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This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 5.
• Lent has begun, but here's one last look back at Mardi Gras, courtesy of actress/model Melissa Bolona.
• This Stony Brook fan wasn't going to let his moment in the spotlight go to waste. Gotta support the team.
• Watch a high school hockey player get destroyed, from the safety of your desk.
• Kenny Dobbs fancies himself the world's best dunker. Here's behind the scenes footage of Dobbs dunking over a dude who's on fire.
• Russell Westbrook achieved a triple-double in only 21 minutes of action. That's impressive.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers, and more.
Following the race last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, rookie Parker Kligerman, driver of the No. 30 Swan Racing Toyota Camry sits down with David for an extended interview. What follows is an edited transcript their chat.
You’re a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. I'm sure because of this your wallet is becoming a little fatter. Have there been any celebratory purchases thus far?
I’ve always been someone who has been really modest. I’ve been fortunate enough to be paid to drive race cars since I was 18. I’ve always been on one-year (contracts), so it’s one of those things that could always be gone tomorrow. Therefore, I’ve never really bought anything, outside of a car. I’ve thought about some things I might look into, but I don’t think the rookie season is the right time. The offseason after the rookie season might be the right time.
Then what’s the ideal purchase? Something like the obligatory McMansion on Lake Norman? A sick sports car? A cryogenic therapy chamber?
(Laughs) You know, a house isn’t something I’d purchase. I’m 23 and single and I’ve thought, “What’s the point of doing that?” The purchase would be a sports car. I’m huge into cars. I write for Jalopnik, which is one of the most-viewed car web sites in the world right now. I’m just a big time car guy, so collecting sports cars, especially classic sports cars, would be my hobby. Not expensive ones, but I love old Porsches, old British sports cars. I’d love to find an old Toyota GT. There’s a couple that aren’t really expensive, but after a while they’d add up. That’d be my hobby, but it’s something that would need to wait for at least a year.
You mentioned being a contributing writer for Jalopnik. You do those pieces yourself?
Yes. I write them all myself. They get checked for grammatical errors and such. They have a great group over there and they help me look smarter than I actually am. The hardest part is coming up with new ideas every two weeks or so. With how hectic our schedule can be, it kind of comes last in order of importance, because it is a side thing. But I do enjoy it.
You know – worst-case scenario – when you run out of ideas, you could just always do a Q&A.
You mean like this one?
Might be a good idea.
Let’s talk racing: It seems as if, in your climb to the Cup Series, your equipment became, let’s say “less desirable,” the higher you climbed. You had championship-worthy stuff in ARCA, good, but not necessarily great equipment in Trucks, had a brand name team (Kyle Busch Motorsports) that seemed to have a lot of struggles in Nationwide, and now you're with Swan Racing, which is a relatively new team to the sport, still finding its footing. Have you made the climb even more daunting than it should be on purpose?
I would not have done this on purpose (laughs). Back when I was at Penske, I only got a few opportunities to actually drive for Penske. My first race out (a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Kansas Speedway in 2009), I got a pole. It was another two years until I got in Penske stuff again. So it was sporadic. Those are the only races I think there are things I could have done better, that could have forwarded my career in another way. Everything else I’ve been in I felt I extracted the most from that equipment and when I left the team, it was in a better position (than when I arrived). I took opportunities along the way to move up the ranks in situations that were less than desirable because it was an opportunity to move up and eventually help get you to the Sprint Cup level.
Following the Budweiser Duel races in Daytona, you cited some caution trends in the post-race press conference and mentioned that you knew statisticians would say you were wrong. This isn't a question. I just want this on the record that I was sitting in the press box at the time and acted completely civil. Didn’t flip any tables or anything.
(Laughs) Who was I talking about?
Oh, I don't know. Could have been anybody. Do you believe in “caution trends?” As in “a caution always comes out on lap 100” kind of thing?
I don’t. What I do see is that a race is like a classroom in a school. Every classroom has a personality, right? In some, all the kids in the first few days decide they’re going to work really hard, they like the teacher and they work really well together. Then there’s classrooms where it’s just crazy and they don't like the teacher and there’s a bunch of clowns in the classroom and before you know it, it’s a comedy show. Races are like that. You can tell within the first 50 laps whether a race is going to be crazy or calm and single-file. If you see a lot of crazy moves and guys pushing the issue right off the bat, you think you're in for a race that’s going to have a lot of cautions. I know it’s not statistical, but I see that. Do I think there’s going to be a caution on lap 101 every time? No. You’ve proven that with numbers, but I do apply what personality I see early on from a race into how I attack that race.
When you were in the Truck Series, you put a tremendous emphasis on average finish, which you felt unlocked a path to title contention. What about this year in Cup with this Chase format? Is there any number or metric to which you'll be paying close attention?
For sure. For Swan Racing, we have to base ourselves off the old points system. Are we saying we need to go into this season and a win a race? No. It would be a large achievement to do that. We have a points position that serves as a big jump for our organization and its partners and puts us in a higher echelon of teams, somewhere around 16th- to 25th-place, somewhere I feel is one of the tightest spots in the Sprint Cup Series. All those teams are similarly funded and have the same number of employees. Some might get help from bigger teams. Our team finished 33rd in owner points last year. Our goal is to be in the top 25 (in 2014). So we look at the average finish that got teams into the top 25 in points last year and weigh the fact that this year we’ll see the same 40 teams run each race and figure that a 23rd-place average would put us somewhere between 22nd and 24th in points. We aim to be in the top 25. We know the goals and what it takes to get those goals and that’s what we stick to.
Do you feel that you’re the most underrated rookie in this year's crop?
I thought last year I had the best debut. A lot of (the drivers in this year’s crop) made their Cup debut last year. I think some noticed that — those educated about our industry noticed that. I hope most people can understand that I haven’t always been in the best situations and still been able to get really good results out of them. To say “underrated” … no. I think a lot of people just make their own assumptions and might not really know what to think. That’s a long answer. Is that all right?
I’d say that’s a reasonable answer.
Photos by Swan Racing
The ACC Coastal has been one of the most unpredictable divisions in college football over the last couple of seasons. Miami was expected to be a consistent conference title contender when it joined the ACC, but the Hurricanes have yet to play in the championship game. Expect much of the same from the Coastal in 2014, as Miami, North Carolina, Duke, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh are all expected to contend for the division title.
Al Golden came to Miami after resurrecting Temple from college football’s cellar to a bowl team in 2009. However, the results have been harder to come by in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes are just 13-11 in ACC play over the last three seasons, and all four of their losses came by at least 18 points.
Golden has recruited talent to Coral Gables, but now it’s time for the Hurricanes to take the next step and win the Coastal Division.
Miami Hurricanes 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 1
Spring Game: April 12
Five Things to Watch in Miami’s 2014 Spring Practice
|Sept. 6||Florida A&M|
1. The quarterback battle: Stephen Morris earned third-team All-ACC honors last season and finished with 3,028 yards and 21 scores. Although losing a proven quarterback is never a good thing, Morris was inconsistent at times and the Hurricanes have four intriguing options vying for time this spring. Ryan Williams has played in nine games since transferring to Miami and threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in a backup role last year. He enters spring as the frontrunner, but sophomore Gray Crow, redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen and true freshman Brad Kaaya are in the mix. Kaaya won’t arrive until the summer, so he will have some ground to make up in the fall. Olsen ranked as the No. 6 quarterback by Athlon Sports in the 2013 signing class and spent last season learning the ropes behind Morris. While the winner of this job needs to have a good year to propel Miami into Coastal Division contention, there is a strong supporting cast in place to ease their transition into the starting lineup.
2. Replacing two starters on the offensive line: With Ereck Flowers, Shane McDermott and Jon Feliciano returning, Miami should have one of the top offensive lines in the ACC next year. However, there are two vacancies to fill in the spring. Guard Brandon Linder departed after earning second-team All-ACC honors last season, while tackle Seantrel Henderson expired his eligibility after 2013. This unit’s depth took a hit when Malcolm Bunche decided to transfer to UCLA. Can line coach Art Kehoe find the right answers this spring? Incoming freshman KC McDermott could be an answer at one spot, while redshirt freshman Sunny Odogwu is another name to watch in preseason workouts. Sophomores Danny Isidora and Taylor Gadbois gained experience last season and will push for starting jobs in the spring. Trevor Darling will enroll early this spring and should provide valuable depth this spring.
3. Who steps up at running back?: In the fall, this position won’t be a concern for Miami. Duke Johnson is sidelined this spring due to a leg injury, while touted freshman Joseph Yearby is also out. Dallas Crawford finished second on the team with 558 yards last season but is expected to move to defensive back. With Crawford playing defense, Gus Edwards and Walter Tucker are the top two options at running back. This position isn’t necessarily a concern, but the spring is a good opportunity for Edwards and Tucker to get comfortable working with the No. 1 offense in case Johnson or Yearby is sidelined during the year.
4. Fixing the defense: It’s a large storyline, but the defense has several issues and it’s easier to group them into one. Coordinator Mark D’Onofrio is under fire for the performance of the defense over the last few years, as Miami finished 12th in the ACC (conference-only games) in points allowed in 2013. The Hurricanes also allowed 5.8 yards per play, which ranked 12th in the conference. That’s the bad news. The good news for D’Onofrio? Seven starters are back, including likely All-ACC selections in end Anthony Chickillo, linebacker Denzel Perryman and cornerback Tracy Howard. The depth seems to have improved thanks to recruiting, so there is hope for some growth by the defense in 2014. The additions of Calvin Heurtelou and Michael Wyche from the junior college ranks will bolster the available bodies on the line, and a full season from safety Deon Bush should help the secondary. Getting results on third down also has to be a priority for D’Onofrio. The Hurricanes were 90th nationally on third down conversions, which ranked last in the ACC. Another problem for Miami was the pass rush. After registering only 12 sacks in conference games, the Hurricanes have to push that number closer to 20 in 2014. Is the biggest problem with this unit experience or talent? Or is depth the biggest issue?
5. Finding a punter: Go ahead and laugh because we mentioned the punter. However, Pat O’Donnell was one of the best in the nation last year, averaging 47.1 yards per kick. Sophomore Aaron Martinez, redshirt freshman Grant Coffman and senior Ricky Carroll are the three options on the spring roster vying for time. Will Golden and this staff find the right answer to replace O’Donnell?
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 7-9
The Coastal Division is there for the taking for Miami. The Hurricanes have the pieces to win the Coastal, but a questionable defense and an uncertain quarterback situation could hold this team back in 2014. Golden has assembled the No. 2 roster in the ACC. Assuming running back Duke Johnson returns at full strength, and the defense shows slight improvement, Miami should be the favorite in this division. The schedule isn’t too taxing, but a non-conference date at Nebraska will be tough, and the Hurricanes won’t be favored to beat Florida State on Nov. 15. Miami has increased its win total in each of the last three years. Will that continue in 2014?
