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May 2, 2007

Deep passers can change games

One of the major things that separates college football from the pro game is the prevalence of big plays.

Just about every bowl contender has multiple players who can score from anywhere on the field.

That capability for the quick strike helps explain why Michigan State can rally from a 35-point deficit to beat Northwestern one month after blowing a 17-point lead against Notre Dame.

Can you imagine an NFL game featuring a hook-and-lateral, a Statue of Liberty play and a halfback option all in the span of a half hour? That's what happened in Boise State's memorable Fiesta Bowl 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma.

One Saturday of college football features more breakaway runs and deep passes than you'll see in an NFL season.

Of course, the other big difference in college football is that the superstars change from year to year.

JaMarcus Russell won't be throwing any more long passes for Louisiana State. Adrian Peterson has made his final touchdown run as an Oklahoma Sooner. Calvin Johnson's next leaping catch will take place in an NFL uniform.

Now that those guys are gone, we're going to shed some light on who could be college football's big-play specialists next season. We'll break down the game's best deep throwers, breakaway runners and deep threats.

As it turned out, we couldn't limit any of these lists to 10 guys. Each of our charts also includes a "wild-card" contender who might emerge as one of the top 10 players in his respective category by the end of the season, even if he hasn't earned a spot on the chart just yet.

We start today by detailing our 10 top deep throwers. Keep in mind this isn't our ranking of the top 10 overall quarterbacks, although the two lists might intersect. Instead of breaking down the 10 quarterbacks with the best overall games, we simply are trying to decide which guy we'd rather have under center when our team needed to complete a long pass on the final play of a game.

PHOTO GALLERY: College football's biggest arms

1. Brian Brohm, Sr., Louisville: Brohm's ability to throw the deep ball is one reason why he probably will be the first quarterback taken in next year's NFL Draft. His average of 15.32 yards per completion last year was the highest of any quarterback ranked in the top 100 in passing yards per game. Even though he missed two games with a thumb injury last season, Brohm still threw four touchdown passes of at least 50 yards. He also completed five touchdown passes of at least 25 yards in his final two regular-season games. Brohm should benefit this season from the return of Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas, who both have a knack for making big plays.
2. Chad Henne, Sr., Michigan: Although he averaged only 12.4 yards per completion, Henne threw 11 touchdown passes that traveled at least 25 yards. Seven of those long touchdown passes came in the first six games of the season before favorite target Mario Manningham suffered a knee injury. The return of Manningham and Henne should give Michigan the nation's best long-distance connection.
3. Andre' Woodson, Sr., Kentucky: Woodson showed such a flair for the deep pass last year that he averaged 24.6 yards per touchdown completion. Woodson made a name for himself with scoring strikes of 73 and 80 yards in a season-opening loss to Louisville. He later added a 57-yard touchdown pass against Vanderbilt and a 42-yarder against Central Michigan on his way to leading the Southeastern Conference in passing yardage. He capped his season with three touchdown passes - including a 70-yarder - in a Music City Bowl victory over Clemson. Woodson should have similar sucess this year thanks in part to the return of Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons Jr., who emerged as his two favorite deep targets last season.
4. Colt Brennan, Sr., Hawaii: While most of the other players on this list clearly have favorite receivers, Brennan likes to share the wealth. He threw 19 touchdown passes of at least 20 yards to seven different teammates during his record-breaking season last year. Four of those long touchdown passes came in a Hawaii Bowl victory over Arizona State. Brennan closed the season by throwing 10 touchdown passes against Purdue, Oregon State and Arizona State, which should put to rest the notion that he merely feasts on lightweight competition.
5. Rudy Carpenter, Jr., Arizona State: Carpenter broke each of his hands and played with an injury-riddled receiving corps last season, but he still averaged 13.7 yards per completion. Carpenter threw six touchdown passes of at least 26 yards in his last four games of the year. If he can put up that kind of production in a disappointing season, imagine what Carpenter might accomplish this year now that he doesn't have to deal with the injuries or adversity that hampered his 2006 campaign.
6. John David Booty, Sr., Southern California: After playing it safe for the first half of his debut season as a starter, Booty started going for broke when USC fell behind Oregon State 33-10. Booty couldn't bring the Trojans all the way back, but you can mark that game down as the turning point of his college career. He connected with Steve Smith on a 37-yard touchdown pass during that comeback, and ended up throwing seven scoring strikes of at least 20 yards in his last seven games. Booty doesn't rank higher on this list because we're not sure how the departures of Dwayne Jarrett and Smith might impact USC's vertical passing game.
7. Nate Longshore, Jr., California: The fact that 51 of his 227 completions last year went for at least 20 yards shows that Longshore isn't afraid of throwing long. Why should he be when California boasts one of the nation's top deep threats in DeSean Jackson? Oregon State sure knows about Longshore's ability to deliver an accurate long ball. Longshore threw four touchdown passes - all at least 27 yards - in a 41-13 triumph over the Beavers last year. He also had a 62-yard touchdown pass against Arizona, a 48-yarder against Minnesota and a 44-yarder against UCLA.
8. Erik Ainge, Sr., Tennessee: The arrival of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe and the emergence of wide receiver Robert Meachem helped make Ainge one of the nation's most improved players last year. He threw six touchdown passes of at least 40 yards in the first five games of the 2006 season. But he didn't have a touchdown pass that long the rest of the year and might not throw deep nearly as often now that the Vols must find new receivers to replace Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith.
9. Matthew Stafford, So., Georgia: We realize we're taking a chance by putting Stafford on this list. After all, this former five-star prospect didn't throw any touchdown passes longer than 21 yards during an up-and-down freshman season. But he started living up to his hype late last year. He threw a 53-yard completion and a 40-yard strike to set up touchdowns against Auburn. The return of Sean Bailey from a knee injury that sidelined him for the 2006 season will give Stafford a legitimate deep threat, and should help make the rising sophomore one of the nation's most improved quarterbacks.
10. Josh Freeman, So., Kansas State: We close the list with one more leap of faith. Freeman's freshman-year statistics (15 interceptions, six touchdown passes) won't wow anyone, but his extraordinary size and arm strength suggest he will mature into an outstanding deep thrower. Freeman showed his big-play ability late last season by throwing three touchdown passes of at least 30 yards in a 45-42 upset of Texas. The 6-foot-6 Freeman also had a 74-yard touchdown completion against Colorado a week earlier.
Wild card: Juice Williams, So., Illinois: Criticize his inaccuracy all you want. Williams deserves the barbs after completing less than 40 percent of his passes as a true freshman. So why are Illinois fans still optimistic about Williams' future? Because he offered glimpses of his enormous potential with his knack for throwing the deep ball. Seven of his nine touchdown passes last year went for at least 31 yards. He became the first Illinois quarterback to throw two touchdown passes of more than 65 yards in one game when he tossed a 79-yarder and a 69-yarder against Syracuse. Williams' completions went an average distance of 14.5 yards. Of all the players on this list, only Brohm had a higher average per completion.

PHOTO GALLERY: College football's biggest arms

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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