This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
For me, this topic provides no challenge. Unfortunately, many of IU's most prominent players have toiled in relative obscurity for teams that didn't win much. Thanks to the advent of ESPN, former Hoosier Antwaan Randle El received plenty of publicity, but unfortunately and because of some horrendous defenses, he never played on a winning team. Still, Randle El was as dominant an offensive player as I have ever seen, and is my favorite Hoosier.
Randle El came to IU as a dual sport athlete, expected to contribute in both football and basketball. His basketball career was fairly limited. He played in 11 games in 1998-99, the first year he was eligible (Randle El was a partial academic qualifier and sat out his first year on campus, 1997-98, but eventually earned a fourth year of eligibility by graduating after four years on campus). The next season, Randle El, understandably, decided to focus on football.
Randle El was an amazing quarterback. Certainly, the numbers he generated in his four years at IU were incredible. I'll let an IU press release tell the story:
Randle El, who has already earned his degree, has re-written the Indiana and NCAA record books during his career. He becomes the first IU player to be named Big Ten Offensive Player-of-the-Year since tailback Anthony Thompson earned the distinction in 1998 and again in 1999. Randle El has rushed for more yards (3,895) than any quarterback in NCAA Division I-A history and in 44 career games passed for 7,469 yards and 42 touchdowns and rushed for 3,895 yards and 44 scores.
Randle El also finished fifth on the NCAA Division I-A total yardage list with 11,364 yards and is the only player in major college football history to record 2,500 total yards in four consecutive seasons. He is the first player in NCAA Division I-A history to pass for 40 touchdowns and score 40 touchdowns and finished his career with 42 touchdown passes and 45 touchdowns rushing and receiving. He is also the only Division I-A player to pass for over 6,000 yards and rush for over 3,000 yards in a career.
As impressive as the numbers were, they don't capture just how electric he was to watch. In theory, he was too short to be a quarterback and too skinny to be a running back, yet he excelled at both roles. Unfortunately, for all of his statistical accomplishments and impressive play, truly horrendous defensive play prevented the Hoosiers from qualifying for a bowl game at any point during Randle El's career. I cannot find statistics for the 1998 season, Randle El's first, but in 1999, IU ranked #34 in total offense, averaging 405 yards per game, and #57 in scoring offense, at 26.5 points per game. In total defense, IU ranked #104, averaging 430 yards per game allowed, and #106 in scoring defense, allowing 35 points per game. In 2000, IU ranked #13 in total offense, gaining an incredible 439 yards per game, and ranked #33 in scoring offense, scoring 31 points per game. That team scored 45 touchdowns, or over four per game...and went 3-8! The 2000 IU defense ranked #112 (third from the bottom in allowing 457 yards per game) and had an identical rank in scoring defense, allowing 39 points per game. In 2001, IU ranked #19 in total offense (435 YPG) and #51 in scoring offense (27.7) but #72 in total defense and scoring defense (although the 5-6 2001 team did outscore the opposition, barely).
Randle El's story at IU is a sad story, ultimately. For all of the accolades, awards, and offensive accomplishments, shoddy defense prevented the Hoosiers from accomplishing much of anything during his tenure. After the 2000 season, Randle El considered entering the NFL Draft, but returned to the team on the condition that he be allowed to play receiver, presuming (correctly) that his NFL potential was as a receiver. Unfortunately, rather than create a series by series rotation (think Joe Germaine and Stanley Jackson at Ohio State in the late 1990s), Cam Cameron conceived an offense in which Randle El would step under center with starting QB Tommy Jones, not terribly athletic, still on the field as a WR, which essentially left IU playing 10 on 11. After a disastrous 35-14 loss at NC State in the opener, Randle El was back at QB, but he was rusty and IU lost 14-13 at home to Utah (in a neat little summation of the Cam Cameron era, IU actually scored the go-ahead two point conversion in that game, but it was nullified because of an illegal formation, and after the five-yard penalty, IU missed the extra point). The 2001 Hoosiers finished 4-4 in the Big Ten, and in road wins at Wisconsin at Michigan State played as well as any IU team since the 1980s, but it wasn't enough.
Despite the Hoosiers' futility, Randle El finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Had IU managed to win another game or two, he may well have won it. Randle El won the Silver Football, the Big Ten's MVP award, after the 2001 season, making him one of only three Hoosiers to win the award in the last 70 years (Tim Clifford in 1979; Anthony Thompson in 1988 and 1989).
There are other meritorious choices, but for me, the choice is obvious. Football is a team sport, but I have never seen one individual do more on the field.