While there are plenty of former athletes content to do relatively little after retirement, the premier players look to continue to push themselves with the spirit they had while playing on the field/diamond/court. Jerome Bettis has always seemed like a player who wants to better himself. The Bus did just that last weekend as he graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in business from the university’s Mendoza School of Business.
The coolest part of this journey is that this was personal for Bettis. The 50-year-old may have left Notre Dame 28 years ago to become a legend in the NFL, but this premier player had unfinished business based on a promise that he had made to his mother.
“I promised her years ago, sitting in Coach (Lou) Holtz’s office, that I would come back and graduate,” Bettis said last month on the Pod of Gold podcast. “So, I owed that to her as well.”
While his promise to his mother was one factor that made the Hall of Famer return to school, the other factor was something he wanted to show to the next generation of his family.
“Having children now, I understand how important it is,” he said. “To be a college graduate, I want my children to understand how important that is,” Bettis said.
It is easy to forget that Bettis was not only a premier player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bus was actually drafted by the Rams with the No. 10 overall pick of the 1993 NFL Draft and won Rookie of the Year honors that fall. Bettis rushed for over 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns that season, breaking the myth of the rookie running back wall as he ran over defenders that were not used to seeing a back with his power and size on the field.
It was 1996 when the Rams traded Bettis to the Steelers in a move that would dictate the future of both teams. The Rams would use a Marshall Faulk-led backfield under Dick Vermeil to create “The Greatest Show on Turf” in a speed-based attack that Bettis would not have fit. The Steelers went the other way. They built around Bettis, adding parts like wide receiver Hines Ward, and The Bus got to retire from the sport he loved in the most romantic way possible. His last game was the Steelers winning Super Bowl XL in his hometown of Detroit.
When Bettis retired, the stats book was complete. Bettis had rushed for the eighth-most yards in NFL history (13,662) and the 11th most touchdowns (91). They don’t make players like Bettis anymore, workhorse backs who are out there for three downs every single game drive. They certainly don’t make them as big as Bettis or as durable as he was remarkably healthy throughout his career for a running back that carried such a heavy workload.
Bettis seemed to love going back to school. He was able to participate in the types of activities he couldn’t the first time around as he was so focused on football. He was able to do this while also assisting head coach Marcus Freeman, a man new to that spotlight after taking over from Brian Kelly (who moved on to LSU).
It did not take Bettis long to graduate, as he was only a few credits short when he initially jumped to the NFL. However, his return to college is a shining example of how a premier player can use his platform to keep promises, inspire others, and finish what he started.
Written By Premier Players Steve Wright
2021 Will Anderson Jr.
Linebacker, Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Will Anderson Jr. was simply the most outstanding player in all of college football for the duration of the season. While teammate Bryce Young was awarded the Heisman Trophy, it was Young’s defensive enforcer who was consistently a matchup that no offensive coordinator could figure out how to slow down, let alone stop.
Anderson’s stats from his 2021 sophomore season are ridiculous. He basically lived in opposing backfields, tearing up running games or destroying quarterbacks. The Premier Player finished the regular season with an absurd 31.5 tackles for a loss. This was 9.5 TFLs better than anyone else in the football bowl subdivision (FBS) managed. Anderson also piled up 15.5 sacks of the quarterback. To put that into perspective, those 15.5 sacks were more than NINE ENTIRE TEAMS managed, including Power 5 schools like Stanford and Colorado.
It was no secret that Anderson would be pass rushing and run blitzing, yet nothing offenses did seem to work. In an October game against Mississippi State, Anderson had four of the Crimson Tide’s seven sacks. While that is impressive enough on its own, it is the plays that he didn’t get sacks that were just as dominant. Anderson spent that game – and most of the season – wrecking the entire right side of the Bulldogs’ offensive line.
Anderson’s ability to get into the backfield entirely nullified what an opposition offense could do as tight ends and running backs had to stay in and help their offensive linemen deal with his pass rush. However, Anderson’s consistency was his greatest asset in 2021.
People talk of “moments” defining a great year. That can seem backward in cases like Anderson’s. He didn’t have a signature moment because he was simply a wrecking ball the entire season. It is hard to have that highlight play that stands out when you have already picked up double-digit sacks and make more tackles for a loss than some defensive players make total tackles.
An aggressive, efficient, and sure tackling edge rusher, Anderson has also evolved into a leader on a defensive front-seven that is as dangerous as there is in the game. A unanimous First-Team All-American, the scary aspect for Alabama’s rivals is that Anderson will be back in the Crimson Tide uniform for at least one more year.
2020 Trevor Lawrence
Quarterback, Clemson Tigers
The 2020 Premier Player of College Football Award may be for Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence’s work during the 2020 season, but the three-year legacy that the Knoxville, TN native built at Clemson is entirely worthy of recognition.
