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Saturday, August 16
Big players from small schools get no love

By Gregg Doyel
Special to ESPN.com

Michael Turner has everything the modern Heisman Trophy candidate needs. He plays tailback, he enters the 2003 season as the country's No. 1 returning leader with 1,915 rushing yards a year ago, and he has a rhythmic, made-for television nickname: Michael "The Burner" Turner.

Finally, he plays for Illinois, a huge school located in one of the ...


Turner doesn't play for Illinois. He plays for Northern Illinois.

No wonder you've never heard of him.

Michael Turner may hate his nickname, but "The Burner" sure fits the 6-foot senior who runs a 4.41 forty."It's the curse of the directional school," says Northern Illinois football spokesman Mike Korcek. "I guarantee you if Michael Turner played for Illinois, he'd be on the cover of all the preseason magazines."

Darn straight. If Turner played in one of the six Bowl Championship Series leagues, he'd be on the short list of Heisman super-contenders, not one of the names near the end of the list. Assuming he's even on the list.

"I saw one nationally known guy -- I don't want to name him -- who listed 20 Heisman candidates, and Michael wasn't one of them," Korcek says, practically screaming into the phone in exasperation. "How can that happen?"

Easily, unfortunately. It happens because Michael Turner, who will be in the NFL in 2004 because the professional scouts always know a great player even if the average Heisman voter does not, plays for Northern Illinois.

This is nothing against the Huskies. It is simply Northern Illinois' turn. Last year it was Boise State and Nevada. Brock Forsey led the country with 32 touchdowns last season, but the Boise State tailback didn't finish in the top 10 of the Heisman voting. Neither did Nevada receiver Nate Burleson despite leading the country with 138 catches, totaling 1,629 yards and 12 touchdowns.

If it happens this season to Turner, well, he'll understand.

"I know it's a slim chance," Turner says. "It's something that's hard to do, winning the Heisman from a smaller conference. The bigger conferences get all the TV time."

Turner will get his chance. So will this season's other top small-conference Heisman candidate, Central Florida quarterback Ryan Schneider, who threw for 3,770 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2002. Both Mid-America Conference players have early games against marquee opponents, games that could thrust them into the Heisman race.

Northern Illinois opens its season Aug. 28 against Maryland, a Thursday date with a potential Top 10 team. The Huskies also have September games against Alabama and Iowa State, giving Turner three prime opportunities to put up big numbers against big competition.

"If Michael gets 250 yards against Maryland, hell yes he should be the No. 1 Heisman candidate," Korcek says. "If he gets 250 against a team in the top 10 and we're competitive, that's it."

Schneider has a similar opportunity with the Golden Knights opening their season Aug. 31 at Virginia Tech, a Sunday game that should have most of the college football spotlight to itself. UCF plays two other Big East schools, Syracuse and West Virginia, but UCF spokesman John Marini says the Virginia Tech game is the key.

"That's going to go a long way to determine how much emphasis we can place on his candidacy," Marini says. "If he does well in that game, that will be the springboard."

To get their players into the Heisman consciousness, smaller schools need a gimmick. Last season Middle Tennessee State tailback Dwone Hicks changed his number from 33 to 4 so the school could promote "Dwone Hicks 4 Heisman." Get it?

So it goes with Michael Turner, who was nicknamed "The Burner" by a DeKalb, Ill., sports writer. Korcek us plastering that nickname all over the web site the school is designing, www.turnertheburner.com.

"He doesn't like the nickname," Korcek says of his 6-foot, 223-pound back who runs a 4.41 forty. "The kids tease him about it. But it fits. He's got great speed for being large kid."

Players need more than a gimmick to win the Heisman, which rhymes with Theismann. At least, it does now. Joe Theismann pronounced his last name THEES-man until his senior year of college, when he announced his last name happened to rhyme with the trophy he wanted to win. Great idea, but it didn't work. He finished second to Stanford's Jim Plunkett in 1970, though he can't blame that on his school. Theismann was the quarterback at Notre Dame.

As for being the quarterback at Central Florida or a running back at Northern Illinois and winning it, Schneider and Turner both know how hard it will be. UCF's Daunte Culpepper finished sixth in the Heisman voting in 1998 and NIU's LeShon Johnson finished sixth in 1993 despite leading the nation in rushing.

Schneider, the country's leading returner in passing efficiency, could become more of a household name with a big opener against Virginia Tech.

"If I have a good game it should make people sit up and realize Central Florida has some good players," Schneider says. "It might put me on the map."

The Heisman map is an exclusive map. And it rarely includes directional destinations.

Gregg Doyel covers college football for the Charlotte Observer.


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