by Rob Weintraub
College football: where the bands play, the fans sneak in flasks in their long underwear, and the players prepare for that day when they finally get paid to knock heads with the opposition. The NFL's minor leagues are of course intrinsic to its success, but the second the draft ends we seem to collectively forget about where the pros plied their trade on Saturdays (except for those couple of minutes during the intros on Sunday nights).
But I have always kept those alma maters in my frontal lobe while watching the NFL, mainly to gauge which players are best representing dear old Pigskin State. Since 2012, in fact, I have written down my opinion about each Power Five school's alumni MVP. This year, to fill the lull before the Super Bowl, I'm sharing it with you.
ILLINOIS (17 alums on NFL rosters in 2016, per ESPN.com)
The merciless one saw his sack total fall but continued to harass enemy passers enough to comfortably win the trophy. He thus breaks the tie with Vontae Davis for Illini awards, which despite being named for Red Grange hasn't been won by an offensive player in the five years I have tracked this.
After years and years of awards-by-default, suddenly the Hoosiers alumni trophy was worthy of attention. Two runners, Howard and Atlanta's Tevin Coleman, vied for the trophy. While the dynamic, Coleman was special in space, he was just one of a plethora of weapons that flourished in Kyle Shanahan's attack, including backfield mate Devonta Freeman. It wasn't enough to offset Howard's tremendous production, achieved virtually single-handedly, in Chicago.
Yanda won't be able to hoist the Hawkeyes award with his bum left arm, which was so painful it forced him to move to left guard from his preferred right side, where Yanda has been dominant. But despite the switch and the handicap, Yanda was effective enough to three-peat.
Ngakoue quietly had a strong year pass rushing off the edge, tying the franchise rookie record with eight sacks. It was enough to snag the turtle-shaped Maryland alumni trophy over Diggs, who improved on his 2015 play but lost out to better competition than he faced 12 months ago.
Brady is the only player to win his school's alumni award all five years I have done this particular thought experiment. It's a tough break for the likes of Brandon Graham, Frank Clark, and Taylor Lewan that they have to butt heads with the Maize and Blue GOAT. I'm pretty sure I'd have been writing much the same about Charles Woodson and Steve Hutchinson last decade.
MICHIGAN STATE (28)
After missing out due to his knee injury in 2015, Bell was back with a vengeance this season. Word out of Pittsburgh is that his eagerness to reclaim the Sparty Award is what drove Bell's relentless rehab efforts. His first call after winning this year's trophy was to Cousins, in order to scream "You like that?!!?" at the Skins quarterback. Honorable mention to rookie right tackle Jack Conklin, who was phenomenal in Tennessee.
Decker's early-season injury spared him having to play out the miserable Jets season, but also cost him a fifth-straight Gophers trophy. Instead, Falcons rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell took it with a solid debut season.
An extremely close battle with Suh tipped to the Bucs linebacker because the Dolphins also had Cameron Wake to terrorize quarterbacks, and because unlike Suh, David is considered a model citizen.
Back in September, it appeared that Strief's death grip on the purple trophy was in trouble, thanks to the play of Trevor Siemian in Denver. But Strief put his head down and continued his stellar play anchoring the right side of the Saints' line, turning in one of the better seasons of his career. Siemian, meanwhile, was exposed as a pretender to the award by Halloween.
OHIO STATE (39)
The Buckeyes for years were the epitome of "quantity over quality" alumni in the pros, turning out a steady volume of rank-and-file players without producing many stars. But a byproduct of Urban Meyer's reign in Columbus has been to turn the Ohio State program into a waystation for elite talent. In other years, the rookie seasons of Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, and Michael Thomas would thrust them into the mix for the Buckeyes trophy. Thanks to Elliott, they are also-rans. But the evanescent nature of the NFL could well mean a sixth different winner in as many years come next season.
PENN STATE (31)
Things almost went a bit haywire last year, when Linebacker U considered a wide receiver (Allen Robinson) for the Nittany Trophy. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Plenty of linebackers jostled to succeed Bowman, with Paul Posluszny having another fine season in the middle of Jacksonville's defense and Wake bouncing back from an Achilles tear to demolish pass protection off the edge once again. But Lee was an all-around terror on the NFC's best (regular season) team, and he didn't have the help around him that Posluszny or Wake did.
A round of boilermakers for Drew! (Though he might prefer SeaBreeses...) Short's upset win in 2015 was in part down to his role on a dominant defense that went to the Super Bowl. Clearly, he spurred Brees on to new heights, though the diminutive Drew was hardly down last season. Short couldn't quite repeat his exceptional season, though he joins a surprisingly stout group of Purdue defenders (Cliff Avril, Ryan Kerrigan, Rob Ninkovich) who continue to push Brees for the award.
McCourty three-peats with another stellar campaign in the Pats' secondary, though backfield mate Logan Ryan and Falcons wideout Mohamed Sanu at least made it a race. Given the horrifying deterioration of the Scarlet Knights program since it joined the Big Ten, these may well be Peak SUNJ in the pros for a while.
Year after year, superb players like Frederick, Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas, Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy, and Cincinnati guard Kevin Zeitler got together for domestic beers and wheels of cheese to commiserate over the fact that the Wisky award was an annual two-man race between (quasi-alum) Wilson and Watt. But that old NFL X-factor, injuries, threw this season's race wide open. Watt of course was gone early, and Wilson's knee troubles plunged him to merely a mid-pack quarterback. Wilson was still a strong contender, as were Thomas and Zeitler, but Frederick was perhaps the league's best center on the league's most heralded line. The next round is on Travis, boys!
You can enjoy Rob Weintraub's Alumni Trophies for other conferences here: