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Using the past to project the future has major flaws but in the case of the Heisman Trophy, the past can be extremely useful.
There are a few numbers college football fans need to know when it comes to the Heisman Trophy and how to handicap the race for the 2014 stiff-armed trophy.
First, quarterbacks have won the award four straight years and 12 of the last 14. Mark Ingram (2009) and Reggie Bush (2005) are the only running backs since the turn of the century to win the Heisman Trophy.
Second, only once in the nine-decade history of the award has anyone ever repeated. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won in 1974 and was successful in defending his award the following year. Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram and Johnny Manziel all failed to repeat in the last decade.
Third, only twice since Griffin has a conference won two consecutive Heisman Trophies. USC repeated with Leinart and Bush (2004-05) and the SEC did the same with Ingram and Cam Newton (2009-10). In fact, only twice since 1955 has a conference won consecutive Heismans with two different teams. UCLA’s Gary Beban and USC’s O.J. Simpson went back-to-back in 1967-68.
Finally, only one true defensive player (Charles Woodson) and only two wide receivers (Tim Brown, Desmond Howard) have ever won the award.
With this in mind, here are the Pac-12’s front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014 (with current Bovada odds):
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (11/2)
He is arguably the most gifted athlete in the country and he is running one of the most prolific offenses in the nation. Should he stay healthy, Oregon is also the front-runner to win the Pac-12 and play in the playoff. The talent, the numbers, the winning and championship coattails could all be in Mariota’s corner.
2. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA (16/1)
One of my favorite bets, the UCLA quarterback is eyeing everything that Mariota is targeting. His numbers should be comparable and Hundley will have a chance at home to knock off the Ducks late in the year. If UCLA makes a run at the Playoff, Hundley could easily be in New York.
3. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State (66/1)
Not many players have thrown for at least 3,000 yards and rushed for at least 500 in the last two years but Kelly is one of them. He led ASU to the Pac-12 title game a year ago and another run at a league title — along with another 4,000-yard season — could get Kelly into the national discussion.
4. Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon (N/A)
The Ducks have five starters back along the offensive line and an offense that has churned out Heisman candidates at running back. Marshall rushed for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 168 carries last fall. If he can get upwards of 250 touches, he could lead the nation in rushing for Oregon. His only concern might be that backup Thomas Tyner might actually be the better player.
5. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State (50/1)
The Beavers quarterback threw for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns last year, trailing only Derek Carr as the nation’s leading passer. If he can cut back on interceptions — he threw 12 in the last five games — and lead his team to a few more wins, Mannion should have the numbers to get to New York.
6. D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State (N/A)
Marion Grice scored 20 touchdowns last year so Foster could flourish in his expanded role as top running back. While he won’t be a true workhorse, Foster has shown he can be used all over the field. In his two-year career, Foster has rushed for 994 yards on 195 carries while posting 1,186 yards on 101 receptions. If he can get more than 200 touches, the Sun Devils' smallish star will be on national radars.
7. Buck Allen, RB, USC (N/A)
Javorius “Buck” Allen took control the starting tailback job at USC in the second half of last year and it has vaulted him into award conversations. Allen rushed for over 100 yards in four of the last six games and scored 12 times during that span. A full season workload could make Allen the top true workhorse back in the conference this year.
8. Nelson Agholor, WR, USC (N/A)
The first-team All-American is dynamic enough and versatile enough to get onto Heisman ballots. He scored twice on punt returns last fall while excelling as a No. 2 wideout for USC. Now, Agholor is the top target for an offense that will be much improved. He will get the ball in a lot of different ways and that could mean a monster season.
9. Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State (N/A)
The numbers will be there for the Mike Leach-coached quarterback. Halliday was third in the nation with 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns last year while getting Washington State back into the postseason. Much like Mannion, a few more wins and a few less turnovers would do wonders for Halliday.
10. Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington (N/A)
Fans and experts all point to Myles Jack as the top defensive candidate to break through this fall but he isn’t expected to be used on offense this fall. Thompson, on the other hand, could see more than spot duty for the Huskies. He is a freak athlete, an All-American candidate and could be the next two-way star.
Others to consider: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State; Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford; Cody Kessler, QB, USC; Austin Hill, WR, Arizona; Thomas Tyner, RB, Oregon
Five defensive players who should but won’t be in the mix:
Myles Jack, LB, UCLA (33/1)
Jack made a huge name for himself last fall while playing two ways. Unfortunately, Jim Mora has talked openly about returning his star linebacker to an exclusively defensive role. Either way, he is a star athlete who will be a national award winner at some point.
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
The first-team All-American cornerback consistently makes highlight-reel plays on defense. He has seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles in the last two seasons while making 147 total stops. He could be the most high-profile member of a Pac-12 championship defense.
Leonard Williams, DE, USC
The lanky defensive end is a projected top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and should he dominate the line of scrimmage once again — he has 26.0 TFL and 13.0 sacks in two seasons — he should be in line for national acclaim.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
From a talent standpoint, few can match Cravens’ size and speed combination. He proved as a true freshman last year that he could be special, posting 53 tackles and four interceptions.
HOOVER, Ala. — An injury to Aaron Murray last season gave Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason a taste of the big-time. The injury that never happened, though, ensured Mason would have a full year as an SEC quarterback.
As it became clear Mason would have trouble earning playing time behind Murray, Mason and Georgia coach Mark Richt formulated a plan to keep the Marietta, Ga., native in Athens.
One plank of that was a redshirt year in 2012 so Mason would be able to start his final season once Murray graduated. The redshirt, though, was no sure thing. Mason remained Georgia’s No. 2 quarterback as the Bulldogs won the SEC East. Had Murray gone down anytime before the bowl game, Richt would have burned Mason’s redshirt.
“Even that season was a little bit crazy because at any given time if Murray would have got hurt ... Hutson would have played,” Richt said.
Murray stayed healthy that season, meaning Richt now has the luxury of a fifth-year senior running the offense in 2014. Mason is a rarity, not only that he didn't transfer like many in his shoes would have, but he's also spent five seasons entrenched the same offensive system under Richt and Mike Bobo.
"He's really sacrificed a lot for this team," Richt said. "He's staying because he loves Georgia, and he especially loves his teammates. But he also knew that this season was going to come and he was going to be surrounded by a lot of skill guys — a lot of great backs, receivers, some veteran linemen, a defense that should be matured from a year ago."
Mason isn’t the only quarterback in the Southeast who needed to be patient for his turn. He’s one of three QBs at power programs who bucked a trend. South Carolina and Clemson will join Georgia with a senior under center in 2014.
As Mason waited for Murray to leave, South Carolina senior Dylan Thompson needed three-year starter Connor Shaw to move on before he could take over the job full-time. Clemson senior Cole Stoudt finally gets his shot after backing up three-year starter Tajh Boyd.
Murray and Boyd were their respective school's career leading passers. Shaw was South Carolina's all-time winningest quarterback.
Many quarterbacks in similar situations as Mason, Thompson and Stoudt would have sought a better chance to start at another school. Instead, this trio stuck around and each will play key roles on teams with high aspirations in 2014. Both Georgia and South Carolina have eyes on an SEC championship while Clemson is eager to prove it can be a player on the national stage without Boyd and All-America wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Of Thompson, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he'll need to "pack his college career into one season." The same could be said of any of the three.
Thompson has the most experience, even if it’s all relative.
He’s 3-0 as a starter and helped South Carolina complete a 28-25 win over Fiesta Bowl champion UCF when Shaw was hurt in the first quarter.
But there was also Thompson’s start against Missouri. He went 15-of-27 for 222 yards with an interception as South Carolina fell behind 17-0. Out of desperation, Spurrier turned back to Shaw, who led South Carolina to a 27-24 win in double overtime despite a knee injury.
“I was just forcing the issue a lot,” Thompson said. “I’ve watched that tape I don’t know how many times, just learning to be patient and taking what the defense gives me. That’s what Connor did such a good job of.”
Thompson’s cross-state rival has thrown 118 career passes, but none in a contested game. Stoudt has completed 72.2 percent of his passes, almost all in lopsided games against the likes of South Carolina State, Ball State, Wake Forest and Virginia.
Stoudt had to win the job in spring, aided in part by the dismissal of Chad Kelly and the youth of Deshaun Watson. A top-100 freshman, Watson may be the quarterback of the future, but Clemson felt confident enough in Stoudt to hand him the keys to Chad Morris' offense.
“It's a huge thrill ride constantly,” Stoudt said at Media Day. “There's always something new every single day, and I've had a blast. I've never been more excited in my entire life.”
When Stoudt starts his first career game, he’ll do so against another first-year starter who at least got a taste last season.
The injury to Murray came in the final game of the SEC season, forcing Mason into duty. In his first start, he shook off a lackluster first half to lead a second-half comeback to beat Georgia Tech 41-34 in double overtime.
Where Stoudt inherits an offense run by one of the most dynamic coordinators in the country, Mason takes over an attack flush with skill position talent. Now healthy, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett could form one of the best running back/receiver groups in the SEC.
“Hutson has done a great job,” Conley said. “He’s been a field general out here, a leader. He’s done a great job of getting the team to rally behind him. The offense will be in good hands.”
South Carolina and Clemson hope to be saying the same thing this fall.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 21:
• Kim Kardashian has mastered the bikini selfie. At least she has one marketable skill.
• How rare is it for a Hall of Famer to return to the team he started with? Pretty rare, as it turns out.
• Take a peek under David Feherty's hood. Kind of a scary place.
• Speed golf: A game I could enjoy watching. (But not playing.)
• Some WWE Russian heels referenced the downed Malaysian flight. Oh, well, wrestling's not known for good taste.
• Watch an alert dad grab a foul ball while maintaining his grip on his toddler.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fourteen NFL teams have hired a new head coach in the last two offseasons and one of those franchises (Cleveland) doubled their pleasure during this span. With nearly half of the league employing first- or second-year head coaches, “tenure” isn’t exactly a word that’s used to describe this fraternity.
Even with all of the recent turnover at the top, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any coaches who are already feeling the pressure with Week 1 still more than six weeks away. These four head coaches need to produce results this fall if they don’t want to become the newest to join the ranks of the unemployed.
1) Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
The pressure’s always on for the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but that’s especially true for Garrett, who is in the final year of his contract and desperately needs to get his team into the playoffs. In his three and a half seasons at the helm, Garrett has yet to post a winning record over a full season. After going 5-3 when he replaced Wade Phillips (1-7 start) halfway through the 2010 season, Garrett has posted three consecutive .500 campaigns.
While the Cowboys’ four-year postseason drought is no doubt tough for owner/general manager Jerry Jones to stomach, the late collapses have been even more painful for him to endure. In each of the past three seasons, Dallas has had a chance to win the NFC East title. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have gone 0-3 in these games, which is a big reason why Garrett is feeling the heat in Big D.
2) Rex Ryan, New York Jets
Since leading the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons, Ryan’s team has gone 22-26 and missed the playoffs three straight years. With general manager John Idzik entering just his second season with the Jets, the onus is on Ryan to show Idzik (as well as owner Woody Johnson) he’s still the man for this job.
Ryan did sign a contract extension in January that carries him through at least 2016, but the pact has some interesting language, including verbiage that states the deal isn’t fully guaranteed after the ‘15 season. The contract also features incentives related to postseason success. In other words, the writing in his contract is pretty much the writing on the wall for Ryan this season – make the playoffs or you may not be with the Jets in 2015.
3) Joe Philbin, Miami Dolphins
Philbin had the Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card chase until disappointing back-to-back losses to end the season. So after a two-game improvement (7-9) from his rookie year, why is he on the hot seat?
For one, thanks to an embarrassing bullying scandal that put the team in the national spotlight for all of the wrong reasons, the pressure is on Philbin to show his critics that he is in control of the locker room. The ‘Fins also need to focus on making headlines for what happens on the field, not off of it. And while Philbin survived the Dolphins’ tumultuous offseason, several others did not. With former Tampa Bay executive Dennis Hickey now in place as the general manager, Philbin may as well treat this season like a job interview. And in that respect, hopefully the on-the-field results will provide all the answers to Hickey’s questions.
4) Dennis Allen, Oakland Raiders
Allen’s gone 4-12 in each of his first two seasons in Oakland and let’s face it, no one expects the Raiders to produce a miraculous turnaround this year either. However, these are no longer Al Davis’ Raiders, as son Mark has taken over the reins and empowered general manager Reggie McKenzie to overhaul the roster.
McKenzie was very busy this offseason, using free agency and a couple of trades to bring in a lot of new faces. The Raiders clearly have a long way go before they can be considered legitimate contenders, and with recent draft picks like linebacker Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and cornerback D.J. Hayden considered a big part of the future, it’s not out of the question that the next change made is at head coach. After all, the Raiders certainly are no strangers to coaching changes — try seven different head coaches since Jon Gruden left after the 2001 season.
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
Last season, Lewis became the first in coach in Bengals’ history to earn three straight playoff berths. Unfortunately, Lewis is still looking for his first postseason victory (0-5), and even though he’s the winningest coach in franchise history (90-85-1 in 11 seasons), one can’t help but wonder if Lewis has taken this team as far as he can. And despite all of his success in Cincinnati, Lewis’ current contract is set to expire after the 2015 season.
Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were decimated by injuries last season, so Smith should get a mulligan for their 4-12 showing, which broke a string of three consecutive 10-win seasons. However, with the NFC South only getting tougher and owner Arthur Blank readying his shiny (and expensive) new stadium in 2017, it wouldn’t hurt Smith to show that 2013 was the exception and not the norm.
