Friday, April 30, 2010

Unga Unguarded: A BYU Cougar Under College Football's Microscope

Running has never been a staple of Brigham Young University's football program.  Names like Detmer and McMahon have always defined the Cougar offense.  Sarkisian, Beck, and Hall are among the men who have best worn the "Y" in recent years. Even the Young family itself is in the business of passing, having produced one of the better left-handed quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL.  To put it mildly, BYU passes, and has always passed, with colors flying, save only for one small category: assimilation.

To say that a university founded on the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) wanders slightly from the beaten path of modern American post-secondary education is only an approach shot to the truth.  On its Provo, Utah campus and elsewhere, the bylaws of BYU demand that its students and faculty hold themselves to "the highest standards of honor, integrity, morality, and consideration of others in personal behavior."

Veiled extremism it is not; although some might want to float the notion that it is cult-like in its existence, BYU more closely resembles something of a social utopia, one in which men and women are asked to treat their peers with the respect and courtesy that might otherwise be reserved for close family members and well-respected adults.  For that, it also seems encased in a bubble at times, a bubble which draws many a confused glance and its fair share of criticism for the uniquely lofty expectations it professes - after all, aren't these are men and women attending their first college classes still trying to find their way in the world? 

Harvey Unga is, by normal definitions, one of these men.  Entering his senior year, however, he is something much rarer than the prototypical Cougar. He's a runner by blood (his dad was a Cougar running back in the 1980s), and he has lots of local support, having grown up and gone to school in Provo. In his time in the BYU backfield, Unga has amassed more yards than any back before him, having just completed his third straight 1,000-yd./10 TD season for a team that finished the year ranked No. 12 in the country.

To put that performance in perspective, Unga ranked 37th in the nation in rushing, ahead of highly touted first-round draft pick CJ Spiller; he was also one of only three running backs to finish in the top 40 in rushing while playing in an offense ranked in the top 20 in passing.

"I'm [just] Harvey," he said in a September interview after breaking his finger, humbly deflecting the notion that he played like a superhero on the field. "Without [fullback Manase Tonga] or the line, I'm nothing."      

Nothing? Nothing short of outstanding, maybe. But who would ever know? Unga's luster-lacking running style, his school's non-BCS status and his distance from East Coast media outlets have all helped reduce a  6'0" 237-pound freighter of a man to little more than a cool train set, a small-scale exhibition of considerable force that seems limited almost exclusively to recognition within the Mountain West.  The modesty his school expects had Unga setting a good example, but minding virtue had not made him into a household name.

Two Fridays ago, on the first day of April exams in Provo, the Cougar athletic department released a statement saying the Unga had withdrawn from school "as a result of a violation of the BYU honor code."  In addition to Unga, junior women's basketball player Keilani Moeaki was mentioned in the release, with the school citing that she had made the same decision on the same grounds.

If you are not familiar with Brigham Young's honor code, you should know that although it is summarized simply in some places, it is actually a 12-page monolith that more or less covers the whole nine yards of student life on its campus.  However, when abridged, the second tenet is just six words: Live a chaste and honest life.

Artlessly, people bolted to conclusions because two athletes, male and female, were mentioned in the same press release.  The critics had reason to do so, too: the two had been previously engaged and were still dating in recent weeks, according to an area newspaper.  But while making that assumption shows a logical progression of thought, it also shows a lack of respect for the athletes and the honor code itself. 

The biggest percentage of the honor code deals with academic violations, which are just as plausible given the intensified workload that is common at this time of year. So, for example, if Unga were to have plagiarized or falsified a source in a paper for one of his classes, he could conceivably withdraw prior to the Honor Code Office adjudicating his violation.    

That's not to imply that Unga's violation was premeditated, since students that agree to live by BYU's honor code probably don't enter the university with the intention of violating it; some of the principles mentioned in the abridged version (respect others, use clean language) do instruct on everyday actions that for most people are largely spontaneous and instinctual rather than carefully conceived.  Having said that, although all commands of the code appear to be treated equally, it would not be surprising for some to consider an act like drinking alcohol a more serious violation (and worthy of withdrawing oneself from school) than calling another student an idiot.

The confidentiality adhered to by the BYU administration in regard to any honor code violation is an admirable maintenance of student privacy, but in this case it is a football-sized thorn in the university's side. The longer it takes for Unga to figure out his situation, the more the already-drawn conclusions will solidify in the minds of the public.     

It is clear through Unga's decision not to declare for the NFL draft this past January that he wants to return for his senior year.  Due to the fact that he withdrew, there is no further investigation required by the Honor Code Office; the determination regarding readmission instead lands in the lap of BYU's dean of students, so long as Unga can obtain an endorsement from his local bishop.

