"The Colonel". He's already got the big nickname, the commercial deals, the music video, not to mention the big free-agent contract after he became a fan favorite in Cork Bowl 10 as a rookie, but Steve Sanders is facing a big challenge this year - quarterbacking a team to a Cork Bowl victory. It's a mission that many have failed at, especially first timers.
What some critics see as a major gamble and an attempt to bring in new sponsors, nobody that was around training camp thinks it's a gamble at all. "Sure he only threw two passes last year, but anybody that saw those passes had to see the potential for a huge game," commented the excited General Manager Patrick Cork. "That's why he got the big money."
Sanders was 2-for-2 with a touchdown throwing the ball last November, but he spent most of his time catching 15 passes for 3 touchdowns. "I think he was playing out of position last year," remarked teammate Chris Cork. "He's got a quarterback's mentality. He's a true leader, and it's hard to lead a team when you're split out wide as a receiver. You're gonna see something special this year from the Colonel."
All of his teammates have great confidence in Sanders' ability to throw the ball. "He's awesome," added Ryan Tomlinson. "If you could see how quickly he got on the same page with us during training camp you'd think the same. This isn't an easy offense to learn, but it's almost like he created it himself. I've never seen anything like that before."
Sanders will have his work cut out for him. Sure he's got both Cork brothers as targets, but someone else is going to have to step up and make plays. Is that going to be Kevin Ryan or Ryan Tomlinson? Nobody seems to know and there isn't much word out of camp as to who is performing better. Of course Tomlinson says he will be that man, but they aren't talking which has caused some question: Will Sanders will have enough confidence to look their way?
"Absolutely," replied a calm and confident Sanders. "If they are wearing Ermine jerseys; they will get the ball. Going into last year's game, I was all rookie, greasy fingers and all. By the fourth quarter, however, there were no rookies on the field. The off-season has been good. I have shed the "freshman 15", studied game tape, and worked out with my cousin Barry. The honeymoon is over, it's time to play ball!"
Game Plan - "I'm not looking for moral victories this year."
"Not one bit!" That was the answer Willy Truitt gave to the question 5 years ago when asked if he was concerned about playing quarterback in Cork Bowl with his small stature. Sure Truitt isn't the prototypical quarterback, but just look at the numbers. He's the all-time leader in completions (182), attempts (309), touchdowns (73), and rushing touchdowns (12). And he may have his most balanced and explosive receiving corps this year. "It has been an incredible run these past few years, but i'd be lying if I said that the goal for us this year is anything less than a championship," commented Truitt.
He doesn't need much help either. His passing records are far and away tops in history. Last year Truitt was 44-71 with 16 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. In fact, Truitt has completed over 55% of his passes and has thrown just 12 interceptions in 309 attempts (a miniscule 3.8%). He's looking to lead his team to a 5th championship and a third straight. No other quarterback has won more than two Cork Bowls. So how do you stop him? "You don't," answered Truitt.
"I think the only chink in his armor is when he is rushed," said retiree Kirby Newell. "When teams blitz him, they usually have success - at least in disrupting his rhythm - because he's not big enough to fight off the defenders." However, rushing Truitt can pose more problems as well. He has rushed for 12 touchdowns in the past five years, including a record-setting seven scores in Cork Bowl 7.
"Just because you rush him doesn't mean he's not going to hurt you," added Ryan Tomlinson. "Last year he was rushed on half the plays and still threw 16 touchdowns."
Truitt will have a new group of receivers this year including his brother Reggie. Greg Howard had a breakout game last year and will need to step up and be a go-to receiver. Josh Williamson and rookie Jeff Henney add depth to what looks to be a quick-strike offensive attack. Although Truitt has only 16 tackles in his career, he has picked off 6 passes. "He's not challenged a lot defensively, but when he is he can make some big plays," added Tomlinson.
Game Plan - "Don't throw rocks at the throne, do not bark up that tree, that tree will fall on you."
