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Path: /nascar/nascar-goes-under-lights-kansas-speedway
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Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, a new roof cam, a new night race, Kurt Busch’s Double, Goodyear tires and the Family Blaney kick off a weekend of racing at Kansas Speedway.


1. Roof camera makes return on intermediate tracks  
Look just above the windshield on every Sprint Cup car this weekend at Kansas Speedway and you’ll see something new: a small, teardrop-shaped device pointing toward the nose of the car. The little device marks the official return of roof-mounted cameras on 1.5- and 2-mile tracks.

Citing concerns that the previous roof camera mount — a circular structure that rose about two inches above the roof line commonly referred to as the “Big Mac” — was giving a lead car downforce advantages in clear air racing conditions, NASCAR wiped the popular mount from many aerodynamically-sensitive tracks in February 2013. It remained on the car, however, at short tracks and superspeedways.

In response, the company who builds and supplies the on-car camera systems went to work on new designs. Broadcast Sports Incorporated presented those prototypes before the 2014 season for NASCAR review, according to Sports & Entertainment Media’s Andy Jeffers.

Jeffers, who owns Knoxville-based SEM and works as a liaison between BSI, television broadcasters and potential on-car camera sponsors, said NASCAR’s research and development center made the final call on which new example to use.

“This was an ongoing process since last season to find a sleeker, smaller and lighter camera mount,” Jeffers said. “It’s great to have it back.”

The new roof camera — about five inches front to back and about two inches wide as it slopes to a flush mount with the roof line — will beam 16x9 high-definition signals for television viewers but it won’t offer the ability for a 360-degree pan like its predecessor. And while every car will have the new teardrop-shaped cell above the windshield, only a handful will actually have cameras inside for Saturday night’s race as usual.


2. Kansas hosting night racing for the first time
The lights went up in Kansas in 2011 – about four years too late for the likes of Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson. For Greg Biffle, the timing was just fine.

Those three drivers were involved in a controversial finish at the end of the October 2007 race when Biffle ran out of fuel and slowed coming to the checkered flag under yellow. The race, ending prematurely due to darkness brought on by prior rain delays, sparked immediate controversy when both Bowyer and Johnson passed the slowing Biffle before the finish line.

NASCAR ruled in Biffle’s favor by saying later that he had maintained appropriate speed.

Such issues shouldn’t develop this weekend as NASCAR races for the first time under Kansas’ lights. Since the lighting system was installed, only ARCA and Grand-Am (on the track’s infield road course) have raced at night at the speedway.

Kansas serves as one of 10 points races on the Cup schedule in 2014 scheduled for night racing.


3. Kurt Busch begins IndyCar-NASCAR juggle  Kurt Busch and Patricia Driscoll
Kurt Busch spent his Tuesday turning more test laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for his first Indianapolis 500 start in two weeks. The IndyCar test day followed his completion of the track’s Rookie Orientation Program a week prior and subsequent role reversal back into his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing machine for NASCAR’s 500-miler last Sunday at Talladega.

With the official opening of practice on the oval scheduled for Sunday at IMS, Busch is officially immersed in what will be the busiest time of his 2014 season. Kansas’ high speeds and still-new pavement will force Busch to adjust more between the two car types, he says:

“(Kansas) will be fast. Cars will definitely be on edge. This will definitely be one of the tougher challenges of this whole Indy/NASCAR back and forth. The car on edge at Kansas is very different then the car on edge at Talladega.”

Logistics won’t be a big concern this weekend, however. Even if Saturday night’s NASCAR race gets delayed or postponed, more than 37 hours of practice time are available at Indianapolis before qualifying next Saturday.


4. Goodyear hopes Kansas tire test pays dividends
Since Kansas’ repave in 2011, drivers have often been on edge. Two of the three races have set records for caution flags – the most coming last fall when Kevin Harvick took the win.

Drivers complained that the race tire simply didn’t grip the track well and left them with a feeling of racing on pins and needles. Combined with NASCAR’s changes to the downforce and suspension packages used this season, Goodyear opted to perform a test on April 14. The test revealed a change was needed. Out was last year’s right-side tire and in was the right-side tire used at Michigan International Speedway in 2013.

Aric Almirola was one of many drivers who participated in the tire test.

“I feel like the track has aged well,” Almirola says. “It's slicked up a little bit and lost a little bit of grip which allowed Goodyear to bring a little softer tire.”


5. Ryan Blaney tries to join father in first Sprint Cup race
It may be Mother’s Day weekend, but Ryan Blaney hopes he has plans with his father in Kansas.

Ryan, the son of longtime Sprint Cup veteran Dave Blaney, is entered in Saturday night’s race with Penske Racing’s No. 12 Ford. His father is also trying to make the show with Randy Humphrey’s No. 77 Ford. Should Dave make the field, it would mark just his third start of 2014.

The Blaneys would join some cool company by taking the green flag together. The last father-son combo to race in NASCAR’s top division was Bobby Hamilton and Bobby Hamilton Jr. in 2005. Other families that once featured father racing son in Cup include the likes of the Earnhardts (Dale Sr., Dale Jr. and Kerry), the Allisons (Bobby, Clifford and Davey), the Pettys (Lee, Richard, Kyle and Adam) and the Bakers (Buck and Buddy).


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Kansas and Busch photos by Action Sports, Inc.; Roof cam by SEM

 

Teaser:
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, a new roof cam, a new night race, Kurt Busch’s Double, Goodyear tires and the Family Blaney kick off a weekend of racing at Kansas Speedway.
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 13:39
Path: /craziest-moments-2014-nfl-draft-first-round
Body:

From the moment Roger Goodell was first booed, the 2014 NFL Draft was everything fans expected and/or didn’t expect. As usual, trades, tears and tacky suits dominated the first round. But there were a few wild and crazy moments of note from the NFL’s prime time must-see Thursday night TV reality show.


Johnny Football’s long fall
Even Jerry Jones passed on Johnny Manziel, who fell all the way down the board to the Cleveland Browns at No. 22 overall — the exact same spot mistakes by the lake were made on quarterbacks Brandon Weeden (2012) and Brady Quinn (2007) not so long ago. But Johnny Dawg Pound is a different breed; he’s planning to make “taking the Browns to the Super Bowl” more than just a euphemism.


Jon Gruden commentary
ESPN’s crew of booming blow-hard Chris Berman, “Who the hell is” Mel Kiper and first-time long-time Ray Lewis wouldn’t have been the same without the many faces of Jon Gruden, whose love affair with Johnny Laceless Football was in full bloom on draft night. Even Frank Caliendo couldn’t do justice to Chucky’s performance, which gave the simulcast edge to ESPN over NFL Network — which was highlighted by Marshall Faulk’s oversized bowtie.


Blake Bortles’ girlfriend
Were ESPN and NFL Network in cahoots? Why was the lovely Lindsey Duke not given more airtime? After all, her man Blake Bortles was the No. 3 overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team down the road from the University of Central Florida. Instead of Duke, it was Taylor Lewan’s mom who showed off some MILF cleavage while her son rocked a Macklemore-inspired hairdo.


Sammy Watkins’ selfie
The Buffalo Bills splashed the hot-wing sauce by trading up from the No. 9 overall pick to the No. 4 spot — trading away their 2015 first- and fourth-rounders in order to secure Clemson playmaker Sammy Watkins. The top wideout in the draft was also the top Instagram man, pulling a Chain Smokers move by taking a selfie after his bro-bear-hug with Commissioner Goodell.


Browns’ Draft Day drama
Kevin Costner did it again. First, he bamboozled Buffalo for future picks. Then, he moved the Browns up from No. 26 overall to No. 22, beating the Minnesota Vikings to the spot to take Johnny Manziel. Wait? It wasn’t Costner? It was first-year GM Ray Farmer doing what embattled owner Jimmy Haslam wanted — or was told by a homeless man to do, according to our pal Sal Paolantonio. Either way, Cleveland rocked the draft, if not the box office. As Johnny's OVO would say, "YOLO."
 

Teaser:
Johnny Manziel falling to the Cleveland Browns was just one of shockers of Thursday night.
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 13:37
All taxonomy terms: SEC, College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/ranking-matchups-2014-sec-big-12-challenge
Body:

The SEC-Big 12 Challenge doesn’t have the long-standing status of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but at least in 2014, the event could match in marquee games.

We had a hard time picking between Texas-Kentucky and Florida-Kansas as the top game in the event. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. This will be an excellent double header featuring potentially four top-10 teams early in the season. Both are can’t-miss games.

Those are the key matchups, but the some of the others offer compelling reasons to watch in December. Here are all of them, ranked.

1. Texas at Kentucky (Dec. 5)
Expect a battle of big men with freshman Myles Turner joining Cameron Ridley at Texas to face Kentucky’s massive front line that includes Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles and Karl Towns. The Longhorns can make an early statement as a top 10 team that returns everyone from last year’s squad.

2. Florida at Kansas (Dec. 5)
Both teams have heavy personnel losses but plenty of reasons to believe they can contend in 2014-15. Florida had two McDonald’s All-Americans waiting their turn in Kasey Hill and Chris Walker plus a handful of transfers. Kansas expects Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden to take over while adding elite freshman forward Cliff Alexander.

3. Arkansas at Iowa State (Dec. 4)
Is Arkansas ready to turn the corner to become an NCAA Tournament team? Mike Anderson has his top three scorers back from a team that finally learned how to win on the road. This will be a tough one against a preseason top 25 team.

4. LSU at West Virginia (Dec. 4)
Shouldn’t we expect more out of both programs? LSU lost Johnny O’Bryant to the draft but has highly touted recruits Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin who are now veterans. West Virginia will return high-scoring point guard Juwan Staten, but fellow guard Eron Harris left via transfer.

5. Kansas State at Tennessee (Dec. 6)
New Volunteers coach Donnie Tyndall has to figure out how to fill his roster before worrying about Kansas State, which will be led by the sophomore backcourt of Marcus Foster and Jevon Thomas.

6. Baylor at Vanderbilt (Dec. 4)
Expectations won’t be high for Baylor next season as the Bears lose Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Isaiah Austin. Vanderbilt is just treading water in the middle of the SEC.

7. Missouri at Oklahoma (Dec. 5)
Missouri is starting from scratch with a coach new to Division I (Kim Anderson) and a a roster without its top three scorers. Oklahoma will be as solid as you’d come to expect from a Lon Kruger team.

8. Oklahoma State at South Carolina (Dec. 6)
The big three for Oklahoma State is down to Le’Bryan Nash. This could be a chance for an early season statement for a Gamecocks team led by exciting sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell.

9. Auburn at Texas Tech (Dec. 3)
If anything, this will be an interesting coaching matchup between Bruce Pearl and Tubby Smith.

10. TCU at Ole Miss (Dec. 4)
Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers were Ole Miss’ only double-figure scorers last season. Only Summers returns.
 

Teaser:
Ranking the Matchups in the 2014 SEC-Big 12 Challenge
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 13:15
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-may-9-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 9.

Another day of the NFL Draft, another Draft WAG slideshow. This one includes Kyndal Kaire, linked to newly minted Brown Johnny Manziel.

• No surprise here - the Draft was a ratings bonanza, peaking when the Cowboys were on the clock.

Browns fans finally got in a little well-deserved gloating last night.

• Of course, the Browns managed to poop a little on their special night thanks to nuggets like this one from Sal Paolantonio.

The many faces of Johnny Football.

Sammie Watkins took a selfie with Roger Goodell. Or did he?

• Note to teams spending high picks on wide receivers: They're prone to insane behavior.

Barry Sanders reminded us again last night that he was too short for the NFL.

One more disturbing fact about man-centaur Alex Rodriguez has emerged.

Reggie Bush's LA mansion — with features like glass floors and an elevator — is on the market.

A handy list of draftee walk-up music. An awful lot of Drake there.

• Inspirational video of the day. Prepare for chills and/or tears.

 

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 10:50
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/2014-nfl-draft-day-twos-best-available-prospects
Body:

The first round of the 2014 NFL Draft is in the books. The action was furious and unpredictable and extremely entertaining for fans. Johnny Manziel is now a Brown after Cleveland finally took the Texas A&M quarterback with their third trade of the first round. Jadeveon Clowney will be playing in Houston as many expected. And the Rams landed two elite line of scrimmage prospects in Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald.

But while fans fawn over their favorite new player, NFL front offices are working feverishly to find the middle-round gems. In fact, this is where most NFL teams are built — with quality second- and third-round selections. Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl signal-callers can be found on Day Two of the NFL Draft and 2014 won't be any different — just ask the Lions how good Larry Warford was as a rookie.

Here are Athlon Sports best available players left on the board after the first round was finished on Thursday evening.

Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt (6-3, 214)
The most productive wideout in SEC history isn't the most explosive, but no other player at his position can match his intangibles. He has great size and every defense knew he was going to get the ball and still couldn't stop him. While he doesn't have burst and won't make people miss after the catch, he does have solid straight-line speed that builds as he goes. J-Matt is a great locker room guy who will help any team win games.

Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota (6-6, 310)
There is some off-field focus issues to deal with but his blend of size and athleticism is extremely rare. He also helped the Gophers produce their best season in quite some time as he stuffed the middle against some of the best running games in the nation. There is no replacement for his size.

Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State (6-3, 220)
When Penn State needed a big play down the field, it turned to Robinson and he never let them down. He has a huge frame, excellent ball skills and produced huge numbers that no other Nittany Lion has ever matched. He is a game-ready prospect who shouldn't need too much development to see snaps.

Marqise Lee, WR, USC (6-0, 192)
Speed was a huge part of his game and it helped him set several school and Pac-12 records two seasons ago. He had to deal with some nagging injuries and a new quarterback — as well as three different head coaches — and that might have led to his numbers dropping in 2013. He has the talent to produce in a big way and should make a quick impact.

Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State (6-3, 336)
Like Kentucky’s Larry Warford before him, Jackson has consistently been recognized as one of the SEC’s best blockers for years. He was a three-time All-SEC selection in some shape or form and played on the only Mississippi State team that went to four straight bowl games. He isn’t tall but is plenty wide and will be a regular in the NFL for the next decade.

Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA (6-4, 307)
He took a two-year break for a Mormon mission but was an instant contributor for the Bruins both before and after his break. He isn't a massive prospect but he has great athletic ability and should be able to play multiple positions if needed. 

Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU (6-0, 233)
I’ve already written about Hill plenty here and he may move too quickly up draft boards by the time the second round rolls around. But there is a chance he’s the best back in the class. He has workhorse size, power and toughness and only carried 345 times in two college seasons so there is plenty of tread left on the tires. Hill has a chance to be an extremely good player over the next 4-5 years.

Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (5-9, 207)
Carey touched the ball over 700 times in the last two seasons, racking up over 4,200 yards and scoring 44 times. That is production. He isn’t afraid of contact, will catch passes, picks up the blitz and is durable. Other than one small off-the-field distraction during his sophomore offseason, there is no downside to the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American.

Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State (6-1, 303)
Sutton is the first player in the Pac-12 to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors since Steve Emtman in 1990-91. He has played multiple positions at multiple weights and is a leader in the huddle and on the practice field for a team that has won 18 games over the last two seasons and posted the best record in the conference. Sutton is a bit undersized but he is extremely disruptive behind the line of scrimmage — so say his 45.5 tackles for a loss and 20.5 sacks.

Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford (6-5, 250)
Cut from the DeMarcus Ware cloth, Murphy is a perfect hybrid end/linebacker outside rusher. He posted 25.0 sacks and 41.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons for a defense that was among the best in the nation. He won two Pac-12 titles during those two years as well. He also showed his athletic ability by returning both career interceptions for touchdowns (40 and 30 yards).

Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech (6-3, 252)
This doesn’t appear to be a very deep class of outside linebackers — hybrids or true 4-3 players. Attaochu is a true pass-rusher from the OLB position and would fit into a 3-4 very well as a third-down specialist to begin his career. The Yellow Jacket prospect is long and rangy and can get to the quarterback as his 31.5 career sacks (22.5 in the last two years) and 43.5 tackles for a loss indicate.

Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State (5-8, 185)
He is a veteran, a leader and a champion. Joyner is a bit undersized but he can play all over the defense and is a physical player despite his overall lack of bulk and power. He is quick, aggressive and simply makes plays — he posted 5.5 sacks as a senior from his defensive back position. Look for coordinators to use him all over the field on the next level.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, DB, Nebraska (6-3, 218)
Size is the first thing that comes to mind with the Nebraska defensive back. He has a massive frame and could easily slide into a role at safety at the back end of an NFL defense. He led his team in interceptions as a senior and should continue to flourish on the next level with his rare blend of size, speed and athleticism.

Kony Ealy, DL, Missouri (6-4, 273)
The big defensive lineman has excellent up-the-field ability and can move around the line if needed. He took Mizzou to new levels as SEC East champs alongside Michael Sam and has the talent to produce on the next level. The only thing that kept him from a first-round grade is the tweener status that comes with a player who can play both end or tackle.

Teaser:
2014 NFL Draft: Day Two's Best Available Prospects
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 07:20
Path: /college-football/baylor-or-oklahoma-who-wins-big-12-2014
Body:

Baylor’s climb to the top of the Big 12 continued last season with an 11-2 final record and a conference championship. The Bears lost in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF, but there’s clearly staying power with Art Briles at the controls in Waco. Baylor has a few holes to fill in 2014, but quarterback Bryce Petty is back after throwing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last year.

In addition to Petty’s return, the Bears are loaded at the skill positions with talent, including running back Shock Linwood and receiver Antwan Goodley. The offensive line has question marks but getting left tackle Spencer Drango back to full strength after a back injury will be huge for the play in the trenches.

There’s no doubt Baylor’s recruiting and overall roster have improved in recent years. But with only eight returning starters, can the Bears hold off Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas for the top spot in the conference?

Oklahoma finished in a three-way tie for second last season and closed the year on a high note by beating Oklahoma State in Stillwater and defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

After finishing 11-2 in 2013, Oklahoma is loaded for a run at the Big 12 title. The Sooners return 16 starters, including a rising star at quarterback. Bob Stoops’ team also has an edge in the schedule, as Baylor visits Norman in 2014.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
 

Baylor or Oklahoma: Who Wins the Big 12 in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Although Baylor returns the Big 12’s top quarterback and is the defending conference champion, I like Oklahoma to win the league title in 2014. In what was essentially a rebuilding year in 2013, the Sooners went 11-2 and capped the season with a huge win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, we can’t read too much into bowl results, but Oklahoma is loaded for a run at a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. The defense returns nine starters, with the defensive line and linebacking corps poised to be among the best in the nation. Linebacker Eric Striker is a difference maker in the front seven, and cornerback Zack Sanchez is also poised for a big season after starting 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2013. Although Trevor Knight still has plenty to prove, and the receiving corps loses standout receiver Jalen Saunders, there’s reason to believe the offense will be improved in 2014. Knight’s performance against Alabama was impressive, but his output against Kansas State (253 total yards, two scores) shouldn’t be overlooked. Knight may have to carry the offense early in the season, especially as Oklahoma looks for a No. 1 running back. Bob Stoops isn’t hurting for options, including potential breakout stars in Keith Ford, Joe Mixon and Alex Ross. In addition to having few weaknesses on the depth chart, the Sooners’ schedule is very favorable. Oklahoma hosts Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State and doesn’t have a tough non-conference game. I still think Baylor is among the top 10-15 teams in the nation, but I would take the Sooners to win the Big 12 and finish among the top-five teams in college football at the end of 2014.

Allen Kenney, (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Baylor's rise to the top of the Big 12 may have caught most observers around the country off guard, but it didn't happen overnight. Art Briles has steadily built up his program by turning over rocks in Texas and finding speedy offensive playmakers to suit his version of basketball on grass. What set the 2013 team apart was its veteran defense, which was better than just "good for Baylor." Statistically, it was easily the best Briles has had, and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's aggressive philosophy complemented the uptempo O.

While the Bears have talented skill players in place to replace departed standouts such as Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, they don't have the same depth on D. Four of their top six tacklers for a year ago have departed, including tackling machine Eddie Lackey linebacker and stars of the secondary Ahmad Dixon and Sam Holl. Despite having some studs up front, those losses are going to hurt.

On the other hand, the Sooners have the most complete team in the conference. The D is stout in the front seven, and Bob Stoops' staff has recruited well enough in the secondary to plug in promising youngsters at safety and cornerback make up for the departures of Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin. Offensively, the team's true Achilles' heel from '13, quarterback, now looks settled. OU did take some hits at receiver through graduation, although sensation junior Sterling Shepard should be able to carry that unit.

Most importantly, the schedule breaks decidedly in OU's favor. The Sooners catch Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home to go along with the annual trip to Dallas to face Texas. Meanwhile, in addition to going to Norman, Baylor also has a trip to Austin on deck. Even if the margin between the two squads proves to be thin, that gives OU the edge.

Mark Ross
Baylor is the defending Big 12 champion, has loads of offensive firepower returning and is enjoying the best stretch of sustained success in program history. However, I'm going to take Oklahoma to unseat the Bears this season, as the Sooners return 16 starters from a team that won 11 games in 2013, the last one a convincing victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Whether Big Game Bob is truly back remains to be seen, but Stoops should be in position to win a bunch of games this fall thanks to the emergence of dual-threat quarterback Trevor Knight and a loaded defense that finished top 20 nationally last season and welcomes back all but two starters. Baylor will score plenty of points once again with reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty back at quarterback and a bevy of athletic, dynamic and explosive pass-catchers, but the offensive line must replace three starters and, more importantly, the defense returns just four starters. Although recruiting has certainly picked up since Art Briles came to Waco, Baylor still falls behind Oklahoma in this department, which makes replacing five all-conference defenders a tougher task for the Bears. What's more, Baylor has to face both Texas and Oklahoma on the road, while the Sooners' toughest conference road game looks to be at TCU, not including the Red River Showdown date with the Longhorns in Dallas. Baylor demolished Oklahoma 41-12 last season in Waco on it way to its first outright conference crown since 1980, but I am picking the Sooners to reign supreme in the Big 12 in 2014.

Teaser:
Baylor or Oklahoma: Who Wins the Big 12 in 2014?
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Basketball, Big Ten, News
Path: /college-basketball/ranking-matchups-2014-acc-big-ten-challenge
Body:

Never mind that the games won’t occur for another seven months. Three of the teams involved in the ACC-Big Ten challenge aren’t even officially in their new leagues.

If, in some way, Virginia and Maryland played a basketball game today, they would meet in an ACC league game. By December, it’s a non-conference showcase. Louisville officially joins the ACC on July 1. Same for Rutgers and Maryland in the Big Ten.

Either way, we can start looking forward to the key games, particularly the marquee game in the 2014 edition of the challenge between Duke and Wisconsin. The Blue Devils take their star-studded freshman class into Madison to face a team that returns all but one key player from a Final Four team.

That won’t be the only key matchup. Here are all of them ranked.

1. Duke at Wisconsin (Dec. 3)
This may be the top non-conference game of the year as both will be in the preseason top five. All eyes will be on potential All-America freshman Jahlil Okafor, a superstar prospect and a traditional center for Duke, and NCAA Tournament standout Frank Kaminsky, who is not a a traditional center for the Badgers.

2. Ohio State at Louisville (Dec. 2)
Two traditional powers must replace invaluable seniors — Aaron Craft for Ohio State and Russ Smith for Louisville. The Buckeyes’ Shannon Scott and the Cardinals’ Chris Jones step into the spotlight, but at least Jones can feed the ball to center Montrezl Harrell.

3. Syracuse at Michigan (Dec. 2)
These won’t be the teams you saw for most of last season. Syracuse and Michigan were decimated by NBA Draft early entries, perhaps more than Jim Boeheim and John Beilein expected.

4. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
The Spartans are rebuilding around Branden Dawson while Notre Dame looks to put a losing season in the rearview mirror. The Irish get Jerian Grant back after he missed most of last season to an academic issue.

5. Iowa at North Carolina (Dec. 2)
The Tar Heels will be one of the top teams in the ACC in the preseason while the Hawkeyes may take a step back without Roy Devyn Marble. This could be a mismatch at this stage of the season.

6. Pittsburgh at Indiana (Dec. 2)
Neither team will show up in many preseason top 25 countdowns after Pitt enters 2014-15 without Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna and Indiana heads into the year without Noah Vonleh and Will Sheehey. Both teams are relying on veteran point guards (Cameron Wright and Yogi Ferrell) to shepherd these squads early in the year.

7. Nebraska at Florida State (Dec. 1)
Perhaps Nebraska deserved a better matchup than Florida State after reaching the rare NCAA Tournament last season. The Seminoles, though, could be a tough out in Tallahassee even without Ian Miller and Okaro White.

8. Minnesota at Wake Forest (Dec. 2)
Richard Pitino takes the NIT champions on an interesting road trip against a junior-laden Wake Forest team under first-year coach Danny Manning.

9. Virginia at Maryland (Dec. 2)
Yes, that’s a meeting between two charter ACC members in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Virginia will be on the fringe of the top 10 after winning the league while Maryland is facing questions with four recent transfers, including point guard Seth Allen.

10. Illinois at Miami (Dec. 2)
Thanks to a handful of newcomers, Illinois and Miami are both looking to rebound after they missed the NCAA Tournament last season. The Illini add two transfers (Ahmad Starks from Oregon State and Aaron Cosby from Seton Hall) while the Hurricanes get Angel Rodriguez eligible from Kansas State.

11. NC State at Purdue (Dec. 2)
The Wolfpack faces an early road trip, adding Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey stepping into the shoes of T.J. Warren in a backcourt with Anthony Barber. Purdue is still in rebuilding mode after going 5-13 in the Big Ten last season.

12. Georgia Tech at Northwestern (Dec. 3)
A former ACC assistant is coaching the Big Ten team (Chris Collins), and a former Big Ten assistant (Brian Gregory) is coaching the ACC team. It will be a long time before either takes on their former employers (Michigan State and Duke) in the conference challenge.

13. Virginia Tech at Penn State (Dec. 3)
Virginia Tech has Buzz Williams. Penn State has D.J. Newbill. That’s a little interesting.

14. Rutgers at Clemson (Dec. 1)
Maryland draws Virginia while fellow newcomer draws a Clemson team without K.J. McDaniels.

Teaser:
Ranking the Matchups in the 2014 ACC-Big Ten Challenge
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/larry-johnsons-move-ohio-state-spices-big-ten-recruiting
Body:

Larry Johnson says he hasn’t inadvertently introduced himself as “Larry Johnson from Penn State” since he landed at Ohio State on Jan. 14. That said, he’s still adjusting to referring to Michigan as the pejorative “team up north.”

But if Johnson caught himself, in passing, uttering Penn State as part of his title, could anyone blame him?

Before January, Penn State had been the only collegiate employer Johnson had known. For nearly 20 years, Johnson introduced himself as a Penn State assistant to recruits and high school coaches up and down the mid-Atlantic and through Pennsylvania.

“I try hard not to do that,” Johnson said while on the road recruiting for Ohio State in Connecticut in recent weeks. “It’s easy to do, but I’ve been pretty good.”

In the last month, Johnson has patrolled the same recruiting area he ruled at Penn State, now in scarlet and gray. His departure from Penn State to Ohio State in January could emerge as one of the most important assistant coach moves through the entire college football calendar.

"If you know about the East you know about Larry Johnson."
-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer
He’s a proven line coach taking over the strength of the Ohio State defense, and by national signing day, he may be in the middle of one of what is now one of the most competitive recruiting locales in the Big Ten.

“If you know about the East you know about Larry Johnson,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.

Johnson won’t be alone in aggressively recruiting Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, the Northeast and Washington, D.C., for Big Ten territories.

New Penn State coach James Franklin, who offered Johnson spot on his first staff, has vowed to own not just Pennsylvania in recruiting, but Maryland and New Jersey as well. His staff has already picked up four top-100 commitments from the region for 2015.

Meanwhile, new Big Ten member Maryland has been able to protect its home turf since 2012 with the return of Mike Locksley, now offensive coordinator. After landing the top two prospects in the state of Maryland, Locksley was 247Sports’ top recruiter in the Big Ten in 2014, followed by four Ohio State assistants.

And in 2012, 247Sports named Johnson and Locksley two of the top 10 recruiters in the Big Ten for that year’s recruiting cycle, quite the feat considering Penn State at that time had just begun its NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Maryland was coming off a 2-10 season.

Despite all the accolades and expectations for Locksley and the new Penn State staff, few have been more effective recruiting this region of the country than Johnson was at Penn State.

He was Rivals.com’s national recruiter of the year for the 2005-06 cycle. His haul that year included NaVorro Bowman from Suitland, Md., Aaron Maybin from Ellicot City, Md., and Jared Odrick from Lebanon, Pa. All three were first-round picks. A year earlier, Johnson helped Penn State land national No. 1 recruit Derrick Williams from Greenbelt, Md.

In a 2011 ranking, Rivals named Johnson the No. 5 recruiter of the previous decade.

He was the only coach in the top five never to land a head coaching gig, which leads us to why he’s at Ohio State rather than Penn State. (In the end, the track record of elite recruiters-turned-head coaches is checkered. Three of the four recruiters listed ahead of him were fired from their head coaching jobs in less than five years — Larry Porter at Memphis, Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and Tim Brewster at Minnesota. The fourth, Jimbo Fisher, just won the national title.)

Johnson twice interviewed for the head coaching position at Penn State, once to replace Joe Paterno and again to replace Bill O’Brien. Ironically, O’Brien opened the door for Johnson to defect to the border rival. O’Brien hired Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel to coach linebackers with the Texans, opening a spot on the Meyer’s staff for a line coach and ace recruiter.