"Harvey's first choice and what he is fighting diligently for and trying to express to the administration at BYU is that he wants to be back," head coach Bronco Mendenhall told the Salt Lake Tribune. "To stay at BYU... That is his hope. That is his intent, and that is what he would like to do."

But do the 30,000 other BYU students, all of whom are bound by the same LDS code that Unga violated, feel the same way?

Mendenhall has said that he will give his full support to whatever course of action Unga undertakes (or is forced to undertake), which is not surprising for a coach who is placed precariously on the edge of a moral precipice.  On the one hand, another blue ribbon season from his prized hoss would do wonders for an offense that graduated its starting quarterback and top receiver to the NFL.  On the other, it would be hard to find fault with the assertion that Unga's actions have, in the eyes of some, tainted his ability to represent all that BYU stands for.

For fans and fellow students, the conflict is no less heart-wrenching.  Is it permissible to let a classmate tarnish his own reputation and that of his peers and still admit him back into the fold, onto the field where the institution they all embody is most prominent in the public eye? Is it wrong to find a fault in one person such that he should no longer be thought to personify a special establishment, a unique way of life?  Would this decision be treated the same way if it involved someone who was not a public figure?  All are questions waiting to be answered.

As good a runner as he is, it should be noted that Harvey Unga doesn't appear to be making a dash toward the NFL Supplemental draft, Division II football or any other harbor that might protect him from dealing with his mistakes directly.  If he really does want to right his ship "in the most desperate way," he's started the right way, gathering his own fumble.  Whether or not he'll make it back to the line of scrimmage is not entirely under his control, but at least he's willing to put his shoulder down before he gives up.    

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Purple Prospectus: Analyzing the Ravens' 2010 Draft Needs/Targets

With the NFL Draft less than a week away, it's time to look at who's high and who's low on the Ravens' wishlist this year. If you think the primary focus will be improving what some fans considered an atrocious performance by the defensive secondary this year, you might be in for a surprise. Lucky for you, Ed Healy is here to provide some insight.

Who's Ed Healy, you ask? Good question. He's a man of many talents, but among his greatest passions is NFL player evaluation. Ed doesn't work for ESPN and he doesn't run his own draft website, but he does have a few things to his name that give some weight to his opinions. In addition to having personal interaction with Mel Kiper Jr. and watching hours of Ravens game footage from last season, Ed has become a quick study in breaking down film - his written evaluation of the Ravens' play in the 2008 season drew praise from a handful of NFL general managers and player personnel directors, and he was subsequently asked to submit further scouting reports on a selection of personally scouted 2010 NFL prospects for an AFC team in preparation for this week's events. An amateur he may be, but Ed is serious about his football. Without further ado, here is his take on the Ravens' needs in this year's draft, provided exclusively to Springs on Sports.

The Ravens really have few holes heading into the 2010 draft, with essentially every starting position filled. What this team needs is to add depth and youth to prepare this roster for the exits of Todd Heap, Kelly Gregg, Derrick Mason, Trevor Pryce and other key veterans that are likely within the next two seasons. The Ravens are a bona fide Super Bowl contender the way the roster is right now, but they are just a few key injuries away from being 9-7 just like last year. With that said, let’s take a look at some crucial positions heading into this year’s draft.

WR- With the additions of Anquan Boldin and Donte’ Stallworth and the return of Derrick Mason, most people have written off the wide receiver position as an area of need. But when you consider that Stallworth is on a one year deal, Mark Clayton will be a free agent after next year, and Mason could easily retire after this coming season, the Ravens could be left with Anquan Boldin and Marcus Smith for Week 1 of the 2011 season. This scenario is quite possible and would just leave us looking for wide receiver help again next offseason. As much as this annual search for a WR has been fun for us Ravens fans, at some point we’re going to have to have an offseason where the wideout position is of no concern. Dez Bryant may be available at #25 with some teams concerned about his character, but the WR the Ravens should target at #25 (if that’s the direction they want to go) should be Demaryius Thomas of Georgia Tech. At 6-3 230 pounds, he averaged over 25 yards per catch this year. (Note: Jermaine Lewis’ highest average in Baltimore was 19.1 yards per catch, and he was only 5-7.) Another name to keep an eye out for in later rounds is Mike Williams of Syracuse. He’s 6-2 221lbs. and is a legitimate downfield threat. He could slide far in this draft due to character concerns, but if he falls near the 4th round the Ravens should definitely snatch him up.

