Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Top 25 Players: #17-#16

After the last edition of pure C-USA goodness, we drift back and find some old school defense players. The first is from the old school “major regional independent” era. The second is an old school player dropped into the one place where old school is still demanded in C-USA- the island that is middle ‘backer.

17. Mike Riley, DB (1987, 1989-1990)

Mike Riley is sadly kind of a forgotten Tulane player- edging out of the collective consciousness. He played on some hard-to-remember, pedestrian Greg Davis teams. He was touted as the heir to the great Pro-Bowler Eric Thomas (2nd round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in ‘87)- which made a victim of expectations.

But he was really good, the best player of the Greg Davis era, a true shutdown DB at a time when Tulane still played a major national schedule littered with NFL caliber skill players. Coupled with Mitchell Pierce, Riley allowed the Wave to put a real college football defensive backfield out there. Major college football completed the shift to more pro-style offenses (1984-ish is when Switzer abandoned the wishbone at Oklahoma for Aikman and Dupree)- and the top pass coverage asset sky-rocketed in value.

Riley was a brilliant athlete, fast as lightning. He is still on the list of Tulane track and field records for long jump and 100-yard dash. Still, it is hard to quantify defensive back play statistically- great corners and safeties aren’t thrown at which hurts their totals. There was no all C-USA team to make. And he only played three years- which hurts his totals as well.

But perhaps the highest judge of talent, for the NFL, he was a very solid pro-prospect: sixth round by the Jets, which would be fifth round today in the absence of all the supplemental picks and expansion teams, and a regional selection of the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers. He did not impress as a pro- which contributes to his anonymity.

But don't let that fool you, Riley was one of the nation's elite athletic DBs for two years.

16. Anthony Cannon, LB (2002-2005)

Who did not love Anthony Cannon?

From the day he stepped on the field at Tulane he was an unreal high motor guy: attack, stick, down. I’ve gone on and on here for eight years about the evolution of football in C-USA. But the middle linebacker- alone in the middle of the field as his friends get stretched all around him- is still the same as Chuck Bednarik at Penn in the 40s. He must get to the running back, or the receivers in the near slot and flats, and tackle him again and again.

And Cannon was a brilliant tackler. Take the best lateral moving linebacker I have seen at Tulane, add in high IQ (Cannon was always all-academic everything) and determined technique, and you have routine superior play.

It was the routine that was remarkable. Much like Roydell Williams below, he never was “great”, but man, was he always really good. Again, linebackers are measured first and foremost on stopping power- and Cannon made “stopping people” routine: four straight 100-tackle seasons, led the team in tackles three times- including as a freshman. There is only one person on this list (still to come) who has more total career tackles, and only three individuals in Tulane history have more. He also was a routine producer of the negative plays, loss of down and distance, needed to stop the monster C-USA offenses of that era: 29 career tackles for losses (only Brett Timmons has more for a LB) and led the team in sacks in 2004.

An obvious C-USA force, the accolades rolled in. He made three all C-USA teams (1st team in 2005, all frosh in 2002), a freshman all-American and C-USA defensive freshman of the year.

Cannon struggled to keep his weight above 220 and pro teams were scared away by his size. But his obvious athleticism and work ethic got him a shot as a special teams player and spot asset on a team that was endlessly looking for character guys to change the culture. A seventh round pick, he brought that motor to Detroit, made the team, and carved out a nice three year career.