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
From coach of the year to the unemployment line? It’s not likely, considering Rivera led the Panthers to an improbable 12-4 record and NFC South title last season, which netted him the AP’s NFL Coach of the Year award. However, after nearly doubling his win total from his first two years (13-19) at the helm, Rivera can’t afford too many steps backward this season in what figures to be a tightly contested division. Fair or not, Rivera has raised the expectation level in Charlotte, which subsequently decreases his margin for error.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
A two-time AFC champion with a Super Bowl ring to his credit, it’s entirely possible that Tomlin directs the Steelers back to the top of the AFC North this season. And should that happen, any questions surrounding his job security would be rendered moot. However, after consecutive 8-8 finishes which resulted in the proud franchise’s first extended playoff drought in more than a decade, Tomlin also knows that his team needs to produce better results in 2014 if he doesn’t want to worry about answering said questions.
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
Coughlin has won two Super Bowls with the Giants and is among the top 15 head coaches in all-time wins (14th with 158). Even if the Giants fare considerably worse than 7-9 this season, I don’t really see any scenario in which co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch fire Coughlin, who is the third-longest tenured head coach (11 seasons). However, considering the Giants’ steady decline since their 2011 Super Bowl run, I am not ruling out the possibility that Coughlin makes the decision to call it quits after a Hall of Fame-worthy career that covers nearly two decades. If anything, Coughlin, who is signed through the 2015 season, has earned the right to leave on his terms.
At one point during Sunday's coronation at Royal Liverpool, Rory McIlroy's lead, which was six at the start of the day, had dwindled to two over Sergio Garcia. But this was no Van de Velde moment in the making. McIlroy was really never threatened on his way to a two-shot British Open win and his third major championship. "I got within two,” Garcia said, “but to me, it never felt that close."
McIlroy now owns three of golf's four crown jewels, and at 25, he's the third-youngest since The Masters began in 1934 to earn the trifecta, trailing only Jack Nicklaus (23) and Tiger Woods (24). Yes, that's the company that McIlroy is now keeping, and he displays the kind of power ball-striking, poise and desire that marked the two legends at similar stages in their careers.
As Woods continues his long, slow fade, it seems that we have entered the Age of Rory. We may never see the kind of dominance that Woods displayed in his prime, when his dreaded A-game left everyone else playing for second, but McIlroy is willing to take the top spot for a test drive. “Golf is looking to someone to put their hand up and try,” said McIlroy. “I want to be the guy who goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly, wins tournaments. I’ve love to be in that position.”
And the lead story for the 2015 Masters has already been written: McIlroy will look to complete the career Grand Slam at a tournament he seems destined to win. “Looking forward to driving up Magnolia Lane next year,” he said.
Here are the key stats from the weekend at Royal Liverpool:
McIlroy is the 16th player to win at least three of the four major championships. He's the 44th player to win as many as three majors.
Sergio Garcia posted his fourth runner-up finish in his 62nd major appearance. He's tied with Lee Westwood for most major appearances without a win.
McIlroy tied Victor Dubuisson for most greens reached in under regulation, with seven. McIlroy eagled two of the final three holes on Saturday to build what turned out to be an insurmountable lead.
Only one player in the field posted four rounds in the 60s — Rickie Fowler, who went 69-69-68-67 to finish at 15-under, tied with Garcia for second, two shots back. Fowler was second at the U.S. Open and tied for fifth at The Masters. "Going into the year the goal was to be in contention at majors and play well and have chances to win," Fowler said. "And with all the good play, the long-distance goal on that was to be on the Ryder Cup team. With the way I've playing in the majors this year, that's definitely what has given me the opportunity to represent the country."
At 64, Tom Watson shot a final-round 68 to finish at 1-over. He was seven shots better than a player he'll be considering for his Ryder Cup squad, Tiger Woods.
Rory McIlroy's dad, Gerry, and three friends placed a bet of 400 pounds back in 2004 that Rory would win the Open before he turned 26. The quartet will cash a check worth $340,000 for Rory's efforts.
The days of Steve Spurrier’s Fun ’n’ Gun are long past — relegated to record books, YouTube clips and faded memories among longtime Florida Gators fans.
Tim Tebow is doing TV, Percy Harvin is preparing for his sixth NFL season and Urban Meyer is coaching at Ohio State.
The Gators’ offense followed them out the door, apparently never to return.
Left now are question marks, coaching transition and waning patience from even the most loyal Florida fans.
Head coach Will Muschamp enters his fourth year on the hot seat following the program’s first losing season since 1979. While Muschamp’s defenses have finished each year ranked in the top 10 nationally, his offenses have not once cracked the top 100. The Gators averaged 14.4 points during a seven-game losing streak to cap 2013’s 4–8 season, leaving Muschamp with time for one more Hail Mary to save his coaching career in Gainesville.
Enter Kurt Roper, the longtime protégé of Duke head coach and quarterback whiz David Cutcliffe, one-time mentor of Eli Manning at Ole Miss and the man handed one of the toughest jobs in college football.
Roper’s up-tempo scheme carried the Blue Devils to new heights and helped Duke’s offense go toe-to-toe with Johnny Football and Texas A&M during a shootout loss in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Now, Roper has one offseason at Florida to teach his system to a collection of unprovens, unknowns and underachievers.
Or else he and the Gators’ coaching staff might not be back for another offseason.
“We have to produce,” Muschamp says. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. I’d feel a little bit more uncomfortable if we didn’t have some of the talented players we have on our football team.
Florida's Offense Over the Last Three Years
|Total offense||316.7 ypg|
|Yards per play||4.79 ypp|
“I feel confident in the players we have and the changes we’ve made in our staff moving forward.”
The Gators finished 2013 ranked last in the SEC in points and yards. Even in 2012, when Florida went 11–2 and earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl, the Gators were last in the league in passing.
The day after Florida’s season ended with a 37–7 loss to Florida State and without a bowl bid for the first time in 23 years, Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after two seasons.
Muschamp is banking on Roper and veteran offensive line coach Mike Summers to tap into the potential of a host of high-level recruits who have failed to produce as planned.
Chief among them is junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who will be the key if the Gators’ offense is to turn things around in 2014. Driskel is 11–3 as a starter at Florida, but he rode the coattails of the nation’s best defense as a sophomore in 2012, finishing with 12 touchdown passes and 35 sacks, many because he held onto the ball too long. Last season, Driskel had five turnovers, including three critical miscues during a 21–16 loss at Miami, before he broke his leg in the season’s third game, against Tennessee.
Related: College Football's Top Players Returning From Injury for 2014
But one thing Driskel has shown he can do is run; he totaled 716 rushing yards, not including sacks, in 2012.
Roper will place Driskel in the shotgun and use the spread formation to highlight the dual-threat abilities that made him the nation’s No. 1 quarterback recruit in 2011. Too often, Driskel appeared paralyzed by the decision-making required of Pease’s pro-style system.
“He’s talented, folks,” Roper said in March during spring practices. “I mean we’re sitting here talking about a guy that’s really, really gifted. And his experience shows whenever we have conversations. He understands football. It’s not his first rodeo.”
Upbeat evaluations are as common that time of year as springtime allergies. Optimism also does not hide the facts. No returning Gator wide receiver caught more than one touchdown in 2013, while the tight ends (not including Virginia transfer Jake McGee) combined for four receptions. Tailback Kelvin Taylor, son of former NFL star Fred Taylor, displayed a hard-running style as a first-year player, but the Gators lack a home-run threat anywhere on offense to change a game in one play.
Meanwhile, Summers, a 34-year coaching veteran, faces one of his toughest assignments yet when it comes to the Gators’ offensive line. Florida allowed 66 sacks the past two seasons and lost two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries in 2013. UF’s run game averaged 3.6 yard per carry. Worse, the Gators lost their two best linemen, three-year starters Jon Harrison and Jon Halapio.
“They don’t have a receiver on their football team that would start at another SEC school right now,” Scout.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg says. “Think about that. This is the University of Florida.”
Under Spurrier, the Gators revolutionized SEC football. The Fun ’n’ Gun era produced four straight SEC championships, a national title and 59 40-point games.
The Gators won two more national titles using Meyer’s spread offense, with Tebow at the controls and thoroughbreds like Harvin lined up beside him.
Offensive talent flocked to Gainesville during those days. Lately, top recruits are jumping ship.
When five-star running back Dalvin Cook of Miami changed his commitment in January from Florida to Florida State, the Gators lost the kind of big-play threat they have lacked since Harvin. Cook also left Florida fans with a bad taste in their mouths when he explained his decision.
“Coach Roper is a great coach, but I don’t think Florida has the athletes like Duke got,” Cook said. “That’s all I can say.”
Recruiting misses, injuries and coaching turnover have plagued the Gators dating to Meyer’s final season in 2010.
To see the big picture, look no further than sixth-year senior wide receiver Andre Debose.
Debose was tabbed “the next Percy Harvin” when he signed with the Gators in 2009. Since then, he has worked with five wide receivers coaches, four offensive coordinators and endured two season-ending injuries.
These days, Debose is recovering from an ACL tear suffered last August, hoping finally to make his mark during the extra season gained by the NCAA’s medical hardship waiver. A five-star recruit with four touchdown catches in three seasons, Debose will turn 24 the day before the Gators’ SEC opener on Sept. 13 at home against Kentucky. He believes he stuck around long enough to see Florida finally turn things around on offense.
“I expect this offense to definitely put up some numbers,” Debose says. “I feel like the whole SEC is changing to the spread from the smashmouth. It’s going to be a challenge this season for other teams to stop us.”
Roper says that the offense that Florida will put on the field will be far easier to execute than it will be for opposing teams to stop.
“The Gators want to have an offense that is simple to learn, but complicated to defend,” he says.
The mandate for Debose, Roper and the entire Florida offense this season is not complicated in the least: It’s time to produce.
Written by Edgar Thompson (@osgators) of the Orlando Sentinel for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
The upcoming NFL season marks the kickoff of everyone's real favorite sport — fantasy football. Only one team in your league will be crowned Super Bowl champion. But it just takes a dirty joke or some well-crafted Johnny Football trolling to cash in on the best fantasy football team name. Here are a few suggestions for this season:
Drake's New Favorite Team
Waka Flacco Flame
U Mad Bro?
Taste My Rainbow
12th Man Records
Bout That Action, Boss
Harbaugh's Dad Pants
Vince Young's Steakhouse
Cry Me a Rivers
Hernandez Hit Men
The Gronk Abides
Party Like a Gronk Star
Wilfork Dance Party
Mr. UGG Boots
Jay-Z's My Agent
Off to Tennessee the Whiz
Remember the Titans
I Don't Want Your Life
Bud Kilmer's Coyotes
Kissing Suzy Kolber
Smokin' Jay Cutler
Dirty Sanchez Butt-Fumblers
Purple Jesus Juice
All Day 2K
J.J. S.W.A.T.T. Team
Clowney Question Bro
Eli Looking at Things
You Down With JPP?
Peyton Manning's 5-Head
Mile High Manning
Welker, Texas Ranger
Sherman's Last Rant
The Boldin the Beautiful
Call Me the Brees
Jimmy "WR" Graham
Jason Garrett's Ginger Boys
Monte Kiffin's 401K
Dez Does Dallas
80% Mental, 40% Physical
Show Me the Money
Super Bowl Quadruple-Check
Prime Prep Two-Step
Don Beebe's Hustle
Big Ol' Bortles
Not Racist Redskins
Hard Knocks Life
Eat a Damn Snack
Suh Girls, One Cup
Boy Named Suh
Somewhere Over Dwayne Bowe
K.C. Kool-Aid Man
Turn Your Head and Coughlin
Tampa Bay Terminators
Polk High Panthers
JaMarcus' Purple Drank Diet
Jim Haslem's Accountants
Illiterate Read Option
Forgetting Brandon Marshall
Ron Mexico's Perro
It's Always Runny in Philadelphia
Favre Dollar Footlong
Van Buren Boys
Makin' It Wayne
Red Hot Julius Peppers
Show Me Your TDs
Slow White Bronco
Wham, Bam, Michael Sam
Straight Cash Homey
Gruden vs. Gruden
Entering last season, the two rookies that were widely projected to have the biggest fantasy impact in 2013 were running back Montee Ball and wide receiver Tavon Austin. Their electric debuts didn’t exactly materialize, for different reasons, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any first-year fantasy standouts either.
Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Zac Stacy all finished among the top 20 running backs in fantasy points, while San Diego’s Keenan Allen put up better numbers than the likes of Pro Bowl wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Victor Cruz, among many others.
So which members of the 2014 NFL Draft class are the ones to target for your fantasy team this season?
1. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo
No one was really surprised when the Bills traded up to grab Watkins at No. 4 overall. And based on the steep price (two first-round picks, one fourth) the team paid to do so, it’s pretty clear the former Clemson star will be a huge part of the offensive game plan from the start. Watkins was a threat to break off a big play whenever he touched the ball in college, and his all-purpose skills only add to his appeal. The Bills traded away No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson during the draft, so the opportunity is there for Watkins to step in and immediately become quarterback EJ Manuel’s favorite target.
2. Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee
The first running back off of the board, Sankey (above, right) is the beneficiary of an unsettled Titans backfield with Chris Johnson now on the Jets and Shonn Greene coming off of knee surgery, along with the fact the team has a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt. A workhorse at Washington, Sankey figures to see plenty of touches this fall and should be the first rookie running back drafted.
3. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans
The nation’s best wide receiver lands on a team with a future Hall of Fame quarterback. It could be a match made in fantasy heaven for Cooks, who caught 128 passes last season. While it wouldn’t shock me to see Cooks post the best numbers of any rookie wideout when all is said and done, there’s still the matter of grasping the Saints’ complex passing game and the fact that Drew Brees doesn’t lack for targets with Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas around.
4. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina
The Panthers’ top four wide receivers from last season are gone, so opportunity should not be an issue for Benjamin. A big (6-5, 241) target, Cam Newton should have little trouble finding Benjamin, provided the rookie learns the ins and outs of being an NFL wide receiver.
5. Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati
Giovani Bernard is the Bengals’ top backfield option, but he’s also more of the change-of-pace guy, not the bruising, between-the-tackles rusher. Right now that job belongs to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but Hill could quickly supplant him. To that end, even though BJGE averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry last season, he did have seven rushing touchdowns.
6. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Hakeem Nicks is now in Indianapolis, so that certainly helps Beckham’s chances of getting on the field early. However, the Giants already have Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan at the position, and with a grizzly old veteran like Tom Coughlin as head coach, Beckham will have to earn his playing time. Still, with no established tight end on the roster and Eli Manning at quarterback, there’s much to like about Beckham’s fantasy potential.
7. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay
The jury seems to be out on Evans, but there’s no disputing his production (1,394 yards, 12 TDs at Texas A&M last season) or the fact he’s a large (6-5) target capable of making big plays down the field. In addition, the Buccaneers traded Mike Williams to Buffalo, so the No. 2 job opposite Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson is available.
8. Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco
The thinking is that Hyde is the heir apparent to Frank Gore, who has nearly 2,200 carries in his career. However, Gore is only 31 years old and the 49ers have other options in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and a rehabbing Marcus Lattimore (see below). The 49ers love to run the ball, but don’t lack for mouths to feed either.
9. Marqise Lee, WR, Jacksonville
A first-round talent according to many scouts, Lee fell in the Jaguars’ lap early in the second. With Justin Blackmon’s future with the team uncertain at best, the only sure thing Jacksonville has at wide receiver is Cecil Shorts. If not for the quarterback situation, Lee would be higher on this list.
10. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland
The No. 1 attraction in the entire draft class, Manziel won’t be handed the starting job by rookie head coach Mike Pettine. However, considering Brian Hoyer has four total career starts under his belt, it may just be a matter of time before Manziel is running the show. His dual-threat ability is obviously appealing, but don’t push Manziel too high up your draft board, unless it’s a keeper/dynasty league.
11. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit
Although he didn’t play basketball, Ebron fits the Jimmy Graham mold pretty well and he landed with a team that’s fairly pass-happy in its own right. Ebron’s shortcomings as a blocker may actually bolster his fantasy value, especially if the Lions line him up out wide (See: Jimmy Graham).
12. Tre Mason, RB, St. Louis
The Heisman finalist finds himself behind Zac Stacy, another SEC alumnus, in the Rams’ backfield pecking order. Head coach Jeff Fisher seems committed to Stacy, last year’s fifth-round pick who emerged from nowhere to seize the starting job. However, that doesn’t mean history can’t repeat itself this season with Mason. At worst, Mason figures to be a potential flex play or bye week fill-in down the road.
13. Terrance West, RB, Cleveland
The Browns signed Ben Tate as a free agent, but his production has dipped in the past few seasons and he has struggled to stay healthy. Coming from FBS member Towson, West may be somewhat unknown and unheralded, but that could change if he gets enough touches this season.
14. Jace Amaro, TE, New York Jets
Amaro was a pass-catching magnet at Texas Tech, which is something the Jets haven’t had at tight end since Dustin Keller. The question is can Geno Smith find and, more importantly, connect with Amaro?
15. Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia
Plenty to like about the SEC’s all-time leading wide receiver, but it remains to be seen how Chip Kelly will use him in an offense that attempted the sixth-fewest passes last season. Also don’t forget about the additions of Jeremy Maclin (missed last season with torn ACL) and Darren Sproles (via trade with New Orleans).
16. Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville
Like Marqise Lee, Robinson immediately bolsters a receiving corps that lacked playmakers. But Robinson is probably behind Lee and Cecil Shorts on the depth chart for a team that finished near the bottom in pass offense last season. A hamstring injury suffered during OTAs only adds to the uncertainty surrounding Robinson’s fantasy potential.
17. Charles Sims, RB, Tampa Bay
Doug Martin should be 100 percent recovered from a torn labrum, which probably limits Sims’ chances. However, new Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith probably sees some Matt Forté in Sims, who could carve out a role as a receiver out of the backfield.
18. Jerick McKinnon, RB, Minnesota
Toby Gerhart is now in Jacksonville, so the backup job is there for the taking. Just remember who holds the No. 1 job in Minnesota, which is the main reason Gerhart is now a Jaguar.
19. De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Kansas City
Can Thomas be Andy Reid’s new Dexter McCluster? If so, the former Oregon all-purpose dynamo could develop into a fantasy sleeper.
20. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay
Like teammate Mike Evans, Seferian-Jenkins was very productive in college. Unfortunately, Seferian-Jenkins’ path to the Buccaneers’ starting lineup doesn’t seem as clear as Evans’, not with last year’s pleasant surprise, 2013 undrafted free agent Timothy Wright, and a couple of veteran tight ends on the roster.
Others to Watch (alphabetical order):
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay – Great quarterback, crowded receiving corps.
Dri Archer, RB, Pittsburgh – Special teams weapon could see role as change-of-pace back.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota – May be most pro-ready rookie QB, but Vikings in no rush to throw him out there.
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Chicago – Open competition to be Matt Forté’s backup.
Shaq Evans, WR, New York Jets – After Eric Decker Jets’ receiving corps is unsettled.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta – Steven Jackson is not getting any younger.
Nate Freese, K, Detroit – Kickers score points too, especially for an offense like Detroit’s.
T.J. Jones, WR, Detroit – Plenty of targets available for another Lion wide receiver to emerge behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami – Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace weren’t exactly on the same page last season.
Cody Latimer, WR, Denver – Any Denver wide receiver deserves to be mentioned, but Latimer may be more of a 2015 option.
Paul Richardson, WR, Seattle – Golden Tate is gone, while Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice are no strangers to the injury report.
Devin Street, WR, Dallas – Miles Austin’s departure presents an opportunity for a new No. 3 wide receiver to emerge.
Lorenzo Taliaferro, RB, Baltimore – Ravens running backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry last season.
(Bishop Sankey photo courtesy of Tennessee Titans' Web site, www.titansonline.com; Odell Beckham Jr. photo courtesy of New York Giants' Web site, newyorkgiants.com; Jace Amaro photo courtesy of New York Jets' Web site, www.newyorkjets.com; Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings' Web site, www.vikings.com)
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 18:
• The other day, John Daly was wearing SpongeBob pants. Today, it was pants with drawings of well-endowed ladies. Hope he packed enough pants for the weekend; looks like he's going to make the cut.
• This is shocking and disappointing: Several of today's top golfers couldn't name the four Beatles. That's like Pop Culture 101, fellas.
• For some insane reason, Tyler Seguin let a Stars fan tee up and hit a ball off his junk.
• MLS MVP Mike Magee made a Ferris Bueller parody. Never heard of him, but it's well done.
• Watch a guy use a child's slide and trampoline to beclown himself. I bet his last words will someday be "Watch this."
• Jimmy Fallon is livin' the dream. Last night, he played flip cups with Miranda Kerr.
• A guy wanted A.J. Hawk to tackle him at a celebrity golf tournament. A.J. Hawk happily obliged.
• Pickin's are so slim in Miami that D-Wade has taken to playing ball with a dolphin.
• Sonny Gray pranked some unsuspecting New Yorkers.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
2014 was a fun year in the football universe, culminating in a Super Bowl championship for the Seattle Seahawks and a runner-up finish for the Denver Broncos. Though these two squads enjoyed deep postseason runs, not every city is blessed with athletes as accomplished as Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson.
Some teams string along years of dominance through frugal management and brilliant coaching (see: New England Patriots). Others take time to build the foundation of a championship-quality roster (see: Kansas City Chiefs). And every year, a few teams find themselves with the short end of the stick, crashing and burning before they can even figure out what the problem is. But these unfortunate squads are notable not necessarily for the games they lost, but rather for the games they could have won. Football is truly a “game of inches”, so even the most minute offseason changes can turn a bottom-dweller into a contender in a hurry.
Though the number of wins varies greatly around the league each year, the parity in talent levels between NFL teams is not as wide a gap as many would imagine. Whether it's through the draft or free agency or a byproduct of the coaching carousel, not mention a bit of fortune, there are a myriad of ways by which a team can go from worst to first fairly quickly. With that in mind, here are five teams ready to rebound in 2014.
2013 Record: 4-12
2014 Schedule Outlook: Fair
The Bad: Tough division & brutal final stretch - last four games: at Packers, home vs. Steelers, at Saints, home vs. Panthers
The Good: 4 out of last 6 games are at home
Matt Ryan and company return to the field coming off of the franchise’s ugliest campaign in recent memory. With HBO’s "Hard Knocks" filming the Falcons' training camp this summer, the spotlight is on the “dirty birds” to produce in a big fashion in 2014. Two seasons ago, the team nearly wound up in the Super Bowl. The Falcons also made appearances in the postseason in 2010 and '11. The forecast was sunny back then; Atlanta projected as a championship candidate for years to come. How quickly things have changed.
Last season, the Falcons were the victims of a greatly improved NFC South. Cam Newton’s rise to supremacy in the division hasn’t allowed much breathing room for the rest of the division’s teams. When you pair the Panthers’ emergence with the return the Saints had after getting head coach Sean Payton back, it was only natural for the Falcons to drop off a small amount. But four wins is a mark expected at the season’s quarter waypoint in the Peach State. Losing Tony Gonzalez to retirement means it will be tough for the Falcons to return to normalcy in 2014. Still, Julio Jones, Roddy White and a talented group of newcomers will do all that’s humanly possible to get this squad back to relevancy.
In 2013, Jones suffered a tragic, season-ending foot fracture in Week 5. The Falcons lost that game to the Jets, and went on to win just three of their next 11. Jones should be healthy and ready to roll in 2014. Additionally, seven of the Falcons' 12 losses last year were by a touchdown or less, and the majority of the teams that they lost to were playoff qualifiers. Clearly, the Falcons were a few mishaps away from having a vastly different record.
Atlanta has gotten increasingly younger over the past few years and with nine draft picks in 2014, the Falcons addressed one of their most detrimental problems: a lack of depth. With the sixth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons selected Jake Matthews, offensive tackle from Texas A&M. Matthews was an important factor in Johnny Manziel’s collegiate stardom. If the tackle’s superb instincts and size translate to the next level, Matt Ryan will be taking his O-line out to plenty of steak dinners over the course of the season.
Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is a bit of an enigma coming out of the University of Minnesota. He has the physical tools that he needs to excel in the NFL, but scouts questioned his consistency and every-down performance. Aside from those two studs, the Falcons used the remaining seven picks mainly to address some issues in the secondary and with the pass rush. It wasn’t the most star-studded of classes, but the Falcons now have a few more players who can fill the various holes in a thin roster.
Ultimately, the Falcons’ 2014 draft class won’t make or break this team’s season. Young bucks like cornerback Desmond Trufant must improve while new additions, namely defensive tackle Paul Soliai, must prove their worth. New running back Devonta Freeman has been brought in to complement existing backfield weapons Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. But none of those three, or Ryan, will be able to get anything going if blockers don’t create time for them to react. In short, this team will travel as far as its offensive line allows.
With an abundance of offensive talent, all Atlanta truly needs is a solid wall of blockers that allows the team’s playmakers to show why they’re paid the big bucks. The wins this year might come in shootouts, but a W on the schedule is all that matters for coach Mike Smith. If the “dirty birds” stick to the game plan, this season won’t end after 16 games for this squad.
Projected Record: 10-6, Wild Card berth
2013 Record: 7-9
2014 Schedule Outlook: Easy
The Bad: At Patriots Week 12, then at Bears, at Packers Weeks 16 & 17
The Good: Face the yardage-anemic Vikings twice. Jets, Dolphins & Buccaneers also are on the schedule
The Detroit Lions have the tools to navigate the 2014 season deftly and end up in the driver’s seat of a very winnable NFC North. Yes, they finished third last year behind the Packers and Bears, but the Lions are due for a successful season.
Even with Calvin Johnson snatching every football in sight, Detroit has struggled to meet its potential each and every season. Now, with quarterback Matthew Stafford signed to a three-year, $53 million extension through 2017, it’s time for the Lions to show up. It’s no secret that first-year head coach Jim Caldwell and his revamped coaching staff inherits a touchy situation in Motor City. The good news for Caldwell is that a stacked offense and a serviceable defense should secure his job for years to come.
Stafford has arguably the richest treasure chest of play-toys of any QB in the NFL. Between Reggie Bush, Megatron, and the newly acquired Golden Tate, plenty of touchdowns are going to be scored. The real question is: exactly how many TDs will be scored, and how fast will they reach the end zone? On the defensive side of the ball, there are a few more pressing questions. Will the secondary hold up? Will a skilled pass-rushing unit finally penetrate the opposing pocket? These are just a few of the unanswered issues heading into the season.