It was a tale of two halves for North Carolina last season. Larry Fedora’s team lost five of its first six games, including a disheartening 55-31 home loss to East Carolina and 0-3 start in ACC play. From late October until the end of the season, however, the Tar Heels lost just one game, a 27-25 thrilling contest to Coastal Division champion Duke in the regular-season finale. Carolina then closed 2013 out on the right note, soundly defeating Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl to put the finishing touches on an impressive turnaround.
Now entering Fedora’s third season and with a total of 14 starters returning, expectations are on the rise in Chapel Hill. Fedora’s calling card has been his up-tempo, spread offense and the 2014 version has the potential to be one of the nation’s most explosive units. That said, whether or not the Tar Heels can contend for the top spot in the Atlantic this fall will likely come down to the improvement shown on the other side of the ball.
North Carolina Tar Heels 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 7-6 (4-4 ACC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 5
Spring Game: April 12
Four Things to Watch in North Carolina’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. There’s a new OC in town. For the first time in five seasons, Larry Fedora had to find a new offensive coordinator after Blake Anderson, whose ties with Fedora go back to Southern Miss, accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas State in December. To replace Anderson, Fedora hired Seth Littrell, Indiana’s co-offensive coordinator the past two seasons. Littrell’s official title is assistant head coach for offense and he also will oversee the tight ends, something he did at Indiana as well as Arizona, where he coached from 2009-11. While in Bloomington, Littrell paired with Kevin Johns to help the Hoosiers post some of the biggest offensive numbers in program history. Last season, Indiana finished ninth in the country in total offense while setting numerous school single-season records, including ones for total yards, points, passing touchdowns and first downs. The Hoosiers also were just one of three teams (Baylor, Florida State) in the nation to average more than 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game in 2013. The Tar Heels’ offense isn’t exactly “broken,” as they finished 49th in the country in yards and 28th through the air last season, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement either. Carolina was just 84th in rushing offense last season. It will be interesting to see how Littrell’s philosophies and ideas mesh with Fedora’s own and the personnel this spring.
2. Restocking the offensive line. Just like last year, one of the busiest position coaches during spring practice figures to be offensive line coach Chris Kapilovich. After the 2012 season, North Carolina lost three standout offensive linemen, including first-round NFL Draft pick, guard Jonathan Cooper, and now Kapilovich’s newest challenge will be replacing a pair of All-ACC honorees in left tackle James Hurst (first team) and center Russell Bodine (honorable mention). The cupboard isn’t exactly bare, not with guards Caleb Peterson and Landon Turner and tackle John Heck, each of whom started at least 12 games last season, returning. While this trio forms a solid foundation that Kapilovich can build around, it doesn’t change the fact that one way or the other the Tar Heels will have two new faces along the offensive line in 2014 and these “rookies” could be inserted into arguably the most important positions up front – left tackle and center. Among the newcomers expected to vie for these spots is redshirt freshman R.J. Prince and incoming freshmen Josh Allen, Jared Cohen and Bentley Spain. Of these Spain is definitely a name to watch as the highly regarded (No. 115 in the 247Sports Composite) in-state prospect from Charlotte enrolled early so he could participate in spring practice.
3. Quarterback battle. Despite being one of the few quarterbacks in the ACC that returns with any starting experience, there is no guarantee that Marquise Williams will get the call for the Aug. 30 season opener against Liberty. Even though Williams helped spark his team to a strong finish last fall, the junior finds himself in a battle this spring with sophomore Kanler Coker and redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. Williams made a total of five starts last season, finishing 2013 with 1,698 yards passing and 15 touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 536 yards and six touchdowns and caught two passes for 52 yards and a score. Williams clearly has the playing experience edge over Coker and Trubisky, but the latter was one of the top prospects of last year’s signing class and could wind up being Williams’ main competition. Whomever ends up under center for the Tar Heels won’t lack for weapons even with the departure of first-team All-ACC tight end Eric Ebron. The backfield includes returnees T.J. Logan (533 yards rushing, 4 TDs), Romar Morris (296, 5) and Khris Francis (236, 1) and will add one-time Notre Dame commit Elijah Hood, a top-10 running back prospect according to 247 Sports, Rivals and Scout. At wide receiver, Quinshad Davis is back after earning Honorable Mention All-ACC recognition in 2013, along with freshman All-American return specialist Ryan Switzer and wideouts Bug Howard and T.J. Thorpe.
4. Continued progress with the 4-2-5. This is Year 3 for the unique 4-2-5 defensive scheme employed by coordinators Vic Koenning (Associate Head Coach for Defense/Safeties) and Ron West (co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers) and, hopefully, the unit will continue to make strides. During last season’s 1-5 start, the Tar Heels’ defense gave up at least 27 points in all but one game and surrendered more than 550 yards of offense twice. Over the final seven games, the damage on the scoreboard was limited to 19.1 points per game and the most yards the defense gave up in a single game were 461 in the two-point loss to Duke. This side of the ball has lost some key players, notably first-team All-ACC defensive end Kareem Martin and secondary stalwarts Tre Boston and Jabari Price. However, seven starters and a host of key contributors return along with some additional reinforcements for the defensive line in the form of several redshirt freshmen and a pair of intriguing, incoming prospects. The linebackers could be pretty deep and the secondary boasts some talent and experience of its own. There appear to be plenty of pieces for Koenning, West and the rest of the defensive staff to work with and the spring will allow them to get a head start on putting the complicated puzzle that is the 4-2-5 together.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 7-9
North Carolina saved its best for last in 2013, winning six of its final seven games, including the Belk Bowl over Cincinnati, to finish 7-6. While the Tar Heels have some questions to address on offense and plenty of room for improvement on defense, they should at least get off to a better start this fall. Instead of opening against South Carolina, Larry Fedora’s team welcomes Liberty to Chapel Hill. You also know Fedora won’t have to worry about a lack of motivation for the rematch with East Carolina on the road.
North Carolina opens ACC play at Clemson and by hosting Virginia Tech and also has Notre Dame on the schedule this season. However, scoring points shouldn’t be that hard for this offense and if the defense continues to improve with another season’s worth of experience in the 4-2-5 under its belt, there is no reason the Tar Heels can’t match last season’s win total before the postseason comes around. In fact, if both the offense and defense take that next step this fall, then Fedora and company could find themselves contending for the top spot in the Coastal Division and a chance to play for the conference championship in December.
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The ACC has seen some elite signal-callers come through the ranks over the last 16 years. One went on to win a Big Ten title, more than a few were first-round picks and one is the reigning Heisman Trophy and BCS national championship winner. Unfortunately, two of the BCS' greats in Michael Vick and Ken Dorsey don't qualify because Virginia Tech and Miami weren't in the ACC during their collegiate careers.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Chris Weinke, Florida State (1997-00)
Stats: 9,839 yds, 79 TDs, 32 INTs, 58.7%, 2 rush TDs
There was little left unaccomplished in Weinke's college career. He led his stacked Florida State squad to an undefeated BCS national title in 1999 over Virginia Tech before returning to win the Heisman Trophy as well as the Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas and Davey O'Brien awards the next season. His team lost two games over that span and one was the 2000 BCS title game against Oklahoma. He is still the ACC's all-time leader in yards per pass attempt (8.9) and was the conference’s all-time most efficient passer with a 151.15 rating until Tajh Boyd (and possibly Jameis Winston) came along.
2. Philip Rivers, NC State (2000-03)
Stats: 13,484 yds, 95 TDs, 34 INTs, 63.5%, 98 yds, 17 TDs
The most productive passer in ACC history, Rivers owns the ACC record for completions (1,087), attempts (1,711), passing yards, total yards and set the record for passing touchdowns and total touchdowns (since broken). He won ACC Player of the Year honors in 2003 and finished seventh in the Heisman balloting. That year he led the nation in completion percent (72.0, an ACC record at the time) and set the ACC single-season passing yards record (since broken). His 18 career 300-yard games were an ACC record (broken). Rivers also is a member of the historic 2004 NFL Draft class that includes fellow quarterbacks Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
3. Jameis Winston, Florida State (2013-present)
Stats: 4,057 yds, 40 TDs, 10 INTs, 66.9%, 219 yds, 4 TDs
No player, especially no freshman, has ever posted a season like Winston in college football history much less in the ACC. His 184.8 passer rating was an ACC record (and would be No. 1 for a career as well), he set an NCAA freshman and all-time ACC single-season record with 40 touchdown passes and his 4,057 yards are fourth all-time in ACC history. Winston won the Heisman Trophy, the BCS national championship, the ACC Player of the Year, the Davey O’Brien and Walter Camp awards as well. He has yet to lose a game on the gridiron and is poised to make another run at all of the above accolades as a sophomore.
4. Russell Wilson, NC State/Wisconsin (2008-11)
Stats: 11,720 yds, 109 TDs, 30 INTs, 60.9%, 1,421 yds, 23 TDs
Not many players own school records for two different programs but Wilson excelled in both the ACC and Big Ten and his overall career must be taken into account when measuring his greatness. The Super Bowl champion posted the single greatest season by a Wisconsin quarterback in history en route to a league crown and near national title berth. He owns the NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (38) and the single-season mark for passing efficiency at 191.8. In just three years in the ACC, Wilson finished eighth all-time in total offense (9,628), third in total offense per game (267.5 ypg), third in ACC history with 93 total touchdowns and set the ACC record with 379 consecutive passes without an interception. Imagine if he had stayed his final season in Raleigh.
5. Tajh Boyd, Clemson (2009-13)
Stats: 11,904 yds, 107 TDs, 39 INTs, 64.3%, 1,165 yds, 26 TDs
In just three full seasons as the starter, Boyd set every major Clemson passing record and is the ACC’s all-time leader in total touchdowns (133) and touchdown passes (107). He is No. 2 all-time in yards, won 2012 ACC Player of the Year honors, led Clemson back to an ACC championship in '11 and finished as the league’s most efficient passer in history with a QB rating of 155.2 (topping Weinke). Clemson went 32-8 over his final three years — all three of which he topped 3,800 yards and 33 TD passes. Boyd produced three of the top seven seasons in regards to total offense in league history. His 20 career 300-yard games broke Rivers’ previous ACC record of 18.