Johnson checked both boxes.

“Larry just fits right in where everyone on the staff is hard-working recruiter,” 247Sports Director of Recruiting Steve Wiltfong said. “Where he was at, there were times where he was on a coaching staff where not everyone was excited about recruiting as he was.”

That sets up two traditional Big Ten powers (Ohio State and Penn State) and one star recruiter (Locksley) competing for prospects in the talent-rich area of Maryland, D.C., North Carolina, Pennsylvania and the Northeast. And two of these coaches have good reason to recruit with an edge — Johnson was twice passed up for the Penn State job, Franklin was once Maryland’s coach-in-waiting before a new athletic director reversed course.

Ohio State rarely dipped into these areas in recent years, but Johnson gives Meyer instant credibility to cast his recruiting net East.

“Everyone is recruiting those states,” Johnson said. “There are outstanding players here. The area is saturated with good coaches. The ACC is there, the Big Ten is there. That’s a good sign because it means you’re on the right guy.”

Near the end of his Penn State tenure, Johnson was on the right recruits, but the instability in Happy Valley meant he had trouble landing all of them. Now, he’ll have a chance to coach them at Ohio State.

For the Nittany Lions, he recruited linemen Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Tommy Schutt. All picked Ohio State. Schutt had been a Penn State commitment before switching to Ohio State. Spence was a five-star prospect from Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt who opted for the Buckeyes.

Even though he’s on the same field with players who spurned Penn State years ago, Johnson said there’s no hard feelings.

“I never really get upset at things like that,” Johnson said. “They have a right to change their minds. It’s got to be a fit for them. Your chance to be successful is where you’re a good fit.”

Besides, Johnson’s job — other than reeling in top recruits — is to prepare a line that will be the anchor of the defense. Spence and Bosa at end and Michael Bennett at tackle combined for 39 tackles for a loss last season.

With a secondary that struggled last season and a linebacker group that will miss Ryan Shazier, the line has to set the tone, and Johnson intends to do that with an active eight-man rotation.

To do that, Johnson kept his players in constant movement in spring practice. Meyer said his linemen were as active as any group he’s had.

“The way he runs his drills, non-stop movement, some drills are long, some drills are short,” Bennett said. “It gets you ready for hurry up, going back and forth from sidelines. You’ve done it again, again and again. Your body is ready for it.”

The movement may be normal for Johnson, but it was a change of pace at Ohio State during the spring.

In other words, what was old hat for Johnson is new again.

“At the end of the day, sometimes you have to move forward,” Johnson said. “I will never forget where I started. I will never do that.”

His present, though, may be far more interesting.

Teaser:
Larry Johnson's Move to Ohio State Spices Up Big Ten Recruiting
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/2014-nfl-draft-first-round-numbers-colleges-and-conferences
Body:

The 2014 NFL Draft first round took a few twists and turns but ended up where many projected it to be (with Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater in the first round) and with the same big winner from a college perspective (the SEC).

Jadeveon Clowney, subject of the dissection that comes with any high draft pick, was the No. 1 overall pick, the same spot he seemed destined for after his sophomore season.

Clowney was the SEC’s fourth No. 1 overall pick since 2007, and the first non-quarterback during that run (Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and JaMarcus Russell were the others).

As usual, he was just the start for the league, as the SEC had double-digit first-round picks again. The final pick of the first round, however, signaled one of the major winners with Teddy Bridgewater representing the third first-round pick from the newest team in the ACC.

11. First-round picks from the SEC
Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Draft Day is the SEC’s day. The league produced 11 first-round picks. That’s three more than any other league, and that’s counting Louisville in the ACC’s tally. If Louisville’s first-round delegation is counted for the American, it’s a different story:

 


64. First-round picks from SEC schools since 2009
The SEC has more than double the first-round picks of any conference in the last five drafts, using the 2014 alignments. That’s more than the next two leagues, the ACC and Big Ten, combined. The major conferences shake out like this since 2009:
64 SEC
31 ACC
26 Big Ten
25 Big 12
22 Pac-12

0. Top 10 picks from Alabama
Alabama had to wait until C.J. Mosley went to the Ravens at No. 17 to celebrate, the longest wait for Nick Saban since 2008. Without a top 10 pick in 2014, Alabama from 2009-13 merely tied USC from 1993-97 for five consecutive years with a top 10 pick.

1. No. 1 overall pick for Steve Spurrier
Spurrier has won a Heisman Trophy, coached a Heisman winner, won a national championships and revived three college football programs. One thing he never did until Thursday was coach a No. 1 overall draft pick. Perhaps unexpectedly, Spurrier’s top three draft picks are all defensive linemen: Clowney, Florida’s Gerard Warren (No. 3 in 2001) and Florida’s Kevin Carter (No. 6 in 1995)

3. First-round picks from Louisville
Two notes from Louisville: First, the Cardinals had no draft picks a year ago. Second, two players were selected before quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and the Minnesota Vikings had to trade back into the first round to get him. The former wasn’t too much of a surprise since few Cardinals were draft eligible after 2012. The latter, though, was a little more of a shocker for anyone who watched the season. Still, three first-round picks tied Texas A&M for most first-round draft picks. Maybe Louisville will find a way to thrive in the ACC.

3. First-round picks from Texas A&M
At one point, Texas A&M realistically could have had three consecutive picks in the top 10 when offensive tackle Jake Matthews went sixth to the Falcons and wide receiver Mike Evans went seventh to the Buccaneers. Quarterback Johnny Manziel didn’t go to Cleveland with the eighth pick, but he ended up there anyway at No. 22. That gave the Aggies’ offense three first-round picks, the most of any team in the SEC.

4. Players who tied or became their school’s highest draft pick in the first five selections
South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney matched 1980 Heisman winner George Rogers as a No. 1 overall pick. Jacksonville made No. 3 pick Blake Bortles UCF’s second first-round pick after fellow quarterback Daunte Culpepper went 11th overall in 1999. Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins went third overall to Buffalo, one spot higher than defensive end Gaines Adams in 2007 and running back Banks McFadden in 1940. Khalil Mack, the fifth overall pick, wasn’t just Buffalo’s highest pick in school history. He was the Bulls’ first pick in the first or second rounds.

2. Top-five picks from the MAC
MACtion, indeed. Mack joined Central Michigan offensive tackle, the No. 1 overall pick last year, as top-five picks from the MAC in the last two drafts. Quite impressive, especially since Central Michigan and Buffalo aren’t flagship programs for the league.

8. First-round picks from Florida high schools, most from any state
And the most surprising part is that only two of them played in state. Oviedo quarterback Blake Bortles stayed local with UCF, and Glades Central wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went to Florida State. The others went to college out of state: Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins (South Fort Myers), Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack (Fort Pierce Westwood), Louisville safety Calvin Pryor (Port St. Joe), Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier (Plantation), Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Orlando Dr. Phillips) and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami Northwestern).

6. Consecutive years without a top 10 pick for the Big Ten
The last top 10 pick to play in the Big Ten was No. 1 overall pick Jake Long from Michigan in 2008. The forthcoming Big Ten alignment has produced two top 10 picks since then — Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2010 and Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey — but that’s still a troubling number from a maligned major conference.

Teaser:
The 2014 NFL Draft First Round by the Numbers: Colleges and Conferences
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/byu-unveils-alternate-home-uniforms-2014
Body:

With a favorable schedule, 2014 could be a big season for BYU. The Cougars could go 10-2 or 11-1, which would place Bronco Mendenhall’s team in the discussion to be a top-25 team in 2014.

And BYU plans to change up its home uniforms for 2014, wearing four different variations, including royal blue, black and white.

Here’s a look at BYU’s home jerseys for 2014 (all images from BYUCougars.com):






 

Teaser:
BYU Unveils Alternate Home Uniforms for 2014
Post date: Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 16:28
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-may-8-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 8.

Beach volleyball is a combination of some of the best things in life. See if you don't agree.

• Inevitable, but still amusing: A fan taunted Jameis Winston with crab legs.

Tonight's draftees will get their choice of walk-up music. Where was Roger Goodell when this was approved?

• This seems right: The later NFL Draft has given scouts and teams time to get dumber.

Interesting chart of search trends heading into the Draft.

Johnny Football to the Cowboys is almost too delicious to contemplate.

Kevin Durant had an MVP-worthy flop last night. He even got air.

Yasiel Puig bat-flipped on a routine fly ball. Don't ever change, Yasiel.

A piece of outfield wall fell on Alex Gordon's head. Nice park you got there, Padres.

Some lady treated the Mariners game like her own personal art project.

Speaking of the Mariners, one of their affiliate clubs came back from a 16-run deficit.

• Goal of the night: Evgeni Malkin's spinning no-look job.

 

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 10:58
Path: /college-football/top-10-tight-ends-bcs-era
Body:

Athlon Sports continues its series looking back the best players of the BCS Era (1998-2013). Today, the staff ranks the 10 best tight ends to play at least one season during the BCS Era.

Note: Florida's Aaron Hernandez was No. 5 initially but has been removed from the rankings by choice.

1. Chase Coffman, Missouri (2005-08)
Stats: 247 rec., 2,659 yds, 30 TDs

It didn’t take long for Tigers fans to see what they had in Coffman as he earned first-team Freshman All-American honors in 2005. He then broke Mizzou tight end receiving records with 58 receptions, 638 yards and nine touchdowns as just a sophomore. After two straight All-Big 12 seasons, Coffman claimed the John Mackey Award as a senior as the nation’s top tight end after posting 90 receptions, 987 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008. Missouri went 22-6 over his final two seasons in what many believe to be the best two-year run in program history. And the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Coffman was a huge part of that success.

2. Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma (2006-09)
Stats: 111 rec., 1,629 yds, 26 TDs

Had the 6-foot-6, 260-pound star tight end stayed healthy and played his fourth season at Oklahoma, Gresham likely would have been the best player at his position during the BCS era. He scored 25 touchdowns in two seasons as the starter from 2007-08 — just eight shy of the NCAA tight end record (33). His All-American junior season features Sooners' tight end records for yards (950) and touchdowns (14) — one shy of Mark Clayton’s all-time single-season record regardless of position. He was arguably the top playmaker for a Big 12 champion and BCS National Championship runner-up that year as well. His season-ending knee injury prior to the start of his 2009 campaign left those in Norman wondering what could have been.

3. Dallas Clark, Iowa (2000-02)
Stats: 77 rec., 1,251 yds, 8 TDs

The walk-on began his career as a linebacker but quickly developed into a star at tight end. He earned All-Big Ten recognition as a sophomore and then became the nation’s top tight end as a junior in 2002. The John Mackey Award winner caught 43 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns while helping Iowa (11-2) to a Big Ten co-championship and Orange Bowl berth. The dynamic in-state talent was a first-round pick and proved in the NFL that his college career was no fluke.

4. Heath Miller, Virginia (2002-04)
Stats: 144 rec., 1,703 yds, 20 TDs

Perhaps the greatest tight end in ACC history, Miller became the first player in league history to win the John Mackey Award in 2004. He wrote his name into the school and conference record books for receiving by a tight end, setting a new benchmark in all three major receiving categories despite only playing three seasons. However, it wasn’t just his elite receiving ability that made the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder one of the game’s best. Miller relished the blocking side of the game and his physicality and dependability is what has made the consensus All-American one of the NFL’s best tight ends for the last decade.

5. Marcedes Lewis, UCLA (2002-05)
Stats: 126 rec., 1,571 yds, 21 TDs

The red-zone touchdown machine improved his production each of his four seasons at UCLA, culminating with All-American and John Mackey honors as a senior in 2005. He set school records in all three major categories for a tight end that year and helped UCLA to its best record (10-2) since 1998. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound consensus All-American was a matchup nightmare for defenses and was the Pac-10’s best player at his position during the BCS era in a league known for its great tight ends.

6. Jeremy Shockey, Miami (2000-01)
Stats: 61 rec., 815 yds, 10 TDs

The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder was one of the most physically gifted players to ever play the position. He didn’t have the huge stats of other elite players but he was an All-American and helped Miami win the national title in 2001. He was one of three finalists for the Mackey Award before leaving school early to become a first-round NFL Draft pick.

7. Dennis Pitta, BYU (2004, '07-09)
Stats: 221 rec., 2,901 yds, 21 TDs

Few tight ends during the BCS era combine the statistical production, team success and overall NFL talent that Pitta did. He began his career as a freshman in 2004 before taking his Mormon mission and returning in 2007. His teams went 32-7 during his three-year starting career and few tight ends in the history of the sport have topped 200 catches, nearly 3,000 yards or 20 touchdowns — much less all three. He owns nearly every major receiving record at BYU for tight ends and is BYU’s all-time leading receiver with 221 receptions regardless of position. His 2,901 career receiving yards are an NCAA record for tight ends.

8. Travis Beckum, Wisconsin (2005-08)
Stats: 159 rec., 2,149 yds, 11 TDs

From a speed and agility standpoint, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound pass-catcher has few peers. One of the fastest and most dynamic tight ends in BCS history, Beckum switched to tight end as a sophomore and became a second-team All-American in just his first season playing the position. He posted back-to-back 900-yard seasons and saved his best games for the biggest competition (9 rec., 140 yds vs. Ohio State, 10 rec., 132 vs. Michigan State, for example). He was poised to set NCAA records for a tight end until a broken leg in Week 6 ended his college career. At a school known for elite All-American tight ends, Beckum was the most explosive, most talented and most productive.

9. D.J. Williams, Arkansas (2007-10)
Stats: 152 rec., 1,855 yds, 10 TDs

The star Razorback never had an 800-yard season, never caught more than 61 passes and never scored more than four times in a year, but Williams is one of the BCS’s best. His career numbers are excellent and he was extremely dependable for three full seasons for the Hogs. His career culminated in a John Mackey Award in 2010 and helped lead Arkansas to 10 wins and a Sugar Bowl berth.

10. James Casey, Rice (2007-08)
Stats: 157 rec., 1,914 yds, 17 TDs, 362 rush, 11 TDs, 2 TD passes

Affectionately known as “Thor,” no other tight end during the BCS era was as versatile and productive in two seasons as Casey. He didn’t face elite competition, obviously, but no tight end has ever put together a season like Thor did in 2008: 111 rec., 1,329 yards, 13 TDs, 241 yards rushing, 6 TDs, 14 punt returns for 112 yards and even two touchdown passes. He was the No. 1 overall college fantasy player in 2008 regardless of position (yes, that includes quarterbacks) and it has to be considered the best season for a tight end in NCAA history.

Just missed the cut:

11. Kellen Winslow, Miami (2001-03)
Stats: 119 rec., 1,365 yds, 9 TDs

Bizarre post-game interviews aside, Winslow was a monster on the field at Miami. He played a small role on the national championship team in 2001 and was a huge force — 57 rec., 726 yds, 8 TD — on the '02 team that was defeated by Ohio State in the title game. He was a consensus All-American and John Mackey Award winner despite just one touchdown catch in 2003.