Lawrence was a player destined to be a college star – and the likely No. 1 pick in the NFL draft – from an early age. He was simply a monster at Cartersville High School in Cartersville, GA where he used his unnatural athleticism and physical gifts to dominate the high school football (and basketball) landscape in the state. Lawrence was named The Atlanta Journal-Constitution player of the year after a junior season where he passed for just over 3,900 yards and 51 touchdowns. The Purple Hurricanes won 41 straight games and a pair of state championships under Lawrence, a player who was a consensus 5-star recruit and who was widely regarded by experts as one of the greatest high school quarterback prospects in history.
The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Lawrence continued in college exactly where he left off as a high school player. He split time with Kelly Bryant for the first four games of his freshman season before being named starter by head coach Dabo Swinney in a decision that saw Bryant immediately transfer. Lawrence started the remainder of the season for the Tigers passing for 3,280 yards with 30 touchdowns to four interceptions as Clemson went undefeated and routed Alabama 44-16 in the National Championship game. He was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for a national champion in almost 35 years.
Heading into his sophomore season as the preseason ACC Player of the Year, Lawrence was a little more inconsistent than his usual standard over the first few games of the season. Great players, however, fight through those blips in form to show their class and Lawrence led the entire FBS in passer rating over the latter half of the season. Clemson went 14-1 on the year with Lawrence throwing 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He rushed for another nine scores and made it to a second straight CFP Championship Game against an inspired LSU squad that won 42-25.
To say that 2020 has been a different year would be underselling how crazy it has been. This is true both in life and in college football, with schools and conferences all struggling to make sense of how to schedule the season – and if there should be a season at all. With no preseason and with schedules quickly determined (in most cases) to be conference only, Lawrence was always going to put up lower numbers in 2020 just because of how the college football world turned.
Even with all that going on – and the pandemic taking Lawrence out of games for a stretch – he was still able to lead Clemson to the CFP Semifinals. Clemson ran into an Ohio State shaped buzz saw in that game, but Lawrence still finished the season with over 3,100 yards passing and 24 touchdowns to five interceptions.
His statement game was against Notre Dame in the ACC Championship game, the same Notre Dame team that beat Clemson without Lawrence earlier in the year. Lawrence took the game over, posting 412 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in a 34-10 rout.
2019 Joe Burrow
Quarterback, LSU Tigers
The 2019 Premier Player of College Football Trophy winner is LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. This should come as little surprise to anyone who has watched Burrow this season, a player who came into the year with relatively little fanfare, but who has blown up to be named as a unanimous First-Team All-American on account of his monster year.
Burrow led the LSU Tigers to an SEC Title win and a place in the College Football Playoff after he dismantled opposition defenses all season long. This will be the first CFP appearance for LSU and it just goes to show what a special season Burrow put together that he was able to get them over that hump – an Alabama shaped hump – and into a place to challenge for the National Championship.
Burrow’s numbers are so ridiculous that they look like something out of a video game. The Ohio State transfer passed for an astonishing 4,715 yards in 2019. He tossed 48 touchdown passes against just six interceptions and he finished the regular season completing an unheard of 77.9% of his passes. If he can keep that streak up through the playoffs then that would set a major college record for completion percentage over the course of a season.
Burrow doesn’t make many mistakes, but it is not because of a lack of willingness to challenge defenses. He has a cannon of an arm that he will unleash, but it is the stunning accuracy that comes with the deep shots that has amazed college coaches and NFL scouts alike. The presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Burrow has put together a scouting tape over the course of this season that rivals any quarterback that has ever moved on from the college game.
Perhaps the best aspect of Burrow, however, is his character. The Ames, Iowa native has a passion for the game that is shown by how he studies it. Yet, the fame of being the big man on campus has never managed to get past his down to earth persona. This is a leader, a champion, and a player who can always be counted on to come through in the clutch as he did against Alabama in the Tigers signature win of the year.
2018 Kyler Murray
Quarterback, Oklahoma Sooners
Saddled with a historically bad defense and facing an award challenging quarterback down in Tuscaloosa that could do no wrong, it is fair to say that Kyler Murray’s route to the Premier Player of College Football award was anything but straight forward.
Oklahoma has to outscore everyone to win and Murray is the horse that drives the offense forward even when it looks like the Sooners are out of a game. The defense is statistically the worst to play for a national championship (and by some margin) of any in the BCS era, but Murray has taken the Lincoln Riley scheme that made Baker Mayfield the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft and somehow has pushed it to the next level.