6. Matt Ryan, Boston College (2004-07)
Stats: 9,313 yds, 56 TDs, 37 INTs, 60.0%, 39 yds, 11 TDs
Ryan did more for Boston College than any player since Doug Flutie. He won the ACC Player of the Year and led the Eagles to the ACC title game. He was seventh in the Heisman ballot and won the Johnny Unitas and Archie Manning Awards before beginning his elite career in the NFL. Ryan owns the ACC single-season record for passing yards (4,507), completions (388) and attempts (654), all of which were set in 2007, and is second all-time with his 4,509 yards of total offense that year as well. From a raw talent standpoint, few players on this list are better quarterbacks than Matty-Ice.
7. Joe Hamilton, Georgia Tech (1996-99)
Stats: 8,882 yds, 65 TDs, 39 INTs, 61.7%, 1,758 yds, 18 TDs
One of the most dynamic players in league history, Hamilton led the Jackets to three straight winning seasons, three straight bowl games and only Tech’s third 10-win season since 1956. Hamilton won ACC Player of the Year honors, was a consensus All-American, finished second in the Heisman voting and won the Davey O’Brien Award in 1999. He threw for 3,060 yards and 29 scores while running for 734 and eight touchdowns in his final season. The two-time, first-team All-ACC pick is third all-time in total offense and he currently stands as the ACC’s No. 5 most efficient passer with a rating of 148.19.
8. Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech (2007-10)
Stats: 7,017 yds, 44 TDs, 20 INTs, 57.2%, 2,196 yds, 23 TDs
From a production and success standpoint, its impossible to argue with Tyrod Taylor. He is fourteenth all-time in ACC history for total offense with 9,213 yards. He set and then broke Virginia Tech’s single-season total offense record in his junior and then senior seasons, leading the ACC in passing both years. Tech won three ACC championships and 42 games total during Taylor’s time in Blacksburg, including two titles and two Orange Bowl berths with him under center. He is also fourth all-time in rushing yards by any ACC quarterback.
9. Matt Schaub, Virginia (2000-03)
Stats: 7,502 yds, 56 TDs, 26 INTs, 67.0%, 58 yds, 5 TDs
As a junior, Schaub was the best player in the ACC when he threw for 2,976 yards, 28 touchdowns, only seven interceptions and completed 68.9 percent of his passes. He was named ACC Player of the Year. His career 67.0 percent completion rate is the all-time ACC benchmark and he is the 10th-rated passer in ACC history (138.35).
10. Woodrow Dantzler, Clemson (1998-01)
Stats: 5,634 yds, 36 TDs, 23 INTs, 58.0%, 2,761 yds, 27 TDs
One of the truly remarkable athletes to play quarterback, Dantzler was ahead of his time as a true dual threat. He owns the ACC’s single-game (220) and single-season (1,061) rushing records by a quarterback and has two of only three 1,000-yard rushing seasons by an ACC quarterback. His 2,761 yards rushing are second all-time among all ACC QBs and his 68 total touchdowns rank 13th all-time in league history. Clemson went from a three-win team his freshman season to three straight bowls in his final three.
Just missed the cut:
11. Bryan Randall, Virginia Tech (2001-04)
Stats: 6,508 yds, 48 TDs, 31 INTs, 58.8%, 1,526 yds, 11 TDs
He only played one year in the ACC, but Randall was a star in his new league. Randall was named ACC Player of the Year in 2004 as he lead Tech to the ACC crown in its first season. He won 28 games as a starter in three seasons and helped transition the Hokies from Big East play into a string of eight consecutive 10-win teams in the ACC. The only losses Tech sustained during his final year were to No. 1 national champ USC, unbeaten Auburn in the Sugar Bowl and a one-point upset to NC State.
12. Scott McBrien, West Virginia/Maryland (2000, '02-03)
Stats: 5,924 yds, 37 TDs, 19 INTs, 543 yds, 13 TDs
After one year at West Virginia, McBrien transferred to Maryland and sat out the 2001 season. He started every game after that for two Terps teams that went 21-6 and won both the Gator and Peach Bowls. He helped win Maryland’s first and only ACC title since 1985. He is the 10th-most efficient passer in ACC history as well as the No. 3 left-handed passer in the conference record books.
13. Riley Skinner, Wake Forest (2006-09)
Stats: 9,762 yds, 60 TDs, 37 INTs, 66.9%, 161 yds, 4 TDs
Skinner could have played just his freshman season and gone down in history as one of the greatest Demon Deacons of all-time. The ACC Freshman of the Year quarterbacked Wake Forest to its only title during the BCS Era, only BCS bowl berth and first title of any kind since 1970. He is fifth all-time in ACC history in total yards (9,923) and set the ACC single-season record with a 72.4 percent completion rate in 2007. Skinner is fifth all-time in passing yards, 12th all-time with 60 passing touchdowns and second all-time with 903 completions.
14. EJ Manuel, Florida State (2008-12)
Stats: 7,741 yds, 47 TDs, 28 INTs, 66.9%, 827 yds, 11 TDs
Only two players in NCAA history have started and won four bowl games during their college career and Manuel is one of them (Pat White). The elite recruit led the Noles back to an ACC championship as a senior, the school’s first since 2005, and is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in ACC history. His career 66.9 percent completion rate trails only Schaub as the ACC’s top mark all-time and his 150.13 passer rating trails only Winston, Boyd and Weinke all-time among all ACC signal-callers. Manuel was a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
15. Joshua Nesbitt, Georgia Tech (2007-10)
Stats: 3,276 yds, 20 TDs, 16 INTs, 42.9%, 2,806 yds, 35 TDs
The ACC’s all-time leading rusher by a quarterback topped 6,000 yards of total offense running Paul Johnson's triple option attack. Nesbitt led the Jackets to their first outright ACC title since 1990 and has one of only three 1,000-yard rushing seasons by an ACC quarterback in history (Dantzler). His 18 rushing TDs that season are tied for fourth all-time by any player in any one season in ACC history (Ryan Williams, 21).
16. Bryn Renner, North Carolina (2010-13)
Stats: 8,221 yds, 64 TDs, 25 INTs, 66.5%, 4 rush TDs
Renner entered the starting lineup as a sophomore and proceeded to produce back-to-back 3,000-yard, 25-TD seasons for the Tar Heels. He set all the major school passing records in his first year (3,086 yds, 26 TDs) and then broke them all in his junior year (3,356, 28). Had he not been hurt during his senior season, his career stats would be among the league’s best. His 64 TD passes are ninth all-time in ACC history.
17. Mike Glennon, NC State (2009-12)
Stats: 7,411 yds, 63 TDs, 31 INTs, 60.4%, 3 rush TDs
The 6-foot-6 monster posted one of the best two-year runs at QB the ACC has ever seen. After forcing Russell Wilson to transfer in a round about way, Glennon produced back-to-back seasons with 31 touchdown passes and over 7,000 yards passing. Despite starting just two years, he is ninth all-time with 63 TD passes and he is one of just five ACC players ever to top 4,000 yards passing in a season (Ryan, Rivers, Weinke, Winston).
18. Darian Durant, North Carolina (2001-04)
Stats: 8,754 yds, 68 TDs, 38 INTs, 60.5%, 875 yds, 11 TDs
When he left Chapel Hill, Durant had 51 school records under his belt. Most of them have been broken since and North Carolina didn’t win a ton of games (going to only two bowl games during his career). He is eighth all-time in ACC history in total offense (No. 1 at UNC) and is seventh all-time in total touchdowns with 79 (UNC record). He is sixth all-time in ACC history with 68 scoring strikes.
19. Thaddeus Lewis, Duke (2006-09)
Stats: 10,065 yds, 67 TDs, 40 INTs, 58.1%, 9 rush TDs
Lewis has the numbers and the longevity and has to be given some credit for helping to rebuild an ACC doormat. Duke increased its win total in each of Lewis’ four seasons and he finished third all-time in passing yards (Rivers, Boyd), seventh all-time in TD passes, second in attempts (1,510), fourth in completions (877) and once went 206 passes without an INT (sixth-best in ACC history). His 76 total touchdowns are ninth all-time as well.
20. Sean Renfree, Duke (2009-12)
Stats: 9,465 yds, 51 TDs, 40 INTs, 64.7%, 9 rush TDs
Biding his time behind Lewis, Renfree stepped in and started for three full seasons, eventually leading Duke back to a bowl game for the first time since 1994. He had three straight seasons with at least 2,800 yards passing, including two seasons in excess of 3,100 yards. He started 36 games over his final three seasons.
Best of the rest:
21. Christian Ponder, Florida State
22. T.J. Yates, North Carolina
23. Tevin Washington, Georgia Tech
24. Chris Rix, Florida State
25. Reggie Ball, Georgia Tech
Most college football fans generally consider Signing Day the official start of a new season, but spring practice is the first time all 128 FBS teams will hit the field in preparation for the upcoming year. Of course, it’s hard to glean much from spring practice. However, there’s excitement for every team as spring practice starts, especially at places like Florida State, Alabama, Auburn, Oregon and Ohio State where a national championship is within reach this season.
With spring practice underway across the nation, teams are looking to address a handful of issues, including finding new playmakers, answering questions at quarterback or filling voids in the trenches.
To preview spring practice, Athlon is taking a look at some of the top storylines to watch. As we mentioned above, it’s not guaranteed answers will be found, especially as the freshmen are slated to arrive this summer. However, there are plenty of question marks that could be answered by late April.
College Football's Top 25 Storylines for Spring Practice
AJ McCarron’s place among SEC quarterbacks, as well as his candidacy as it related to All-American recognition and the Heisman Trophy was heavily debated throughout his senior campaign. Regardless of where anyone thinks McCarron belongs in those discussions, no one can dispute that he threw for nearly 10,000 yards in his career (9,019) and finished with 74 passing touchdowns and 15 interceptions. So while McCarron may not have had the talent of Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, he was a key piece of Alabama’s success over the last three seasons. Now, a wide-open quarterback battle is set to begin this spring and will carry into the fall with the arrival of Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Blake Sims was listed as McCarron’s backup last season and has attempted 39 passes over the last two years. But Sims is considered a longshot to win the starting job, as Coker is considered the favorite to claim the top spot when he arrives this summer. Coker and Sims won’t be the only quarterbacks battling for time in the spring, as Parker McLeod, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and incoming freshman David Cornwell are set to stake their claim for the job. Cornwell was the No. 79 prospect in the 247Sports Composite but is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the fall. While Coker is considered the favorite, can Sims or one of the other quarterbacks make a strong push for the No. 1 spot before fall practice? Or will Alabama head into the fall with a wide-open quarterback derby once again?
