In an old recruiting article on Ray Rice that still refered to him as "Raymell," the moderately touted tailback/cornerback prospect explained part of his reason for decommiting from Syracuse - thanks to the firing of Paul Pasqualoni, yet another of many odes to the Orange's regret - was to take advantage of the "best facilities in America" at Rutgers: "If you think you can't go in there and do all kinds of things with all that equipment...You can turn your body into a machine."
Call him a shaman - in January 2005, Rutgers had not been to a bowl game in 28 years, was 3-24 in Big East games in its first four years under Greg Schiano and only an optimistic, prophetic 17-year-old could envision the school being anywhere near the best in America at anything related to football. Rice is either the first symbol of Rutgers' renaissance or the only one, depending on where the Knights go without their now-chiseled offensive machine after his decision to declare early for the draft.
Once he wrested the starting job midway through his freshman year, the Knights' most successful three-year run since the Carter Administration leaned overwhelmingly on its workhorse: the only player who has more career carries or yards than Rice is Mike Hart, who has an extra year on him, and the only with more carries or yards per game is UCF's Kevin Smith, who declared Monday. He never missed a game, topped twenty carries in 29 games (24 of 26 games the last two years) and had eight 30-carry games in 2007 alone. Like Hart and Smith, there are questions about Rice's speed, and he's only projected as a third-rounder, but no machine could prove itself more reliably resistant to wear and tear.
Throwing their names in the ring with Rice today were a trio of celebrated cornerbacks: Jack Ikegwuonu of Wisconsin, Brandon Flowers of Virginia Tech and the recently triumphant Aqib Talib, MVP of Kansas' win over Flowers' Hokies in the Orange Bowl, where Talib's interception return for touchdown was the biggest single play of the night. Statistics never do any sort of justice to cornerbacks, whose ideal line is the `0' of offenses too wary to throw in their direction, but the success of their teams' defenses is some indication: Virginia Tech was fifth in the country in pass efficiency defense after finishing second in Flowers' first two seasons, and Kansas rocketed to ninth nationallly in pass efficiency D after allowing more passing yards than any other team in 2006; a pair of new safeties, an injured Allen Langford opposite Ikegwuonu down the stretch and a vastly weaker run defense left Wisconsin a modest 54th, but the Badgers easily led the nation against the pass in 2006, Ikegwuonu's first as a starter.
Ikegwuonu and Talib are both over six-feet, outstanding size, and where Talib is a borderline first-second rounder, Ikegwuonu would seem to have room to improve his second round projection with a 40 time (currently listed at a surprisingly low 4.54) more in line with his speed on-field in chasing down Darren McFadden in last year's Outback Bowl and blanketing Mario Manningham in the Badgers' win over Michigan in November. The slightly smaller (5-10, 190) Flowers looks like a third-rounder, but he - like Ikegwuonu in the Big Ten and Talib in the Big 12 - was a first team all-conference pick by ACC coaches each of the last two seasons, suggesting at least one of them will look like a first rate, much-coveted "lockdown" guy in the next four or five years (to the extent that's possible in the NFL, as fae as the League goes out of its way to handcuff DBs).
Also declaring: Texas tight end and new father Jermichael Finley, only a sophomore, but eligible for the draft because he spent his first year in Austin redshirting; Talib's teammate Anthony Collins, an all-Big 12 and sometime all-American offensive tackle; and Auburn defensive tackle Pat Sims, the most productive of the Tigers' formidable rotation on the interior line.