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July 15, 2011

Rivals at 10: Top 25 college football players

Putting together a list of the top 25 college players during the Rivals.com era (2001 season through 2010 season) was a daunting task.

It's tough enough picking All-America teams each season. But picking the top 25 players of the past decade? We had some contentious arguments as we tried to pare down the original list, which contained a few more than 75 "nominations"

Players had to play a minimum of two years during that span to be considered, and 24 of the 25 players selected spent their entire careers in that time frame.

Production obviously was a key element of the selection process; sheer talent played a role, too. NFL draft position was not taken into account.

25. Maryland LB E.J. Henderson
SEASONS: 1999-2002
BUZZ: Although only Henderson's last two seasons actually took place in the Rivals era, he performed well enough during those two seasons to deserve a spot on this list. Henderson was a consensus All-American and the ACC defensive player of the year in 2001 and '02. He recorded 150 tackles in 2001 and 175 in 2002. He set an NCAA record with 135 solo tackles in 2002 and won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker and the Bednarik Award as the most outstanding defensive player that season. He finished his career with an average of 12.4 tackles per game, the highest average ever by anyone with at least 300 career tackles. He was a second-round pick in the 2003 draft.

24. Auburn QB Cam Newton
SEASONS: 2007 at Florida, 2010 at Auburn
BUZZ: Newton was a five-star prospect out of the Atlanta area and served as Florida's backup quarterback in 2007, which was Tim Tebow's Heisman-winning season. Newton played in five games that season, rushing for 103 yards and a TD and going 5-of-10 for 40 yards as a passer. He redshirted in 2008, then left UF after some off-field issues in 2009. He transferred to Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, and led Blinn to the national junior college title. He then moved on to Auburn and won the starting job during spring ball. He then enjoyed one of the best individual seasons in college football history last fall, rushing for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns and passing for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman and leading Auburn to its first national championship since 1957. His career pales in relation to the others on this list, but rarely - if ever - has one player meant so much to one team in one season. Take Newton off last season's Auburn team and the Tigers are in the Chick-fil-A Bowl - maybe - instead of winning it all. He was the first overall pick in the 2011 draft.

23. Ohio State LB James Laurinaitis
SEASONS: 2005-08
BUZZ: Laurinaitis made All-America teams and led the Buckeyes in tackles in each of his three seasons as a starter. The two-time team captain finished his career with 375 tackles and made at least 115 stops in each of his last three seasons. He won the 2006 Nagurski Award as the nation's top defensive player, the 2007 Butkus Award as the game's best linebacker and the 2008 Ronnie Lott Trophy as the nation's top defensive impact performer. He was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year by both the conference's media and coaches in 2007 and '08. He was a second-round pick in the 2009 draft.

22. LSU DT Glenn Dorsey
SEASONS: 2004-07
BUZZ: Dorsey recovered a fumble on his first college play and was in on the action for the rest of his career. He was a key sub as a freshman and sophomore, then became a dominant starter as a junior and senior. He was an All-SEC and All-America selection in 2006 and '07, and he finished ninth in the Heisman voting as a senior. Dorsey won the Nagurski, Outland, Lott and Lombardi awards in '07, becoming the first player to win all four. He also was the SEC defensive player of the year in '07. He made 133 tackles in his final two seasons, with 10 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. He had five tackles and a sack in the 2007 national championship win over Ohio State. He was a first-round pick in the 2008 draft.

21. Florida WR Percy Harvin
SEASONS: 2006-08
BUZZ: Injuries and migraine headaches nagged Harvin throughout his career, which means he never really put up eye-popping stats. But when he was healthy, he was a vital component on two national title teams. He was extremely elusive and also had great speed, making him lethal with the ball in his hands. Harvin scored rushing TDs in the 2006 and '08 national championship games, and he ran for 122 yards in the '08 title win over Oklahoma. He finished his three-year career - he turned pro early and was a first-round pick - with 194 rushes for 1,852 yards and 19 TDs and 133 receptions for 1,929 yards and 13 TDs. He was the SEC freshman of the year and the SEC championship game MVP as a freshman, a second-team All-SEC selection in '07 and a first-team All-America pick in '08.