Restocking at defensive tackle:
With 13 starters returning, the Seminoles are in good shape to defend their national championship. Repeating as college football’s national champion won’t be easy, but Florida State has no shortage of talent waiting to step onto the field. New coordinator Charles Kelly should ensure there’s little drop in production on defense, but there’s a big concern at defensive tackle. Timmy Jernigan was one of the nation’s best last season, and he bolted early for the NFL. Additionally, Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister expired their eligibility. With Jernigan, McDaniel and McAllister gone, the depth is thin at tackle. Nile Lawrence-Stample is the top returner on the interior, with Desmond Hollin, Justin Shanks, Eddie Goldman and Keith Bryant battling for snaps this spring. The Seminoles will add more talent to the mix in the fall when Adam Torres, Arthur Williams, Derrick Nnadi, Fredrick Jones and Demarcus Christmas arrive for their freshman season. Not all of the incoming freshmen will compete for time, but some could be needed for depth in 2014. Finding answers at defensive tackle is even more critical when you consider the losses at linebacker (Telvin Smith and Christian Jones), along with active defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks.
Can Trevor Knight build off his Sugar Bowl performance?:
With 16 starters returning, and momentum from the Sugar Bowl win against Alabama in place, Oklahoma is considered a slight favorite over Baylor for the Big 12 title in 2014. The Sooners return most of their core from last season, and Knight’s performance in the bowl has provided plenty of optimism that Oklahoma is ready to contend for a playoff spot. Knight gashed Alabama’s defense for 348 yards and four touchdowns – easily his best performance of 2013. Should we expect to see similar numbers in 2014? Or was that just an aberration? With Blake Bell moving to tight end, it’s clear Knight has the starting job. Now it’s time for the sophomore to take the next step in his development, which will be a challenge with Jalen Saunders and Lacoltan Bester gone at receiver.
The return of Everett Golson
After guiding the Fighting Irish to an appearance in the national championship as a redshirt freshman, Golson missed all of 2013 due to academic issues. With Tommy Rees expiring his eligibility, Golson’s return comes at the perfect time for Notre Dame. And even though he was away from college football for the fall semester, Golson didn’t necessarily sit on the sidelines. Instead, he worked with quarterback guru George Whitfield. Golson drew praise from coach Brian Kelly this spring for his increased awareness in the offense. Golson is clearly an upgrade at quarterback over Rees, and Kelly needs to get him acclimated to the offense and his supporting cast this spring. If Golson continues to improve, Notre Dame’s offense will help alleviate some of the concerns on defense from losing a couple of key players, including end Stephon Tuitt and tackle Louis Nix III.
Starting over on the offensive line:
Going into the 2013 season, the Buckeyes had one of the best offensive lines in the nation. What a difference a year makes. Ohio State is essentially starting over in the trenches with only one starter returning as the team is set to open spring practice on March 4. The list of departed players is heavy on all-conference performers, with center Corey Linsley, guard Andrew Norwell and tackle Jack Mewhort all taking home first-team honors last year. Guard Marcus Hall didn’t earn a first or second-team mention, but he garnered an honorable mention spot for the all-conference team. Ohio State recruits as well as any team in the nation, so talent won’t be an issue. However, it may take some time for the line to jell and develop consistency. Taylor Decker is the unit’s only returning starter and is expected to shift from right to left tackle this spring. Replacing Decker on the right side could be senior Darryl Baldwin, and guard Pat Elflein should be a starter at one of the guard spots. But who replaces Linsley at center? Will that be Jacoby Boren? Could converted defensive lineman Joel Hale earn a spot? Ohio State should have a spot among the top-10 teams in the nation in 2014. However, the Buckeyes won’t finish ahead of Michigan State in their division unless the line quickly emerges as a strength.
First look at the new faces on defense:
An underrated part of Baylor’s Big 12 championship last season was the defense. The Bears held opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2013 after allowing 6.3 in 2012. Coordinator Phil Bennett has a busy spring ahead if he wants his defense to improve off of those totals in 2014. Only four starters return from last year’s unit, and All-Big 12 performers in safety Ahmad Dixon, linebacker Eddie Lackey and end Chris McAllister have expired their eligibility. Baylor’s recruiting has improved under Art Briles, and there’s talent waiting to step onto the field. Defensive end Shawn Oakman is a name to remember after recording 33 tackles last year, while help is also in the way in the form of three junior college transfers this spring. Will this unit continue to build off the improvement showcased last season? Or will all of the new faces create a transition year in 2014?
Starting over on offense:
After a 4-8 mark last season, Will Muschamp enters 2014 on the hot seat. The Gators’ defense held up their end of the bargain last year, as they allowed just 308.6 yards per game. But the offense was simply dreadful. It’s hard to find many positives on this unit after 2013, as Florida barely averaged over 300 yards per game in SEC action (312.5) and managed just 4.7 yards per play. Muschamp fired coordinator Brent Pease and line coach Tim Davis and brought Kurt Roper from Duke to call the plays, while former Kentucky and USC assistant Mike Summers will coach the line. The staff moves were clearly necessary, and Muschamp appears to have made the right hires. But the bigger problem for the Gators is with the personnel. Is quarterback Jeff Driskel ready to take the next step in his development? Or will incoming freshman Will Grier push for the job? At running back, Kelvin Taylor is a future star. However, the offensive line is a concern. The Gators still lack proven options at receiver, but Andre Debose is back in the mix after missing all of last season with a knee injury. There’s no question Florida should be solid on defense next year. But Muschamp’s future in Gainesville will hinge on how far the offense develops this offseason.
Concerns at defensive tackle:
With quarterback Marcus Mariota and eight other starters returning on offense, the Ducks will be one of the Pac-12’s most prolific offenses once again in 2014. However, the defense – which has been underrated nationally at times – enters spring with question marks. New coordinator Don Pellum will be replacing veteran Nick Aliotti as the Ducks’ play-caller on defense, and five starters return from a unit that held opponents to 4.9 yards per play last year. This will be Pellum’s first opportunity to coordinate the defense, but he is familiar with the personnel and keeps continuity in place for Oregon. Pellum’s biggest concern is on the line, where the Ducks must replace Wade Keliikipi, Taylor Hart and Ricky Heimuli. Alex Balducci was listed as Keliikipi’s backup last season, and he should take on a major role in the line in 2014. Outside of Balducci, the Ducks need more from Sam Kamp at the position, and there could be some shuffling of bodies this spring to anchor the interior. Arik Armstead, Stetzon Bair and DeForest Buckner have the size to play tackle and should see plenty of snaps in 2014. Another name to watch is junior college recruit Tui Talia. Where will he factor into the mix? If Oregon finds the right mix up front, this team will be in the mix for a playoff spot in Helfrich’s second season in Eugene.
Finding the right answers on defense:
When you first glance at the stat sheet from 2013, the numbers aren’t pretty for Auburn. The Tigers allowed 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game through nine SEC contests. However, a deeper look at the numbers suggests this defense made stops when it had to. Auburn led the SEC in fewest third-down conversions allowed and ranked second in the conference in red zone defense. Timely stops are a good sign, but the Tigers still need to be better on this side of the ball in 2014. Thanks to outstanding 2014 recruiting class, Auburn has improved its depth and talent on this side of the ball. But there are holes to fill with end Dee Ford, tackle Nosa Eguae, linebacker Jake Holland, cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan White and Ryan Smith expiring their eligibility. Ford and Eguae will be missed on the line, but there appears to be a wave of new standout linemen waiting in the wings with Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel set to play major snaps in 2014. At linebacker, Kris Frost is poised for a big season after finishing 2013 with seven tackles in the national championship game against Florida State. The secondary can lean on Jonathon Mincy at cornerback and Jermaine Whitehead at safety. But more depth is needed in the defensive backfield, which could open the door for junior college recruit Derrick Moncrief to play right away at safety. Ellis Johnson is one of the SEC’s top defensive coordinators, and the veteran assistant will be busy this spring as he looks to keep Auburn’s defense on a positive trajectory.
Finding answers on defense:
There’s really no way to sugarcoat the numbers in a positive way on defense for Texas A&M last season. The Aggies struggled mightily on this side of the ball and were bailed out by an explosive offense. But with quarterback Johnny Manziel off to the NFL, it’s unlikely Texas A&M will average 44.2 points per game again. Considering the offense is expected to slightly regress, the defense has to do its part to keep Texas A&M in contention for nine wins once again. There’s certainly no shortage of talent in College Station, but Sumlin and coordinator Mark Snyder will have a lineup that features a lot of youth (much like this unit had in 2013) in 2014. Incoming freshman Myles Garrett is a potential difference maker in the trenches, but can he play major snaps as a true freshman? The good news for Snyder is eight starters are back, including linebacker Darian Claiborne, tackle Isaiah Golden, cornerback Deshazor Everett and end Julien Obioha. Claiborne and Golden were suspended after an off-the-field incident in February. It’s uncertain how the arrest will affect either player heading into the upcoming season. The Aggies don’t have to be a shutdown defense in 2014, but there has to be progress to help cover for the losses on offense.
Jeremy Pruitt’s first chance to work with the defense:
After one very successful year at Florida State, Pruitt left Tallahassee for a chance to call the defensive signals at Georgia. Pruitt is no stranger to the SEC, as he spent six seasons at Alabama prior to his one-year stint with the Seminoles. Even though Aaron Murray departs at quarterback, the Bulldogs are in good shape on offense with Todd Gurley returning at running back, along with new signal-caller Hutson Mason. But for Georgia to return to the SEC title game, it has to find some answers on defense. Youth was a factor in the struggles last season, with the Bulldogs allowing 31.8 points per game in SEC contests. With 10 starters back and another year for the young players to develop, Georgia’s defense is poised to make significant progress on the stat sheet. Now it’s up to Pruitt to take this defense to the next level. This spring is all about Pruitt putting his stamp on a defense and making the necessary changes after a disappointing effort last year.
Looking for improvement on defense:
Sure, there’s a quarterback battle set to take place in Coral Gables this spring, but most of the attention for the coaching staff should be on the defense. The Hurricanes ranked 13th in the ACC in total defense last season, which came one year after finishing last in the conference. The numbers weren’t pretty for Al Golden’s defense, which allowed 6.2 yards per play in ACC-only games and gave up 32.8 points per game in eight conference contests. For a team that has the No. 2 ranked roster in the ACC, the ongoing defensive struggles are a mystery. While the numbers from last year are ugly, there’s hope for improvement with seven starters returning, while another solid recruiting class will help with overall depth. Each level of the defense has a potential impact player, starting with Anthony Chickillo at defensive end, Denzel Perryman at linebacker and Tracy Howard at cornerback. But can coordinator Mark D’Onofrio develop or find more difference makers on defense this spring?