Wide Receiver / Tight End
The "King of the Red Zone" is back for year number 11. As one of only two remaining original Cork Bowlers, Cork has been the model of consistency and dependability. He ranks third on the all-time receptions list with 82, and has 27 touchdowns. Not to be forgotten is his knack for the big play. Cork has made some of the biggest game-changing plays on defense over the years en route to his all-time record 11 interceptions.
"It's simple," remarked brother Patrick. "He's just got a nose for the ball - both offensively and defensively. He can go 15 minutes without making a catch and then all of a sudden he picks off a pass and the game completely changes."
Cork owns one of the surest pair of hands in the league and has mastered the art of the one-hand catch and finds the endzone seemingly every drive. HIs long wing-span helps to reach over defenders and also to knock down passes on the other side of the ball. He's not the fastest or strongest player on the field, but it's tough to find a more productive player on either side of the ball.
Although Cork has put up big numbers in his career, he has had a couple of tough games over the past two seasons. After averaging 17 catches a game from '96-'98, Cork had just 9 catches last year and 8 the year before. Is this just a couple of down years or is the 26 year old on the downside of a brilliant career?
"I'm just getting warmed up," calmly answered Cork. "Any avid Cork Bowl follower would know that in Cork Bowl 9 I was very ill, and then last year was the first year without Kirb. That's not easy to get used to. But my team won both times. I've chosen to dominate this year for Kirb. And don't worry, The Colonel will find me. I will be open...I'm open right now."
Game Plan - "I only know how to win."
Wide Receiver / Backup QB
Versatility. That's one of the many words used to describe Reggie Truitt's Cork Bowl career that dates back to Cork Bowl 2. In his 8th Cork Bowl, he "does it all," commented brother Willy. Truitt ranks second on the all-time completions list with 135 including 47 touchdowns. He is sixth in career receptions with 30, and has 10 touchdowns. His 60 tackles rank him second all-time as well.
Obviously the numbers are impressive, but they haven't led to many victories. Truitt has lost three straight Cork Bowls and 4 of the last 5. Last year was a typical year as Truitt threw 6 TD's, caught seven passes for two touchdowns, and had a game-high 14 tackles...and one Cork Bowl defeat.
"He's always been a top-notch player, but his team always seems to make a mistake late in the game that costs them," remarked Hall of Famer Kirby Newell.
Truitt will likely not be sharing quarterback duties this year so it will be interesting to see how he holds up as a full-time receiver. With brother Willy under center, there's little doubt who his prime target will be. Reggie will also be responsible for guarding one of the Cork brothers in pass defense. He'll need to contain one of them to take off some of the pressure that Greg Howard and Josh Williamson will have in guarding the other one.
If Truitt can hold up the entire game at receiver, and play at the level he does when he rotates at quarterback, he will be a tough matchup for the defenders. "I've had more trouble guarding Reggie in the past than anyone else," commented Patrick Cork. "He's got great receiving instincts and has more quicks than me. I'm hoping he'll wear down as the game goes on, otherwise he could put up some big numbers, especially with Willy throwing to him."
Game Plan - "The losing streak ends this year!"
Patrick Cork made a decision five years ago before the start of Cork Bowl 6 and has continued to use it as motivation ever since. "I made my mind up that nobody was going to stop me and I still think that today," Cork said. The numbers seem to support this bold statement. Cork is the all-time leader in receptions with 108 and has 36 touchdowns, but really came into his own in 1996. Remarkable consistency has followed. His reception totals over those five years (17, 15, 24, 14,18) and touchdowns (5, 5, 5, 6, 7) have helped lead to three MVP selections. Cork has won three consecutive Cork Bowls and 5 of the last 6.
"Offensively I want the ball every play," added Cork. "I'm not as fit as I used to be, but I still thrive on the role of a possession receiver. I want the ball. Anybody can score a few TD's in a game, but I want to drive the team down the field."
Known for his soft hands and clutch 3rd and 4th down catches, Cork thrives on making plays on defense. He leads in tackles with 65, but is most proud of his 5 forced fumbles and 5 fumble recoveries. "To make a tackle, that means your guy probably caught the pass so I don't think that stat is as nice as you media people like to think. And an interception is usually a ball that was thrown poorly, as opposed to having great coverage on the receiver. I love to force fumbles because that can get inside a player's head. Interceptions are nice, but when you strip the ball from someone - that's mental, and I'm all about mind games."