20. Texas LB Derrick Johnson
SEASONS: 2001-2004
BUZZ: Texas once had a tradition for producing dominant linebackers, but that trend had waned until Johnson arrived in 2001. He made an immediate impact and went on to establish himself as one of the greatest linebackers in Texas history. Johnson posted 458 tackles, forced 11 fumbles and had nine interceptions during his career. He was a consensus All-American in 2003 and '04. As a senior in '04, Johnson won the Butkus Award as the nation's premier linebacker and the Nagurski Award as the country's best defensive player. He was a first-round pick in the 2005 draft.

19. Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford
SEASONS: 2007-09
BUZZ: The 2008 Heisman winner ended his career with the highest passing efficiency rating (175.16) of any quarterback who had attempted at least 500 passes. He threw for 8,403 yards and 88 touchdowns with only 16 interceptions. He averaged 9.41 yards per pass attempt to set a Big 12 record. He threw for 300 yards in 14 of his 31 career starts. Bradford threw for 4,720 yards and 50 touchdowns with eight interceptions in 2008 while leading an Oklahoma offense that led the nation with 51.14 points per game. Bradford probably would have ranked much higher on this list if a shoulder injury hadn't limited him to one full game and portions of two others in his final season. He was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft.

18. Ole Miss LB Patrick Willis
SEASONS: 2003-06
BUZZ: Although he didn't play on particularly good Ole Miss teams, Willis still stood out as one of the nation's top players. He led the SEC in tackles and was named the conference's defensive player of the year in each of his last two seasons. Willis had 355 career tackles, including 247 solos and 33 tackles for loss. He had 128 tackles and led the nation with 9.0 solo tackles per game in 2005 despite playing much of the season with a cast on his right hand. He followed that up by collecting 137 tackles in 2006 and winning the Butkus Award as the nation's outstanding linebacker. He was a first-round pick in the 2007 draft.

17. Wisconsin OT Joe Thomas
SEASONS: 2003-06
BUZZ: As a true freshman, Thomas played mostly as a blocking tight end. He then moved into the starting lineup as the left tackle in 2004 and never left. Thomas considered turning pro after his junior season but injured a knee playing defense in the Capital One Bowl after the 2005 season. Thomas still earned consensus All-American honors as a senior, along with grabbing the Outland Trophy. He was the third overall pick of the 2007 draft.

16. Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree
SEASONS: 2007-2008
BUZZ: Throughout the 2006 season, Texas Tech players raved about a freshman receiver sitting out a redshirt season. Turns out all the hype about Crabtree was justified. In his first college game, Crabtree caught 12 passes for 106 yards and three touchdowns. He never really slowed down, either. He set NCAA freshman records with 134 receptions, 1,962 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns to earn first-team All-American acclaim. He was also the recipient of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver. The next season, Crabtree caught 97 passes for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns to again win the Biletnikoff Award and again earn first-team All-America honors. He also was fifth in the Heisman voting. Crabtree produced perhaps the greatest moment in Texas Tech football history when he caught a game-winning touchdown pass with one second remaining in a 39-33 victory over Texas that enabled the Red Raiders to clinch at least a share of first place in the Big 12 South in '08. He was a first-round pick in the 2009 draft.

15. Oklahoma DT Tommie Harris
SEASONS: 2001-03
BUZZ: Harris made an impact the moment he arrived on campus, starting every game as a true freshman. He garnered consensus All-American honors in 2003 as a junior en route to winning the Lombardi Trophy. That season, he notched 37 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks. Harris left Oklahoma a year early and was a first-round pick in the 2004 draft.

14. Ohio State LB A.J. Hawk
SEASONS: 2002-05
BUZZ: Hawk was a consensus All-American in 2004 and '05, and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his three seasons as a starter. Hawk made 394 career tackles, with 15.5 sacks and seven interceptions. Hawk won the Lombardi Award in 2005 and was MVP of the Fiesta Bowl the same season. He was a first-round pick in the 2006 draft.