Starting over on offense:
The Tigers have been a model of consistency under Les Miles, winning at least 10 games in seven out of the last nine years. Even though LSU has played in only one BCS bowl in the last six seasons, this program is still one of the best in the SEC. After rebuilding a defense that featured only three returning starters last year, the focus for Miles turns to the offense. Six starters are back from a unit that made significant progress in 2013. First-year coordinator Cam Cameron helped the Tigers average over six yards per play for the first time since 2006. But Cameron will have his hands full this spring as LSU has to replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill, guard Trai Turner and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Anthony Jennings started the Outback Bowl with Mettenberger out due to a knee injury and completed 7 of 19 passes for 82 yards against the Hawkeyes. Jennings is the frontrunner to replace Mettenberger, but true freshman Brandon Harris and redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig will have a chance to win the job. Top recruit Leonard Fournette should be the answer at running back, and the New Orleans native will have no trouble finding running room behind one of the SEC’s best offensive lines. Outside of finding a new starting quarterback, replacing Landry and Beckham is the top spring priority for Miles. Last season, Landry and Beckham combined for 136 of LSU’s 205 receptions. There’s not much in the way of proven talent at receiver, which opens the door for incoming recruit Malachi Dupre and redshirt freshman Avery Peterson to play significant snaps in 2014. This spring is LSU’s first opportunity to start the rebuilding effort on offense and reload for another run at the SEC title.
Filling voids at quarterback and running back:
Chris Petersen’s first spring as Washington’s head coach is already clouded with some mystery. Cyler Miles was expected to be the Huskies’ starting quarterback in 2014, but he was suspended after an off-the-field incident. It’s uncertain when Miles might return to the team, leaving sophomore Jeff Lindquist, redshirt freshman Troy Williams and incoming freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels as the three candidates vying for time this offseason. Carta-Samuels won’t arrive until the summer, so it’s Lindquist and Williams for the top two spots – for now. Bishop Sankey will be missed at running back, but there’s a handful of options ready to take the top spot on the depth chart. Dwayne Washington was impressive in limited time last season, and Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper have battled back from knee injuries to play a key role in the backfield. Will Washington emerge as the No. 1 back? Or will the Huskies use a committee approach? Petersen and coordinator Jonathan Smith will start to answer those questions when practice opens on March 4.
Rebuilding the defense:
It’s a good thing the Sun Devils return seven starters on offense this year. With only two starters returning on defense, Arizona State will be involved in plenty of shootouts in 2014. Of course, that’s easier to do when you return a quarterback like Taylor Kelly, as well as skill players in the form of running back D.J. Foster and receiver Jaelen Strong. But coach Todd Graham and new co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will have their hands full rebuilding a defense that ranked fifth in the Pac-12 (conference-only games) in points allowed (26.9 ppg). The list of departures is heavy, starting with defensive linemen Davon Coleman, Gannon Conway and Will Sutton, continuing into the linebacking corps with Carl Bradford and Chris Young, while the secondary loses cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor, and safety Alden Darby must be replaced. Each level of the defense needs to be retooled, and Graham dipped into the junior college ranks for immediate help. Linemen Edmond Boateng and Dalvon Stuckey should factor into the mix right away, and linebacker Darrius Caldwell and cornerback Kweishi Brown will be expected to do the same. Expect the Sun Devils to find the right answers as the season progresses, but this defense will receive some extra attention from Graham and Patterson this spring with a ton of fresh faces stepping into new roles.
Developing an offensive line:
Yes, Michigan needs more consistency from quarterback Devin Gardner, and the rushing attack has to give Gardner more help, but the biggest question mark for coach Brady Hoke this spring is clearly the offensive line. This unit struggled with consistency last season, and the Wolverines recorded just 2.5 yards per carry in Big Ten action. Making matters worse is the line loses tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield - easily the top two players on the unit in 2013. There is talent returning in the trenches, as Michigan reeled in back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes from 2012-13. The entire starting five is up for grabs. It’s time for players like Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis and Kyle Bosch to emerge as the leaders for the offensive line.
Replacements on the offensive line:
The top spot in the Coastal Division is expected to be up for grabs once again next year. The Tar Heels finished 2013 by winning six out of their final seven games, and with seven starters back on both sides of the ball, Larry Fedora’s team is positioned for a run at the division title. Marquise Williams will have to compete with Mitch Trubisky for the starting quarterback job, but the promising junior is expected to win the No. 1 spot. The Tar Heels are loaded with talent at the skill positions, including receiver Quinshad Davis and running back T.J. Logan. If there’s a concern on offense, it’s a line that loses two standout players in left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine. Guards Caleb Peterson and Landon Turner and tackle Jon Heck provide a solid foundation, but left tackle and center are arguably the two most-important positions on the line. Can Fedora and new coordinator Seth Littrell find answers in the spring? One name to watch is incoming freshman Bentley Spain – the No. 115 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – who enrolled early to compete this spring.
New faces on defense:
The defending SEC East champs return only nine starters from last year’s team. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, and Missouri still has enough talent to challenge for the division crown. New quarterback Maty Mauk was impressive last season, while the skill positions are set with Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy returning at running back, along with Dorial Green-Beckham and Bud Sasser at receiver. The offense will face a transition period, but there is little reason to be concerned about this unit. The defense figures to get the most attention from coach Gary Pinkel and coordinator Dave Steckel this spring. The Tigers are losing a handful of key players, including ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy and cornerback E.J. Gaines. The line may not miss a beat assuming Markus Golden and Shane Ray continue to play at a high level. Replacing Gaines won’t be easy, but sophomores Aarion Penton (16 tackles) and John Gibson (14 tackles) played their share of snaps in 2013. Missouri may take a step back on defense next season with a handful of key performers departing. However, the drop-off may not be as great as some may suspect with a solid core of talent still in place in Columbia.
Who replaces guard Xavier Su’a-Filo?:
Sacks allowed aren’t necessarily the best indicator of offensive line success or failure, but UCLA gave up 29 in nine Pac-12 contests last year. The Bruins also managed only 3.9 yards per carry, which ranked seventh in the Pac-12. Needless to say, there is room for this unit to improve. That task is complicated by the departure of guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to the NFL Draft. Jim Mora has recruited plenty of talent to Los Angeles over the last few seasons, and some of that youth got involved in the trenches last year, as Alex Redmond started all 13 games at guard, while Scott Quessenberry and Caleb Benenoch combined for 15 starts as true freshmen. With Redmond, Quessenberry and Benenoch having another offseason to work with the coaching staff and weight room, this trio should be even better in 2014. UCLA’s line will be bolstered by the addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche and four-star recruit Kolton Miller in this year’s signing class. Replacing Su’a-Filo is no easy assignment, and he was one of the top guards in the nation last year. Kenny Lacy was listed as the backup at guard last season, but the coaching staff could shuffle some players around this spring. Keeping quarterback Brett Hundley healthy is priority No. 1 for UCLA in 2014. Finding a replacement for Su’a-Filo and the right mix on the line will go a long way to keeping Hundley in the mix to win the Heisman.
Finding answers on offense:
In what seems to be an ongoing question mark, the Longhorns enter spring practice looking for answers on offense. Texas has not ranked higher than sixth in the Big 12 in scoring in each of the last four years and averaged only 5.1 yards per play in conference action in 2013. New coach Charlie Strong and co-offensive coordinators Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline will be looking for solutions this spring, starting under center where David Ash returns after missing most of last year with a concussion. Ash will face competition from Tyrone Swoopes this spring, while touted freshman Jerrod Heard arrives this summer. In addition to finding a quarterback, Texas has to replace three starters on the line, while receiver Mike Davis departs after averaging 14.3 yards per catch last season. Wickline has a strong track record of developing offensive linemen, and with a strong backfield returning, Texas can lean on the ground until the passing attack stabilizes. However, for the Longhorns to be a factor in the Big 12 title picture, a quarterback needs to step up before the season opener.
Rebuilding the defensive line:
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and line coach Deke Adams will have their hands full this spring. The Gamecocks lose three key performers from last year’s defensive line, including ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton and tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Quarles were both first-team All-SEC selections, and Sutton registered three sacks last season. South Carolina isn’t hurting for options in the trenches, but it’s hard to replace the talent that Clowney, Sutton and Quarles are taking to the NFL. Darius English has flashed potential in a backup role over the last two years and was listed as the backup to Clowney in 2013. Gerald Dixon and Mason Harris are slated to battle to replace Sutton, while J.T. Surratt will anchor the middle with Quarles departing. Other names to watch include Gerald Dixon Jr. and Kelsey Griffin at tackle, along with incoming junior college recruit Jhaustin Thomas. Dante Sawyer was expected to push for time in the fall, but the Georgia product will instead go to junior college. As we mentioned earlier, there’s certainly talent and potential here. However, it’s unrealistic to expect the same caliber of play of last year’s group. With matchups against Texas A&M and Georgia in the first few weeks of the season next year, this defensive line will be tested early in 2014.
Adjusting to the new 3-4 defense:
Replacing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is no easy task, but Will Gardner has potential and played well in limited action last year. While the quarterback situation is something to watch, Bobby Petrino should push the right buttons on offense. With Petrino back on the sidelines in Louisville, the focus of spring practice should shift to the defense. The Cardinals led the nation against the run last season and finished second in points allowed. However, only four starters return from last year’s unit, and there’s a transition period as new coordinator Todd Grantham shifts the personnel to a 3-4 scheme. Lorenzo Mauldin is expected to be an All-ACC performer, and the senior will move from end to linebacker this spring. Other personnel moves are anticipated, especially as Louisville looks for replacements at safety with the departure of Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Charlie Strong isn’t leaving the cupboard bare on defense, but it may take some time for the players to adjust to a new 3-4 approach.
Improving the passing attack:
The Badgers lose several key pieces from the defense, but the passing offense is expected to receive the most attention from coach Gary Andersen this spring. In eight Big Ten games last year, Wisconsin averaged only 201.9 yards per game and tossed nine picks to just 13 touchdowns. Joel Stave started all 13 games last season, but he will face competition from Tanner McEvoy, who is slated to return under center after spending time at safety in 2013. In addition to McEvoy, Bart Houston and incoming freshman D.J. Gillins are expected to get an extended look under center in the preseason. The Badgers’ passing concerns don’t stop at quarterback. Receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen have expired their eligibility, leaving the cupboard a little thin in proven options in the receiving corps. This spring presents a huge opportunity for players like Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright to make an impression at receiver.