Detroit is betting on its defensive roster to improve based on physical training and an increased familiarity with schemes after doing little in the offseason to add new pieces to a decent unit. The Lions see 13-year veteran Rashean Mathis as the potential solution at the cornerback position. This display of complacency should tell you all you need to know about the state of the Detroit secondary. However, the team did sign James Ihedigbo, who comes off a standout season in Baltimore, at the safety spot. You’re only as good as your weakest link. If that saying is true, the Lions will live and die with their defensive backs in 2014.
Detroit decided to upgrade its already potent offense this draft. With the 10th overall pick, management had a ton of potential routes in which the franchise could be redirected. By taking Eric Ebron, a freak athlete who starred at tight end for North Carolina, the Lions made their intentions clear. Detroit is choosing to approach the NFL, a quarterback’s league, by surrounding its own field-manager with a loaded arsenal of weaponry. If Stafford can’t get the job done with this supporting cast, it’ll be hard to defend his role as an NFL starter.
The Lions’ other picks were mainly oriented towards a long-term vision, but the team’s second-round pick caught some eyes. Kyle Van Noy, a popular BYU linebacker and rusher, was a projected top-10 pick if he had left school a year ago. After his senior year, his stock fell off and he was forgotten as prospects like Khalil Mack stole the limelight. Detroit doesn’t mind; Van Noy will compete for the starting strong-side linebacker job from day one.
Last season, this team simply collapsed under pressure – Lions fans are familiar with this occurrence. The team won just two of its last eight games. This would be considered a dismal outcome for any team, much less a postseason hopeful. But with all five pieces on an excellent offensive line returning, a new and improved coaching staff, and an explosive offensive toolbox, the Lions are destined for the playoffs in 2014. Shaky defense and special teams means that the bulk of Detroit’s wins must come from overwhelming offensive performances. But Jim Caldwell doesn’t mind grinding out a win, and he’ll take as many as he rightfully can in his first year in Motown.
Projected Record: 11-5, win NFC North
2013 Record: 6-10
2014 Schedule Outlook: Merciful
The Bad: At Chicago to open things, at Denver in Week 14, wrap up at New England in Week 17
The Good: Play the lowly Jets twice. Toughest two-week stretch is Weeks 5-6: at Detroit followed by home vs. New England
Last year was a rough outing for the Buffalo Bills. They performed valiantly, competing up until the last minute in almost every game, but still walked away with the worst record in the AFC East. In reality, the Bills’ record could have easily been 10-6 instead of 6-10. To elaborate, the Bills lost to New England by two points in their first game and later fell short against Cincinnati and Atlanta in overtime. These three missed opportunities demonstrate just how frustrating 2013 was for the organization. This year, expect a reversal of fortune for Buffalo, as the Bills have found continuity and have added a few big-time players to the roster via the NFL Draft.
Breaking in a new head coach and quarterback last year proved to be a difficult process. Rookie coach Doug Marrone proved his worth, while quarterback EJ Manuel showed flashes of promise. A knee injury held Manuel out for much of the season and when he saw the field, his stats weren’t exactly eye-popping. But with receiver Robert Woods assuming a greater role in the offense and the addition of the explosive Sammy Watkins, you can count on an enormous jump in performance from Buffalo’s QB.
The 2014 NFL Draft has allowed the Bills to upgrade many positions this offseason. They acquired help on the offensive line by selecting Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandijo and Baylor’s Cyril Richardson. These two will undoubtedly help Manuel make further strides in his game. But the Bills made the most noise in this draft by trading up in the first round to draft Watkins with the fourth pick. We might find that the Bills made a league-altering decision when we look back on this selection in 10 years. Watkins has the potential to be a difference-maker from his first snap in the NFL, and he better do so because the Bills gave up next year’s first-round choice to select him. In free agency, the organization added linebacker Brandon Spikes to an already fearsome defensive unit. Even with the loss of safety Jairus Byrd, it’s safe to say this offseason has been good to the Buffalo Bills.
The franchise is trudging through the longest active postseason drought in the NFL, the last appearance coming in 1999. But this drought can end in 2014 if the Bills win the close ones. Mario Williams, the first overall draft pick in the 2006 draft, has blossomed into one of the league’s best pass-rushers, quietly recording 13 sacks last season. Losing second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL poses a challenge for the Bills. Still, the defense won't need to do much to see the team finish second in a weak AFC East. On offense, C.J. Spiller flies under the radar but is on a short list of the most electric rushers and return specialists in the NFL.
Clearly, this team has the necessary talent to succeed. The only question now is if that talent will translate to wins. With a forgiving schedule and an improved offensive repertoire, don’t be too surprised if Buffalo snags a playoff spot in 2014.
Projected Record: 10-6, Wild Card berth
2013 Record: 2-14
2014 Schedule Outlook: Ideal
The Bad: Probably not winning the AFC South outright over the Colts
The Good: Gift of a schedule – Open against Redskins at home, second half of season features only three teams with winning records in 2013
It’s rare for a team to be truly worthy of a two-win record. In the case of the Houston Texans, the roster wasn’t the worst in the league but 2013 was a season that completely fell apart. The team’s starting quarterback was traded, the head coach was fired, but the misery did deliver the first overall pick to the franchise. After a league-worst record and a 10-win drop-off from the previous season, one would expect a team to officially enter “rebuilding mode”, a euphemism for sucking. Badly. The Texans waited until the fourth round to grab a quarterback, which may restrict the team’s chances of rebounding. But with little expectation to make noise in the AFC, it’d be characteristic of the underdog Texans to turn some heads in 2014.
The Texans are a mirror image of the NFC's Falcons, minus a steady solution at the quarterback position. Like the Falcons, the Texans were considered dark horse Super Bowl candidates last season but turned out to be monumental frauds. The last 14 games that the Texans played have been losses, including a sweep against the Jaguars. Former quarterback Matt Schaub set the record last season for consecutive games with an interception returned for a touchdown. Star running back Arian Foster was sidelined with a back injury. Coach Gary Kubiak had a mid-season stroke. He was fired about a month later. It was more than a tough season for the Texans. It was a meltdown of epic proportions.
The biggest offseason event for this team was bringing a new head coach into town, Bill Belichick disciple and former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. If O’Brien can fix the offense as quickly as he did in Happy Valley, the Texans' faithful will be delighted with this hire. Under O’Brien, collegiate quarterback Matt McGloin completely stepped up his game and ended up landing with the Raiders.
Free agent pickup Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tom Savage can squeeze the most out of their potential in the new offensive scheme. Andre Johnson and Arian Foster won’t be too mad about it either. Though, all this depends upon a rock-solid offensive line. The problems, which will inevitably arise, will be mental rather than physical with this offense. The talent is there, but learning O’Brien’s complicated system may prove challenging.
Houston is putting a lot of trust in its defense to supply the pressure against divisional villains Andrew Luck, Jake Locker and Chad Henne. To add to an already fearsome defensive line that features the league’s finest pass-rusher in J.J. Watt, the Texans selected South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick in the draft.
It also helps that linebacker Brian Cushing should return from knee problems this year a healthier and more effective version of himself. Houston’s secondary is functional and in signing safeties Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis during free agency, the team shored up an important part of its roster. Notre Dame’s Louis Nix can help out on a thin interior defensive line, but the Texans' defense is still a few years away from being able to stop the league’s heavy hitters.
As of late, it’s been a tumultuous time for Houston – even Johnson, a career Texan and one of the most underrated receivers in the league, has expressed a desire to leave town. But if a team can fall apart as quickly and unfortunately as the Texans did last year, surely one can reenergize and transform itself in the same span. In arguably the weakest division in the NFL, Houston can contend. Luck’s Colts will likely maintain the top spot, but don’t be shocked if Houston finds reasonable success in 2014.
Projected Record: 8-8, miss playoffs
2013 Record: 3-13
2014 Schedule Outlook: Challenging
The Bad: Difficult non-divisional foes: home vs. Seahawks Week 5, at San Francisco Week 12, at Indianapolis Week 13
The Good: Open season at Houston & head home to play the Jaguars in Week 2, get the Seahawks after 10 days of rest
The NFC East is always an interesting battle. Most fans of the division would tell you that in any given year at least three of its teams are seemingly trying to lose. In Robert Griffin III’s sophomore season, the ‘Skins took a step back, regressing to a 3-13 record, missing the postseason, and finishing last in the division. Thanks to a difficult schedule, I wouldn’t count on Washington making a deep playoff run in 2014. Still, the team should look a lot sharper come when it kicks the season off on Sept. 7.
Mike Shanahan is out and Jay Gruden is in as Washington’s team leader. Gruden, brother of the more famous Super Bowl-winning coach and current ESPN analyst Jon, is an expert in quarterback development, with his most impressive product at the position being... Andy Dalton. Jay has been getting looks at head coach around the league for the past few years, but this is his first venture in the NFL as the leading man. There will be a short grace period for the coach his first two seasons in Washington. Regardless, quick results and a return to the success of 2012, a 10-win season with a playoff appearance, are still the goals for '14.
So what’s the issue with this team? Why couldn’t the Redskins replicate the win count in 2012? It’s simple: keep RGIII healthy, keep his jersey clean and you’ll have a chance against just about any team in the league. With the addition of DeSean Jackson in the offseason, if Griffin has time and is well protected, his passing numbers could very well peak this year. Signing Jackson was a coup, one that divisional foe Philadelphia will be crying about for quite some time. D-Jax can burn any defense in the league, and at the very least he distracts defenders, opening up opportunities for his teammates all over the field. With Gruden calling the shots, the Redskins' offense will be extremely difficult to stop in 2014.
On defense, coordinator Jim Haslett now has full control of personnel decisions. The pass rush should be adequate, with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan coming off the edges. Washington newbie Jason Hatcher, another divisional transfer, will see time at the defensive end position in Haslett’s aggressive scheme. Hatcher is coming off a career-high 11 sacks in 2013 with the Cowboys.
In the secondary, the Redskins added safety Ryan Clark to the aging, but experienced, tandem of DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather. Last year, the team’s defense ranked 30th in points allowed. If Haslett’s newfound independence doesn’t bring major improvements, you can count on another lackluster season.
The ‘Skins’ draft was not as captivating as it was for other teams in the league. In wheeling and dealing for Griffin two years ago, the Redskins set themselves back for a future rebuilding project. This offseason, Washington lacked a true first-round pick. With the team’s first selection coming at No. 47, it’s understandable that no major pieces were added. Still, this is bad news for a team looking for immediate help. The Redskins only used two of their eight draft choices to deal with their horrendous defense – something that could come back to the haunt the franchise later this season. Either way, Trent Murphy, a pass-rusher out of Stanford, and Morgan Moses, an offensive tackle from Virginia, were solid value picks that can help this team moving forward.
From NFC East champs to last place, this is the story of the 2012-13 Washington Redskins. With RGIII and DeSean Jackson running the show, this is one of the most egocentric teams in the league today. It will be fun (maybe not as a Redskins fan) to watch the rookie head coach balance the squad’s personalities while simultaneously fighting to win the NFC East. I don’t think the ‘Skins return to the throne this year, but the franchise will take a step in the right direction after a poor showing in 2013.
Like I said before, with a healthy Griffin, the sky is the limit. As the saying goes, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars." Gruden and company will be aiming high in their first season together, with a slight alteration to that quote: they hope to land smack dab in the middle of the NFC playoff race.
Projected Record: 8-8, miss playoffs
Virginia Tech has been one of the ACC’s most consistent programs under Frank Beamer’s watch.
The Hokies won at least 10 games in every season from 2004-11 and made five appearances in the ACC Championship game since 2005.
The last two years haven’t been up to Virginia Tech’s usual standard, as the Hokies are just 15-11 since 2012. A struggling offense has been the primary issue for Beamer, as Virginia Tech averaged just 22.5 points per game in 2013.
Once again, offense is the Hokies’ biggest concern. Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer is expected to push for the starting quarterback job, but the offense as a whole has to pickup their play in 2014.
With a wide open Coastal Division, Virginia Tech’s defense and favorable schedule could be enough to return to the conference title game.
Related: 2014 Virginia Tech Team Preview | 2014 ACC Predictions | 2014 All-ACC Team
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com
Chris Coleman (@ChrisColemanTSL), TechSideline.com
John Cassillo (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
David Fox (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com
Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com
Matt McClusky (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
Ryan Tice (@RyanTice), TheWolfPacker.com
Early Virginia Tech Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
|William & Mary|
|at Ohio State|
|at Wake Forest|
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s anyone’s guess which team is the favorite in the Coastal Division this year. Any of the projected top six teams in Athlon’s 2014 ACC predictions have a good shot at winning the division. Despite the overall uncertainty of the Coastal, Virginia Tech should be near the top of most projections. Yes, the offense is a concern (5.3 yards per play in conference games last year), but can it really get worse? The Hokies have options at running back and the top three receivers from 2013 are back. Finding answers on the offensive line and settling on a starting quarterback are the biggest offseason priorities for coordinator Scot Loeffler. The defense is once again the anchor for Virginia Tech’s division title hopes, especially with a secondary and defensive line that will be among the best in the nation. A huge factor in the Hokies’ favor is a schedule that misses the projected top four teams in the ACC Atlantic. It’s hard to envision a Coastal team winning more than nine games, so 6-2 might be enough to claim the division. Even though road trips to North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Duke won’t be easy, Virginia Tech’s crossover schedule with the Atlantic is a huge advantage in 2014.