12. Martin Rucker, Missouri (2004-07)
Stats: 203 rec., 2,175 yds, 18 TDs

The complementary piece to Coffman at Mizzou was Rucker, a star from St. Joseph’s (Mo.) Benton. Playing three years with Coffman, Rucker is one of the just five tight ends on this list who topped 200 receptions and one of just 10 names on this list with 2,000 yards. He was a consensus All-American and senior leader for a 12-2 Tigers team that finished fourth in the AP poll.

13. Jason Witten, Tennessee (2000-02)
Stats: 68 rec., 797 yds, 7 TDs

The numbers were never huge, but Witten is clearly one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the sport. He never missed a game during his three-year career at Tennessee and helped the Vols to a 27-11 record and an SEC East championship. From a dual-threat (blocking and receiving) perspective, Witten might be the best tight end to play the game during the BCS era.

14. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington (2011-13)
Stats: 146 rec., 1,840 yds, 21 TDs

There is some projecting with ASJ, but he has already broken most school tight end records and will make a push this fall for the John Mackey Award. He was the No. 1 TE recruit in the nation two years ago and is poised for one of the greatest careers in Huskies history.

15. Ron Gronkowski, Arizona (2007-08)
Stats: 75 rec., 1,197 yds, 16 TDs

The Gronk played just 20 career college games but was a touchdown machine in college well before setting NFL tight end touchdown records. Unfortunately, the 'Zona tight end missed all of the 2009 season after preseason back surgery after being named a preseason first-team All-American and the Mackey Award frontrunner.

16. Fred Davis, USC (2004-07)
Stats: 117 rec., 1,408 yds, 13 TDs

It took some time for Davis to develop, especially considering the wide receiver talent asking for the football at USC during his career. But when he made his mark as a senior in 2007 it was as the best tight end in the nation. He won the John Mackey Award that year and was an All-American. He played in two national title games, winning one as a freshman in 2004.

17. Zach Miller, Arizona State (2004-06)
Stats: 144 rec., 1,512 yds, 14 TDs

Miller gets a slight nod over fellow Sun Devil Todd Heap due to slightly better production and All-American recognition. He is the school’s all-time leading receiver at the tight end position and consistently made big plays for his offense. He was one of three Mackey finalists in 2006.

18. Todd Heap, Arizona State (1998-2000)
Stats: 112 rec., 1,658 yds, 10 TDs

Arguing between Miller and Heap is futile. Both were great players and Heap’s NFL career proved his school records were legitimate. The “Golden Retriever” was a two-time All-Pac-10 performer who was as dependable as any player at his position.

19. Dwayne Allen, Clemson (2009-11)
Stats: 93 rec., 1,079 yds, 12 TDs

A consensus All-American, Allen was one of the most clutch performers in the game during his time at Clemson. When the Tigers needed a big play on third down or in the red zone, Allen was the go-to target. He claimed the Mackey Award as a junior, was an All-American and helped Clemson win its first ACC title in two decades in 2010.

20. Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame (2008-10)
Stats: 
90 rec., 1,032 yds, 8 TDs

He missed some time as a sophomore and junior but when he was on the field, he was virtually uncoverable. He was also the first true freshman tight end to start every game as a true freshman. Rudolph went on to be a second round NFL Draft pick in 2011.

21. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame (2010-12)*
22. Daniel Graham, Colorado (1998-2001)
23. Matt Spaeth, Minnesota (2003-06)
24. Vernon Davis, Maryland (2003-05)
25. Tim Stratton, Purdue (1998-2001)
26. Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State (2005-08)
27. Dustin Keller, Purdue (2004-07)
28. Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin (2008-10)
29. Garrett Graham, Wisconsin (2007-09)

30. Ladarius Green, UL-Lafayette (2008-11)

Teaser:
<p> College Football's Top 30 Tight Ends of the BCS Era</p>
Post date: Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/who-leads-pac-12-passing-yards-2014
Body:

The Pac-12 is always home to some of the nation’s top offenses, and the quarterback play in the league should be strong once again in 2014.

Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is one of the favorites to win the Heisman, and big things are expected of Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. Kelly finished with 3,635 yards last season, while Hundley threw for 3,071 yards on 248 completions.

The quarterback play in the Pac-12 is expected to get better this season, as USC’s Cody Kessler, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau will only get better with more snaps. Also, Travis Wilson returns after missing a portion of last year due to injury, and he should benefit from the addition of coordinator Dave Christensen.

Arizona and Washington have unsettled quarterback situations, but it’s likely both teams will find an answer in the fall. Former USC quarterback Jesse Scroggins is considered a slight favorite for the Wildcats, while Cyler Miles – provided he is reinstated to the team – is likely the No. 1 quarterback in Seattle.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
 

Who Leads the Pac-12 in Passing Yards in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Let’s keep in mind when answering this question that this isn’t the best overall quarterback in the conference. That spot is clearly reserved for Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. However, when it comes to leading the conference in passing yards, I suspect the answer to this question is outside of Eugene, Ore. Washington State’s Connor Halliday is my pick to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards in 2014. In 13 games last season, Halliday’s right arm got quite a workout, leading the nation with a whopping 714 attempts. He completed 449 of those throws for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns. Halliday needs to improve his interception total (22), but there’s no doubt the attempts and yards should be there for Washington native. And the senior should have plenty of help from the receiving corps, as Washington State’s group should be among the best in the Pac-12. And after learning for three years under coach Mike Leach, I suspect Halliday’s best is yet to come.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a fantastic question because the best three quarterbacks in the league — Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly — aren't likely to even be in the mix. With pass-happy offenses and returning starters at Cal (Jared Goff), Washington State (Connor Halliday), Colorado (Sefo Liufau) and Oregon State (Sean Mannion), the race to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards should be an entertaining one to track all season. The favorites, however, have to been Halliday and Mannion after both topped 4,500 yards last season. So between the two, I can't pick against a Leach-coached QB, so I will go with Halliday. The Wazzu signal caller led the nation in pass attempts last year (714) and has a deep and talented receiving corps returning around him this fall. With some improved efficiency and another 700 pass attempts, Halliday could be the frontrunner to lead the nation in passing yards in 2014 and is my pick to top the Pac-12 charts.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I can’t go wrong with a Mike Leach quarterback, right? And a Leach quarterback who started last year at that. Connor Halliday has to be the odds-on favorite to lead the Pac-12 in passing. Halliday will have every opportunity to put up huge numbers. His 714 pass attempts last season were 55 more than anyone else last season and more than 100 more than anyone else in the Pac-12. But it’s more than just the fact that Leach has a returning starter at quarterback. Halliday will have nearly all of his receivers back. If there’s one concern it’s the departure of three starting offensive linemen. Now that Leach is three seasons in, I don’t think we can expect a repeat of 2012 when the line was revolving door, but a drop off from last season is certainly possible. That might be enough to open the door for Sean Mannion or Jared Goff, but I’m going to take Halliday on this one.

Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
Who better to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards in 2014 than the quarterback who did so in 2013? Certainly Oregon State's Sean Mannion is a safe pick, coming off a conference record-setting campaign of 4,662 yards.

If Oregon State head coach Mike Riley has his way, however, Mannion will not need to put up such astronomical numbers again. Mannion's production was partially a byproduct of the Beavers' inability to establish a consistent run game. A new offensive coordinator, Terron Ward and Storm Woods back healthy should take some of the burden off Mannion (not to mention the departure of Brandin Cooks).

Conversely, Washington State head coach Mike Leach is just fine with his quarterback throwing all around the field, just about all the time. For that reason, expect Connor Halliday to lead the Pac-12 in 2014. Halliday finally had the reins to himself exclusively in his third year in the program, and he finished just behind Mannion for the league lead with 4,597 yards passing. Were it not for the Cougars' collapse in the final minutes of the New Mexico Bowl, his six touchdowns that afternoon would have been the story.

Halliday has plenty of options with a deep receiving corps of Dom Williams, Gabe Marks, River Cracraft, Isiah Myers...and that's only scratching the surface. The pieces are all in place for Halliday to register some eye-popping numbers.


Mark Ross
The Pac-12 is welcoming back six quarterbacks who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season and a seventh that just missed. The conference has become very offensive, in a good way, and there's little doubt the pigskin will be flying out West this fall. But when it comes to picking a clubhouse leader, I'll bypass the Heisman Trophy candidates (Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley) as well as the Pac-12's leading returning passer (Sean Mannion), a dual-threat Sun Devil (Todd Kelly) and two other Golden State signal-callers (Cody Kessler, Jared Goff). Instead, let's head to Pullman, Wash., where one Connor Halliday serves as the trigger-man for the Washington State offense. While he may not be as heralded as Mariota or Hundley as accomplished as Mannion or hyped as Kessler, Halliday does have the luxury of playing in head coach Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense (emphasis on "Air"). Halliday attempted 714 passes last season, the most of any quarterback in the country. He threw for 4,597 yards, which ranked him just behind Derek Carr and Mannion, and there's no reason to expect anything different this season. All of Halliday's primary targets return and considering Wazzu's defense finished 102nd in the nation in yards allowed, let's just say it's not likely Leach will be looking to control the clock by running the football. In fact, don't be surprised if Halliday posts one of the "quietest" 4,500-plus-yard seasons in college football history.

Teaser:
Who Leads the Pac-12 in Passing Yards in 2014?
Post date: Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/2014-pac-12-rankings-preview-athlon-sports-cover-2-podcast
Body:

We’ve reached the end of our preseason rankings debate with the Pac-12. Oregon and Stanford have ruled this league for four years, but we have a handful of reasons to wonder if that reign can continue.

Washington has a new coach and a new quarterback and may be poised to continue the progress made under Steve Sarkisian. Sark may have a contender of his own at USC, but we discuss how depth — or UCLA — may hinder the Trojans’ Pac-12 title hopes.

But Oregon and Stanford continues to be the favorites as the Athlon staff again debated between the Ducks and Cardinal to win the North and perhaps the Pac-12. We discuss where we leaning on today’s Cover 2.

We also continued a new, not-so-subtle pitch for you to get involved at sponsorus@athlonsports.com. As always, you can reach our hosts at @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or at podcast@athlonsports.com.

Teaser:
2014 Pac-12 Rankings Preview: Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast
Post date: Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/analyzing-top-positional-players-2014-nfl-draft
Body:

The NFL Draft started back in 1936, a time when there was no media coverage and nine rounds of selections.  That year, only 24 of the 81 drafted players opted to sign contracts and play in the National Football League.  The draft has changed dramatically over the past 70-odd years.  Last year, the 1st overall pick, Eric Fisher, signed a five-year contract worth more than $22 million dollars.  He’d have been crazy to turn that down.  Today, the draft is a 3-day event that consists of seven rounds with 32 picks in each.  As significant as the draft’s evolution has been, similar players pop up each and every year.  The top prospects of the 2014 NFL Draft are no different, and we can look to history to show us how they may perform over the rest of their careers.

My No. 1 QB – Blake Bortles (UCF)

What the experts are saying:
The 6’5”, 230-pound quarterback out of the Sunshine State has all of the physical tools that teams look for in a franchise pocket passer.  He’s big, has good mechanics, and is exceptional at evading rushers and extending plays.  He’s also a winner, going 22-5 at UCF and defeating Baylor in the school’s first ever BCS bowl appearance.  But Bortles played in the weak American Athletic Conference and operated largely out of the shotgun.  Stronger competition and more snaps under center may make his transition difficult.  Being an underclassman, he will need some time to develop and would benefit greatly from sitting for a few years behind an experienced quarterback.  If we were evaluating prospects based on the attractiveness of their girlfriends, Bortles may still rank No. 1 (see: Lindsey Duke).

Best Case Scenario:
Jon Gruden sees a little bit of Ben Roethlisberger in Blake Bortles.  Both are big-bodied field commanders who played at mid-majors in the collegiate ranks.  Roethlisberger was drafted 11th overall in 2004, won the award for offensive rookie of the year and became the youngest quarterback ever (at the time) to win a championship at the age of 23.  Roethlisberger currently owns 2 Super Bowl rings and is likely to end up in the NFL Hall of Fame after he retires.  The quarterbacks' size, accuracy, and origin mirror each other closely, but Bortles will need an elite coach and scheme to rival Big Ben’s success.

Worst Case Scenario:
I see a little more of Daunte Culpepper in Bortles.  Culpepper who also played at UCF was the 11th pick in the NFL Draft just like Big Ben.  At 6’4”, 265-pounds, the former Knight shares comparable physical attributes with Bortles.  Unlike Roethlisberger, Culpepper never won a championship and is now unemployed after bouncing around a bunch of teams throughout his career.  He wasn’t necessarily a bust, but without Randy Moss by his side and after a devastating knee injury, Culpepper’s career was largely uneventful.  Christian Ponder is a more recent example that fits Bortles’ mold.  Though not as big in stature as Blake, Ponder has wheels too, rushing adequately throughout his collegiate career.  He was drafted 12th overall, but is widely considered a bust, accounting for more turnovers than touchdowns since he was thrust into the starting lineup for the Vikings in 2011.  Scouts think Bortles has a high ceiling, but if he follows Ponder’s path, that ceiling may come crashing down very quickly. 

My No. 1 RB – Andre Williams (Boston College)

What the experts are saying:
In a draft class that is weak on running backs, Andre Williams might just be the best rusher.  As a senior at Boston College, Williams rushed for 2,177 yards, 18 TDs and finished 4th in Heisman voting.  Among backs, the BC grad had the combine’s best numbers in the areas of broad jump, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle.  Williams was not much of a receiver in college, but he is a workhorse on the ground.  However, many scouts are concerned that Andre is the product of a dominant offensive line.  Williams is a projected 3rd round pick.

Best Case Scenario:
Speed is the biggest question for Andre Williams. Sound familiar?  Earl Campbell lacked the same attribute, running a 4.6 40-yard dash back in 1978.  After winning the Heisman in college, Campbell immediately thrived in the NFL.  In his first year as a pro, Campbell led the league in rushing, was dubbed Rookie of the Year, and also won Offensive Player of the Year.  Earl was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame and is considered one of the best backs of all time.  Allegedly, when the two met at the Heisman award ceremony in 2013, Campbell gave Williams the title of “Little Earl”.  If his efforts take him anywhere near the level of this legend, Williams could be one of the NFL’s most productive backs in no time.