New starters at quarterback and running back:
Considering Rich Rodriguez’s track record of developing quarterbacks and finding standouts at running back, there’s not too much concern in Tucson over the new faces stepping in on offense. Quarterback B.J. Denker departs after recording 3,465 total yards last season, while running back Ka’Deem Carey left early for the NFL after another standout year. There’s no clear answer at either position as spring practice opens on March 3 for the Wildcats. At quarterback, Texas transfer Connor Brewer, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon and junior college transfers Jesse Scroggins and Jerrard Randall are considered the frontrunners to replace Denker. The picture remains muddy at running back, as Jared Baker (127 yards) is the top statistical returner, but redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier, Zach Green, Myles Smith and true freshmen Jonathan Haden and Nick Wilson will all have a chance to compete for carries. Baker is recovering from a torn ACL and is not expected to participate in spring practice. Cormier is a slight favorite to handle the bulk of the carries in 2014, but the Wildcats could use a committee approach. Can Rodriguez and his staff narrow the competition or find a starter at both positions this spring?
Finding a spark on offense:
The final numbers for Virginia Tech’s offense weren’t pretty last season. The Hokies finished 13th in the ACC in total offense and averaged just five yards per play. Under first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler, Virginia Tech managed just 28 points in its final two games and scored under 20 points seven times in 2013. This unit enters spring practice with a myriad of question marks, starting under center where Logan Thomas expired his eligibility after the Sun Bowl loss to UCLA. Mark Leal is the favorite to replace Thomas, but he has just 48 pass attempts in his career. Leal needs to prove he has control of the No. 1 spot this spring, while Loeffler has to provide the senior with more help in the supporting cast. The Hokies averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last season, while inconsistency was a concern in the receiving corps and on the offensive line. Virginia Tech will be fine on defense, but it’s hard to see improvement off last year’s 8-5 mark without significant growth on offense.
Ole Miss went 6-18 overall and 1-15 in the SEC the two years prior to Hugh Freeze taking over as head coach in Oxford.
While Freeze has two losing records in conference play in two years, there is little doubt that he was clearly the right guy for the job. Ole Miss has posted back-to-back winning seasons capped by bowl wins. More importantly, Freeze has totally revamped Ole Miss recruiting and has a roster returning in 2014 that could be the best Rebels' fans have seen in years.
Questions still remain about the rosters, in particular along the offensive line, but the biggest hurdles are those swirling in the dangerous waters of the SEC West. In a division with Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M, can Ole Miss compete for an SEC championship?
That's something the Rebs haven’t won since 1963.
|Sept. 20||Bye Week|
|Nov. 15||Bye Week|
Ole Miss Rebels 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 3
Spring Game: April 5
Three Things to Watch in Ole Miss' 2014 Spring Practice
Develop the offensive line
Playing in the treacherous SEC requires an excellent offensive line. Protecting the quarterback and running the football are even more important against the elite SEC defensive lines. With the loss three full time starters and a key reserve, the offensive line is going to be a major area of concern for Freeze and company this spring. Five-star prospect Laremy Tunsil more than acquitted himself a year ago as a true freshman and fans will look for him to take another step in his development, along with the return of All-SEC-type guard Aaron Morris from his season-ending injury. These two playing at the top of their game this fall is a great place to start. However, other names like Justin Bell (13 starts) need to step into leadership roles to stabilize an offensive line that was 98th in the nation a year ago in allowing sacks. Shoring up the front line is a great way to protect one of the better returning quarterbacks in the conference in Bo Wallace.
Find experience and leadership
There aren’t many glaring holes on this depth chart other than the offensive line. Would Freeze like to find a workhorse back? Would he like to develop depth in his front seven? Certainly, but he isn’t hurting for options at either position, so finding experienced field generals who can lead by example appears to be one of the most important goals of the spring. Jeff Scott and Donte Moncrief, for example, were two veteran leaders on the offense who are no longer around. Replacing their production shouldn’t be difficult with a host of talented players returning to Oxford. However, with five junior college transfers and a handful of redshirt freshmen working their way into the rotation, developing a pecking order on the practice field should be a focus of the staff. Laquon Treadwell, Tunsil, Tony Conner and Channing Ward have elite raw physical talent and upside but this team will go only as far as their leadership and maturity takes them. Speaking of maturity…
Stay focused on and off the field
Both Nkemdiche brothers, Denzel and Robert, have dealt with serious off-the-field issues as have a variety of other members of the Ole Miss roster. Spring practice is a time of learning, development and camaraderie, especially for a roster as young and talented as the one in Oxford. Freeze’s staff needs to be sure his players understand the goal/opportunity at hand for 2014. Winning an SEC title is difficult enough without off the field distractions dragging a team down the standings. The ’14 season could be a special one for the Rebels if things fall right in Oxford, but the margin for error is razor thin. The tiniest issues — be it injuries, arrests or immaturity — can derail a championship run in this conference, especially for a team like Ole Miss that won’t be favored against the big boys on its schedule.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 7-9
Ole Miss is certainly trending in the right direction. Freeze returns 14 of 22 starters, including his quarterback and the majority of his defense. The highly touted freshmen class of 2013 not only lived up to the hype but could develop into one of the great collections of talent ever signed in Oxford. There are few holes on this depth chart other than offensive line. Should leadership develop, a trip to the SEC title game in Atlanta isn’t out of the question. However, the schedule is absolutely brutal with Boise State in the non-conference and a typical run of nasty road SEC games (LSU, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Arkansas) is intertwined with monumental home showdowns against the last two SEC champions in Alabama and Auburn. After improving from seven to eight wins in his first two seasons, improvement to nine or ten seems like a tall order but isn't out of the question should Colonel Reb pull and upset or two.
Beware of bid thieves.
For weeks, basketball fans been watching the NCAA Tournament bubble, hoping their teams can win the games they should and maybe score an upset or two.
But an NCAA Tournament bid isn’t always in the hands of the bubble teams. In just about every season, a team that has no business playing in the Big Dance will make a run at a conference title by grabbing an automatic bid at the 11th hour.
These are those teams, the spoilers. Bubble teams should watch with trepidation.
Bid thieves are not teams already on the bubble that could play its way in like Nebraska, Minnesota or a host of teams in the SEC. Instead, these are teams that are conference tournament champions or bust.
They are either major conference teams capable of making a run in the league tournaments or they are teams in leagues that would be receive only one bid if the regular season champion wins out.
For example, if any team other than Wichita State wins the Missouri Valley tournament, the MVC will be a two-bid league and one bubble team will be out of luck. The same is true if a team like Georgia wins the SEC Tournament or Utah wins the Pac-12.
Here are the teams that could spoil the next two weeks for bubble teams.
The Broncos this season returned five starters from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament, but they need the Mountain West Tournament to return. Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic still give Boise State the backcourt to make the Broncos contenders. If Boise State can put together a consistent defensive effort for a weekend, the Broncos can play the role of spoiler.
The Bulldogs have shocked the SEC Tournament before, albeit under strange circumstances. In 2008, Georgia won the SEC Tournament by winning two games in one day at Georgia Tech after a tornado damaged the Georgia Dome. The SEC Tournament is back in Atlanta, and this year’s Georgia team is much better than the last-place team that won in 2008. If someone knocks off Florida, a Georgia team that’s 10-6 in the SEC would have as good a chance to win as any team.
Eliminated from NCAA Tournament contention thanks to an eight-game losing streak in January, Illinois is starting to heat up. The backcourt of Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams led Illinois to three consecutive wins over Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan State in the last two weeks. And don’t doubt a John Groce team in a tournament setting: This is a coach who has a Maui Invitational title, a Sweet 16 appearance and an upset of Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament on his ledger.
Green Bay will be one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the field, but what if the Phoenix lose in the Horizon League Tournament? Green Bay doesn’t have a great at-large profile at No. 51 in the RPI and a strength of schedule barely inside the top 150. Still, given the state of the bubble, the selection committee might look favorably on a 24-5 team that beat Virginia and lost by three to Wisconsin. Why Milwaukee as the spoiler for Green Bay instead of Horizon No. 2 Cleveland State? Milwaukee defeated Green Bay 73-63 on the road and lost in overtime in the first meeting. With Jordan Aaron back from suspension, Milwaukee will be more dangerous than a typical No. 5 seed in the Horizon.
If Wichita State wins the league tournament, the Missouri Valley will be a one-bid league. The Shockers have shown few signs of weakness in league play, so any upset would be a long shot. Indiana State is the No. 2 seed in the Arch Madness and the consensus No. 2 team. Still, the Sycamores are limping into the postseason with three consecutive loses, including a 71-69 loss to third-place Northern Iowa. The Panthers won five of their last six.
The Rebels aren’t nearly the complete team they were last season when they won the SEC Tournament. But this team still has Marshall Henderson chucking 3-pointers against an SEC full of teams susceptible to losing games they shouldn’t.
Gonzaga and BYU both could be at-large bids out of the West Coast Conference, making San Francisco the team with the most to gain in the league tournament. Portland is the only team to defeat both Gonzaga and BYU this season, but San Francisco has been the more consistent team during the season. The Dons enter the WCC Tournament on a hot streak with five consecutive wins.
Bubble teams in the Big East already want nothing to do with Seton Hall. The Pirates have six conference wins this season, four of which coming on regular season sweeps of Georgetown and Xavier. Seton Hall also defeated Providence on the road in overtime on Dec. 31. The Pirates might not be able to win the Big East Tournament, but they might not have to in order to knock teams out of the NCAA field.
The Big 12 was a grind this season, especially during the month or so when Texas Tech was of the toughest outs in the bottom tier of the league. The Red Raiders defeated Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and took Kansas to the buzzer this season. This is a well-coached team under Tubby Smith with an under-appreciated forward in Jaye Crockett, and few teams in the Big 12 should be considered invincible.
The Runnin’ Rebels have a roster that should be better than 19-10 and needing the Mountain West Tournament to get into the field. This has been a disappointing season, but the Rebels have homecourt advantage. The Mountain West is not a strong conference this season, so the tournament isn’t the grind it was a year ago. If UNLV can beat New Mexico or San Diego State, the Rebels can win in Vegas.
Larry Krystkowiak should be a Pac-12 coach of the year candidate as Utah approaches the 20-win mark and flirts with a winning conference record in his third season. Keep in mind, this is a program that won six games total in 2011-12. The Utes have one of the stronger defensive teams in the league and a duo of Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright that has kept them competitive all year. Utah has defeated UCLA, Colorado and Arizona State this season and took Oregon, the Buffaloes and Arizona to overtime.
Like Texas Tech, West Virginia enjoyed a few weeks as one of the more dangerous teams in the Big 12. The Mountaineers defeated Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Iowa State during a five-game stretch from Jan. 28-Feb. 10. The Mountaineers’ backcourt of Juwan Staten and Eron Harris can keep up with anyone in the league.
