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COLLEGE FOOTBALL DEPARTMENT: GENERATION GAP AND DEMARYIUS THOMAS

"Yea, it's Nirvana." Getty Images

Most coaches inject life into their programs by bringing in breakout freshmen, not guys who actually remember what life was like before the BCS. But these three blue-hairs are having big impacts on their blue-chip teammates, even if there may be a bit of a locker room generation gap.

BACK IN THE DAY: BRANDON CRAWFORD, TE/DE, BALL STATE
After high school graduation, in 1996, Ball State DE/TE Brandon Crawford worked at an automotive factory shop for three years, then did a four-year hitch in the Marines. Now the 32-year-old is an All-MAC junior with two sacks on the nation's No. 16 D (15.4 ppg).

LEADING THE WAY
Ball State junior QB Nate Davis is raising his baby girl, Mia, and turned to best bud Crawford (11 years his senior) to help investigate day-care centers. Now Davis is a more relaxed dad—and the MAC's most efficient passer (162.3 rating).

"Nate listens to some of the older music I do," says Crawford. "He'll roll up listening to Al Green or Luther Vandross in the car, and I'll say, 'I was listening to that while you were in Pampers!' "

BACK IN THE DAY: TONY FEIN, LB, OLE MISS
Ole Miss LB Tony Fein, 26, spent 31/2 years in the Army (one as a recon scout in Iraq) and two years at Scottsdale CC, where he had 26 stops in one game. He reminds his coaches of Patrick Willis—for good reason: Fein had 10 hits and the key stuff in a 31-30 upset at Florida.

LEADING THE WAY
Fein isn't a vocal leader, just a cog in the machine. "That's what the Army is," he says, "a giant team working for the same goals." Besides, Fein adds, with eight senior starters, the Rebs don't need his advice. "This team's pretty mature."

"There aren't that many cultural differences," says Fein of his relationship with his teammates. "We mostly listen to the same things, think the same girls are cute."

BACK IN THE DAY: RYLAN REED, OL, TEXAS TECH
In 2004, the struggling White Sox pitching prospect called Texas Tech, a team he deemed an up-and-comer. Tech coaches saw old game film of the 6'7", 260-pounder and called back. Now Reed, 26, anchors a line that's allowed only one sack.

LEADING THE WAY
In 2004, the struggling White Sox pitching prospect called Texas Tech, a team he deemed an up-and-comer. Tech coaches saw old game film of the 6'7", 260-pounder and called back. Now Reed, 26, anchors a line that's allowed only one sack.

"I was listening to Nirvana in the locker room a few weeks back," Reed says. "Some guys asked, 'What is this?' I said, 'It was probably popular when you were in fourth grade.' "
- TED BAUER

RUNNING WITH IT

After Georgia Tech WR Demaryius Thomas had 35 catches for 558 yards as a freshman last season, adapting to an offense that runs the ball four out of five plays wasn't exactly what he had in mind. But when new coach Paul Johnson introduced his option attack to a Tech team that had lost 71% of its 2007 receiving output, he told Thomas to brace for a busy year. Because when Tech does throw the ball, it's usually to him.

The 6'3", 229-pound redshirt sophomore has 415 of the team's 820 receiving yards and 22 of its 40 catches, a 55% share. No other ACC team's top wideout catches even 40%. To listen to Johnson, his super soph is ideally suited for an offense that faces a lot of man-to-man coverage: "Big…can run…physical…good blocker…big-play potential…tough to cover one-on-one."

If that reminds you of former Yellow Jackets star Calvin Johnson, it should. Thomas spent his 2006 redshirt year picking the brain of the wideout the Lions would draft with the No. 2 overall pick. Johnson told Thomas to use his frame and reach to shield off DBs when the ball is in the air. Johnson also emphasized the need to nail routes and breaks down to the millimeter.

The advice is paying off. Since a 20-17 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 13, which Thomas missed with a mild concussion, 6—1 Tech has averaged 362.8 total yards per game and has completed 21 passes—17 to Thomas. More important to Coach Johnson, the rush offense has averaged 237 yards and 1.8 TDs per game. "If I can make teams use two people to cover me, it helps with our style of offense," Thomas says.

And that makes him more valuable than ever.
- WILLIAM HUPP