Chris Coleman, (@ChrisColemanTSL), TechSideline.com
Virginia Tech’s schedule sets of favorably. They have a couple of tough road games in the middle of the season, but they have the opportunity to close strong. Turnovers and the running game will be the key for the Hokies. With more options at running back and a more experienced offensive line, the running game should improve. The big questions are will Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer win the job, and if so, will he be a better passer than Logan Thomas?
John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
While I want to give Virginia Tech's excellent defense the benefit of the doubt here, it's simply too tough to ignore this lack of an offense any longer. Last year's group already struggled to score (put up just 22.5 points per game), and now the Hokies need to replace seven of those players -- including QB Logan Thomas. There's a lack of leadership and ability on that side of the ball, and in an ACC that has its fair share of stout defenses, that's a big problem. The defense will obviously be fine, and Bud Foster will work his magic on that side of the ball yet again (as he has every year since 1995). But that defense and the division's mediocrity are the only things keeping them in the hunt for another ACC Championship Game berth.
Ryan Tice (@RyanTice), TheWolfPacker.com
When I first looked at their schedule, I initially thought the Hokies could finish with a record as good as 10-2, but these aren’t the Hokies of a few years ago when double-digit wins were the norm. I saw a group of three games where I think Tech will have more trouble than most expect: East Carolina at home (the Pirates can score and gave the Hokies a scare last year, although it was in Greenville), at North Carolina (I don’t think the Tar Heels will be as good as some, but they’ll be contenders in the Coastal) and against Miami in Blacksburg (although the Hurricanes quarterback situation scares me). There’s a chance the Hokies could win all of them or go 1-2 in this stretch, but I’m leaning towards 2-1, which puts them at 9-3 on the year. They lucked out with their crossover games (Boston College, at Wake Forest) and that could allow them to nab a spot in the ACC Championship game.
Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
I know Stewart Mandel with Fox Sports was probably the first person to really call these years the end of the Frank Beamer era at Virginia Tech, but I would like to join him. After the school's incredible run of double-digit win seasons came to an end two years ago, it seems like things are headed in the wrong direction without much hope to turn around in the short term. For the life of me I can't grasp why Beamer turned to Scott Loeffler to revive his offense and now without Logan Thomas, inconsistent as he was, the offense could actually find a way to be worse. I'm picking the Hokies to lose almost every game against an opponent with a competent offense. I want to be wrong and will freely admit it if I am. Nevertheless, until the Virginia Tech can scare people offensively, there will only be middling results from here on out.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I’m not sure if it says more about the Virginia Tech defense or the ACC that the Hokies won eight games with that offense last season. Bud Foster should have another strong defense on his hands, especially in the back end. But I don’t envy the defensive coordinator in September, going from facing Braxton Miller in Columbus, to East Carolina’s Air Raid to Georgia Tech’s triple option in three consecutive games. To their credit, the Hokies handled both Georgia Tech, East Carolina plus the Marshall hurry-up in a three-week span last season. Can that happen again? With new faces in the front seven, this offense is going to have to produce more than it did a year ago.
Matt McClusky (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
After 28 years in Blacksburg, this truly may be the beginning of the end for Frank Beamer's run at Virginia Tech. A couple of years of slippage in the program have people genuinely wondering about the future of Hokies football and its 67-year-old coach.
But there is always a "but" isn't there? Here, the cause for pause is two fold. First, Virginia Tech may be something of a darkhorse due to its defense. Players like Kendall Fuller, Brandon Facyson and Luther Maddy (who lead Va. Tech in sacks in 2013) will all return for Bud Foster's typically stout defense. And then there's the schedule, which is important for what is missing -- as in Florida State, Clemson and Louisville. So maybe things aren't as bleak as they seem.
I mean, the ACC's Coastal is effectively wide open this season and, given the returning defensive talent and the '14 slate, Virginia Tech should be considered the favorite to get back to the ACC title game. Will winning a rather weak division in the ACC be enough for some people to stop thinking this is the final chapter for Beamer? Probably, but how long will that sentiment last?
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Virginia Tech still has one of the best defenses in the nation and certainly one of the best in the ACC. The Hokies have major issues on offense, however, so holding serve at home in Lane Stadium will be key. Miami, Georgia Tech, East Carolina and Boston College are must-win games. Tech will lose some games away from home with trips to Ohio State, North Carolina, Pitt and Duke looming.
HOOVER, Ala. — With nearly 1,300 media members at SEC Media Days, the same stories are bound to pop up from Gainesville to College Station.
One meme, though, may be premature. For example:
True, the standout quarterback class from 2013 is gone. Departures of Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron have left a void of experience. What’s left lacks starts and yards, but the class may be no less intriguing.
Only one of the top eight passers return, but the returning quarterbacks are far from green. Auburn’s Nick Marshall won the league a year ago. Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace is a multi-year starter. The new quarterbacks at Mississippi State and Missouri showed enough in part-time duty a year ago that they can be dynamic contributors.
“The quarterbacks are not any less talented than the ones that just left,” Wallace said. “There’s just going to be a turnover.”
And then there are the running backs. Four of the top seven rushers in yards per game return to the league. Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and South Carolina’s Mike Davis didn’t make the media day roster, but that doesn’t make them any less impressive.
So for anyone who is worried about a lack of star power in the SEC, we present this rebuttal:
Todd Gurley, Georgia
Gurley is as legitimate a Heisman contender as any running back around the country, even considering Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram are the only players at the position to win the award in the 21st century.
Before Gurley sustained an ankle injury against LSU on Sept. 28, he had rushed for at least 100 yards per game in 11 of 17 games. During that span he’s rushed for 20 touchdowns and topped 20 carries only six times.
“If he stays healthy, I think he's one of the better players in America, no doubt about it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Hopefully he stays healthy. I see that he's getting into great condition. If we continue to get him in great condition for this season, I think the sky's the limit for him.
Mike Davis, South Carolina
Like Gurley, Davis saw part of his season derailed by injuries. At one point, Davis led the SEC in rushing before playing through shoulder, knee and ankle injuries to finish the season.
For a South Carolina program that has emphasized run-pass balance as well as any Steve Spurrier-coached team, Davis could be a workhorse. He topped the 100-yard mark seven times in the first nine games. During that span, he averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
“From Marcus Lattimore to him, there’s no drop off,” South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt said. “There’s something about him. He can make you miss. He has that power and he has that speed. If you don’t bring that extra something, he’ll blow past you.”
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
Splitting time with Derrick Henry, who broke out for 161 yards from scrimmage in the Sugar Bowl, may cut into Yeldon’s ability to compete for postseason awards. But it also raises the possibility that Yeldon and Henry will be the best running back duo in the country.
On his own, Yeldon averages better than six yards per carry in his career to go with 26 touchdowns the last two years.
Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Wallace is first to mention that the end of the season — when he threw five interceptions against Missouri, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech — changed the complexion of the season.
Before that, he had thrown 17 touchdowns to only five picks, not a bad mark for a quarterback whose decision-making has been called into question. Since the end of last season, Wallace visited with private quarterback coach Tom House for a “complete overhaul” on his mechanics to improve the velocity on his passes.
He also is another year removed from shoulder surgery that limited his confidence last season. And despite all that, Wallace was third in the SEC in total offense, and more than 30 yards per game more than anyone else returning.
“I’m throwing it the way I threw it in junior college,” Wallace said. “That was the best I ever threw it.”
Maty Mauk, Missouri
Speaking of quarterbacks with an unpredictability streak, Mauk said he’d like to model his game after former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (and what dual-threat quarterback wouldn’t?).
He’s not there yet, but he completed 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in a dominating 36-17 win over Florida in his first career start. He followed that in the next two weeks with 114 rushing yards and three passing touchdowns in a double-overtime loss to South Carolina and five touchdown passes in a win over Tennessee.
“Maty Mauk will surprise everybody, every week,” Missouri center Evan Boehm said. “He’s a playmaker. You saw it in Johnny Manziel, you saw it in AJ McCarron and you saw it in Aaron Murray.”
Nick Marshall, Auburn
The returning quarterback of the SEC champions was absent at SEC Media Day due to a marijuana citation, and his status for the opener against Arkansas is unclear.
He’s still a possibility to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 — he came 24 passing yards of the feat a year ago.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Mississippi State’s quarterback history is not nearly as illustrious as other programs in the league, meaning Prescott’s bid for the top single season in Starkville history is attainable.
Does Prescott have the ability to do it? Despite playing 11 games and splitting time with Tyler Russell early in the season, Prescott passed for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 829 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
Long-term, the SEC player with the most potential may be a freshman running back at LSU. Leonard Fournette will start as part of a running back committee, as usual at LSU, to start the year.
By the end of the season, he may start living up to media day comparisons to Michael Jordan and Adrian Peterson.
“That’s the only guy play the running back position you can compare him to,” Terrence Magee said.
HOOVER, Ala. — Jacob Coker is the SEC’s mystery man.
Perhaps more than any other position, the quarterback at Alabama could determine the trajectory of the league. The Crimson Tide have a roster stocked with No. 1 recruiting class upon No. 1 recruiting class.
An above average quarterback, and Alabama is in national title contention. Below average, and it’s not quite clear.
On one hand, Coker went head-to-head with the Heisman Trophy winner before last season (says Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher). On the other, he’s still head-to-head with Blake Sims (says Alabama coach Nick Saban).
This is clear posturing by both coaches. No matter how clear it is Coker will be Alabama’s starter against West Virginia in Week 1, Saban isn’t going to say it in the middle of July.
“We really can't make that decision or prediction as to what's going to happen at that position, but the development of that position, regardless of who the player is, is going to be critical to the success of our team,” Saban said.
Absent during spring, Coker has begun the offesason workout program with Alabama after attempting 41 career passes at Florida State. Both receivers at Media Day — Christion Jones and Amari Cooper — praised Coker’s strong arm and mobility.
“He’s still learning the plays and working on trying to progress to be the starting quarterback,” Jones said. “He’s vocal, but he’s asking questions.”
At the same time, Jones said Coker has shown the “spark” to be one of the best quarterbacks to play at Alabama.
“The quarterback issue won’t be the determining factor of our season,” Jones said. “It’s just that it’s at a standstill right now because we don’t have a starting quarterback.”
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 17:
• The ESPYs red carpet was a smokeshow last night, thanks to hotties like Jessica Alba.
• There's something comforting about a pro golfer three-putting from two feet, as Ernie Els did today. I also like it when one snaps a club in anger, as Henrik Stenson did today. And to complete the trifecta, Tiger Woods drilled some guy in the head. Even when you're great at it, the game sucks sometimes. Oh, and Tiger apparently called for some divine judgment on photogs who clicked in his backswing.
• Didn't watch the ESPYs; forgot they were on. Apparently the best thing that host Drake did was blow in Lance Stephenson's ear. I will say it is funny to see Maria Sharapova make Floyd Mayweather look like Peter Dinklage.
• So I'm not totally cynical about the ESPYs: Stuart Scott gave a moving speech after winning the Jimmy V Award.
• So Texas A&M paid Cedric Ogbuehi more than $50,000 to return to school. And it was legal.
• Roger Federer and Lindsey Vonn played tennis atop a Swiss glacier thanks to Lindt Chocolate.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
SEC Media Days are here, and Athlon Sports is live from Hoover, Ala., to talk every team around the league. With the launch of the much-anticipated SEC Network right around the corner, the guys caught up with some of the biggest names involved in the launch.
Braden Gall and David Fox were joined by lead sideline reporter Maria Taylor, studio host extraordinaire Dari Nowkhah and Mr. College Football himself Tony Barnhart to talk all things SEC Network and the upcoming season.
Injuries are a significant part of every college football season. Whether it’s a key starter or solid backup, an injury could derail a team’s national or conference title hopes.
Several teams suffered major injuries to key players last season, including Texas with quarterback David Ash, Georgia with running back Keith Marshall and receiver Malcolm Mitchell, TCU with standout defensive end Devonte Fields and Florida with quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Those injuries were just a small sample of the key injuries that occurred either before or during the college football season.
To help prepare for the 2014 season, we examined some of the top players returning from injury and the impact they could make this year. Note: Players that were injured in November (Miami running back Duke Johnson) were not eligible for this list. Instead, this list is focused on players that missed the entire season or a majority of the schedule.
Top 20 College Football Players Back from Injury
David Ash, QB, Texas
The health of David Ash is critical for first-year coach Charlie Strong. Ash threw for 2,699 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2012 but played in only three games due to concussions last season. Prior to his injury, Ash completed 60.9 percent of his throws and tossed seven touchdowns to only two picks. If Ash is injured again in 2014, true freshman Jerrod Heard or sophomore Tyrone Swoopes – two inexperienced players – would get the call under center for Strong.
Brian Blechen, S, Utah
Blechen has been an under-the-radar performer in Salt Lake City, and his return will help a Utah defense that allowed 28 points per game in 2013. The California native missed 2013 due to knee issues but has 35 career appearances and 203 tackles as a Ute. Blechen’s best season came in 2012, recording 78 stops, eight tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles and three interceptions. Expect Blechen to push for all-conference honors at safety in 2014.