Clemson and Georgia are set to meet in the season opener for both teams next season (Aug. 30), but the Tigers will be shorthanded for the meeting in Athens.
Coach Dabo Swinney announced in his pre-spring press conference four players are suspended for that game due to a violation of team rules. Guard David Beasley, tackle Shaq Anthony, cornerback Garry Peters and defensive end Corey Crawford will all miss the non-conference matchup against Georgia.
And these aren’t minor losses for Clemson. Peters recorded 28 tackles last season, Anthony and Beasley combined for 11 starts on the offensive line, while Crawford registered 52 tackles and three sacks in 2013.
While the suspensions are bad news for Swinney and the Tigers, this team has all offseason to prepare for that game without the four players.
David Beasley, Shaq Anthony, Garry Peters and Corey Crawford will miss the opener against UGA. "Violation of team rule."— Greg Wallace (@gc_wallace) March 4, 2014
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 29: Harris English
Born: July 23, 1989, Valdosta, Ga. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 2 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,201,167 (27th) | World Ranking: 36
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Harris English was only the third amateur ever to win on the Web.com Tour, and in his rookie year on the PGA Tour in 2012, he made 22 of 27 cuts. He continued to improve in 2013, notching his first win in Memphis and then adding another win at Mayakoba late in the year (part of the wrap-around 2014 schedule). He has length off the tee and the ability to do some things better than anyone on Tour, leading in smash factor (finding the middle of the face) and putts from 15-25 feet. Those two are a pretty powerful combination, and why as I write this I think his 36th world ranking is the lowest he will be for some time.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - DNP
British Open - T15
PGA Championship - T61
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - n/a
U.S. Open - n/a
British Open - T15 (2013)
PGA Championship - T61 (2013)
Top-10 Finishes: 0
Top-25 Finishes: 1
Missed Cuts: 0
Athlon's 2014 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
A rule proposal limiting how fast offenses can snap the ball has received plenty of criticism from coaches. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez has been one of the outspoken coaches against the rule, which forces teams to wait 10 seconds on the play clock before they can snap the ball.
And recently, Rodriguez and the Arizona staff took to the video world to continue their criticism of the potential rule change. Check out this video, which features some clips from the movie Speed (we hope you didn’t watch Speed 2 though), as well as Rodriguez getting his point across about the 10-second rule.
If you ask Carlos Rodriguez why there are more Cuban players entering the major leagues than ever before, his answer is quick, humorous and right on time.
“There are 68 million reasons,” he says.
Rodriguez, Tampa Bay’s director of Latin American scouting, is referring to the six-year, $68 million contract the White Sox bestowed in late October upon first baseman Jose Abreu. It was the largest deal in club history, and it serves as the latest example of how eager MLB clubs are to collect the talent on the island that sits 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
The Sox hope Abreu joins the collection of recent defectors who have made significant contributions to major-league teams in the past couple years. Aroldis Chapman and his 100-mph fastball have transformed the Reds’ bullpen. Yoenis Cespedes is a power-hitting fixture in the middle of the Oakland lineup. And who can forget the performance last year of Yasiel Puig, who energized the Dodgers with his power, aggressiveness and flamboyant personality? Those three aren’t the only Cuban players in the bigs right now. In fact, Abreu joins Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo on the White Sox roster. But his arrival in the United States demonstrates just how much teams covet players from Cuba and how those performers want to find a way to reach the U.S. to play ball at the highest level.
“When there is an economic incentive and an opportunity cost of not coming over, the risk-reward is higher,” Rodriguez says. “People are finding more creative ways of getting out, and there is a bigger network of people helping out.”
For decades, Cuban players have made significant contributions to MLB teams, dating back to Minnie Minoso from 1949-63 (and a couple P.R. stunt appearances later on) but also including Tony Perez, Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva. Because of dictator Fidel Castro’s edict that no one could leave the island without permission, many great players — particularly in the 1970s and ‘80s — never reached the majors. Two of the most famous are Omar Linares and German Mesa, who were considered All-Star quality talents who couldn’t escape Castro’s clutches.
There was always something of a mythical status accorded the Cuban player, who could be viewed during certain international competitions but rarely seen in his natural habitat. Because of that legend, Cuban players might be held in higher esteem than their counterparts from other Latin American countries.
That has helped MLB teams develop considerable affection for players from the island — and vice versa. Last summer, even the Phillies, for whom big-money foreign players have been anathema, signed pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a six-year, $50 million deal. Although the money figure has dropped due to Gonzalez’s injury problems, the Phillies expect the righty to be a part of their rotation in 2014. With each subsequent player, the money seems to grow. Chapman received $30.25 million from the Reds. The A’s bestowed $36 mil on Cespedes, and Puig’s contract is worth $42 million. After never giving an international player a contract of more than $2 million, the Phillies went all in for Gonzalez. A couple months later, Abreu’s deal rocked the majors.
“Any time Cuban players made it to the U.S. as veterans from their professional league, there was always an interest in signing them,” Cardinals assistant GM Michael Girsch says. “It was a trickle in previous years, but now it has opened up, and we’re signing them.”
The flow could increase considerably in coming years, thanks to a variety of factors. One is the growing number of people trying to broker deals to sneak ballplayers off the island to safe nations. These “brokers” (some call them smugglers; others refer to them as traffickers) hold onto the men until agents sign deals to represent the players and bring them to the U.S., where they can be evaluated. The brokers make money, and there may even be some funds heading back to Cuban officials who conveniently look elsewhere as players are leaving the island.
“Are they letting it happen?” asks Cincinnati senior director of scouting Chris Buckley. “Maybe some money is going back to the Cuban government. We’ve heard all types of things. It’s a little suspicious.”
In order to make that cash flow more official, Cuba announced in late September that it would allow players to sign with other countries’ professional leagues. That was strictly prohibited under Fidel Castro, but his brother Raul, has a different view of the impact of big-dollar contracts on the socialist experience, especially if some of that dough makes its way to Havana. There are some issues to be worked out with the U.S. regarding tax dollars’ flowing back to Cuba, a transaction that would be in violation of America’s strict ban on commercial dealings with Cuba. That is something of a technicality, and it would be surprising if some system weren’t created to overcome the issue.
“People are trying to get a piece of the pie,” Rodriguez says. “Before, maybe the money wasn’t as big an incentive.”
Anybody who watched Puig play during the 2013 season shouldn’t have been surprised at all by his hard-driving style. That’s how they play ball in Cuba. “The Cuban players are traditionally known as ultra-aggressive and playing very hard,” Rodriguez says. “They are intimidating and brash and play an alpha style of baseball. They are definitely very brash and confident. They feel that if they can compete in Cuba, they can play anywhere in the world.”
The young outfielder tried to stretch singles into doubles, went after every fly ball with abandon and could be fooled — sometimes badly — by off-speed pitches. It didn’t matter to Puig if he failed; he was going to keep moving forward at 100 mph, sliding into home after a walk-off dinger and refusing to acknowledge the accomplishments of those who went before him, as Puig did when he snubbed former Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzalez.
There’s an old saying that explains why Dominican players are such free swingers: “You don’t walk off the island.” In other words, playing small ball isn’t going to get you noticed. That’s no different in Cuba, even though it’s tougher to get off that island than it is to reach the majors from the D.R.
When Cuba competes in international competitions, it does so to win. That’s a by-product of Castro’s desire to prove to the world that his country’s socialism produces greatness, the old Soviet-style system of rewards for performance and a bunker mentality of sorts that comes from being isolated from much of the world.
“The Cuban hitters go up there swinging,” Buckley says. “The pitchers are very aggressive and have no problems throwing at a hitter. Of course, let’s see how that translates to big-league play.”
Before that can be considered, the player has to become eligible to play. First, he has to escape the island and the close scrutiny of the government. The breakaways aren’t quite as dramatic as they once were, but it still isn’t easy. Recruiters and other intermediaries bring players to other countries, usually Mexico or a Caribbean land, to establish residency. And there are always concerns among those who leave about how family members who remain in Cuba will be treated. The next step is obtaining clearance from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control. Because the U.S. has an embargo in place against Cuba, the defecting players are almost looked at as “products” of the island. The OFAC — a Division of the Department of the Treasury — “…administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes...” It isn’t a particularly onerous process, but it does take some time. The final hurdle is say-so from Major League Baseball. Once all of that is taken care of, it’s time to find out if the guy can play.
“When they are cleared, we can evaluate them in a more controlled setting,” Rodriguez says. “We can see them take batting practice and do other things.”
Those assessments are vital with Cuban players. Yes, they fare well in international competition. And the stars stand out in domestic leagues, too. Making the jump to the majors isn’t as easy as getting from the island to the United States. After all the wrangling that goes into defecting and getting signed, there is the small issue of whether the player in question is any good. It may be beneficial to stage formal workouts for the prospects, but determining whether they can play still requires some faith, rather than an analysis of considerable amounts of data. No matter how highly touted the level of competition in the Cuban leagues might be, it still isn’t close to big-league quality.
“Some of the pitching there is at the high (class) A ball or Double-A levels,” Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin says. “Only occasionally do they run into quality pitching.
“We talk about how hitting is down in the major leagues because there are so many pitchers with power arms. The players coming over here from Cuba and Japan are in for rude awakenings, because they will be seeing quality pitching every day. It’s a big adjustment. Players like Puig and Cespedes are very talented guys, but you have to be careful.”
The good thing about acquiring a Cuban player is that the relative cost is low. Those who saw the contract the White Sox gave to Abreu might laugh at that statement, but it’s true. Yes, the money can be high, but there are no other penalties. Teams don’t lose draft picks for signing Cuban players. And they don’t have to surrender top prospects as they do when making deadline trades. So, there is nothing on top of the contracts — which can be admittedly high — when it comes to importing Cuban talent. For instance, when the Reds acquired pitcher Mat Latos from the Padres after the 2011 season, they had to part with righty Edinson Volquez and three top minor leaguers. “That’s a high cost,” Buckley says. Chapman’s six-year, $30.25 million contract wasn’t cheap, but that was the flamethrower’s only price.
“When you sign someone like Chapman, it’s just money, a lot of money, but we’re in the business of evaluating talent,” Buckley says. “We should be able to tell.”
When a player makes it through the clearinghouse process, is deemed talented enough to warrant a major-league contract and actually proves he can play, there is still one final component that can make the transition from Cuba to MLB daunting. Because the island is so backward, the U.S. lifestyle can be a huge shock. Just walking into a supermarket can be a transformative experience.
Putting these naïve players into a professional setting, with all of the outside influences and media attention, can create some serious problems.