- Todd Heap is coming back this year, but is obviously getting up there in age. The Ravens should be in the market for an heir apparent, just as when Heap was brought in for a year under Shannon Sharpe. The man for that job is Jermaine Gresham (pictured above) and Jermaine Gresham only. After watching many Oklahoma games during his junior year, I was convinced Gresham would be an absolute stud at the NFL. He is an amazing pass catcher who will be an elite NFL tight end. He won’t go in the top ten but in ten years from now people will wish they had taken him. If the Ravens are unable to grab him, they should wait ‘til next year for Heap’s replacement. We really need a backup tight end who is a mauler of a blocker, but that can come from the veteran free agency pool. Edgar Jones is a nice developmental project and special teams player as the third tight end. The only way the Ravens should improve this position through the draft is Jermaine Gresham.

- This group put up an atrocious first half of 2009, but they truly came on strong in the second half. The concern here is that Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are still rehabbing from injuries that may keep them out until late in training camp. Chris Carr stepped in late last season and performed way better than anyone could have imagined opposite Dominique Foxworth. If all were healthy, a lineup of Foxworth and Webb starting with Washington as the nickel and Carr as the fourth corner would definitely be a quality stable of corners. What may actually dictate how we handle our corner position is the 2010 schedule release before the Draft. If the Ravens face the Steelers, Patriots, and Saints early on, they may need to look for a corner. If those games are towards the back end of the schedule, the Ravens may not need to address the position. But if they do, a big and physical Chris McAlister-esque corner is needed. Players like Patrick Robinson of Florida State or Rutgers’ Devin McCourty fit that description as early round candidates. Chris Cook, Myron Lewis, and Nolan Carroll fit as late round candidates. One interesting middle round prospect is Javier Arenas of Alabama. He’s not the size the Ravens should desire in a corner this year but he’s physical and an absolute playmaker. He’ll probably go in the third round but he could be a gem. If you’re hoping Kyle Wilson of Boise State will be available, keep dreaming.

DT- The current group consists of Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg, and Brandon McKinney. Gregg is getting older so a young big body could be used in the middle to help a group hurt by the loss of Justin Bannan. An obvious direction to go in during the draft would be Terrence Cody of Alabama. He would be the perfect run-stopping defensive lineman to pair with Ngata to protect Ray Lewis. Taking him at #25 may be a small reach, but I don’t think he’ll be around at 57 and I don’t see the Ravens using picks to move up to get him when they only have 5 to start. A more reasonable outlook could be to draft a defensive tackle in the later rounds or trust Ozzie to find another solid undrafted lineman like he has done in the past (Lional Dalton, Maake Kemoeatu etc.). Big bodies to look out for in the later rounds are Torrell Troup and Kade Weston.

DE- Currently, the Ravens only have Trevor Pryce and Corey Redding as true defensive ends for their 3-4 scheme. The addition of Redding has not excited many Ravens fans, but in the last 5 seasons, Redding has recorded at least one sack and over 40 tackles. These numbers aren’t amazing but the Ravens don’t need him to be amazing - that’s what Terrell Suggs is for. If Redding can just control his gap assignments and create the occasional rush, he’ll be a serviceable player in the system. The other hope at DE is that Paul Kruger adds weight so that he can be a full time defensive end. With these three, the need to draft a 3-4 defensive high in the draft like Jared Odrick would be low. The Ravens should look to draft a big defensive end late to groom as a replacement for Trevor Pryce. A highly talented player who could drop to #57 is Carlos Dunlap of Florida, but options in the later rounds like Alex Carrington, C.J Wilson, and Greg Hardy are more likely.

FB- The Raven’s biggest mistake for the 2009 opening day roster…keeping RB Matt Lawrence. The Ravens should have kept a reserve fullback who could play special teams instead of a reserve running back. This negated any possibility of bringing in Le’Ron McClain in short yardage situations with a blocker in front of him and took away a dimension of our offense that worked well with Lorenzo Neal in 2008. It would make sense for the Ravens to try and find a fullback late in the draft or undrafted who could bulldoze running lanes for McClain in goal-line situations. Cory Jackson of Maryland may just fit the bill.

S- I don’t view this as an area of need. Even if Ed Reed retires, Tom Zbikowski, his replacement, did a great job filling in last year. Dawan Landry and Haruki Nakamura both are quality players at the strong safety position, making the Ravens three deep at safety without Reed. The Ravens have had no indication from Reed that he will retire and there’s no way they keep a 5th safety with the way they like to carry lots of multifaceted linebackers.

Here’s how I see the draft hopefully unfolding-

1(25). TE Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma)

2(57). DT Terrence Cody (Alabama)

5 (156). CB Nolan Carroll (Maryland)

5 (157). DE Brandon Lang (Troy)

6 (194). WR David Gettis (Baylor)

Although I feel good about these projections, I'm no expert, so I’ll end with this…
In Ozzie We Trust!