Worst Case Scenario:
Williams is 1 of 16 players to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single collegiate season.  After his senior year, the BC back joined Barry Sanders, Matt Forte, LaDainian Tomlinson, and many other greats in the prestigious 2,000-yard club.  However, Andre is probably closer in skill level to a Kevin Smith (2,567 yards) than he is to Sanders.  Like Smith, Williams will likely fall into the middle rounds because of some understandable doubts about his ability.  Though Smith is a different type of back than Williams, they face similar challenges transitioning to the NFL.  Scouts had doubts about Smith’s involvement in the pass game.  His speed was questioned, though he ran in the 4.4’s consistently at the combine and his pro day.  After playing only 5 years in the NFL, Smith accumulated less yardage (2,338) than he did during his entire junior season at UCF.  Williams would like to last longer than half a decade in the league, but considering the lowering shelf life of NFL running backs nobody would be too surprised if he was a free agent in 2020.

My No. 1 WR – Sammy Watkins (Clemson)

What the experts are saying:
Watkins was the fourth true freshman 1st team All-American in college history, along with Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk, and Adrian Peterson.  Barring injury, Watkins is the biggest sure thing in this draft.  He has world-class speed and is a natural receiver.  Watkins makes the most out of nothing with an incredible ability to make defenders miss after the catch.  He is also explosive in the return game, which is just an added bonus to already solid skill-set.  The only doubts about Sammy are his durability and the possibility that his production may have been a result of Clemson’s pass-heavy system.

Best Case Scenario:
Sammy Watkins could end up being a much better Percy Harvin.  Both players are speed demons that got a good amount of touches behind the line of scrimmage.  Both are incredibly dangerous returners that strike fear in opposing special teams units.  Both are highly susceptible to injury, sitting out many games during their college years because of ankle issues.  Both receivers left college early.  But, where the two differ is in the area of size.  Harvin never really ran over defenders at Florida, something Watkins loves to do.  Watkins is a few inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier than Harvin, which leads one to believe that the Clemson Tiger will be more productive and more durable as a pro.  Harvin’s career is young, but he has fared well in his few years as a professional decoy.  In any type of offense, Watkins has the potential to burn lots of NFL defenses very early in his career.

Worst Case Scenario:
Watkins has drawn comparisons to Donté Stallworth, who last played in the NFL for one game of the 2012 season with the New England Patriots.  Stallworth’s best year was with the New Orleans Saints, when he caught 8 TD’s.  At first glance, the receivers seem identical, with a slight advantage being given to Stallworth. Stallworth ran a 4.22 40, Watkins a 4.43.  Stallworth had a 39-inch vertical, Watkins 34 inches.  But Watkins is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Stallworth was coming out of college.  This could be the determining factor in differentiating the two receivers.  Although, if Watkins turns out to be a Stallworth clone, there will be one unbelievably upset general manager out there.

My No. 1 TE – Eric Ebron (North Carolina)

What the experts are saying:
The tight end needs to develop his blocking skills, but he is exceptionally talented as a receiver.  In 2013, Ebron set the ACC single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 973.  At the college level, Ebron got away with his poor blocking ability.  In order to be an every down tight end at the next level he must get bigger and stronger.  6’4”, 250 might not cut it against the toughest defenders in the NFL.  Recent reports call him inconsistent and an egomaniac.  Still, Ebron runs the fastest 40-yard dash out of all tight ends and is universally regarded as the best athlete at his position.

Best Case Scenario:
Todd McShay believes that Eric Ebron is exactly like Antonio Gates when he was coming out of college.  In fact, he sees Ebron as more polished entering the NFL Draft.  Like Gates, Ebron played basketball in high school and scouts drool over his ability to emulate small forwards athletically.   Gates is 10 pounds heavier but both players stand at 6’4”.  Built primarily as a receiver, Gates has caught 87 touchdowns in his career and was selected as 1st team All-Pro twice.  At 33 years old, Gates is still playing in the NFL and is the 7th tight end in NFL history with more than 500 catches.  In today’s offensive league, Eric Ebron could end up being a lethal pass catcher that brings an immediate impact to any team.

Worst Case Scenario:
Ebron also looks like Kellen Winslow Jr. out of the University of Miami.  Winslow measured close to Ebron, at 6’4”, 251 pounds coming out of school.  The Hurricane was an All-American, a winner of the Mackey Award, and his dad was a former Hall of Fame tight end for the San Diego Chargers.  His draft analysis was essentially the same as Ebron: a “tremendous athlete” lacking “functional football strength” seeing “average results blocking”, and having a reputation as a “high maintenance” prospect (Sports Illustrated).  In 2013, Winslow was arrested for using synthetic marijuana while masturbating in his car in the parking lot of a Target in New Jersey.  Let’s hope Ebron’s career never reaches that low of a point.

My No. 1 OL – Greg Robinson (Auburn)

What the experts are saying:
Robinson is a physically impressive offensive tackle who led the way for Tre Mason and Auburn’s rushing attack this past year.  He is a great run blocker, has extremely long arms, and is very balanced and athletic in passing sets.  Robinson is the consensus No. 1 tackle in the draft; scouts’ biggest concern is his raw technique.  Having faced off each game against the best defenders in the nation from the SEC, Robinson has played at the highest competitive level to this point.  With his unique blend of size and strength, he has the potential to become a franchise left tackle protecting some lucky quarterback’s blind side for years.

Best Case Scenario:
Some scouts think Greg Robinson is a spitting image of Hall of Famer Larry Allen.  In 12 seasons, Allen was a six-time All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl 10 times.  At 6’5, 332 pounds, Robinson actually trumps the Sonoma State graduate (I verified that this school does in fact exist) in terms of size.  More than anything, the tackles are similar in the sense that they both grew up in a very challenging environment.  Robinson’s mother is a widow who struggles to make enough money to support her kids, two of which are currently in jail on drug related charges.  Allen’s story is eerily similar.  He grew up in Compton, being raised by a single mother, and was surrounded by drugs and violence, even being stabbed 12 times in the head as a 9-year-old child.  If their past similarities are any indication, Robinson and Allen may share a future in Canton before we know it.

Worst Case Scenario:
Tony Mandarich serves as a perfect example of an offensive lineman with unreal hype that ended up becoming a bust at the next level.  Although he was aided by steroid usage, Mandarich’s numbers looked very close to Robinson’s.  Both players were hailed as supreme athletes, and both tackles were featured in run-heavy college offenses.  Mandarich was supposed to be the most powerful professional of all time, but he failed to play more than 10 years in the NFL.  Being so big and supporting so much weight has its prices.  Robinson has no links to performance enhancing drugs, but he could easily become one of many forgotten big men whose potential never panned out.

My No. 1 DL – Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)

What the experts are saying:
Clowney was the No. 1 prospect leaving high school, and he has maintained that ranking after a short three-year college career.  At 6’6”, 265 pounds, Clowney is an athletic freak, even amongst the ultra-gifted SEC football players.  However, his athleticism hasn’t translated into much production over his collegiate career.  As a junior, Clowney registered only three sacks and has missed some games in college due to minor foot injuries.  He definitely passes the eye-test, but many scouts have questioned his on-field effort and his off-the-field conduct.

Best Case Scenario:
Clowney is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, which is precisely how scouts regarded Julius Peppers entering the 2002 NFL Draft.  Similarly, this defensive end’s work ethic was seen as shaky at best.  As Pat Kirwin wrote in the wake of the 2002 draft, “There are some questions about Peppers' motor and his ability to play hard all the time”. Both players had weaker junior campaigns than the strong numbers that were seen in their sophomore years.  However, a year after choosing Peppers, the Carolina Panthers found themselves in the Super Bowl.  Overall, Clowney looks to be a slightly smaller, more athletic version of Julius Peppers.  If Clowney can learn under a good defensive coordinator in a consistent scheme, watch out NFL, we may have a new sack leader on our hands.

Worst Case Scenario:
In 2000, the Browns drafted Courtney Brown out of Penn State with the No. 1 overall pick.  Brown was supposed to be the cornerstone of their defense after he had earned All-America honors and set numerous team records in Happy Valley.  Raised in South Carolina just like Clowney, Courtney Brown excelled on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball in high school and performed at a very high level before he entered the league.  At his Penn State pro day, Brown measured at 6’5”, 270 pounds, ran a 4.5 40-yard dash and generally amazed scouts with his athleticism.  There was no doubt that he was talented, but Brown left the league abruptly after six seasons tallying only 19 sacks.  Like Clowney, Brown sat out numerous games due to injury.  Coaches must be wary of issues such as injury and run-in’s with the law (if Clowney has any going forward), problems that can bring even the most accomplished athletes back down to earth.

My No. 1 ILB – Shayne Skov (Stanford)

What the experts are saying:
Skov has had a remarkable career at Stanford.  Shayne led a strong defense in tackles three years in a row on his way to becoming a Butkus Award finalist.  Measuring at 6’2”, 245 pounds, Skov is a good enough size to compete on a down-to-down basis in the middle of the field at the next level. On the field, he is an emotional and vocal leader, as well as a sure tackler.  Scouts love his instincts and relentless effort. Skov has had his fair share of troubles though, tearing multiple ligaments in his left knee in 2011 and being arrested for a DUI early in 2012.  Major doubts arise with his durability and his overall athletic ability.  Skov is projected as a 4th-5th round pick. 

Best Case Scenario:
Remember Zach Thomas?  Zach was another undersized inside linebacker picked in the 5th round.  Thomas clogged the gaps during his years at Texas Tech, but scouts weren’t impressed by his atypical size and speed.  The tremendous linebacker made up for his shortcomings with unparalleled tenacity and instinct.  With the Miami Dolphins, Thomas was a team captain who ranked as one of the NFL’s leading tacklers year after year.  Thomas earned seven trips to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 1998, despite lacking the “physical ability” to succeed in the NFL.  Shayne Skov looks to prove everyone wrong for all of the same reasons as Zach Thomas.  He may never be a Hall of Famer, but letting Skov drop too far in the draft could be a big mistake.

Worst Case Scenario:
In 2006, with the 18th overall pick, the Dallas Cowboys drafted Bobby Carpenter out of Ohio State.  Carpenter is slightly bigger than Skov but he too was heralded for his terrific instincts, work ethic, and aggressive play.  Scouts hesitated in declaring Carpenter pro-ready, citing his below average explosiveness and quickness.  The Ohio State linebacker also had a college ankle injury that threatened to contain his professional productivity.  Ultimately, scouts were right.  Carpenter is no longer in the league and he started only 3 games with Dallas in his few years with the team.  If Skov’s intensity and willpower aren’t enough to propel his NFL career, he and Carpenter may end up in the same boat.

My No. 1 OLB – Khalil Mack

What the experts are saying:
Khalil Mack had only one FBS offer in high school, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the premiere prospects in this class.  Weighing in at 6’3”, 250 pounds, Mack is a load coming off the edge to rush the passer.  Many teams consider Mack the best player entering the NFL Draft this year because of his versatility, supreme athleticism, and collegiate production despite being game-planned against week after week.  However, Khalil played in the MAC, one of the weakest conferences in the nation.  Other than that minor discrepancy, scouts see Mack as a guy who should be able to do great things on defense at the next level.

Best Case Scenario:
He finished college at a small school with 27 sacks and 55.5 tackles for loss.  Nope, I’m not talking about Khalil Mack.  Those are the numbers for DeMarcus Ware, 4-time All-Pro, who attended Troy University in 2005.  Mack leaves Buffalo with 28.5 sacks and 75 tackles for loss, so in a perfect world he would go on to have a more decorated career than the eventual Hall of Famer Ware.  Both players went to mid-majors where they terrorized defensive coordinators with their pass rushing abilities.  Their combine results only differ slightly in each category.   DeMarcus Ware may be nearing the end of his esteemed career, but Mack could replace him as the NFL’s scariest man off the edge of the line of scrimmage.

Worst Case Scenario:
Scouts talk about Mack like he has already been inducted into Canton.  The same comments were made about another linebacker in 2006 out of Wake Forest: Aaron Curry.  They aren’t cut from the same cloth (Mack is a rusher, Curry more of a run stopper).  But Curry serves as a reminder that not all highly touted prospects, namely big time linebackers from unproven colleges, succeed in the NFL.  Curry was drafted 4th overall, signed a 6-year, $60 million dollar contract, and shortly thereafter retired in 2012.

My No. 1 CB – Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State)

What the experts are saying:
Unless you’re a huge college football fan, you’ve probably never heard of Darqueze Dennard.  He wants to keep it that way.  That means he’s doing a good job.  Dennard is a lockdown corner and is coming off a career year in which he won the Jim Thorpe Award, annually presented to the nation’s best defensive back.  He led the Spartans’ top defense as a captain and is very experienced playing in man coverage. Dennard could use some work defending the run and because of his team’s defensive scheme, he has not truly shown his ability in zone coverage.  In addition to these negatives, the outstanding corner has had some trouble with injuries throughout his career (hernia, ankle, knee).  An injury to his left hamstring held him out of the NFL combine. 

Best Case Scenario:
Through 13 games during Dennard’s senior season, he was thrown at 111 times.  Just 17 of those passes were completed for a total of 91 yards.  These numbers equate to 0.8198 yards per attempt against Dennard. This number is the lowest ever since statistics started being recorded for corners about 50 years ago.  Who was the last cornerback to allow less than a yard per attempt?  Deion Sanders in 1988.  Sanders ended up winning the Jim Thorpe Award that year and now Dennard shares his place in the history books with the all-time great.  That’s a tough comparison to live up to but if Dennard comes anywhere near Primetime, he’ll be a mainstay in the NFL for years to come.

Worst Case Scenario:
The Arizona Cardinals selected Tom Knight, a cornerback out of the University of Iowa, No. 7 overall in the 1997 draft.  Dennard will likely fall past the No. 7 spot, due to team needs.  Both men played in the Big Ten and were big time playmakers for their respective schools.  Michigan’s Charles Woodson overshadowed the Iowa product in ‘97, but that didn’t stop teams from dreaming about Knight’s shutdown ability.  The corner lasted six lackluster seasons in the NFL recording just three interceptions over that span.  Dennard’s statistics would lead one to believe that he will be a star at the next level, but Knight shows that all of these players are busts until they prove something of themselves.

My No. 1 S – Deone Bucannon (Washington State)

What the experts are saying:
Bucannon is a 6’1”, 210-pound prospect who is known for his jarring hits across the middle of the field.  Notably, Bucannon was suspended for half of a game during the 2012 season for leading with his head against a defenseless receiver.  Nonetheless, he led Washington State in tackles that year.  The next year, he led the Pac-12 in tackles and tied for the lead in interceptions.  He is a four-year starter with an old school mentality who also contributed on special teams.  The safety impressed at the combine, topping his position in every area but the 20-yard shuttle.  Scouts dislike his tendency to play too aggressively and out of control.

Best Case Scenario:
Bucannon is a dangerous pick because of his mean streak and his gambling style of play.  Darren Woodson, who also played out west at Arizona State, had similar question marks entering the NFL Draft.  He was a ferocious hitter and was actually such a skilled tackler that he played linebacker in college.  Drafted in the second round by the Dallas Cowboys, Woodson started his career on special teams.  By the time of his retirement, Woodson had been invited to five Pro Bowls, won three Super Bowls and was a part of three All-Pro teams.  The former college walk-on now holds the record for career tackles for Dallas.  Both players measured in at 6’1” and about 215 pounds.  The similarities between the two are evident but Bucannon must prove his worth at the next level before he can be mentioned in the same breath as the Cowboys great.

