Success as a college football player doesn’t always translate to stardom in the NFL.
Over the years, we’ve seen many top NFL prospects’ careers fizzle out, including Heisman Trophy winners such as Matt Leinart, Robert Griffin III and Troy Smith.
Here are the college football stars we’re most surprised didn’t make it at the next level:
Alex Scarborough: Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll-era players at USC
Is it fair to call out the entire Pete Carroll era at USC? Those were great football teams with terrific players, but the number of talented offensive skill players who didn’t translate to the NFL is still baffling to me. Watching Reggie Bush on Saturdays — and marveling at his highlights on YouTube on Monday to Friday — I was convinced he was going to be a Hall of Famer. Nope. Not even close. He made the NFL All-Pro team just once. Not even the thunder to Bush’s lightning, All-American LenDale White, would have a good career as he lasted five seasons, starting one, before he was out of the league. And those are just a couple of running backs. What about at quarterback, where Matt Leinart won the Heisman, then finished his NFL career with 18 total starts and a whopping 15 touchdowns and 21 interceptions? It’s kind of sad that Mark Sanchez is now known as the butt fumble guy and not the star that he was in Los Angeles. Wideouts Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett were two big-bodied scoring machines — combined touchdowns: 71 — who I assumed would dominate NFL red zones for years to come. Instead they combined for six touchdowns during their brief pro careers.
Ivan Maisel: JaMarcus Russell and the entire 2007 QB draft class
Is it possible to give a group award? I mean, any of us could point at JaMarcus Russell, the LSU quarterback who came out early after the 2006 season, became the first player selected in the 2007 NFL draft and spectacularly underachieved in Oakland. The other first-round QB pick that season, Brady Quinn, who had blossomed under Charlie Weis and Peter Vaas at Notre Dame (69 touchdowns, 14 interceptions in 2005-06), didn’t pan out, either. In fact, let’s hear it for the entire quarterback draft class of 2007: In addition to Russell and Quinn, there’s Kevin Kolb of Houston, John Beck of BYU, Drew Stanton of Michigan State, Trent Edwards of Stanford, Heisman winner Troy Smith of Ohio State, Jordan Palmer of UTEP and Tyler Thigpen of Coastal Carolina. Nine quarterbacks, none of whom threw for more than 6,033 yards (Edwards) or 28 touchdowns (Kolb) in their NFL careers.
Adam Rittenberg: Brady Quinn
Ivan mentioned Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn among the 2006 quarterbacks who didn’t pan out, and he’s the one who immediately comes to mind. I covered Quinn’s entire career, especially the 2005 and 2006 seasons, when he passed for 7,345 yards and 69 touchdowns for the Irish. Charlie Weis had just coached Tom Brady to three Super Bowl championships and developed Quinn into a two-time All-America selection, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the Maxwell Award winner in 2006. Quinn looked like the perfect NFL prospect, playing in the perfect system to prepare him for the next level and with the perfect coach in Weis. Maybe the slight drop in his play in 2006 should have been an indicator. Maybe his career goes differently if he goes somewhere other than Cleveland first. There are actually a few players from those Notre Dame-USC games in 2005-06 who I thought would do way better in the NFL: Quinn, USC quarterback Matt Leinart, USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano.
Chris Low: Peter Warrick
Peter Warrick could do everything at Florida State. He was a touchdown waiting to happen whether he was blazing past a defensive back on a deep pass, making somebody miss after a shorter toss or returning a kick. A two-time first-team All-American for the Seminoles, Warrick never found the same success in the pros after being drafted at No. 4 by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2000 NFL draft. It’s unfair to call Warrick a complete bust because he did have a couple of productive seasons, but he never blossomed into the electric playmaker he was at FSU. He played on some bad teams in Cincinnati and was out of the NFL after just six seasons. An injury to his right knee in 2003 was the final blow for a guy who gave opposing defensive coordinators nightmares any time he touched the football in college.
David Hale: Darren McFadden
I have a basic scouting theory that has held up quite well for me over the years. It goes like this: I’m an idiot, but if it’s obvious even to me that a guy is great, well then, he must be pretty darned great. Which leads me to Darren McFadden, who was probably the best running back I’ve covered at the college level, and I was absolutely certain he was going to be a superstar. Of course, after his back-to-back Heisman runner-up finishes and being a first-round draft pick out of Arkansas, I wasn’t alone. And the truth is, if McFadden had ended up somewhere other than the Raiders, and if he’d been able to stay healthy — well, who knows? But the truth is, one of the most electric backs in recent college football history was, at best, a marginal pro for a handful of years before quietly disappearing from the league. Alas, even my idiot-proof scouting philosophy isn’t perfect.
Sam Khan Jr.: Robert Griffin III
I’ll never forget the first time I was wowed by Robert Griffin III. It wasn’t at Baylor, nor was it on the football field. It was on the track, when, as a high school junior, RG III set the state record in the 300-meter hurdles, running it in 35.33 seconds at the Texas Relays. He was stellar on the track, and that athleticism was a huge part of why RG III helped lift Baylor to unusual heights and claimed a Heisman Trophy. Those two accomplishments were a marvel on their own; Baylor was an annual laughingstock in the Big 12 before Griffin’s arrival. But his talent was undeniable, and by time he was selected second in the 2012 NFL draft, he seemed destined for stardom. His rookie year in Washington did nothing to dispute that … until his fateful knee injury in a playoff game that season became the line of demarcation between RG III the talented wunderkind and RG III the struggling afterthought, a reminder of what could’ve been.
Andrea Adelson: Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony
Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony teamed up with Danny Wuerffel to really make the Fun ‘n’ Gun offense at Florida … fun — and the envy of college football coaches everywhere. Watching Ike and Reidel team up to make one remarkable catch after another, then turn on the jets to fake defenders out of their shoes, was a treat to watch as a student at the University of Florida. I thought for sure Ike and Reidel would have long, successful careers in the NFL, and apparently NFL executives thought so, too. When they both went in the first round of the 1997 draft — Ike to the Giants, Reidel to the Bucs — it seemed as if they were destined for greatness. But it didn’t quite pan out for either one. Neither ever had a 1,000-yard NFL season. Hilliard did have a productive 12-year career, but it wasn’t quite at the superstar level I envisioned when I watched him play in Gainesville.
Ryan McGee: Heath Shuler
Classic case of a guy who had always been able to “out-athlete” his competition but couldn’t rely on that in the pros. He’s the greatest player no one outside of Tennessee remembers. Oh, they remember him in Washington, but for totally different reasons. I still think that if he could go back and show up for the start of his first training camp instead holding out for a couple of weeks (his agent and the Redskins struggled with navigating the new salary-cap rules) that it would change the entire experience. Maybe.