Cork will be a primary target on offense and hopes to be a security blanket to Sanders who can feel confident looking to him if he gets in trouble. He may get some double teams thrown his way, especially if Tomlinson and Kevin Ryan struggle early in the game. Look for Cork to put up big numbers again on offense, but he must play solid defense and make some big plays to give his team a chance.
Game Plan - "Win. That's why we play, right?"
He's been the brunt of many of the pregame jokes over the past several years, but Greg Howard is not someone to laugh at. "He was last year's MVP in my mind," said color commentator Kirby Newell. "He was all over the place on offense and defense and was the only reason his team was in the game. Had his team finished off that comeback, he would have been the reason."
Entering his 6th Cork Bowl, Howard has improved each year and is ready to claim his spot among the Cork Bowl greats. "I think I belong," remarked Howard. "I've gotten better each year and if you look at my numbers, I've been a solid player every year since my first game." In fact, Howard's improvements over the years have placed him 4th on the all-time receiving list with 40 receptions, and he has a remarkable 22 touchdowns as well. "When Greg catches a pass, it's usually for a score," stated Patrick Cork. "That's been the case ever since his second game in Cork Bowl 7."
Last season Howard had a huge day finishing with 12 catches and 7 touchdowns. Many of the catches and scores took place in the later part of the game which is a testament to Howard's mentality. "I think I'm in better shape than anyone else," added Howard. "So it's not surprising to me that I put up better numbers as the game goes on."
Defensively, Howard is no longer a liability either. He finished last year's game with 9 tackles, only two less than he had for his entire career entering the game. "I remember when we would look his way every time because he didn't match up well against my receiver," commented Willy Truitt. "But you just can't do that anymore. He's strong and he'll punish the receiver."
Howard will really need to have a huge game because his team is counting on him and Reggie to catch most of the passes. He'll also have to play huge on defense and match up against either Chris or Patrick Cork - something he hasn't done in the past.
The only "bruiser" left after Kirby Newell's retirement, Kevin Ryan has been snakebitten his whole career. "I don't ever remember winning a Cork Bowl," said Ryan. Although that's not a proven fact, Ryan has just missed on that elusive championship ring a number of times. His team has fallen in the last four games by a combined total of just seven scores.
If anybody deserves a Cork Bowl Championship, that person is Kevin Ryan. He's often overlooked and usually doesn't play a key role in the offense, but he has had a very effective career. "People like to throw around the comments that the only reason Kevin Ryan hasn't won a championship is because of Kevin Ryan," remarked Patrick Cork. "But that's ridiculous. This kid is a hard-nosed football player and deserves a ring. I think that extra motivation will result in a big game this year. I've wanted Kevin on my team the last few years, but we weren't able to spend the money to bring him in. This year we did, and I think he is worth every penny."
Always a scoring option near the endzone, Ryan has scored 14 touchdowns on just 28 career receptions. "He's not a big play guy, but if you need 8-10 yards, Kevin will do that for you consistently," responded teammate Chris Cork.
Ryan has also been effective throwing the ball. He ranks 4th on the all-time completions list with 38 and has thrown 15 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. In part time duty last year, he threw 8 touchdown passes and caught five balls for three scores. Although he's starting at his normal tight end position, he could be pressed into duty under center if they fall behind in order to get more firepower with Sanders as a receiver.
Defensively, Ryan will probably play safety and rush the passer. Despite a lack of defensive speed, Ryan is a sure tackler. He was very solid last season finishing with a career high 7 tackles. Ryan will also play a role in pass protection if Sanders is rushed, but after watching him break tackles last year that is highly doubtful.
Game Plan - "It don't mean a thing without the ring."
Tight End / Wide Receiver
Defense wins championships is how the saying goes and if that's the case, Josh Williamson may win a few in his career. Entering his 7th Cork Bowl, Williamson has always been one of the top tacklers in the league, but his team will be looking for offensive production this year.