Worst Case Scenario:
Roy Williams, another Dallas Cowboy, was billed as the next Ronnie Lott when leaving the Oklahoma Sooners.  He was praised for his athleticism, hard-hitting ability, and his size.  But in the league, Roy struggled mightily in coverage.  This lack of balance in defending the run and the pass is what worries some scouts about Bucannon.  Roy was built somewhat differently than Bucannon, at 6’0”, 225 pounds.  Regardless, their pre-draft analyses coincide in ways that signal comparable career paths.  Roy played for nine years in the league and while he didn’t put up the worst numbers, he didn’t live up to the hype either.  If Deone Bucannon can’t adjust to cover the NFL’s elite receivers, he may face the same fate as Roy.

By Evan Buhler

Teaser:
Analyzing Top Positional Players in the 2014 NFL Draft
Post date: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 11:27
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-may-7-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 7.

These WAGs will soon be waiting to hear their guy's name called by Roger Goodell, including Blake Bortles' better half Lindsey Duke (pictured).

A Tigers fan got pantsed in his quest for a foul ball.

Nats manager Matt Williams got rear-ended during a live radio interview by some dude who was being chased by the cops.

Kevin Durant's MVP speech is making the rounds. It's worth your time.

A Boston columnist apparently filed his Bruins column from the bottom of a glass.

Tommy Lasorda wants V. Stiviano to get hit by a car.

• Weird story: Home belonging to retired tennis star James Blake the scene of murder and arson.

Bartolo Colon's melon refuses to accommodate his batting helmet.

Roger Federer and his wife just had their second set of twins.

Don Draper got kicked out of a fantasy football league.

Disturbing Jameis Winston rape art emanating from Tallahassee.

• Charles Barkley riffs on the fat women of San Antonio. I'm sure they appreciate the support.

 

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 10:39
All taxonomy terms: College Football, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/2014-nfl-draft-sleepers
Body:

David Bakhtiari was the 109th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

The left tackle out of Colorado was the ninth offensive tackle taken in the NFL Draft a year ago and all he did was start 16 games as a rookie protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side (no, Rodgers got hurt when he rolled to his right).

The Packers also drafted Eddie Lacy with the 61st overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and the former Alabama running back went on to become the only rookie Pro Bowler not selected in the first round.

What about Kiko Alonso? Kawann Short? Giovani Bernard, Johnathan Cyprien, Geno Smith or D.J. Swearinger? All second-round picks. How about Andre Ellington, Josh Evans, Chris Jones and Mychal Rivera? They were all third-round picks.

The point is that talent can be found in any round of the annual NFL selection process and 2014 won’t be any different. Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson has long been considered one of the best talent evaluators in the league and its one of the reasons why the Packers consistently make playoff appearances and win division titles.

How a team drafts in the middle rounds is just as important as how it performs in the first round. So who are the sleepers we like to make an impact in the ’14 NFL Draft?

Offensive Sleepers:

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (6-1, 207)
Don’t worry about the knee injury that ended his career at Georgia a few games short. In fact, Murray broke his leg during his senior season at famed Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School only to return that same season to win his second state championship. Murray has long been compared to Drew Brees due to his playing style, stature and desire to win. He led his team on numerous comebacks despite numerous injuries as a senior, won two SEC East titles and is the most prolific passer in the history of the SEC. Look for Murray to be taken in the second or third round — just like Brees and Russell Wilson — and for him to eventually be a starting NFL QB. Projection: Round 4

Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU (6-0, 233)
I’ve already written about Hill plenty here and he may move too quickly up draft boards by the time the second round rolls around. But there is a chance he’s the best back in the class. He has workhorse size, power and toughness and only carried 345 times in two college seasons so there is plenty of tread left on the tires. As long as his off-the-field distractions are behind him, Hill has a chance to be an extremely good player over the next 4-5 years. Projection: Round 2-3

Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (5-9, 207)
Few players play bigger than the 5-foot-9 Carey from Arizona. He touched the ball over 700 times in the last two seasons, racking up over 4,200 yards and scoring 44 times. That is production. He isn’t afraid of contact, will catch passes, picks up the blitz and is durable. Other than one small off-the-field distraction during his sophomore offseason, there is no downside to the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American. Projection: Round 3-4

Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin (6-1, 195)
In one of the most talented and versatile wide receivers classes in recent memory, Abbrederis might be the most underrated. He’s got 4.5 speed, is an excellent return man, was incredibly productive across the board and torched potential first-round pick Bradley Roby in a head-to-head battle this year — try 10 receptions for 207 yards and a touchdown. He’s not a big, rangy wideout, but he has every tool and the discipline needed to be very successful in the NFL in the mold of an Eric Decker. Projection: Round 4

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State (6-5, 240)
This may not count as a sleeper, especially if he vaults into the first round, but there is no hiding Benjamin’s overall upside. He is a physical specimen who is virtually uncoverable due to his rare combination of size and speed. Someone is going to get a Megatron-esque player with Benjamin early in the second round. Jus ask Jameis Winston or Jimbo Fisher whose number they’d call with the national championship game on the line. Projection: Round 2

Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia (6-5, 258)
Cut from the same mold as Zach Ertz or Coby Fleener, Lynch played at a school and for a coach who knows how to use big, athletic and versatile tight ends. Many opposing coaches called Lynch the best player on the Dawgs' roster after four productive seasons in Athens. He is a solid blocker and averaged more than 16 yards per catch in his two seasons as a starter. In a class with very little to like at the tight end positions, Lynch could be the steal of the draft. Projection: Round 4

Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor (6-5, 329)
A four-time All-Big 12 selection in one form or another, Richardson was arguably the most integral offensive part of the Bears' first-ever Big 12 title not named Bryce Petty. He is a two-time Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year and is as durable and dependable as anyone in the draft. Richardson missed one game during his four-year career (51 games) and started 38 games over the last three seasons. He has the size, the talent and the work ethic to be a long-time starter in the NFL. Projection: Round 3-4

Jack Mewhort, T, Ohio State (6-6, 309)
“He’s one of my all-time favorite players.” That is from Urban Meyer last November to the media when asked if Mewhort belonged in the Outland Trophy conversation. Mewhort has size, is a great leader, a hard worker, brings a great presence to the locker room and, oh by the way, can block with the best of them. He may not have Greg Robinson’s upside or raw talent but there are few things this Buckeye lineman can’t do on a football field. Projection: Round 2-3

Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State (6-3, 336)
Like Kentucky’s Larry Warford before him, Jackson has consistently been recognized as one of the SEC’s best blockers for years. He was a three-time All-SEC selection in some shape or form and played on the only Mississippi State team that went to four straight bowl games. He isn’t tall but is plenty wide and will be a regular in the NFL for the next decade. Projection: Round 2-3

Defensive Sleepers:

Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State (6-1, 303)
Sutton is the first player in the Pac-12 to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors since Steve Emtman in 1990-91. This in the same league with Star Lotulelei. Sutton has played multiple positions at multiple weights and is a leader in the huddle and on the practice field for a team that has won 18 games over the last two seasons and posted the best record in the conference. Sutton is a bit undersized but he is extremely disruptive behind the line of scrimmage — so say his 45.5 tackles for a loss and 20.5 sacks. Projection: Round 3

Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford (6-5, 250)
Cut from the DeMarcus Ware cloth, Murphy is a perfect hybrid end/linebacker outside rusher. He posted 25.0 sacks and 41.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons for a defense that was among the best in the nation. He won two Pac-12 titles during those two years as well. He also showed his athletic ability by returning both career interceptions for touchdowns (40 yards and 30 yards). Murphy will exceed expectations. Projections: Round 2-3

Aaron Lynch, DE, USF (6-5, 249)
Looking for a deep sleeper with loads of upside? Look no further than the former Notre Dame transfer. Lynch is dripping with athletic ability and has a frame to grow into one of the most imposing defensive ends in the league. The key for Lynch will be his commitment and focus. Should the light bulb come on now that he’s playing for a paycheck — which tends to happen — then some team will get a Justin Houston-type edge player late in the draft. Projection: Round 4-5

Max Bullough, MLB, Michigan State (6-4, 249)
Bullough was suspended from the Rose Bowl but otherwise had the consummate career at Michigan State. He comes from a rich football family and he plays with a high level of awareness. He has elite size for the middle and has proven to be a leader on a very physical defensive unit. He was a three-year starter, two-time captain and led the Spartans to their first Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth since 1987. Projection: Round 5

Shayne Skov, MLB, Stanford (6-2, 245)
The intangibles for Skov are off the charts. He was a three-time All-Pac-12 performer and a freshman All-American in his first year. He did miss most of the 2011 campaign with a season-ending knee injury early in the year but he bounced back with two huge upperclass seasons — both ending with a Pac-12 championship. He’s not the most overly explosive player but he is always in the right place at the right time. Skov posted 190 tackles, 21.0 for a loss, 8.0 sacks and three huge forced fumbles over his final two seasons. Projection: Round 3-4

Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech (6-3, 252)
This doesn’t appear to be a very deep class of outside linebackers — hybrids or true 4-3 players. Attaochu is a true pass-rusher from the OLB position and would fit into a 3-4 very well as a third-down specialist to begin his career. The Yellow Jacket prospect is long and rangy and can get to the quarterback as his 31.5 career sacks (22.5 in the last two years) and 43.5 tackles for a loss indicate. Draft him and plug him in on third downs. Projection: Round 2-3

Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State (5-8, 185)
He is a veteran, a leader and a champion. Joyner is a bit undersized but he can play all over the defense and is a physical player despite his overall lack of bulk and power. He is quick, aggressive and simply makes plays — he posted 5.5 sacks as a senior from his defensive back position. Look for coordinators to use him all over the field on the next level. Projection: Round 2

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, DB, Nebraska (6-3, 218)
Size is the first thing that comes to mind with the Nebraska defensive back. He has a massive frame and could easily slide into a role at safety at the back end of an NFL defense. He led his team in interceptions as a senior and should continue to flourish on the next level with his rare blend of size, speed and athleticism. Projection: Round 2

Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford (6-1, 207)
The star safety is yet another under appreciated Cardinal defender that could be a steal on draft day. Reynolds has constantly made big plays on a defense that has won back-to-back championships. He posted 133 tackles and seven interceptions over the last two seasons in the starting lineup — leading the nation in return yards with 301 and three touchdowns as a sophomore. Projection: Round 4-5

Dion Bailey, FS, USC (6-0, 201)
At just 200 pounds, Bailey started for two seasons as a strong-side linebacker for USC, earning freshman All-American honors and All-Pac-12 honors in two seasons. He then transitioned perfectly to his more natural and future pro position of safety in 2013. Bailey is constantly around the ball as he posted 223 tackles, 16.5 for a loss, 3.5 sacks and 11 interceptions in three years. He will be a playmaker on the next level for years to come. Projection: Round 4

Teaser:
2014 NFL Draft Sleepers
Post date: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/auburns-defense-or-alabamas-quarterback-play-which-bigger-concern-2014
Body:

The SEC West is the toughest division in college football, with the Iron Bowl rivalry between Alabama and Auburn taking center stage once again in 2014.

Auburn experienced a quick turnaround in Gus Malzahn’s first year, finishing 12-2 and losing to Florida State in the national championship. The Tigers defeated the Crimson Tide in their regular season finale on a memorable last-second returned missed field goal for a touchdown.

Alabama continues to set the bar high in the West, winning 11 games last year and reeling in another elite recruiting class.

With both teams expected to be picked high in most preseason top 25 polls, the November Iron Bowl could decide the SEC West champion once again.

However, both teams have significant question marks to address before late November, as Alabama’s quarterback situation and Auburn’s defense are the top concerns in the SEC West at the conclusion of spring practice.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Alabama’s QB Play or Auburn’s Defense: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Although there may be a transition period at quarterback for Alabama, I have less concerns about the Crimson Tide offense than I do Auburn’s defense. Jacob Coker should be a good fit in Tuscaloosa, and he has plenty of help from one of the top receiving corps in the nation and a deep stable of running backs. The Tigers return six starters on defense, and another offseason under coordinator Ellis Johnson should help this unit show progression on the stat sheet. But in conference games last year, Auburn allowed 6.4 yards per play and gave up 45 plays of 30 yards or more – the most in the SEC in 14 games. This unit has reason to expect improvement, especially with a talented line returning in 2014. End Carl Lawson and tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams could all be in contention for All-SEC honors, but the secondary must replace three key players, including cornerback Chris Davis. There’s no question Alabama will be in big trouble if Coker or Blake Sims fails to provide adequate quarterback play. However, the Crimson Tide can mask some of their quarterback issues with a strong defense and rushing attack. Although Auburn can outscore most of the teams in the nation, I don’t think it can win the SEC West again without improvement on that side of the ball. Both of these parts are a concern, but I have bigger issues with the Tigers’ defense in 2014.


Mark Ross
Although I do think Alabama will miss the underrated AJ McCarron, especially once conference play heats up, the Crimson Tide have enough talented skill position players to ease Jacob Coker's transition into the starting lineup. Plus the defense should be more than capable of picking up the slack, if necessary. On the other hand, there's Auburn's defense, which ranked 86th in FBS last season in yards allowed and 100th against the pass. Yes, the Tigers are the defending SEC champions and were 79 seconds away from winning the national title, but this is a team that was on the receiving end of numerous lucky bounces last season (see: Georgia game, Iron Bowl) and out-gained conference foes by less than 19 yards per game. So while the offense was churning out more than 500 yards per game, the defense was giving up more than 420. This defense also lost two of its best players in first-team All-SEC end Dee Ford and second-team cornerback Chris Davis. With no Ford rushing (10.5 sacks) the quarterback and Davis not patrolling the secondary (or able to run back a missed field goal to put the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game), I'm leery of any marked improvement from a defense that returns just six starters. So while quarterback play may be a question mark for Alabama entering this season, the Crimson Tide have a well-rounded supporting cast that should provide plenty of answers. As good as Auburn's offense was last season, it took a tipped, last-second Hail Mary and one of the most improbable endings in college football history to bail out a rather generous defense. If the status quo holds for these two units, I think it's too much to expect a repeat this fall of what transpired in 2013.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
This is an easy one, right? It’s the Auburn defense. The Tigers, to their credit, did most of their defensive work last season when it counted. Auburn led the SEC in third down defense and finished third in touchdown rate in the red zone. The Tigers were fourth in sacks per game and fifth in tackles per game. Yet at the same time, Auburn was 10th in yards per pass and yards per carry. To me, that means the departure of Dee Ford and three other key contributors from the defensive line will be missed even more than anyone would anticipate. Alabama adds a potential two-year starting quarterback in Jacob Coker, who challenged Jameis Winston for the starting job at Florida State. It’s unreasonable to expect Coker to come close to what Winston did last season, but with Alabama’s skill position talent on offense, Coker doesn’t need to be Heisman-caliber. Coker will at worst be a caretaker of the offense in Tuscaloosa. I'm not sure Auburn has a similar solution on defense. In 2014, Auburn will have a much tougher time replacing Ford than Alabama will have replacing AJ McCarron.

Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
Auburn's defense finished the year 12th in the SEC in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. In year one of the Ellis Johnson era, they weren't great but generally they made plays when they had to (and in some cases they got bailed out by miracles). This year, they should be better although they will have to find a replacement for star Dee Ford. Gus Malzahn's offense will also be able to hide some of the deficiencies of Johnson's defense.

For Alabama, a change in quarterback is not something that has happened often in the Nick Saban era. In fact, in Saban's eight years he's only had three starters (John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron). Now they must replace a four-year starter and do so with a wildcard offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin. Like Auburn's offense, Bama's defense will cover a lot of faults of their offense but at some point during the year Alabama's QB (be it Jacob Coker or Blake Sims) is going to have to step up and make game winning plays. When you combine that with the question mark of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, I have to say that Alabama's quarterback play is more of a concern heading into the 2014 season than Auburn's defense.

Teaser:
Auburn's Defense or Alabama's Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?
Post date: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: Dustin Johnson, Golf
Path: /golf/golf-lesson-bunker-play-dustin-johnson
Body:

Dustin Johnson hopes to avoid the bunkers at TPC Sawgrass this week, but if he finds one, he has a simple five-step plan of attack for getting out. As DJ returns to action at this week's Players Championship, we caught up with him to get his simple approach to bunker play.

 

Here's my five-step approach in the bunker:

 

1. Open the club, so that the face is wide open.

 

2. I'm going to make a cut swing, so I set up square to the target then drop my left foot back.

 

3. Then, you kind of swing down your feet line so you come up a little higher and softer. I'm always aiming left, and the cut swing propels the ball toward the target.

 

4. You want a real stable base. I usually dig my feet down a little bit deeper than some players, with a little wider stance.

 

5. I always want to keep my weight toward my left foot, forward, so I'm not falling backwards with the ball in the air.

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 17:28
Path: /nascar/nascar-rookie-report-and-then-there-were-seven
Body:

Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.

Today, David attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.


It happened. One rookie among the eight full-timers that entered the 2014 season was cut from the herd.  Parker Kligerman

Looking back it was close to inevitable — not for the driver in question, but based on historical odds. In the last eight rookie classes dating back to 2006, six had a rookie not make it to the conclusion of the season.

Parker Kligerman is no Brent Sherman, though. His small sample size was littered with crashes, mechanical failures and dumb luck. To call his performance poor would be a broad stroke. He showed glimpses — much like he did last season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with an underwhelming Kyle Busch Motorsports team — of talent deserving of Sunday participation. He passed for value (1.88 percent than his average running position’s expected pass efficiency) and, when he finished races, didn’t leave positions on the table, making his highest running position of the race his finishing position at both Bristol and Darlington.

Sometimes, though, business gets in the way of sports. This isn’t exclusive to NASCAR. Across stick-and-ball sports, salary cap casualties are an occupational hazard. Swan Racing had no money to go racing — all those sponsor deals were either small-money sweetheart agreements or leveraged business dealings — or pay its employees. Cole Whitt’s entry, which included the service of crew chief Randy Cox, was purchased by BK Racing. Kligerman’s car number and points — in essence, everything he had to show for his season to date — was purchased by Xxxtreme Motorsports (not a typo — an actual, functioning business chose to spell its name like that) and given to J.J. Yeley, satisfying the dozens of Yeley fans across the globe clamoring for more J.J.

Now out in the cold, Kligerman’s status in the industry will change from beholden to beholder. To fans, he is a fun guy who interacts with them in the social mediasphere. To team decision-makers, his career to date has been flashes of brilliance with more question than answers. To me, he is a keg of potential waiting to be tapped, evident by those flashes the last several years in Cup, Nationwide, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and in the ARCA Series.

What he is not is T.J. Bell, Dexter Bean, Brandon Whitt or the immortal Brent Sherman; in essence, a driver who funded his entryway into the Cup Series without the ability that’s necessary to hack it (when the money dried up, so did their tenure in Cup). Based on all of their upbringings within the sport, that type of driver doesn’t exist in this year’s class.

The parking of Kligerman didn’t have anything to do with talent, nor should talent be the thing that keeps him from reentry. He is a financial casualty in a business disguised as a sport.

Sans Kligerman, here are the latest rankings of the seven Cup Series rookies that will take to the track this Saturday night at Kansas Speedway:


Kyle Larson1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
Larson finished ninth at Talladega after averaging the day’s eighth-best running position (15.511). That’s a far cry from his first restrictor plate showing in the Cup Series — a three-accident DNF in the Daytona 500. Still, his critics weren’t pleased.

The self-described “Outlaw,” Kurt Busch, at the time running in front of Larson, radioed to his crew, “I don’t like this kid running behind us. He ass-packed us at Daytona.”

To be fair to Busch, outlaws have been dodging ass-packings since Curly Bill Brocius grew skeptical of Wyatt Earp’s intentions in 1881.


2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)  Austin Dillon
Dillon gained 14 positions in the red zone (the final 10 percent of the race) at Talladega, effectively leap-frogging the No. 3 team past Tony Stewart’s No. 14 bunch and back into the designation of “best closing team in the sport.” Their plus-22 percent position retention difference indicates that they are averaging a whopping 4.5-position gain in the waning laps of races.

 


Justin Allgaier3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)
If not for a restart gone awry, Allgaier would have finished inside the top 15, where he spent over 17 percent of the race, at Richmond. That was the first of two races in which the ending didn’t justify the effort. He finished on the lead lap at Talladega, but was spun while taking the white flag. He ran inside the top 15 for the majority of the final 20 laps.

 

 


Cole Whitt4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 5)
His second race with BK Racing was 20 positions better than his first as he snuck away with a 21st-place finish at Talladega. The “good” in his season has come in stealth, though. Underneath his 33rd-place standing in the points, he is a value passer (his plus-2.07 percent average surplus value ranks 11th in the series).

 

 

 

5. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 4)  Michael Annett
Annett’s season-best qualifying position (17th) and finishing position (16th), coming at Talladega, couldn’t have come soon enough. His adjusted pass efficiency and surplus passing values diminished with each race from Phoenix to Darlington, and Richmond — a track wherein he scored four-straight Nationwide Series finishes of 13th or better — only netted him a 33rd-place finish.


Alex Bowman6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 7)
With a 0.30 crash frequency, Bowman is the least-frequent crasher among all rookies. Unfortunately two of his three crashes in the first 10 races took place at Talladega, including a nasty impact with the outside wall that birthed the debris that ended the race prematurely. The good news is that the over-the-top crashing at Talladega was an anomaly, and Bowman’s clean reputation should remain intact in the coming weeks’ races.

 

Did You Notice? ... Teams in trouble, drivers moving on, and Talladega's fear factor


7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 8)  Ryan Truex
Truex was taken out on lap 182 last Sunday, but the DNF still resulted in a 31st-place finish. After an identical 31st-place finish at Richmond (after qualifying eighth via practice), the last two races were 4.5 positions better than his average finish through his first six outings of the season (35.5).


David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projection, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Ranking the seven-driver crop of rookies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Post date: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 16:36
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/2014-sec-west-rankings-preview-athlon-sports-cover-2-podcast
Body:

The second part of our SEC rankings and preseason preview continues with the West Division, home of four of the last five national champions. The SEC West was the toughest division for Athlon Sports to pick this season, especially in the middle.

The power resides in the state of Alabama, but the team with more reason for optimism may be under debate. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are both in good position, one of the rare times both Egg Bowl rivals go into a season with high hopes.

The X-factor may be LSU, a team that has been a lock for 10 wins in recent years. The Tigers are replacing some key cogs on defense and will be young at skill positions on offense.

We also introduced a new, not-so-subtle pitch for you to get involved at sponsorus@athlonsports.com. As always, you can reach our hosts at @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or at podcast@athlonsports.com.

Teaser:
2014 SEC West Rankings Preview: Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast
Post date: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 14:21
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-may-6-2014
Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 11:28
Path: /college-football/who-leads-big-ten-rushing-2014
Body:

The Big Ten produced seven 1,000-yard rushers last season, headlined by Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah with 1,690 yards on 281 attempts. Abdullah was joined in the 1,000-yard club by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and James White, Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller, Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford and Minnesota’s David Cobb.

Hyde and White expired their eligibility, but the race to be the Big Ten’s leading rusher should be a tight battle once again in 2014.

Abdullah is the default favorite after leading the league in rushing last season, but Gordon and Langford are expected to improve on their totals in 2014.

Gordon shared time with White last season, but the Badgers are expected to give Gordon more carries this year with White expiring his eligibility. Corey Clement should pickup some of White’s workload after averaging 8.2 yards per carry last year. However, Gordon could increase his attempts to 275-300 as the Badgers look to lean on a solid rushing attack and one of the nation’s best offensive lines.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Who Leads the Big Ten in Rushing in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This seems like a two-man battle between Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Both players should be All-American selections for 2014 and two of the top running backs in the nation. But with that being said, I like Gordon to edge Abdullah in the final rushing tally of the season. Gordon finished second in the Big Ten last year, recording 1,609 yards to Abdullah’s 1,690. Gordon has room for his total to increase, as he had 75 less carries than Abdullah in 2013. Also, Gordon produced more big plays last season, recording nine carries over 30 yards, six over 40 yards and four over 50. All of those numbers were better than Abdullah, and Gordon should add to those totals with more carries in 2014. Corey Clement is a capable No. 2 in Wisconsin, but Gordon should approach 275 carries, which will allow the junior to make a push for 2,000 rushing yards in 2014.

Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
I love Indiana’s Tevin Coleman this season, but it’s hard to go that bold when last year’s leading rushers, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon, return. So, to answer the question, I’ll take Gordon, the guy who finished 81 yards behind Abdullah for the 2013 lead. Gordon is the ideal mix of speed and power, and he’s a back who absolutely shreds average defenses – to be fair, at 7.8 yards per carry, he was pretty strong against all comers. Whatever the case, Gordon doesn’t face Michigan State, the Big Ten’s expected top defense, or Ohio State, an annual run-stuffer, while he does draw Illinois and Purdue, units that finished outside the top 100 against the rush. Another reason to like Gordon: James White is out of the picture, which should yield more opportunities. 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Despite the loss of Carlos Hyde and James White, the Big Ten is still loaded with elite ball-carriers. The Spartans Jeremy Langford plays for the defending champs and was arguably the most important back in conference play a year ago. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is the most physically talented player at his position in the league. Northwestern welcomes back do-everything dynamo Venric Mark after he missed all of last year. And Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah actually led the league in rushing a year ago and is back in Lincoln. Needless to say, the Big Ten is stacked at the position entering a critical first season in the playoff. But with one of the nation's top offensive lines returning and no James White to steal 200 carries, I have to go with the Badgers Melvin Gordon. He is the most explosive back in the league and has the best supporting cast returning up front. He proved he can score from anywhere on the field at anytime by averaging nearly eight yards per carry (209 att.). Now, he is now the true featured back in an always run-heavy UW offense.

Kevin McGuire, (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
If there is one thing we know about Wisconsin, it is the Badgers are going to thrive running the football. That will absolutely be the case once again in 2014 with Melvin Gordon leading the way on the ground. Gordon led the Badgers with 1,609 rushing yards and paired that with 12 touchdowns in a dynamic duo with James White. With White gone, the bulk of the carries will be put in Gordon’s hands behind an offensive line that returns four starters. The carries will be there for Gordon, as will the protection. The schedule certainly helps as well, after facing LSU in the season opener at least. Five of Wisconsin’s new division opponents finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten in rushing defense in 2013.

Mark Ross
Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, third and first in the Big Ten in rushing last season respectively, certainly have to be considered the frontrunners to repeat their success in 2013. However, I'm going to go a slightly different direction and say Northwestern's Venric Mark will top them both. To start with, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards in 2012 when he was considered one of the conference's top playmakers. Injuries limited him to just three games last year because of injury, but he is reported to be back to health and should resume his role as the Wildcats' top ball-carrier. Additionally, all five starting offensive linemen return from a unit that paved the way for 172.4 rushing yards per game and Tervor Siemian, a more traditional drop-back passer, replaces dual-threat Kain Colter as the starting quarterback. When Mark ran for 1,366 yards two seasons ago, he did so on 226 carries (17.4 per game) while Colter had 169 rushing attempts. Combine those two factors with a schedule that includes porous rushing defenses like Purdue, Illinois, California and Northern Illinois and, perhaps more importantly, does not include Michigan State or Ohio State, and I like Mark's chances of putting together a big senior season. Provided he stays healthy and gets at least 20 carries a game, I think Mark could leave his on the Big Ten and lead the league, which does not lack for quality running backs, in rushing.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
This may be crazy, considering Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah led the league in rushing last year and Wisconsin backs are pretty much a sure thing. I’m going to pick Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford. He finished last season as consistent a runner as any back in the country, rushing for at least 100 yards in the final eight games before the Rose Bowl (he rushed for 84 against Stanford). He also topped 20 carries in every game since Oct. 12. As much as Abdullah will be productive, he’s going to be under more pressure this season than last when he had a Big Ten-high 21.6 carries per game. Langford was right behind at 20.9, but I like quarterback Connor Cook and a deep group of backup running backs to keep Langford fresh and the offense more varied. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is probably the favorite since he topped 1,609 yards last season with James White in his backfield, but Corey Clement will be a worthy No. 2 to the Badgers’ top tailback.

Teaser:
Who Leads the Big Ten in Rushing in 2014?
Post date: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ranking-sec-wests-toughest-college-football-schedules-2014
Body:

The State of Alabama is the epicenter of college football.

Alabama and Auburn have won either the SEC or BCS national championship in five consecutive seasons and have won the SEC West in five of the last six seasons. Needless to say, the Iron Bowl has become a marquee showdown of national importance with the 2013 regular-season finale going down in history as one of the most remarkable games in college football history.

Will the SEC West come down to the Tigers-Tide matchup in Tuscaloosa again in ’14? It’s certainly possible. However, Ole Miss and Mississippi State both enter the season surging with energy and expectations. LSU is loaded with talent once again and has won at least 10 games in four straight seasons. Arkansas has a coach who won three straight Big Ten titles and Kevin Sumlin has recruited at unprecedented levels in College Station.

When Athlon Sports' staff sat down to predict the SEC West, like every other division college football, we used rosters, coaching staffs, recruiting, historic trends and gut instincts to project the final standings.

But scheduling also plays a huge role. In the East Division, Tennessee has the toughest slate and Missouri got the easiest path and that impacted our decision. The same can be said about the West Division.