Ed Healy is a college student and avid fan of the Baltimore Ravens and Baltimore Orioles. In his spare time, when not following one of his two favorite teams, Ed enjoys playing pickup hoops, schooling his friends in a number of PS2 sports games and coaching youth lacrosse and soccer. He lives and attends school in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Last Underdog...?

I thought Butler would win.  I really did.

But nothing is ever certain, a lesson I learned the hard way during high school football.  I've been lucky enough to experience a lot of great sports moments in my life already - a goal-line stand, a game-winning field goal, a walk-off grand slam, a hole-in-one, and a buzzer-beater are all events I've witnessed or participated in.  I've seen two of my favorite teams win championships, and I've been to an NCAA basketball regional final.  I guess I don't have as much room to complain as some, but the two things I really want the most are a World Series ring for the Orioles and a true Cinderella story.  The former is still at least a few years away, but I've been painfully close to the latter on multiple occasions, the latest coming last night.  I still remember seething about Davidson's loss to Kansas in the '08 tournament, taking out my frustration on the hoop above my garage for a good 45 minutes after the game.  I wanted nothing more than to do the same after the Devil buzzer sounded. Too bad the gymnasium doesn't stay open that late.  

This will sound familiar, but I feel robbed.  I know there were circumstances that could have prevented Butler from being in that position at the end of the game, the most prominent being enough bricked free throws by players not named Hayward to build a small tomb for Butler's bulldog mascot.  Still, it kills me to think that they did all that work for six months to come up a few inches short, inches that were well-deserved, too.  Even Maryland's furious comeback against Michigan State was not as worthy an effort as Butler's tough-as-nails, shot-for-shot bout with Duke.  If only that team were not so darn likable - Babyface Hayward, Mustache Howard, Missile Mack, the always lurking Veasley, Nored the fingersmith, Stoneface Stevens.  That doesn't even include Jukes, the Alabama transfer and charity founder who stifled Zoubek for much of the game, or Hahn, the little engine that dropped a big trey in the first half.  Vanzant scrapped for those loose balls because his life depended on it
Maybe we'll feel feel better about it if we find out in two years that there were all kinds of NCAA infractions committed by this team, but we would probably just feel more duped.  Some things seem to defy all our attempts at coping and our best-faked better-luck-next-year mentalities.  This one stings the most because we don't know that we'll ever see it again.

If the NCAA tournament expands to 96 teams, as the ESPN crew working the NIT Finals hinted last week, a so-called "underdog" team would have to win five games in ten days just to make the Sweet 16, making a Final Four run all but impossible for a Butler-type team.  It means more money for the NCAA and first-round byes for the top 32 teams (most of which will probably hail from major conferences), but it will ruin the competitive balance that it has maintained so well up to this year.  There's already one matchup that is almost impossible to win (although Princeton nearly upset No.1 Georgetown in the first round in '89), so if a team seeded worse than No. 80 somehow makes it to the round of 64, how are they even supposed to compete? It's no contest.

I'm almost convinced that a "Cinderella" story will never be transplanted into real life.  In each recent March Madness case, there were players who carried their teams (Jai Lewis for George Mason, Stephen Curry for Davidson, Gordon Hayward for Butler) to success, each one with the good fortune of playing close to home (Washington DC, Raleigh, Indianapolis) and each one ultimately coming up short of the biggest goal.  (Even this year's Cornell team couldn't beat a tough Kentucky squad while playing in Syracuse.)  All of these teams try desperately to fit the mold, and all have fallen short.  These conclusions beg the question: how spectacular will the odds be when a non-major team finally overcomes them to win it all?  Or will the next team win it, the last in a line of slow progression from Sweet 16 to Elite 8 to Final Four to National Championship game? It's difficult to say.

To be frank, I think I would die a little bit on the inside if the tournament format changed. Here we have the closest thing in college sports to a fair shake for postseason-caliber teams, and to throw away the integrity of such a system for a bump in revenue runs counter to the uniqueness of collegiate athletics.  Are we willing to reduce the opportunity for pure competition to solely the high school level and rec leagues? What happened to the singularly American experience of playing organized team sports with complex strategy while representing an institution, an idea you stand behind?  There's nothing like it anywhere else in the world, and to alter it irreparably would be doing unspeakable damage to the "maybe" factor of the sport, eliminating the unlikely possibilities that even now are more real than we think.  It will be a sad day when that time arrives, and my fear is that it's not too far away.  If that's the way it is, here's to Butler for keeping our hearts for as long as they could.  We may never see another team like them.