13. Michigan OT Jake Long
SEASONS: 2003-07
BUZZ: Long redshirted as a true freshman season, then broke into the starting lineup in 2004 en route to starting 40 games. In his last 26 starts, Long was penalized just once in 1,743 plays. Long was a two-time captain and the first Michigan player to earn Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year accolades in consecutive seasons. He was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft.

12. Pittsburgh WR Larry Fitzgerald
SEASONS: 2002-03
BUZZ: Fitzgerald's emergence as a top-flight NFL receiver couldn't have been a surprise to anyone who watched him at Pitt. In 2003, Fitzgerald was the Biletnikoff winner and Heisman runner-up, the highest finish by a non-quarterback or running back since Charles Woodson won the award in 1997. Fitzgerald finished his two-year career with 161 catches for 2,677 yards and 34 touchdowns. He was a first-round pick in the 2004 draft.

11. Georgia DE David Pollack
SEASONS: 2001-04
BUZZ: Pollack enjoys the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon a Georgia football player: He is in the same sentence as Herschel Walker. Pollack and Walker are Georgia's only three-time All-America selections. In 2003, Pollack won the Lombardi and Bednarik awards, and he graduated with the SEC record for career sacks (36). As a sophomore, Pollack had 14 sacks and 23.5 tackles for a loss. He also had four interceptions in his career. He was a first-round pick in the 2005 draft.

10. Texas QB Colt McCoy
SEASONS: 2006-2009
BUZZ: How does one replace a legend such as Vince Young? McCoy did it by winning more games (45) than any starting quarterback in NCAA Division I history. On the way, he set an NCAA record for highest single-season passing percentage (76.7 percent) and several school records, including career touchdown passes (112) and passing yards (13,253). He even led the Longhorns in rushing in 2008. McCoy is the only quarterback in NCAA history to win at least 10 games in four seasons. Unfortunately, McCoy's career ended in disappointment. He led Texas to the 2009 national championship game, but was knocked out of the game early in the first quarter of the loss to Alabama. He was a second-round pick in the 2010 draft.

9. Tennessee SS Eric Berry
SEASONS: 2007-09
BUZZ: Berry capped an outstanding three-year career at Tennessee by winning the 2009 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Berry picked off 14 passes at Tennessee and ranks second in NCAA history with 494 interception return yards, including three TDs. He finished his career with 245 tackles, 17 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. His most productive season came in 2008, when he picked off seven passes and scored on two interception returns. Berry was a freshman All-America in 2007 and a consensus All-America pick in '08 and '09; he was the SEC defensive player of the year in '08. Berry was a first-round pick in the 2010 draft.

8. West Virginia QB Pat White
SEASONS: 2005-08
BUZZ: Few major programs wanted White, from Daphne (Ala.) High, as a quarterback. Rich Rodriguez did, and White became the perfect fit for WVU's spread option offense. White is the only starting quarterback in NCAA history to win four bowl games, including BCS upsets over Georgia and Oklahoma. White left school with 4,480 rushing yards, an NCAA record for a quarterback. He is one of three quarterbacks ever to rush for 4,000 yards and pass for 6,000, joining Missouri's Brad Smith and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick. He was a second-round pick in the 2009 draft.

7. Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh
SEASONS: 2006-09
BUZZ: In 2009, Suh was the first defensive player to earn AP College Player of the Year honors and was the first defensive lineman invited to the Heisman ceremony since Warren Sapp in 1994. Suh's fourth-place finish in Heisman voting was the highest by a defensive lineman since Nebraska's Rich Glover placed third in 1972. In '09, Suh won the Outland, Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski awards. He led Nebraska in tackles as a junior and senior, becoming the first defensive lineman ever to achieve the feat in consecutive seasons. He was a first-round pick in the 2010 draft.

6. Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson
SEASONS: 2004-2006
BUZZ: Oklahoma has a long, glorious tradition of great running backs, including three Heisman winners. Yet after his freshman season, Peterson was being hailed as the Sooners' best ever. Rivals.com's top-ranked prospect in 2004, Peterson rushed for an NCAA-freshman-record 1,925 yards, was second in the Heisman voting and helped OU reach the BCS national championship game in his debut season. Though plagued by ankle injuries and a broken collarbone, which caused him to miss several games over his next two seasons, Peterson still exceeded 1,000 rushing yards as a sophomore and junior and completed his OU career with 4.045 rushing yards, just 73 yards short of OU's career record set by Heisman recipient Billy Sims. He was a first-round pick in the 2007 draft.

5. USC RB Reggie Bush
SEASONS: 2003-05
BUZZ: The Heisman Trust can remove any references to Bush's 2005 award, but that will not erase the memory of perhaps the most electrifying player of the decade. He won the 2005 Heisman with the highest percentage ever. That season, Bush had 1,740 rushing yards and 478 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns. Bush finished his career with 25 rushing touchdowns, 13 receiving touchdowns, three punt-return touchdowns and one kickoff-return TD. His signature play came against Fresno State in 2005, an incredible back-and-forth scoring jaunt in a wild 50-42 victory. He was a first-round pick in the 2006 draft.

4. Arkansas RB Darren McFadden
SEASONS: 2005-07
BUZZ: McFadden rushed for 1,100 yards in each of his three seasons at Arkansas and finished his career with a school-record 4,590 rushing yards. He set an SEC record by gaining 2,310 all-purpose yards in 2007. He rushed for 1,830 yards that season, the second-highest total in SEC history. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back and finished second in the Heisman balloting in each of his last two seasons. He finished his career as the SEC's No. 2 career rusher, trailing only Georgia's Herschel Walker (1980-82). McFadden also was versatile enough to line up at quarterback in Arkansas' "Wildcat" formation and throw seven career touchdown passes. He was a first-round pick in the 2008 draft.

3. USC QB Matt Leinart
SEASONS: 2002-05
BUZZ: When Leinart took over at USC, the big question was how he could replace Heisman winner Carson Palmer. Now the question is what USC quarterback could possibly top Leinart's legacy. He went 37-2 as a starter, the second-best winning percentage in NCAA history, and led the Trojans to the 2003 AP national championship and the BCS championship in his Heisman-winning season of 2004. He played for a third title against Texas in 2005. Surrounded by ample talent, the lefty knew how to best utilize it as he finished his career with 10,693 yards and 99 touchdowns through the air. He was a first-round pick in the 2006 draft.

2. Texas QB Vince Young
SEASONS: 2002-2005
BUZZ: Ranked the nation's top high school prospect in the 2002 signing class, Young lived up to that billing. He led Texas to its first national title in 35 years with a spectacular individual performance in a 41-38 victory over USC in the 2005 national championship game. He clinched that win with an 8-yard TD run on fourth down late in the game. Young's college career started slowly. He sat out a redshirt season and struggled so much as a passer that some suggested he move to another position. But he improved dramatically and was the '04 Rose Bowl MVP in a thrilling victory over Michigan and in the championship game against USC. He completed his career with a 30-2 record as a starting quarterback and passed for more than 6,000 yards and rushed for more than 3,000. He was a first-round pick in the 2006 draft.

1. Florida QB Tim Tebow
SEASONS: 2006-09
BUZZ: He finished his career as one of the most accomplished players in college history and has become an icon of sorts. He won the Heisman in 2007, the first sophomore to win the award. That was his first season as the Gators' starter, and he became the first player in NCAA history with 20 TDs as a runner (23) and passer (32) in the same season. Tebow was part of two national title teams; he ran for a TD and also threw for a score in the Gators' rout of Ohio State in the '06 national championship game, and tossed two TD passes against Oklahoma in the '08 title contest. In four bowl games, he accounted for 12 TDs. He was a Heisman finalist as a junior and as a senior, and finished his career with 9,285 passing yards, 2,947 rushing yards, 88 passing TDs and 57 rushing TDs. He is fourth all-time in touchdowns accounted for and second all-time in career passing efficiency. He was a first-round pick in the 2010 draft.

NOTE: Rankings and player capsules by staff writers Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.

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