"He always ends up with good offensive statistics, but there's no doubt that he's more of a factor on the other side of the ball," remarked Patrick Cork. Williamson has put up solid offensive numbers over his career with 38 receptions and 15 touchdowns - ranking 5th all-time. In fact, in Cork Bowl X, Williamson finished with a career high 10 catches and scored three times. "I definitely have a defensive attitude on the field," said Williamson. "But that's only half of what I have to do. If I don't produce on offense too, then that's not helping my team win."
Williamson has tallied 35 tackles in his career and holds the all-time sack record with 3. "He's always around the ball on defense," added Patrick. "In Cork Bowl 8, none of us could guard Kirby so we put Josh on him. I think he ended with about 10 tackles that game and was the main reason we won."
It is yet to be seen what the strategy will be regarding blitzes. Williamson has always thrived on rushing the passer, but with Steve Sanders QB'ing, that might be a big gamble that could lead to disaster. When asked if they plan on blitzing the young QB, Williamson responded, "I guess you'll just have to wait and see, huh?".
Williamson will most likely have Tomlinson or Kevin Ryan matched up on him on offense, so it will be interesting to see if he can exploit his speed advantage on either of these two. Williamson is never the go-to receiver, mainly because of a case of the "dropsies" early in his career, but he will tear up a defense underneath if he is allowed to run free. "He could end up being the difference," added Chris Cork. "I feel we match up well at every other position, so hopefully we can shut down some of the other guys and make Williamson beat us. Hopefully he won't."
He's been called a one-hit wonder, a wuss, a little girl, and much more, but one thing there is no disputing is that Ryan Tomlinson is a winner. Entering his 5th Cork Bowl, Tomlinson has a 3-1 record in his four previous games. "I've been fortunate to have good players on my teams," remarked Tomlinson.
A "Trent Dilfer-like" performer, Tomlinson has simply done what his team has asked him to do in order to win the game. After a spectacular rookie year in Cork Bowl VII when he finished with 11 catches, Tomlinson struggled and tallied only eight receptions over the next two seasons. Tomlinson claimed the two down years were flukes, and helped support that with a 7 catch, 2 touchdown game last year. He'll need another game like that to further prove his point.
With the Cork Brothers on his team, R.T. will look to exploit any man-to-man coverage. "If I'm in a one-on-one matchup all day, there is no doubt that I'll beat it," added Tomlinson. "But really all I want to do is tear Greg (Howard) limb-from-limb!" With Steve Sanders at quarterback, it will be interesting to see how much he will depend on his more proven receivers before looking for Tomlinson - the 8th leading receiver in Cork Bowl history. "I think I will be much more of a factor as the game goes on and that the Colonel will look for me to make some plays in the second half," concluded Tomlinson.
Game Plan - "If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you."
Each year it seems the pressure of being a Cork Bowl rookie is too much to bear. Last year Steve Sanders put up good numbers, but fumbled twice which led to his team being in a hole too deep to get out of. In '99, Josh Helton was a non-factor and Justin Massey and Chris Thurman have both left Corklestick with sour tastes in their mouths. It's Jeff Henney's turn to try to turn that around.
Henney, a roommate of Chris Cork and Steve Sanders, is a native of Ft. Wayne Northrop High School. "I'm nervous," remarked Henney. "I do have considerable concern about the game because I don't think of myself as being a big-game player." Henney added to this controversial state of mind by sounding off about his dislike for Cork Bowl's top sponsor - Dr. Pepper. "We sat him down and had a talk about that," stated Commissioner Cork. "This isn't a forum to throw around one's personal opinions. We don't need any rebels in this league. He's walking a fine line and he knows it, and we don't expect anything further to come from this."
Known more for his basketball skills, Henney is undoubtedly a sleeper in this year's game. At 25, he must perform now. Look for him to stay out of the spotlight early and to start making plays in the 3rd and 4th quarters if Willy Truitt has enough confidence to look for him. If Greg Howard struggles at all, it is vital that Henney step up to give his team a chance.
Game Plan - "Low expectations = High satisfaction"
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