Ainge, Walker among surprise standouts

Originally Published: October 1, 2004
By Todd McShay | Scouts, Inc.
It typically takes a special effort from an unsuspecting player to transcend the expectations of a team. Take last year's co-national champions, for example. Who would have thought last August that Matt Leinart would step in for former Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and lead the Trojans to 12 wins and a Rose Bowl ring?

How could anyone have known that 18-year-old LaRon Landry would develop into a playmaking starting safety in the LSU secondary? Or, for that matter, that his emergence would allow coach Nick Saban to move Travis Daniels to the corner opposite Corey Webster, giving Saban the ideal personnel to execute his man-to-man, blitz-crazy defensive scheme?

Some players, such as USC RB Reggie Bush and Utah's Alex Smith, have taken their games to an entirely different level, but they don't make this list, because they have provided production in the past and were being counted on to step up in 2004.

Instead, this list is made up of players who have come out of relative obscurity – or high school or junior college – to become key contributors at positions that were considered question marks or downright weaknesses heading into the season. I like to consider these players "missing pieces of the puzzle."

Because of their performances to date and the promise that these players provide for at least the rest of this season, each of their teams are in better shape to contend for unexpected bowl games, conference titles and, in some cases, a chance to play for the national championship on Jan. 4 in the Orange Bowl.

Todd McShay

ESPN Senior Writer