Murray, who may never play another down of football as he was drafted ninth overall in this year’s MLB draft, was simply sensational for Oklahoma in 2018. The dual-threat quarterback averaged at least 300 yards passing and 60 yards rushing per game, finishing the regular season with 4,053 yards and 40 touchdowns through the air, while adding another 892 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Murray will have a big decision to make on his future in the coming months, but he can do so safe in the knowledge that he was the best player in college football this season.
2017 Jake Fromm
Quarterback, Georgia Bulldogs
Jake Fromm has taken everything in stride in 2017. The freshman quarterback should have been over-awed when the lights shone brightest, but Fromm is a player – and a person – who is mature beyond his years.
Leading Georgia to a 12-1 record and their first SEC Championship since 2005 seemed to come remarkably easy to Fromm. The 2017 SEC Freshman of the Year threw for 2,173 yards, with 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions. It was his ability to protect the ball, making the correct decisions and rarely putting his team in a difficult spot that set Fromm apart from the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks of the previous few seasons.
Georgia is blessed with an outstanding running game, but in the biggest moments it was Fromm that took on the pressure throws, working the ball all over the field to secure Georgia’s place in the 2017 College Football Playoffs. In no situation was this more obvious than the Bulldogs revenge victory over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.
The Bulldogs 40-17 loss to Auburn in early November had most analysts playing down any chance of a Georgia victory in the rematch. It made sense as that 23-point winning margin was one that looked impossible to overcome, but they though hadn’t counted on the talent, competitiveness, and sheer determination of the Bulldogs’ rookie quarterback.
Fromm completely outplayed more heralded Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham as the Bulldogs flipped the script and won the rematch 28-7. Fromm was a stunningly efficient 16-of-22 for almost 200 yards and two touchdowns, picking apart the Auburn defense even as their pressure mounted. It is that poise that set Fromm apart in 2017.
2016 Deshaun Watson
Quarterback, Clemson Tigers
Deshaun Watson always looked like the kind of quarterback that could be a legacy player at Clemson. When the Tigers fell agonizingly short against Alabama at the back end of the 2015 season, Watson knew his work at the school was far from over. That is why he came back with a vengeance in 2016, leading his Tigers to a dominant, one-loss regular season record.
Watson has done a lot of winning at Clemson. The junior quarterback has been the full time starter for the Tigers for two years and in each of those seasons he led the team into the College Football Playoffs. His 2015 season was outstanding as he passed for over 4,100 yards with 35 touchdowns while rushing for over 1,100 yards with 12 more scores. This though was just a taste of what Watson would do in 2016.
Watson worked hard on his passing over the summer as he knew that to be the quarterback he was capable of being he would need to be able to trust his arm to beat defenses and not rely so much on his legs. The result was a slower than expected start to the season as Clemson, like their leader, took a little while to adjust to his new style. By the end of the year though, Watson had his offense firing on all cylinders.
His ability to overcome was especially evident in the Tigers 56-7 win against rival South Carolina on November 26. After tossing a first half interception Watson went on a tear and completed 19 passes in a row to set a new school record. It is that sort of play that cements Watson’s place as the greatest quarterback in Clemson history.
2015 Vernon Hargreaves III
Cornerback, Florida Gators
This may sound strange, but 2015 may actually have been a little boring for Vernon Hargreaves. The junior Florida cornerback came into the school highly touted and has lived up to every expectation put on him in Gainesville. The problem with being so good as a cornerback however is that the offense is so scared that they stay away from you and that is exactly what has happened to Hargreaves this season.
The best pure cornerback in college football, Hargreaves has just four interceptions on the year and just two passes defensed. This though has nothing to do with Hargreaves level of play slipping and everything to do with the other team just being afraid to challenge him. Hargreaves has such great speed (he runs a 4.44 40-yard dash) and great instincts that any time the ball is in the air on his side of the field there is a chance he will pick it off. This natural ability, plus the hours of practice and preparation he puts in each week, enables Hargreaves to effectively shut out the best weapon on the opposition offense week after week.
As the Gators have rebounded in 2015 so has Hargreaves. His level of play inspires confidence in those around him and his attitude has helped propel the Florida defense to make up for an offense that has gone missing on more than one occasion this season. Hargreaves has even improved his game this season as he has become more physical in run support and has done a better job of fighting off of blocks to make one on one tackles.
There has never been any doubting Hargreaves talent and desire to improve. He has become one of the best cornerbacks in SEC history and he will finish his junior year as one of the most coveted players in the nation if he decides to enter the NFL Draft in the spring.
2014 Marcus Mariota
Quarterback, Oregon Ducks
This season has been a dominating one for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. He has accounted for four or more touchdowns in over three fourths of the Ducks games and he leads the nation in a slew of stats from passing efficiency to yards per attempt. He also surpassed 4,000 of total offense, doing so in the Civil War with Oregon State, only the second time in which an Oregon player ever accomplished that feat. Oh, he was the first player to do so also last fall.