Stefon Diggs/Deon Long, WR, Maryland
Maryland heads into its first season of Big Ten play with one of the top receiving corps in the conference. Diggs is a threat to score every time he touches the ball and caught 34 passes for 587 yards and three scores in just seven games last year. Long was also injured in Maryland’s seventh game last year and finished 2013 with 32 catches for 489 yards and one touchdown. With Diggs and Long back at full strength, expect the Terrapins’ offense to take a step forward in its Big Ten debut.
Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida
Will Muschamp’s long-term future in Gainesville could hinge on Driskel’s health. After a 4-8 mark in 2013, there’s enormous pressure on Muschamp to get the Gators back in contention for the SEC East title. Driskel was one of the top quarterbacks in the 2011 signing class and led Florida to a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2012 after completing 63.7 percent of his throws and 12 touchdowns. However, Driskel was off to a slow start in 2013 (477 yards, three interceptions in three games) when he suffered a season-ending leg injury against Tennessee. New coordinator Kurt Roper is tasked with fixing Florida’s offense, which has ranked eighth or worse in the SEC (conference-only games) in yards per play over the last four seasons. Driskel should be a good fit in Roper’s offense, but he also needs more help from the receiving corps and offensive line.
Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
Fields had a breakout freshman campaign in 2012, recording 18.5 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and earned AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. The bar was set high for Fields in 2013, but he played in three games due to injury and finished with four tackles (two for a loss). When healthy, Fields is one of the top linemen and defenders in the Big 12. He anchors a TCU defensive line that should be among the best in the conference this year.
Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas
Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Texas’ defense, but the Longhorns have room to improve after allowing 5.2 yards per play in conference games last season. Hicks was a key piece of the defense in 2011 with 65 tackles, but he has played in only seven games the last two years due to injury. Coming off an Achilles injury, Hicks may need a few contests to knock some of the rust off.
Austin Hill, WR, Arizona
Uncertainty rules Arizona’s offense heading into fall camp, as coach Rich Rodriguez is searching for a starter at quarterback and at running back. Regardless of which quarterback takes the first snap, the starter will have a deep – maybe the best in the Pac-12 – group of receivers to target. Hill is the headliner for Rodriguez after catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 scores in 2012. He missed 2013 due to an ACL tear, but all signs point to Hill returning to full strength for 2014.
D.J. Humphries, OT, Florida
Humphries is the second starter from Florida’s offense to make this list, as the North Carolina native played in seven games last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Gators need more productivity from the quarterback spot, but the offensive line also has to improve after allowing 22 sacks in SEC play last year. Humphries rated as the No. 7 high school prospect by ESPN in the 2012 signing class.
C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss
Combine Johnson’s return with the development of Robert Nkemdiche at tackle, and it’s easy to see why Ole Miss should have one of the top defensive lines in the SEC this season. Johnson played in 13 games in 2012 and recorded 55 tackles, 6.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. Prior to his season-ending ankle injury in 2013, Johnson had 12 tackles (four for a loss). The Mississippi native could be one of the top defensive ends in the SEC this year.
Isaiah Johnson, S, Georgia Tech
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof plans on switching Georgia Tech’s defensive alignment to more of a 4-2-5 look in 2014. And that scheme shift is certainly made easier with the return of Johnson and junior safety Jamal Golden from injury. Johnson recorded 87 stops and one interception in 2012 and is projected to earn third-team All-ACC honors by Athlon Sports in 2014. With a full year to recover from knee surgery, Johnson should be 100 percent for the season opener against Wofford.
Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State
Keeton is one of the top quarterbacks outside the Power 5 conferences, and his return from ACL surgery should have Utah State in the mix to win the Mountain West title in 2014. In three seasons with the Aggies, Keeton has tossed 56 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. He has also completed at least 60 percent of his passes in every season and rushed for 619 yards in 2012. Keeton is an Athlon Sports’ first-team All-Mountain West selection for 2014.
Curt Maggitt, LB, Tennessee
The unquestioned strength of Tennessee’s defense in 2014 is the linebacking corps. Senior A.J. Johnson will push for All-America honors, while Maggitt returns after missing 2013 due to a knee injury. Maggitt recorded 56 stops in 2011 and made 30 tackles (five for a loss) in just nine games in 2012. A healthy Maggitt is critical for the Volunteers’ front seven, as he is expected to slide between defensive end and linebacker this year.
Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
Mark is one of the Big Ten’s top big-play threats, and a return to full strength in 2014 would be a huge boost for Northwestern’s offense. In 2012, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns, while also taking two punt returns for scores. The Texas native never had a chance to build on those totals in 2013, as a leg injury suffered in the opener limited him to just four games. If Mark is healthy, another 1,000-yard season is within reach.
Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia
Georgia’s backfield was hit hard by injuries in 2013, as Todd Gurley battled an ankle injury for most of the year, and Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. Marshall averaged 6.5 yards per carry as a true freshman in 2012 and recorded 246 yards prior to his injury in 2013. If Marshall is healthy, Georgia should have one of the top one-two tandems at running back in the nation.
Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia
Mitchell was just one of a handful of key players on Georgia’s team last season that missed time due to injury. Prior to 2013, Mitchell caught 85 receptions in his first two years at Georgia and was poised to be an All-SEC performer. The Georgia native suffered a torn ACL in the first quarter against Clemson and missed the rest of the year. The junior should be one of the top targets for new quarterback Hutson Mason in 2014.
Aaron Morris, OG, Ole Miss
With only two starters returning, the biggest concern for coach Hugh Freeze’s offense is the line. But the news isn’t all bad in Oxford this preseason, as the Rebels will regain the services of Morris for the opener against Boise State. The Mississippi native started all 13 games in 2012 and was expected to be one of the top guards in the SEC in 2013. However, a torn ACL suffered against Vanderbilt ended Morris’ season before it got on track. If Morris is at full strength, the left side of the Rebels’ line is in great shape with Laremy Tunsil anchoring the group at left tackle.
Demetrious Nicholson, CB, Virginia
Nicholson was quietly one of the ACC’s top defensive backs in 2012 but an injury forced him to sit on the sidelines for most of the 2013 season. In five games, Nicholson recorded 20 tackles, four passes defended and one interception. Those numbers were a big drop-off from his 2012 totals, as Nicholson made 56 tackles and defended 15 passes. The Virginia Beach native is a third-team All-ACC selection by Athlon Sports for 2014.
Owa Odighizuwa, DE, UCLA
In addition to the emergence of sophomores Myles Jack and Eddie Vanderdoes, the return of Odighizuwa should ensure UCLA’s defense doesn’t suffer a drop in production without linebacker Anthony Barr. Odighizuwa missed 2013 due to a hip injury but played in 38 games from 2010-12. The Oregon native recorded 44 tackles in 2012 and was poised for a breakout year prior to his injury in 2013.
Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma
Phillips was expected to play a key role in stopping the run for Oklahoma's defense in 2013. He anchored the line through the first four weeks with two tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks, but a back injury forced Phillips to sit out the remainder of the 2013 season. Without Phillips anchoring the interior, the Sooners finished sixth in the Big 12 (conference-only games) against the run. Assuming Phillips returns to full strength, Oklahoma’s defensive line could be the best in the Big 12 this year.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
Even without Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, Texas A&M’s offense is still going to score plenty of points in 2014. The Aggies have a deep collection of skill players, and this group should get even better with a full year from Seals-Jones. He was the No. 25 player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 but played in only two games due to injury. Seals-Jones grabbed three passes for 84 yards and a score last year.
Other Key Players Returning from Injury in 2014:
Mehdi Abdesmad, DT, Boston College
Abdesmad started fast in 2013, recording 17 tackles and two sacks through the first four games. However, a knee injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Expect Abdesmad to push for All-ACC honors in 2014.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Alexander ranked as the No. 30 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and was slated for a significant role in the Clemson secondary before a groin injury sidelined him all year. Expect a breakout season from Alexander in 2014.
Rob Crisp, OT, NC State
NC State should be one of the most improved teams in the ACC this year. The addition of quarterback Jacoby Brissett should spark the offense, while Crisp returns after missing 10 games due to a concussion. According to his NC State bio, Crisp did not allow a sack in 413 snaps in 2011.
Akeem Daniels, RB, Northern Illinois
Without Jordan Lynch piloting the offense, the Huskies will lean more on their running backs in 2014. Daniels rushed for 447 yards and averaged a whopping 6.6 yards per carry in 2012. After missing 2013 due to a foot injury, Daniels will join Cameron Stingily as key cogs in the Northern Illinois’ rushing attack.
Devin Davis, OT, Oklahoma State
Davis was poised to start at left tackle in 2013 but missed the season due to a knee injury. Getting Davis back to full strength is crucial with just two starters returning for Oklahoma State’s offensive line in 2014.
Peyton Eckert/Dan Feeney, OL, Indiana
Wisconsin and Iowa will likely get the most consideration for the top offensive line spot in the Big Ten this year, but don’t forget about Indiana. The Hoosiers return three starters up front and regain Eckert and Feeney after both missed all of 2013 due to injury. Both players started 12 games in 2012.
George Farmer, WR, USC
Farmer was a big-time pickup on the recruiting trail for USC, but the Los Angeles native has just five catches in two seasons. With Marqise Lee departing, Farmer – if he’s healthy from a knee injury – could be a key part of the Trojans’ passing game.
Jake Fely, LB, San Diego State
Fely is one of the top defenders in the Mountain West, and his return will help San Diego State push for a division title. Fely was limited to 20 tackles in four games due to injury last season, but he started all 13 games and made 11.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in 2012.
J.J. Gaines, S, Texas Tech
Gaines is expected to be one of the leaders for Texas Tech’s secondary in 2014. He played in only five games last season due to injury but recorded 16 tackles and two picks.
Justin Garrett, LB/S, Auburn
Garrett was plagued by foot injuries last season but was expected to play a significant role in Auburn’s defense at the linebacker or star position.
Jamal Golden, S, Georgia Tech
Golden has made only 44 stops in three seasons on defense for the Yellow Jackets, but the Alabama native is one of the ACC’s top return men. In 2012, Golden averaged 28.3 yards per kickoff return and is back to full strength after missing nearly all of 2013 due to injury.
Jay Hughes, S, Mississippi State
Hughes was slated to start at safety last year but suffered a torn Achilles in the opener against Oklahoma State. The Mississippi native played in 13 games and recorded 32 tackles as a sophomore in 2012.
Tyler Hunter, S, Florida State
Hunter’s return bolsters a secondary that is already one of the best – if not No. 1 – in the nation. The Georgia native missed 11 games in 2013 due to a neck injury but played in 14 games in 2012.
Jeremiah Johnson, CB, Maryland
Injuries have hit Maryland hard over the last few years, and 2013 was no exception with Johnson missing 11 games due to a toe injury. In 2012, Johnson recorded 43 tackles and broke up eight passes. If he can stay healthy, Johnson should push for All-Big Ten honors and lead a much-improved Maryland secondary.
Jordan Johnson, CB, BYU
Johnson’s return should bolster a BYU secondary that allowed 19 passing scores in 2013. The Massachusetts native started 12 games in 2012 and recorded 15 pass breakups.
Mike Matulis, OL, South Carolina
Matulis entered last season with 10 career starts and was considered the frontrunner to start at guard. However, Matulis redshirted due to a shoulder injury.
Charone Peake, WR, Clemson
With Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant off to the NFL, Clemson is looking for new faces to emerge at receiver. Peake could be one of the top targets for new quarterback Cole Stoudt after missing nearly all of 2013 with an ACL tear. He caught 25 passes for 172 yards in 2012.
Avery Sebastian, S, California
Sebastian and teammate Stefan McClure missed significant time due to injuries last season, but both players are expected to push for a starting role in 2014. Sebastian played in only two games prior to an Achilles injury and recorded 10 tackles and one interception.
Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State
Keep an eye on this redshirt freshman in 2014, as Thomas could be one of the ACC’s breakout players. The Miami native played in four games before taking a medical redshirt due to a shoulder injury. Thomas made four tackles (two for a loss) and one sack in limited action.
Jeffrey Whitaker, DT, Auburn
Whitaker appeared on the verge of a breakout year in 2013, but a knee injury sidelined him for the entire season. The Georgia native has 18 career starts and will be a key cog in Auburn’s defensive tackle rotation.
There are at least six good reasons why top college football programs recruit the Tidewater area of Virginia. Let’s try Bruce Smith, Michael Vick, Percy Harvin, Lawrence Taylor, DeAngelo Hall and Plaxico Burress. Should we keep counting? OK, let’s try Tajh Boyd, Ronald Curry, Jerod Mayo, Kam Chancellor, Dré Bly and E.J. Manuel.
Those are just a handful of the galaxy of stars who learned to play football in the Tidewater area — also known as ‘the 757’ for the region’s area code — which is one of the country’s most fertile recruiting grounds.
If you like athletes, grab a map and head this way. Most assistant coaches can tell you where to start.
“You name a top-25 program, they are there,” Virginia Tech running backs and associate head coach Shane Beamer says. “Everyone comes to Virginia to recruit now. It used to be probably Virginia, Virginia Tech, Penn State, North Carolina. Now you have Michigan and Ohio State hitting it hard, Florida, FSU.”
The 2014 recruiting class included three Tidewater players in the 247Sports Top 100, impressive for an eastern sliver of Commonwealth land with a population of about 1.7 million in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Hampton.
That’s not counting Richmond, which is about 100 miles northwest of Virginia Beach and produces serious star power.
There are several reasons for the large pool of talent. The 757 is considered a growing area for families, including military transplants. Football is year-round between fall Fridays and 7-on-7 travel teams. Teenagers grow up wanting to play football, because they look up to the Tidewater stars that came before them.