So who has the toughest schedule in the SEC West in 2014?

1. Arkansas Razorbacks
Crossover: Georgia (Little Rock), at Mizzou
Non-conference: Nicholls St, at Texas Tech, N. Illinois, UAB
Opponents ’13 Record: 103-54 (65.6%, 1st)

According to last year’s records, the Razorbacks will face the toughest schedule in the nation. While using last year’s win-loss totals to predict strength of schedule has numerous flaws, it does appear on paper that Arkansas will have the toughest road in the SEC West in 2014. To start, a road trip to defending SEC champ Auburn in Week 1 and a long, circuitous trip to Texas Tech in Week 3 both loom large. Once SEC plays begins, it’s hard to find any wins on the schedule. The Hogs will face Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia in a four-week span before a break against UAB in Week 9. Then a murderous November arrives with little hope for an upset: at Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and at Mizzou. Crossover play for Arkansas could feature the best two teams in the East as well. Lastly, Arkansas is the only team in the West that doesn’t get to play… Arkansas and it makes for the toughest schedule in the SEC West. 




 


2. Auburn Tigers
Crossover: South Carolina, at Georgia
Non-conference: San Jose St, at Kansas St, La. Tech, Samford
Opponents ’13 Record: 93-60 (60.8%, 16th)

The Tigers should ease into the ’14 slate with two winnable games to start and an open date in Week 3. But after that, there are few breathers for the defending SEC champs. A road trip to Kansas State, a visit from LSU and a trip to Starkville makes the transition from September to October very difficult. Then, Auburn will likely have the toughest set of crossover opponents in the entire SEC this fall, as the Tigers will face South Carolina at home and go to Athens to take on Georgia — both in the second half of the season. Mixed in is a road trip to Ole Miss and a home date with Texas A&M. Lastly, the Tigers will have to defend their Iron Bowl win on the road against Alabama in the regular-season finale. The only break is a home layup against Samford the week before traveling to Tuscaloosa. With so many fluky wins a year ago and another daunting schedule, it’s hard to see a repeat for Auburn.

3. Texas A&M Aggies
Crossover: at South Carolina, Missouri
Non-conference: Lamar, Rice, at SMU, ULM
Opponents ’13 Record: 100-55 (64.2%, 5th)

The Aggies play nobody of note in the non-conference schedule with the possible exception of SMU in Dallas. And it’s a good thing Texas A&M scheduled those four wins because the league slate is absolutely nasty. The Aggies get Ole Miss, Mizzou and LSU at home and could pull an upset or two — especially because both Tigers will visit College Station late in the year (Week 12 and Week 14). But the toughest away slate in the SEC leaves little room for error with road trips to Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Texas A&M should be 4-1 entering October but there are very few winnable games after that for Sumlin's depleted and inexperienced roster.

4. Ole Miss Rebels
Crossover: at Vanderbilt, Tennessee
Non-conference: Boise St, ULL, Memphis, Presbyterian
Opponents ’13 Record: 89-63 (58.6%, 26th)

Expectations are surging in Oxford and some of that energy, like their in-state brethren, comes from a manageable schedule. Boise State is a tough start to the season but Chris Petersen is in Seattle now and that makes that game dramatically less difficult. A matchup with Vanderbilt on the road and UL-Lafayette at home gives the Rebels little time to settle into the season. However, three tricky games to start means lots of breathers late in the year — i.e., Tennessee at home, Memphis, Presbyterian, at Arkansas and two bye weeks in the final 10 weeks. Mixed in will be showdowns of epic proportions as Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State all come to Oxford during that span. Road trips to Kyle Field and Tiger Stadium fall in October as well. This is a tough schedule with key swing games at home, winnable but tricky non-conference and crossover games and one really brutal road trip to the Bayou. Ole Miss will need to upset a team or two to finish in the top three in the West.

5. LSU Tigers
Crossover: at Florida, Kentucky
Non-conference: Wisconsin, Sam Houston St, ULM, New Mexico St
Opponents ’13 Record: 82-71 (53.6%, 57th)

Playing Wisconsin and Florida would normally make for an extremely difficult schedule. However, the Badgers are coming all the way down to Houston and are rebuilding on defense while Florida posted the worst season in school history a year ago. And the rest of the non-conference and crossover schedule (Kentucky) is very easy. So how does the home-road SEC West slate shape up for the Tigers? Road trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M come late in the year but those should be the worst two teams in the division while back-to-back visits to Auburn and Florida to start October loom large. The good news is LSU gets Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State at home and those three games could determine division pecking order more so than any other game minus Auburn. This schedule has some serious land mines but also sets up pretty well for Les Miles to reach 10 wins for the fifth straight time.

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Crossover: at Kentucky, Vanderbilt
Non-conference: Southern Miss, UAB, at S. Alabama, UT Martin
Opponents ’13 Record: 80-71 (52.9%, 62nd)

Like Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in the SEC, the Bulldogs won’t challenge themselves in non-conference play like some of the bigger programs. Which is good, considering the normally brutal SEC West round-robin Mississippi State faces each year. Home games with Texas A&M (Week 6), Auburn (Week 7), Arkansas (Week 10) and Vanderbilt (Week 13) are all winnable and could feature three, possibly four, league victories. Road tilts with LSU and Alabama will be difficult and a rivalry game in Oxford is always tough, but the saving grace for Dan Mullen (and what makes this schedule lighter than others in the league) is two very winnable crossover games and four likely wins in the non-conference. It’s not just the defensive depth chart and development of quarterback Dak Prescott that makes the Bulldogs an intriguing team to follow entering ’14, it’s also a relatively “lenient” schedule.

7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Crossover: Florida, at Tennessee
Non-conference: West Virginia, FAU, Southern Miss, W. Carolina
Opponents ’13 Record: 71-79 (47.3%, 95th)

Alabama should breeze into conference play with three very winnable non-conference games (and one more in November). Crossover play against two powerhouse programs that have fallen on hard times in the Gators (home, Week 4) and Vols (road, Week 9) also gives the Tide a fortunate break in 2014. Add in a home game in the Iron Bowl against Auburn and the Tide looks poised for a perfect record at home. A road trip to Baton Rouge — a rivalry where the road team has consistently played well — and Ole Miss are the only other tricky games on the schedule, but Alabama gets two weeks to prepare for both games. This 12-game slate has three (maybe four) marquee games on it and two of those four will come at home with the other two coming after the bye weeks. A 10-win season is almost a guarantee in Tuscaloosa once again.

Teaser:
Ranking the SEC West's Toughest College Football Schedules in 2014
Post date: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /nascar/hamlin-gets-nascar-season-track-win-talladega
Body:

As an unproven rookie in 2006, restrictor plate racing put Denny Hamlin on the map. A victory in the Bud Shootout, NASCAR’s exhibition to open the season, proved the catalyst for a freshman phenom who wound up third in the final point standings. It was the start of seven straight Chase appearances, annual flirtations with the series championship and a seemingly lifetime contract to sit inside the No. 11 FedEx Toyota.  Denny Hamlin

But few athletes in sports get lifetime immunity; a spot on top of the mountain is forever a slippery slope. For Hamlin, it was a 2013 injury suffered at the hands of Fontana’s inside wall that sent his Cup career rolling downhill. Missing a month of action, he was clearly less than 100 percent after returning and briefly considered offseason surgery. Missing the Chase that season, his year evolved into a series of ugly wrecks and mechanical failures, the de facto R&D car for a Joe Gibbs Racing team focused on the championship-contending teammates of Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. Only a victory in the Homestead finale salvaged a season that was otherwise insufferable.

That’s why Hamlin entered 2014 on the brink; through April, he’d stayed there, a series of rollercoaster runs leaving him vulnerable to NASCAR’s Silly Season carousel. Already down a race, this time for metal in his eye, Hamlin has yet to run better than sixth at any unrestricted track. Entering Sunday, he was holding the 16th out of 16 Chase spots and seemed on the hot seat with wheelmen like Carl Edwards — a former Joe Gibbs Racing target — potentially entering the open market.

With so much on the line it appears that plate racing, of all things, has launched Hamlin back into a sense of security. Amazingly, he had never won at Daytona or Talladega in a points-paying race, a zero remedied by Sunday’s victory in the Aaron’s 499. It’s that win, along with a second in February’s Daytona 500, that keeps him in the top-tier Chase conversation.

Chase security paired with job security. It’s part of the “new NASCAR,” the new championship format and a way in which the best racers, even during the down times, can still snatch up their place within the sport’s elite. Sunday may not have been a David Ragan type of upset, but it’s tilting the balance of power just the same.

“Through The Gears” post-Talladega we go …


FIRST GEAR: Will a stroke of luck turn Hamlin’s momentum around?
Hamlin, whose No. 11 Toyota led 12 laps on the day, wasn’t the fastest car on-track. That honor belonged to Greg Biffle, whose No. 16 Roush Ford led 58 of the 188 circuits and was ready to make a run as the cars all came barreling off Turn 4 for the white-flag lap. That’s when a tap by Alex Bowman led to a wreck back in the pack, ripping off Justin Allgaier’s rear bumper by the start-finish line and leaving NASCAR with no choice but to throw the caution flag. The only question was when.

“I looked in the mirror and I saw the smoke behind me, and I wasn't really sure whether the caution was going to come out and I didn't know what to do,” explained Biffle. “I thought about making my move on the 11 right then because I had a huge run. But I just didn’t want to pass too early.”

Turns out that hesitation made him too late. Officials finally threw the yellow halfway down the middle of the backstretch that ended the race and ruined any potential runs on the No. 11 car. It was a stroke of luck for Hamlin that NASCAR was forced to make the yellow-flag call in his favor during a year in which self-induced mistakes have typically doomed him.

“Those are momentum crushers,” he said of three straight top-10 runs turned disastrous before Sunday. “We’ve been finishing right around 20th for three weeks in a row. That can really take its toll on the team. A win like this kind of makes you forget all those things, and it obviously gives you a clean slate for the rest of the summer to start over.”

It’s a tough pill for Biffle to swallow, his contract expiring and in much the same boat as Hamlin is now. That’s what’s beautiful about NASCAR in 2014 — the racing is that close to the point one result like this could alter the careers of two drivers.


SECOND GEAR: Brad the Rebel?  Brad Keselowski
NASCAR is used to Talladega “Big Ones,” major crashes sparked by the pack racing that’s part of restrictor plates. But the biggest one Sunday, caused by Brad Keselowski, left a lot of drivers steaming mad at the 2012 champ, who’s getting busy returning to his spot on the mantle as NASCAR’s independent “bad boy.”

If the No. 2 car was on the lead lap, losing control and setting off the wreck wouldn’t be as big of a deal. But in this case, Keselowski was six laps behind, running dead last and trying fruitlessly to earn a Lucky Dog he’d never get. Jamie McMurray, who was one lap ahead in 42nd, would keep earning them even if Keselowski was to lead the field to a caution flag. In the end, it seemed frustration over an earlier incident with Danica Patrick took its toll, a save that still broke a radiator hose and left Keselowski limping around with a car once capable of winning the race.

“I just spun out in front of the whole field,” Keselowski said, his aggression getting the best of him in a Turn 4 spin that affected well over a dozen cars. “I don’t know why.”

What we do know is Keselowski started the interview with a laugh, a reaction sure to elicit anger from several inside the NASCAR garage. His enemies, which still include Kurt Busch from a Martinsville incident, keep growing. Matt Kenseth, last weekend’s Richmond target, shot back by calling Keselowski’s moves “mind-boggling,” the same type of verbiage Keselowski had angrily spilled at Kenseth after that race.

Veteran Jeff Gordon was more politically correct on-camera in calling Keselowski’s strategy “unfortunate.” On the radio? He referred to the outspoken driver as “an idiot” and others in the garage were spouting the same. There’s a right to keep racing under all circumstances and no one’s saying the No. 2 car should roll over. But better judgment, like running at the back of the draft while waiting for a yellow flag, could have saved the sheet metal of one-quarter of Sunday’s starting field.


THIRD GEAR: Big names, big wrecks.
Keselowski wasn’t the only big name to lose it on his own in the draft. Jimmie Johnson also spun through no contact in a second big wreck that took out half-a-dozen cars. It appears the new rules package, combined with these cars, leaves them inherently unstable in the draft. That brought handling into the conversation at “mash the gas” Talladega for the first time in several years.

“The back end just slid out from under me,” said Johnson. “It just took a big lazy slide.”

The wrecks, while destructive, were a net positive in that drivers thought they needed to actually drive at Talladega. Pack racing was more like the old school version of the late ’90s where three-wide and aggression became the norm and not the exception. Few if any laps were run in single-file succession as the drivers felt compelled to mix it up.

Of course, there will be consequences whenever that happens. That’ll be there until NASCAR chooses to finally take the plates off.


FOURTH GEAR: David slayed by Goliath  AJ Allmendinger
For last year’s upset Talladega winner David Ragan, a repeat performance was not in the cards. His Front Row Motorsports Ford was an innocent victim in one of the day’s late-race wrecks. Unfortunately for most of NASCAR’s underdogs, that proved a running theme in a slew of disappointing performances. Only AJ Allmendinger who ran fifth for JTG-Daugherty Racing, represented the “little guys” inside the top 10. But even that was an underdog illusion of sorts, considering his top-quality Richard Childress Racing chassis and equipment for the race.

If anything, a call could be given to Landon Cassill, whose unsponsored No. 40 Chevy hung on to snag an 11th place. However, many teams were critical of the car afterwards, as in their view Cassill held up the outside line with some bold moves over the race’s final few laps. The raw speed just wasn’t there. And as for the rookies? Only Kyle Larson (ninth) palced inside the top 10. Most others found themselves part of the Talladega wreckage that claimed so many.

 

Bowles: The return of "Bad Brad" hits NASCAR at Talladega


OVERDRIVE
Danica Patrick made waves by leading six laps at Talladega early on; it’s the first Cup race she’s led outside of the last two Daytona 500s. Eventually, her No. 10 GoDaddy car faded back into the pack, one of several Hendrick engines that suffered from overheating problems but the raw speed gives the team hope going forward. “It was a good car to lead with,” said Patrick after running 22nd. “Which is something that, as a team we’ve struggled with.” … Surprise pole-sitter Brian Scott, who never led a lap, was complimentary of Tony Stewart on Twitter after they were both involved in the Brad Keselowski wreck. “I have to say that Stewart is a class act,” he said. “I was slow to get out and he was there to help me unplug and get out and off his car hood.” Stewart, who is still recovering from a broken leg, was uninjured as well but both drivers were out on the spot. ... Speaking of Scott and Stewart, they were 42nd and 43rd, respectively, after completing 136 laps. It’s the most all 43 cars have run at Talladega in a race that started so clean since the spring race in 2002.


Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

 

Teaser:
Denny Hamlin got his season on track with a win in NASCAR's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Post date: Monday, May 5, 2014 - 12:22

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