The rise for Mariota has been nothing short of meteoric. When he arrived on campus in Eugene at the beginning of the 2012 season he wasn’t even the favorite to nail down the starting job. Mariota though attacked the challenge in a way which has become something of this trademark. He swept aside all competition throughout the various camps and practices until there was no doubt he was going to be the next get Oregon quarterback.
His dynamic play is what really sets him apart as a player. Mariota has developed from a run first player who can pass, to someone who is apt to scramble with his eyes downfield, extending plays, and then hitting his game breaking receivers with pinpoint accuracy. His ability to check through his progressions while on the move makes him standout from all other quarterbacks in the collegiate game.
Mariota is also the very definition of a team leader, something he will be expected to continue next fall when he moves on to play on Sunday afternoons.
2013 Jameis Winston
Quarterback, FL State Seminoles
As a highly touted football and baseball recruit, Jameis Winston had his pick of colleges. After leading the Seminoles to an undefeated ACC regular season and the cusp of the national title game, the fans in Tallahassee are ecstatic he chose Florida State.
He had one of the most sensational debuts in the history of college football when he completed 25 of 27 passes with four touchdowns, plus another rushing, against Pittsburgh. He built on this with a performance of sheer domination in the 'Noles season defining road win at Clemson as he silenced Death Valley with a 444 yards while accounting for four more TDs.
In a season of amazing stats, the most amazing is probably Winston's ridiculous 69% completion percentage, a number unheard of from a redshirt freshman in a power conference. He had 35 TD passes in the regular season and did so despite being pulled at, or just after, halftime in a number of games which Florida State was dominating.
The best compliment you can pay Winston is that he is as NFL ready as any QB in college football, a scary thought for the ACC as he returns to school next year stronger, faster and smarter.
2012 Jarvis Jones
Defensive End, Georgia Bulldogs
When you look up the word explosive in the dictionary you might just find a picture of Jarvis Jones there looking back at you. Now imagine that face is bearing down on you with 4.6 speed and a desire to monster your quarterback. That is what it felt like to be a lineman facing Georgia this year.
Statistically, Jones had a season for the ages. His 77 tackles don't jump off of the page, but that is offset by his pure ability to wreck opposition drives coming off of the edge with 22.5 tackles for a loss and 12.5 sacks. That means at least three times a game he was in the opposition backfield taking matters into his own hands and destroying both quarterbacks and running backs with reckless abandon.
In a sport where collision and chaos is paramount, Jones excels in both. He had seven forced fumbles in 2012, most caused by his jaw dropping ability to deliver a crushing blow at the end of a play. Simply put Jones is that difference maker that comes around a program once every 15 to 20 years.
A big game player who often saved his best for when it mattered most, Jones put up all those numbers while missing two games with injury. Though the NFL now beckons he has left a lasting impression on the SEC.
2011 Case Keenum
Quarterback, Houston Cougars
We are always uplifted by the comeback stories of sports. I would say Keenum fits the mold perfectly.
into his sixth year of eligibility due to his two ACL injuries, many were unsure how Keenum would perform. To say he dazzled would be an understatement.
He rewrote the book, the record book that is. From total offense, to passing yards, to passing touchdowns, to career completions, Keenum broke them all and sealed his place in college football history.
Keenum led his team to an 11-0 start to the season, which is the best start in Houston history. His gunslinger mentality and great arm led Houston to the top passing offense and scoring offense in college football as he became the first player in college football history to pass for 5,000 yards in three different seasons.
While Keenum’s eligibility may be up at season’s end, his presence and legend will live on long after. After all, we all love a good comeback story. The guy who came back from an almost career ending injury to rewrite college football history, has a nice ring to it.
2010 Ryan Mallett
Quarterback, Arkansas Razorbacks
The first Arkansas quarterback to be named preseason first-team All-SEC by the SEC coaches, Mallett came off an injury to start all 12 games and completed an Arkansas single-season record 242 passes on 364 attempts for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions.
He currently leads the SEC and ranks fifth in the NCAA with 299.3 passing yards per game, and his 30 passing touchdowns lead the conference and are tied for seventh in the country. His Razorbacks' average of 295.5 yards of total offense per game ranks second in the SEC and 13th in the nation.
Big Tex as he is called by some, has thrown for 1,691 yards and 12 TDs against ranked oppenents this season to lead the SEC and rank second in the country in both categories. His 163.90 passer rating against ranked opponents is second in the conference and eighth in the NCAA. Is second in the NCAA with 30 completions of 30 or more yards, and his 63 since 2009 are the most in the NCAA. He leads the SEC and ranks second in the NCAA with 93 completions of 15 or more yards and his conference-leading total of 35 completions of 25+ yards is tied for fifth in the nation.