“They are dedicated to their football,” Virginia coach Mike London says. “The demographics, the student population of that particular area — there are schools that are still being built. The population continues to grow.”
Tidewater players are a passionate bunch, coaches say, so you can’t fake your way into players’ good graces.
They will catch on quickly. The families value loyalty.
“You have to be active recruiters there. You have to build relationships. You can’t just come in and look at one player and leave,” says Virginia Tech tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Bryan Stinespring, “I’ll go in there three weeks at a time. I might as well have a locker room in those schools. A 757 game on a Friday is standard procedure.”
Several top programs hit the 757 hard, but not everyone has success. Here are four schools that generally do.
The Cavs try to sign several 757 players every year, and they use the background of their coaches to get it done. London went to Tabb High School in nearby Yorktown. Four of his staffers have deep Tidewater ties.
This year, London scored his biggest recruiting coup with Chesapeake defensive tackle Andrew Brown and Virginia Beach safety Quin Blanding. Both are five-star, top-12 national players. And both played for the Thoroughbreds, the area’s traveling 7-on-7 team with which London’s staff has a good relationship.
Some critics have wondered aloud how UVa pulled a top-30 national recruiting class despite going 0–8 in ACC play last year. With hard work, London says. NCAA rules permit 7-on-7 camps as a recruiting tool. London says the teams travel to different campuses, and evaluations are allowed.
“Quin Blanding and his mother — they chose UVa because it fit what (he) wanted, not because somebody else was saying where he needed to go,” London says.
The Cavs’ impressive 757 haul also includes top-150 receiver Jamil Kamara and quarterback Corwin Cutler.
Virginia Tech will always be a presence in the 757 because of Frank Beamer’s clout and the Hokies’ sustained success. From Smith to Vick to Chancellor, Virginia Tech’s résumé with Tidewater talent is extensive.
But Tech’s relationship with the Thoroughbreds, who produce several high-profile players, is considered shaky. According to a source, a Thoroughbred coach has held a grudge because the Hokies didn’t take one of his quarterbacks a few classes ago due to the player’s sub-par grades.
But Tech still has the trust of high school coaches around the state.
Shane Beamer says each year that the Hokies try to sign four-to-six Tidewater players, four-to-six from the Richmond area and four-to-six from Northern Virginia. “We don’t try to do anything differently — we hit the Tidewater area hard, and we always have,” Beamer says.
Tech did not sign 2014’s top 757 stars but did get two potential impact players in defensive tackle Ricky Walker and running back Marshawn Williams. The Hokies are also in on several Tidewater players for 2015.
The Tidewater region has been a sneaky good recruiting spot for the Vols, dating back to the signing of eventual first-round draft pick Todd Kelly in the late ’80s. Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo chose Tennessee over NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech. NFL receiver Justin Hunter eschewed offers from several major schools in favor of the Vols.
Second-year coach Butch Jones didn’t sign any Tidewater high school players in 2014, but he did get junior college star Von Pearson, a Newport News native with loads of potential.
“Our new staff, we’ve made a commitment to make Virginia Beach a priority in recruiting,” Jones says. “We’ve been there pretty hard this past year.”
Tennessee recruited at least 12 different states last year — including 10 in-state players — but Jones considers the Tidewater a “no-brainer. It’s based on the proximity to us and the success we’ve had,” he says.
Florida State could stay in its home state and produce top-10 classes every year, but the Seminoles have had modest success in the 757.
Top-100 defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi was the third-ranked Tidewater player in 2014. FSU is considered to be one of the favorites for 2015 defensive end Josh Sweat out of Chesapeake. The Noles will also have two other Virginia natives on their 2014 roster — center Alec Eberle from Mechanicsville (near Richmond) and inside linebacker E.J. Levenberry from Woodbridge (near the D.C. area).
Florida State recruiting coordinator Tim Brewster says that two assistants have Tidewater responsibilities.
“Great area for Noles,” Brewster says.
In-state talent will always dominate FSU’s classes, and with good reason. Fifteen of FSU’s 29 signees are from the Sunshine State. But Brewster plans to focus on at least one or two top Tidewater prospects annually.
Other 757 Interlopers —
The Tar Heels didn’t score big in Virginia Beach last year, but they always hit Virginia hard, which means they’ll have more chances at a home-run 757 player.
UNC signed five of Virginia’s top-50 players last year. “We include Virginia as an in-state area for us,” says UNC coach Larry Fedora, who assigns assistant Keith Gilmore to the state. “We don’t just cherry-pick it.”
Ohio State won’t spend considerable time in Virginia, but it has the clout to pluck a few stars — like it did with weak-side defensive end Jalyn Holmes out of Norfolk. This Urban Meyer stealth special was similar to the Buckeyes descending on Atlanta to get linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
Penn State doesn’t have any 757 home runs of late (quarterback Christian Hackenberg is from the middle of the state), but word is that James Franklin has been pushing the area while he attacks the entire Northeast region.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
Stanford has claimed back-to-back Pac-12 titles, and despite a bevy of personnel departures, the Cardinal should be in good shape to contend once again in 2014.
Coach David Shaw continues to raise the profile of the program with three consecutive double-digit win seasons, and the program simply reloads after losing key players. There’s no more rebuilding under Shaw’s watch.
While Stanford has finished in top 11 of the final Associated Press poll for three consecutive years, that streak could be in jeopardy in 2014.
The Cardinal has several key players to replace on both sides of the ball, and the schedule is one of the toughest in the nation.
Related: 2014 Stanford Team Preview | 2014 Pac-12 Predictions | 2014 All-Pac-12 Team | 2014 Pac-12 Breakout Players
Steven Lassan, (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com
Kyle Kensing, (@kensing45), CFBHuddle.com
David Fox (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), AthlonSports.com
Early Stanford Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
|at Notre Dame|
|at Arizona State|
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Stanford’s schedule is the biggest drawback for this team in the Pac-12 title race. The Cardinal plays five projected teams in Athlon’s final top 25 for 2014 on the road this year. In addition to the personnel losses on both sides of the ball, coach David Shaw must also replace standout defensive coordinator Derek Mason. With the losses on defense, Shaw needs more from his offense in 2013, starting with quarterback Kevin Hogan. The offensive line should be fine despite the departure of four starters, and a running back (or two) should emerge. However, Hogan needs to take the next step in his development, which could be the difference between Stanford finishing 8-4 or 10-2 and winning the North. I still think this is one of the top teams in the Pac-12 and a fringe top-10 squad this year. However, the brutal road schedule might be the difference in a tight division race between the Ducks and the Cardinal.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) CFBHuddle.com
I have trepidation in pegging Stanford for its worst finish since 2009. Firstly, that season was the last the Cardinal failed to qualify for a BCS bowl. Secondly, David Shaw has improved upon the foundation Jim Harbaugh laid, turning Stanford into a program built to win consistently. The Cardinal have one of the best offensive lines in the conference, the defense remains stacked despite losing key pieces like Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds and Trent Murphy, and quarterback Kevin Hogan should take strides with a year-and-a-half of experience under his belt. Hogan is also working with a diverse receiving corps. And yet, the schedule is brutal. An 8-4 projection is less an indictment on the Cardinal in a reloading year, but rather a testament to how nasty this slate is. Oregon and UCLA are preseason top 10 teams, Washington is one of the most experienced teams in the Pac-12, and Notre Dame is a Playoff contender. Oh, and Stanford gets all four on the road.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Stanford is still in great shape despite big losses along the offensive line and on the defense. The running game should still be nasty and the defense returns a lot of big time recruits who are ready to step into staring roles as upperclassmen. The issue is the home-road splits for Stanford could be very painful as the Cardinal have to face all of the biggest Pac-12 contenders and Notre Dame on the road this year. This includes two critical games within in the North Division in Eugene and Seattle.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
David Shaw has done an exceptional job in his first three seasons at Stanford, but this fall could pose an entirely new challenge for him. Although Stanford doesn't lack for talent, the Cardinal lost quite a bit of it and experience along its offensive line, at running back and on every level of the defense. The defense also will be led by a new coordinator, Derek Mason departed to take over at Vanderbilt. Even with these personnel losses, I'm not expecting Stanford to take a huge step backwards, but I do think the Cardinal's margin of error has narrowed considerably. Of course the Nov. 1 date in Eugene with Oregon is huge, but the early-season tilt with USC, back-to-back visits to Seattle and South Bend, Ind., and the season finale at UCLA could each be equally important, especially if junior quarterback Kevin Hogan struggles to lead the offense.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Stanford is too well built to fall off too much, but I could still see this as a transition year. The offensive line is full of great recruits, but there’s still just one returning starter here. Inexperience there and at tight end and running back puts more on the shoulders of Kevin Hogan, which may be a problem on the road against teams like Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.
Arizona is making steady progress under coach Rich Rodriguez, as the Wildcats are coming off back-to-back 8-5 seasons.
Rodriguez is known as an offensive mastermind, which is crucial for a team that enters fall practice with uncertainty at quarterback, along with the departure of running back Ka’Deem Carey.
The strength of Arizona’s offense rests with a line that returns four starters, including standout tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele. The receiving corps is also one of the best in the Pac-12, and Austin Hill is back after missing all of 2013 due to a torn ACL.
With the personnel losses at Arizona State, the coaching turnover at USC, and a favorable home slate for the Wildcats, Arizona has a chance to make some noise in the South Division.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45), CFBHuddle.com
David Fox (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), AthlonSports.com
Early Arizona Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Arizona is an intriguing team to watch this season. I projected the Wildcats to finish 7-5, but this team could easily finish 8-4 or even 9-3. The defense is getting better under the watchful eye of Jeff Casteel, and the offensive line and receiving corps should be among the best in the Pac-12. However, Arizona’s biggest question marks are on offense, as a quarterback didn’t win the job in the spring, and there’s no clear replacement for standout running back Ka’Deem Carey. Of course, those concerns are lessened by the fact Rich Rodriguez will be calling the plays. However, it’s reasonable to expect some growing pains on that side of the ball. If Jesse Scroggins or Anu Solomon claims the job at quarterback and settles into the offense early in the year, Arizona will be a dangerous out in the second half of the season for the Pac-12.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45), CFBHuddle.com
It's fair to say Rich Rodriguez exceeded expectations in his first two seasons at Arizona with back-to-back 8-win campaigns. However, UA has yet to finish above .500 in Pac-12 play. The next step for this program is getting to the positive side of the ledger in an increasingly difficult conference. An outstanding offensive line and deep receiving corps will buoy the offense through a very manageable nonconference slate, and the young talent in Jeff Casteel's defense should continue to build on the major strides made last season. With five home Pac-12 games, the Wildcats have a favorable road to that magic 5-win mark in the league, including that all-important victory over Arizona State Rodriguez currently lacks.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Rich Rodriguez has dealt with quarterback uncertainty before in Tuscon, but this fall he has to replace one of the nation's most productive running backs (Ka'Deem Carey) too. Offense is RichRod's calling card and he should be able to cobble a productive attack with the collection of experienced wide receivers he has returning, but quarterback and backfield production will be key. The defense returns half of its starters and made progress last season, but a pretty tough Pac-12 road slate figures to take its toll on the Wildcats' win total. A third straight bowl bid should be pretty easy to achieve, but any sort of climb in the South Division standings will come down to the offense's development and how well the defense holds up against the likes of Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington. Get two or more wins out of that quintet of games and it could be a memorable season for Wildcat fans.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Arizona should be poised for a hot start before a rude awakening at Autzen. That August/September schedule good news for a team that exited spring practice with logjam at quarterback. The question is how Arizona can take advantage of the fortuitous home schedule against USC, Washington and Arizona State. Arizona generally finds a way to win a game it shouldn’t at home late in the year. I’ve picked Washington as that game for the Wildcats this season.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
I really like Arizona to make some noise in the Pac-12 South. No, that doesn't mean winning the division but they will win a game or two that they aren't supposed to (like, say, USC at home). Rich Rodriguez has been 4-5 in each of his first two seasons in the league and he has a chance to be over .500 this year if the Cats defense can improve. USC, Arizona State and Washington are prime upset candidates in Tucson this year.
SEC Media Days are here, and Athlon Sports is live from Hoover, Ala., to talk every team around the league. Day 3 featured the College Football Playoff, LSU, Missouri and Arkansas.
Day 3 was highlighted by a Playoff presentation from Bill Hancock, a visit with Les Miles, an entertaining Bret Bielema and Missouri's Gary Pinkel.
HOOVER, Ala. — LSU is doing little to temper expectations for star running back Leonard Fournette.
LSU coach Les Miles compared him to Michael Jordan. Fellow running back Terrence Magee compared him to Adrian Peterson.
“That’s the only guy playing the running back position you can compare him to,” Magee said.
Magee noted Fournette’s ability to run on his toes brought about the comparison to Peterson. Fournette’s 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame helps, too.
For Miles, the comparison to Jordan is his drive to be great.
“He expects himself to be something very special,” Miles said. “I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any.
“I think he has a quiet confidence there that will benefit him, and I think we will always have an opportunity to play at that spot, the running backs that are fresh.”
Notre Dame is switching from natural grass to FieldTurf in 2014, and the Fighting Irish will also have a new field design.
The traditional blank field with diagonal striping in the endzones has been a staple at Notre Dame Stadium, but there will be a slight alteration to the FieldTurf in 2014.
