive line: JORDAN HOLMES, Oregon. Holmes stands in for three undrafted Duck seniors — along with Bo Thran and C.E. Kaiser — who logged nearly 100 career starts between them on the front line of one of the most consistently overwhelming offenses in the country. Holmes was the only Oregon lineman voted first-team All-Pac-10 in 2010, but was barely considered as a prospect at the next level.
• Offensive line: JAKE KIRKPATRICK, TCU. Kirkpatrick picked up some All-America notice as well as the Rimington Trophy as the nation's best center as a senior — for which he was also a finalist in 2009 — making him arguably the best player on an offense that set school records for points and yards en route to a perfect season.
• Offensive line: RYAN PUGH, Auburn. Wrapping up the list of overlooked, overachieving centers who found themselves quite literally in the middle of historic seasons for their schools, it's the guy who snapped the ball to Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton. Pugh started 45 games over four years, the last 39 of them at center, and went out last year as a first-team All-SEC pick.
• Defensive line: PIERRE ALLEN, Nebraska. Allen started 39 straight games at defensive end, all of them in the shadow of more hyped linemates Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick. (And last year in the shadow of the resident tackle machine, linebacker Lavonte David, as well.) But Big 12 coaches noticed, tabbing Allen as first-team all-conference pick last year alongside three other defensive ends — Aldon Smith, Sam Acho and Jeremy Beal — who all came off the board over the weekend.
• Defensive line: BRANDON BAIR, Oregon. The Ducks' hyperdrive offense earned the headlines (and deservedly so), but Oregon probably wouldn't be playing for the BCS title without its underrated D, which led the Pac-10 and finished in the top 15 nationally in rushing defense and tackles for loss. Bair was the main cog on both of those fronts, helping stuff the middle and finishing second in the conference
His reward for anchoring the best front seven in the league: Being selected second team all-conference and now passed over in the draft.
• Defensive line: WAYNE DANIELS, TCU. Daniels spent two seasons on the front line of a defense that led the nation in total D both years, as well as in scoring D last year after holding eight different opponents to 10 points or less. Daniels' role as the premier pass rusher on that unit earned him unanimous All-Mountain West honors and an All-America nod from the Football Writers Association of America, but not a second look from the pro scouts.
• Defensive line: RYAN WINTERSWYK, Boise State. A former walk-on at safety, Winsterswyk closed out his career with three straight first-team All-WAC bids at defensive end, most recently as one of the leaders of a group that led the nation in sacks and finished second in total defense, scoring defense and tackles for loss. He spent some time before the draft working out at tight end, but didn't get any bites there, either.
• Linebacker: NICK BELLORE, Central Michigan. Bellore moved into the lineup almost from the day he arrived on campus and eventually started all but one game over the course of his career, racking up more than 100 total tackles all four years and a first-team All-MAC nod in each of the last three. He graduates with more career tackles than any other active player in the country.
• Linebacker: MARK HERZLICH, Boston College. Herzlich clearly didn't return to his All-America form after the harrowing year off, but he was a key cog in the nation's No. 1 run defense, finishing third on the team in tackles while also picking off four passes; he was still widely considered a draftable prospect coming into the weekend. Even with his past health concerns, the snub is a mystery: The Patriots used a fifth-round pick on TCU offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, who was just diagnosed with lymphoma last week and is in the beginning stages of chemotherapy.
• Linebacker: ALEX WUJCIAK, Maryland. Wujciak bounced back from a major knee injury as a redshirt freshman to put together three straight 100-tackle seasons in the middle of the Terp D, picking up first-team All-ACC honors for the last two. Pro scouts, however, didn't even show enough interest to extend a combine invite.
• Safety: TEJAY JOHNSON, TCU. Yet another decorated Horned Frog star left by the wayside: Johnson was a consensus All-American and Thorpe Award finalist last year after emerging as the best player on (statistically, anyway) the best secondary in the nation. Instead of taking his chances as a late-round pick, though, he retired from football to work with the deaf.
• Safety: DeANDRE McDANIEL, Clemson. McDaniel passed on the NFL after picking off an ACC-best eight passes in 2009, and followed that up by leading the Tigers in interceptions (4) and tackles en route to another all-conference bid as a senior. Considering he has prototypical free safety size and was considered an early-round pick immediately after a respectable performance at the combine, McDaniel may be the single most mysterious snub of the year.
• Cornerback: KENDRIC BURNEY, North Carolina. As far as his future is concerned, perhaps no one lost more in the wave of NCAA-related suspensions that ravaged the Tar Heel defense last year than Burney, a first-team All-ACC pick in 2009 who'd started every game of his career before being sidelined with eligibility questions for the first seven games of his senior season. Burney returned to start the last six, adding a pair of interceptions to bring his career total to eleven. But unlike teammates Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn and Greg Little — all of whom were selected in the first two rounds despite not playing a down in 2010 — his draft credentials never recovered.
• Cornerback: REGGIE REMBERT, Air Force. The league always avoids service academy guys — exactly one player from Air Force, Army or Navy has been drafted since 1999 — in part because they're rarely NFL-caliber athletes and in part because of their post-graduate service requirements. In Rembert's case, he's on the small side at 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, but that didn't stop him from picking up a pair of All-Mountain West nods the past two years or an All-America nod from the American Football Coaches Association last year as the leader of a strong Falcon secondary.
HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical by school): Darvin Adams, WR Auburn • Jeron Johnson, DB, Boise State • Armon Binns, WR, Cincinnati • Zach Hurd, OL, UConn • Jerrard Terrant, DB, Georgia Tech • Terrence Toliver, WR, LSU • Justin Boren, OL, Ohio State • Devon Torrence, DB, Ohio State • Ugo Chinasa, DL, Oklahoma State • Kenny Rowe, DE, Oregon • Bo Thran, OL, Oregon • Jerrod Johnson, QB, Texas A&M • Alex Linnenkohl, OL, Oregon State • Kris O'Dowd, OL, USC • Zane Taylor, OL, Utah • Darren Evans, RB, Virginia Tech.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.