Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Auburn sophomore running back Michael Dyer.
• Typecasting. Among the multitude of great and astounding works achieved by Cam Newton in his single, supernova-like season on the Plains, the unlikeliest of all may have been his ability to make a coveted five-star prospect who smashed a 30-year-old freshman rushing record established by the most venerated star in school history seem like a disposable bit player. Against the backdrop of Newton's glare, Michael Dyer looked like just another planet orbiting the sun, basking in its rays.
For the great masses of the gridiron-obsessed public who aren't as obsessed with recruiting rankings, Dyer didn't come into focus until his MVP turn in the BCS Championship win over Oregon in January, and specifically on the 37-yard roll-n-run that set up the game-winning, title-clinching field goal in the game's dying seconds. There were more immediate concerns at the time, but in retrospect, that drive looks like the moment the Tigers began their revolution around a new star: With Newton's official exit for the NFL Draft three days later, Dyer became one of only three returning starters on the offense this fall, and the only one worthy of being the new focal point.
• Best-Case. It's impossible to separate Dyer's production from Newton's presence in the shotgun, which monopolized the attention of opposing defenses at all times. But Dyer is built like a workhorse at 5-foot-9, 210 pounds (I imagine he squats compact cars to warm up), and occasionally had the opportunity to run like he was composed of iridium: 15 carries for 100 yards against LSU; 21 carries for 180 yards at Ole Miss; 22 carries for 143 yards against Oregon in the championship game. Most notably in that vein, there was his 23-carry, 100-yard effort in the early comeback win over South Carolina, in which Dyer carried the ball seven times in the course of nine snaps on a key third quarter touchdown drive, churning out 40 yards and three first downs. Given the opportunity, he's a legitimate every-down, between-the-tackles grinder.
Altogether, Dyer accumulated the first 1,000-yard season by any freshman back in Auburn history, and did it as merely the second of four viable options in the backfield at any given moment. He also did it overwhelmingly in the second half. Give him 20 carries per game, and he could pound out the most productive season of any back in the SEC.
• Worst-Case. Of course, with four new offensive linemen and a completely unproven passing game, he could also get pounded into a pulp in short order by defenses with No. 5 in their sights the second they walk onto the field. There are a couple things Dyer is not: a) He's not a receiver, having hauled in exactly one pass, a nine-yard gain against Arkansas State in the season opener, for the entire season, and b) He's not a home-run threat in the open field, taking in just five touchdowns — three of them coming against Arkansas State, UL-Monroe and Chattanooga — with a long gain of 38 yards.
And again, it's impossible to separate his production from Newton's presence. It probably doesn't need to be said that Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley aren't Cam Newton, and won't command nearly the respect that he did as a running threat. That in turn narrows the margin for error in the passing game and increases both the attention and the pressure on Dyer if the new QB can't loosen defenses up. If there's no room for him to thrive between the tackles, there's probably no room anywhere.
• Fun Fact. OK, here's the thing. I don't know if Dyer was down on the controversial run that basically decided the national championship game. Ankle, wrist … I really have no opinion:
But I am willing to advance the argument that the officials should have whistled the play dead — not when he was "down," or not down, on top of Eddie Pleasant, but when he stopped running after spinning back onto his feet. When he stops and looks around after apparently being tackled — indicating to everyone "I have been tackled and the play is over," even in the absence of a whistle — he gives himself up.
When he stops, everyone stops, and given the hair-trigger emphasis on protecting "defenseless players" at all levels of the game over the last two seasons, Oregon defenders were obligated to stop: Who could ask one of them to risk being the guy who got slapped with one of the dumbest, costliest 15-yard penalties ever after months of targeted flags, fines and suspensions for just that type of hit, and less? In an environment where the value of "play to the whistle" has been superseded by the value of "protect the defenseless player," a ballcarrier who voluntary makes himself defenseless in that situation should trigger a whistle.
Too bad for Oregon: That's not in the rulebook. But for the sake of defenders who've been intentionally instilled with doubt over when and how they're allowed to make a simple tackle, it should be.
• What to expect in the fall. Dyer looks like Plan A early on, and the viability of that plan should be clear pretty quickly: Mississippi State, Clemson and South Carolina all appear on the schedule by Oct. 1. He should get plenty of work in those games to help bring the new quarterback and receivers along slowly. If the rebuilt line holds up well enough to keep a power running game viable, expect heavy doses of Dyer as the SEC schedule ramps up in October, and a 1,200-yard, All-SEC-type campaign.
If it looks like the line isn't going to allow for a lot of straight-ahead pounding, though, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn isn't going to hesitate to reorient the offense toward safe passing and a running game more interest in getting speedster Onterio McCalebb to the corner. There will still be plenty for Dyer to do in that case, but not enough to lift him out of the ranks of very talented role players.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.