The FieldTurf will feature a Notre Dame logo at the 50-yard line, along with shamrocks at the 35-yard line for kickoffs.
Check out the school’s release for more information on the new field design for 2014:
Even though Johnny Manziel wasn't the first player selected in the 2014 NFL Draft, let alone the first quarterback, no one drew more attention this May than Johnny Football. After passing on him with their first pick, the Cleveland Browns traded up to select the Heisman Trophy-winning dual-threat quarterback from Texas A&M at No. 22 overall.
Now that Manziel will call the Dawg Pound home, the question becomes, does he have any fantasy value this season? Athlon editors and fantasy contributors chime in with their thoughts on Manziel's fantasy outlook as a rookie.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Athlon Sports
Without a doubt, the most productive fantasy quarterback in the history of the SEC has fantasy value for the Cleveland Browns. Will Johnny Manziel start every game — or stay healthy for the entire season? The answer is likely no, but his playmaking ability and overall competitiveness mean he won’t sit behind Brian Hoyer for very long. As soon as Manziel is in the starting lineup, he becomes a top-20 quarterback.
He proved he could make all of the throws from the pocket a year ago — he is the all-time most accurate passer in SEC history (68.9 percent) — while scoring 93 total touchdowns and churning out nearly 10,000 total yards of offense in just two seasons in America’s toughest league. He is a perfect late-round keeper option and should provide value the moment he enters the starting lineup.
David Gonos (@davidgonos), SI.com/FantasySports.About.com
Manziel absolutely does have fantasy value for this season, but he is more of an in-season player to consider than one to draft in July or August. I expect him to start the season on the bench for a couple games, maybe seeing spotty action, before eventually being installed as the starter. With just 12 quarterbacks (on average) starting in fantasy leagues, it’s tough to make an argument that Manziel is a top-12 player once he becomes the starter. But his fleet feet and ability to improvise and make plays, a la Tim Tebow, make him someone to consider as a bye-week replacement once he is playing. If he’s starting, and Josh Gordon isn’t suspended all season, Manziel could make a nice fantasy starter in Week 9, when the Browns play Baltimore and six other teams are on a bye. He has fantasy value, but only on a per-game basis, not necessarily all season.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
The only way I see Manziel having any fantasy value in 2014 is through a keeper format. Without Josh Gordon (assuming he will be suspended some length of time) and with an NFL learning curve after playing in a spread offense at Texas A&M, Manziel is going to take his lumps as a rookie. Also, Cleveland shouldn’t be in a rush to get Manziel in the lineup, as this team is still a few seasons away from contending in the AFC North. Brian Hoyer showed last year he could be a capable bridge to the rookie.
Additionally, the Browns’ schedule doesn’t give Manziel any breaks. Cleveland has to play Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore — three of the AFC’s top defenses — two times each during the regular season. Also, improving defenses like New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Houston and Carolina will give the Browns trouble. If you are desperate for a backup in a redraft league, Manziel is a late-round possibility, but I don’t see him having much value in 2014.
Eric Mack (@ErickMackFantasy), Bleacher Report
The easy answer is yes. The more difficult questions are at what point and just how much value he’ll have on draft day. The Cleveland Browns are going to have some shred of value in fantasy leagues, and the quarterback figures to be a part of that. Coming out of OTAs, it looked as if Brian Hoyer might start initially. Once Hoyer proves to be the career backup he has been, Manziel should step forward and be a contributor in fantasy, mostly in two-quarterback formats.
You should not consider drafting the Manziel wild card until the late rounds — even if hype might force you to do so before that point. Sure, he could be a factor like Cam Newton was in blowout games and by scoring rushing touchdowns, but until he proves something on the field, he is probably not worth his draft-day cost.
Matt Schauf (@SchaufDS), DraftSharks
Since 1969, just four rookie quarterbacks have rushed for at least 400 yards. All four finished among the top-12 fantasy passers.
Johnny Manziel doesn’t approach Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III in overall talent. He’s not nearly as polished a passer as Russell Wilson. But Vince Young finished 2006 as fantasy’s No. 12 quarterback despite starting just 13 games. He did so despite just 2,199 passing yards and 12 touchdown passes, because he ran for 553 yards and seven scores.
Fantasy folks perennially underrate a quarterback’s rushing value. Manziel racked up 2,169 yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground in college. He joins a Browns team missing Josh Gordon and coached by Kyle Shanahan, who helped design the run-heavy offense that made Griffin a top-five fantasy quarterback in 2012.
Manziel will have starter-level fantasy weeks this year and belongs on a roster in your league.
(Top photo courtesy of the Cleveland Browns' Web site, www.clevelandbrowns.com.)
Athlon Sports' 2014 Fantasy Football magazine is now available for purchase at newsstands everyone or online. The ultimate draft-day resource, this year's edition features 419 in-depth player reports, informative features, a 20-round mock draft, team-by-team analysis from NFL beat writers and much more. Whether your fantasy league is head-to-head, roto, PPR or IDP, this magazine has all the stats and insight you need to help you get ready for the upcoming season. Click here to purchase you copy today!
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had barely finished announcing the name of the 22nd overall draft pick when all hell broke loose in Cleveland. Browns fans wasted no time in changing Johnny Manziel’s nickname from “Johnny Football,” interrupting his post-draft press conference at Radio City Music Hall with chants of “John-ny Cleve-land!”
Manziel has become the city’s newest savior.
In the 16 hours after drafting Manziel, the Browns sold 2,000 new season tickets. It took only slightly longer for Manziel’s No. 2 jersey to become the best-selling in the NFL since April 1. The league’s official website store sold almost as many Manziel jerseys during draft weekend as it did Robert Griffin III, Tim Tebow and Andrew Luck jerseys during their draft weekends combined.
Manziel’s popularity extends far and wide. He counts Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, recording artists Drake, Wale and the Jonas Brothers, NBA star LeBron James and the “Duck Dynasty” crew among his admirers. He’s been photographed with model Kyndal Kyaire’s arm around his neck.
If Manziel can carry the success he had at Texas A&M into the NFL, he stands to become the biggest star in the most popular professional sports league in the U.S. Thus, the NFL finds itself rooting for “Johnny Cash” almost as much as Browns fans.
“Johnny Football!” Goodell says. “I think he represents so much passion for the game, so much excitement. If he brings that to the NFL, that would be a great thing for us, and I think a great thing for the fans. He’s a wonderful young man. … He’s obviously focused and determined to be successful. I wouldn’t count him out, that’s for sure.”
Joe Namath ranks as the closest any NFL player has come to Manziel’s stardom, which transcends football, but the Hall of Fame quarterback played in an era that lacked social media and 24-hour sports stations.
During the first round of the draft, which went three-and-a-half hours, 5.2 percent of all Twitter messages mentioned Manziel. TV ratings soared as NFL teams kept passing on Manziel. ESPN drew 9.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched draft in the 35 years the network has carried it. Another 2.4 million viewers tuned into The NFL Network for first-round draft coverage.
“He’s a celebrity. He’s Elvis Presley,” says Jones, whose Cowboys passed on Manziel with the 16th overall pick. “And, by the way, he just happens to be a football (player), too. That is what this is all about and the kind of visibility and the kind of interest (he brings), and he is that, so that’s a plus.”
Spurned by LeBron James (Editor's note: This story was written shortly after the NFL Draft in May before James decided to return to play for his hometown Cavaliers.) and disappointed by their NFL and MLB franchises many times over, Cleveland fans finally have something to celebrate. After twice passing on Manziel — first at No. 4 by trading with the Bills and then at No. 8 when they selected Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert — the Browns traded up later in the first round to nab Manziel.
It prompted some Browns fans to greet Manziel with chants of “Super Bowl!” when he arrived for the first time at the team’s headquarters in Berea, Ohio.
The Browns last won an NFL title in 1964, the pre-Super Bowl era. That also marks the last time Cleveland won a title in any major sport.
Manziel knows the team’s sad history. As soon as he declared for the draft in January, he used the Internet to research all the quarterback-needy teams with top picks. In the only interview he granted before the scouting combine, Manziel mentioned the Browns’ inability to find a franchise quarterback, the biggest reason they are 77–163 since returning to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999.
Manziel’s quote sounded a bit like a Namath-esque guarantee.
“If … it’s the Cleveland Browns that draft me, I’m going to pour my heart out for the Dawg Pound and try to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland,” Manziel said. “I don’t care if they’ve had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. I’m going to be the 21st, and the guy that brought them the Super Bowl.”
Of their 18 first-round draft selections since 1999, the Browns now have used four on quarterbacks. Cleveland made Tim Couch the No. 1 overall pick in 1999. Brady Quinn (2007) and Brandon Weeden (2012), like Manziel, were selected No. 22 overall, a fact Manziel called coincidence rather than foreshadowing.
None offered the excitement and the promise the Browns hope Manziel does.
“He’s always must-see,” says George Whitfield Jr., Manziel’s personal quarterbacks coach. “He’s always exciting. You don’t know what you’re going to see. It’s like watching Michael Jordan. You watch him, and there’s a good chance you’re going to see something you’re still talking about next week. That’s how Johnny is. He honestly feels if he has something to do with the circumstances, his team is going to win. ‘These couple of sticks? I can make a fire.’”
Manziel, 21, casts himself as a small-town kid who made good. He was born in Tyler, Texas, a town of 99,000, and played high school football in Kerrville, Texas, with a population of 22,000. Because of his small stature, Manziel received only a handful of scholarship offers despite a decorated schoolboy career that earned him the famous nickname that has followed him since.
He chose A&M over Oregon, and after a redshirt season, Johnny Football hit the big stage. In the school’s first season in the SEC, Manziel led the Aggies to an 11–2 record, including a victory over eventual national champion Alabama. He set the conference record for most total yards (5,116), accounted for 47 total touchdowns and became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy.
Manziel posted a 20–6 record in his two seasons as the Aggies’ starter, with his final game a 52–48 victory over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in the biggest comeback in school history. In his two seasons with the Aggies, Manziel passed for 7,820 yards and 63 touchdowns, ran for 2,169 yards and 30 touchdowns and became the most entertaining, and arguably the most productive, quarterback in college football history.
Now, Manziel takes his show to Cleveland, a city of nearly 400,000 in need of good luck, good times and good news.
“We definitely liked his ability to perform and make plays,” Browns general manager Ray Farmer says. “We liked a guy who brought all the things when we talk about ‘Play Like a Brown.’ He was passionate. He was relentless. He played fearless. He was competitive. We added a guy to our roster we thought could help us win.”
But questions remain about Manziel’s transition to the NFL: He stands under 6'0", a big reason he lasted until late in the first round; he took only one snap from under center at A&M; Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, a former NFL defensive back, tweeted that Manziel played “backyard ball,” which won’t work at the next level; and a scouting report, reputedly from the Patriots, appeared on the website BroBible.com that included criticism of Manziel’s work ethic.
While his critics continue to talk the talk, Manziel vows to continue to prove them wrong.
“Criticism never gets to me all that much,” says Manziel, who admits he lives with a chip on his shoulder.
Manziel had insisted he would measure “exactly 72 inches” at the scouting combine. Instead, he stood 5'11 ¾", making him only the third modern-era quarterback shorter than 6'1" drafted in the first round. Michael Vick and Rex Grossman are the others.
It was Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson who opened the door for Manziel. Wilson measured 5'10 5⁄8"at the 2012 combine and wasn’t drafted until the third round but became the Super Bowl XLVIII-winning quarterback. Now, Manziel gets his chance to show that size really doesn’t matter.
“It’s hard to relate to LeBron because he’s 6'8", or Cam Newton because he’s 6'6",” Whitfield says. “They’re almost mythical. But when Johnny comes in wearing an extra-large shirt like you do, or gets in the car and doesn’t have to push back the seat, or he’s in a crowd seeing eye to eye with just about everybody else, he really is an everyman. But he’s out there playing among these giants. It sets him apart. It’s like he becomes Superman. But he’s the same size as us. I can’t believe it. There’s a level of disbelief.”
Manziel insists his heart allows him to play taller than he is, and he repeatedly refers to himself as “a winner.” But Manziel first has to win the job. Incumbent Brian Hoyer goes into training camp as the starter, with Manziel having a lot to learn.
Hoyer, a Cleveland native, posted a 3–0 record as a starter last season before tearing the ACL in his right knee. After Farmer informed Hoyer the team was taking Manziel, Hoyer responded: Bring him on. Manziel began readying for the competition three days after the draft when he arrived in Cleveland. He’s put his head into the playbook and his heart into trying to live up to expectations of Browns fans. It’s Super Bowl or bust.
“I want to come in and compete,” Manziel says. “I’m a highly competitive person. That’s absolutely a goal to come in and compete and try to make our team better.
“He’s obviously had a head start on getting to learn some of these things and he knows these guys better than I do, so there’s a lot I can take away from him.”
Manziel already has an ending in mind for a story he expects to be a bestseller.
“It’s a great story,” Manziel says. “It’s perfect for me to end up with a team that has fans that are as passionate as I am on the field. Those guys have heart. They’re passionate about a team that hasn’t had an incredible amount of success, and they’re still very loyal, very diehard. That means a lot. … I’m going to come in and pour my heart out for this organization and for this team and for these fans and try to bring some excitement. More than anything, we want to win. That’s how I am. I am a winner, and I want to continue that trend.”
— Written by Charean Williams for Athlon Sports. This article is featured in Athlon Sports' 2014 NFL Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands or can be purchased online.