“They have to learn the laws and our way of life,” Rodriguez says. “You have to have people monitoring what they do 24/7. Most of the players who come over here never drove a car before. It’s a real adjustment period.
“They have to learn everything — how to deal with fans and media and even how to order food.”
That they can learn. Skills like throwing 100-mph cheese and hitting for power and average aren’t so easily acquired.
And are worth the price.
—Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!
Crunch time is here.
Conference tournaments are starting this week in 13 league. But with most of those tournaments featuring a winner-take-all for an NCAA bid, the bubble watch is taking place in the final week of the regular season for the major conferences.
The Big East, Atlantic 10 and Pac-12 have perhaps the most important bubble games of the week while other teams are simply trying to work on some resume maintenance, as you might call it.
Here are the key midweek games and a look at the field and bubble teams for the rest of the week.
Key Games with NCAA Tournament Implications This Week
Iowa State at Baylor (Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2)
The Bears have probably recovered from their 2-8 start in Big 12 play with wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma State. A game against Iowa State, coming off a loss to Kansas State on Saturday, is another chance to build the resume.
Creighton at Georgetown (Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Bluejays are looking to recover from a loss to Xavier on Saturday, but this game is more important for Georgetown. The Hoyas are on a 1-3 slide, with all three losses on the road. If John Thompson III’s team is going to make it to the field, beating Creighton or Villanova would be a good start.
Marquette at Providence (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Buzz Williams’ team is on the fringes despite a disastrous start to the season. The Eagles may need to beat Providence and St. John’s, otherwise, it’s Big East Tournament or bust. The Friars have their own work to do to prove they can beat someone other than DePaul, Butler and Seton Hall.
Florida State at Boston College (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU)
The Seminoles may be a long shot, but they need to win this game to set up the really important game against struggling Syracuse to end the season.
Arizona State at Oregon (Tuesday, 11 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Sun Devils and Ducks have similar RPI and strength of schedule rankings, but Arizona State has the strong resume with six top 50 wins. Oregon, meanwhile, is looking to build momentum after its best of the season at UCLA on Saturday.
Louisville at SMU (Wednesday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
The Mustangs may be safe as long as they don’t lose early in the American Tournament. SMU finishes with Louisville at home and Memphis on the road.
Nebraska at Indiana (Wednesday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
A 60-49 loss to Illinois a week ago puts more pressure on Nebraska to win its final two games in Bloomington and at home against Wisconsin. The Hoosiers have quietly pulled themselves together in February with back-to-back wins over Iowa and Ohio State, but a home loss to a bubble team is not a great way to get attention.
Ole Miss at Arkansas (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN3.com)
The Razorbacks may be in the field with seven wins in the last eight games. They just need to avoid the home upset to Marshall Henderson and the Rebels.
Texas A&M at Missouri (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN3.com)
With road losses to Alabama and Georgia in the last two weeks, Missouri needs this game to set up a meaningful matchup at Tennessee on Saturday.
Colorado at Stanford (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2)
The Buffaloes are 6-6 without Spencer Dinwiddie and finish with road trips to the Bay Area schools, both of which are in NCAA at-large contention. A huge opportunity for Tad Boyle’s team.
Dayton at Saint Louis (Wednesday, 9 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
The Flyers are still in contention after Saturday’s win over UMass. Finishing against a slumping Saint Louis team on the road and at home against Richmond will be critical for a team just barely in the RPI top 50.
St. Joseph’s at George Washington (Wednesday, 9 p.m., Comcast SportsNet)
The Colonials have slumped against NCAA contenders in the last month with losses to Dayton, VCU, UMass and Saint Louis. St. Joe’s, meanwhile, is on a six-game winning streak.
Arizona at Oregon State (Wednesday, 11 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Wildcats will look to protect their No. 1 seed with a trip to the Oregon schools this week. Both of Arizona’s losses this season have come on the road.
Utah at Cal (Wednesday, 11 p.m., ESPNU)
Cal is 3-4 since the win over Arizona on Feb. 1. The Bears finish with two tough but winnable home games against Utah and Colorado.
Villanova at Xavier (Thursday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Musketeers followed up an upset of Creighton on Saturday by losing its second game of the season to Seton Hall. And that’s why Xavier is on the bubble.
Iowa at Michigan State (Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Whose fortunes are sinking faster? Iowa has lost three of four, and Michigan State is 4-6 since starting 18-1 overall.
NCAA Tournament Projections and Bubble Watch
Feeling good: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia
Bubble in: Pittsburgh
Bubble out: None
Feeling good: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Memphis
Bubble in: SMU
Bubble out: None
Atlantic 10 (6)
Feeling good: Saint Louis, UMass, VCU
Bubble in: Dayton, George Washington, St. Joseph’s
Bubble out: Richmond
Big 12 (7)
Feeling good: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas
Bubble in: Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State
Bubble out: West Virginia
Big East (3)
Feeling good: Creighton, Villanova
Bubble in: Xavier
Bubble out: Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's
Big Ten (6)
Feeling good: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Bubble in: Minnesota
Bubble out: Indiana, Nebraska
Mountain West (2)
Feeling good: New Mexico, San Diego State
Bubble in: None
Bubble out: Boise State
Feeling good: Arizona, UCLA
Bubble in: Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford
Bubble out: None
Feeling good: Florida, Kentucky
Bubble in: Arkansas, Missouri
Bubble out: LSU, Tennessee
West Coast (2)
Feeling good: None
Bubble in: BYU, Gonzaga
Bubble out: None
Favorites in one-bid leagues (22)
America East: Vermont
Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast
Big Sky: Weber State
Big South: High Point
Big West: UC Irvine
Conference USA: Southern Miss
Horizon: Green Bay
MEAC: North Carolina Central
Missouri Valley: Wichita State*
Northeast: Robert Morris
Ohio Valley: Belmont
Patriot: Boston University
Southland: Stephen F. Austin
Summit: North Dakota State
Sun Belt: Georgia State
SWAC: Texas Southern
WAC: New Mexico State
*Wichita State would be an at-large if the Shockers lose in the MVC tournament
Kurt Busch has a busy Memorial Day weekend planned. The 2004 NASCAR Cup champ announced on Tuesday that he will attempt “The Double” by running IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, May 25.
“I enjoyed the era of drivers racing different cars and testing themselves in other series,” Busch said. “It is tough to do now for a variety of factors, but when the opportunity is there, I want to do it.
“It’s literally a dream come true. To go to the famous Brickyard with the iconic Andretti name, it doesn’t get much cooler or better than that.”
Busch, in his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, will pilot an Andretti Autosport Honda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Andretti fields full-time IndyCar efforts for Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz.
His NASCAR manufacturer, General Motors, had to sign off on his racing for another car company.
Busch will be the first driver to attempt the feat since 2004, when Robby Gordon ran both races. Gordon, John Andretti and Busch’s NASCAR co-owner, Tony Stewart, are the only three drivers to have pulled “The Double.” Stewart, who in 2001 finished sixth at Indianapolis and third in Charlotte, is the only driver to have completed all 1,100 miles.
“It’s great having Tony as the co-owner of my NASCAR team as, in the weeks leading up to the month of May, it gives me a chance to talk with him about his personal experiences with “The Double” — to anticipate what’s next and have things checked off the list so that I’m mentally and physically prepared for the challenge,” said Busch.
Although Busch, who has 24 career Cup victories including the 2010 Coca-Cola 600, has yet to start an IndyCar event, he obtained his license in the series last year when an Indy 500 bid first became a possibility.
While sponsorship has not been announced for the IndyCar ride, Busch is dedicating the effort to members of the U.S. military. His girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, is the president of the Armed Forces Foundation, which supports injured troops and military families.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 4.
• It's already March 4, but here's a look back at February's lovely ladies of sport, including some Polar Bear Plunge hotties.
• At the other end of the spectrum, this 10-year-old Knicks fan doesn't like what he sees.
• Dirk Nowitzki did a more than passable Arnold Schwarzenegger impression on the Dan Patrick Show. Of course, the accent gives him a built-in advantage.
• The NFL might test 43-yard extra points. Not so routine now, is it?
• Late to this party, but there's a widget to do to your name what John Travolta did to Idina Menzel's name at the Oscars.
• Snowed in? Time to kill? Going on Nancy Grace later? You can watch the Oscar Pistorius trial streaming live.
• Watch a soccer coach take a beverage to the mouth.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 30: Jimmy Walker
Born: Jan. 16, 1979, Oklahoma City, Okla. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,117,571 (30th) | World Ranking: 25
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Jimmy Walker has improved his position on the PGA Tour money list every year since 2008, until finally breaking into the top 30 in 2013. Starting the season off in 2014 with a win at the Frys.com, his first on Tour, and following that up with wins at the Sony and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am certainly bodes well for the transplanted Texan for the rest of the year. It also validates what Butch Harmon told me a year ago when he first started working with Jimmy — that Walker had the potential to be one of the best in the world.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - DNP
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - Cut
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - n/a
U.S. Open - T52 (2001)
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - T21 (2012)
Top-10 Finishes: 0
Top-25 Finishes: 1
Missed Cuts: 4
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Kentucky entered the season hoping to be in rare company. The idea of the top recruiting class in the history of college basketball challenging 40-0 always seemed far fetched.
But at the start of the season Kentucky certainly appeared much closer to winning 30-plus games during the regular season than losing 10.
Instead, Kentucky is trying to avoid another kind of company — from preseason No. 1 to unranked. After losing twice last week to Arkansas and most embarrassingly to SEC bottom feeder South Carolina, Kentucky was ranked 25th in this week’s Associated Press poll, 22 points from falling out completely.
Kentucky, which finishes the regular season at No. 1 Florida on Saturday, may be the first AP preseason No. 1 team to spend a week out of the polls since Indiana did it in 1979-80.
With an 11-5 record in a weak SEC, the Wildcats already are one of the most disappointing preseason No. 1 teams in recent decades. It’s rare for a preseason No. 1 team to spend any amount of time outside of the top five, much less the majority of the season.
On Dec. 2, Kentucky was ranked third in the nation before a 67-62 loss to Baylor dropped the Wildcats to 11th. Kentucky lost again to North Carolina on Dec. 14, so even defeating Louisville to end 2013 could’t give Kentucky a push back into the top 10
Altogether, Kentucky has been ranked no higher than No. 11 since Dec. 2.
It’s worth noting Kentucky was not a dubious pick as a No. 1 team. Athlon Sports ranked Kentucky No. 1, but Athlon was not alone by any means.
Perhaps the most disappointing preseason No. 1 in the last 10 years was 2004-05 Kansas. The Jayhawks that season returned seniors Wayne Simien and Keith Langford but finished 23-7 overall and 12-4 in the Big 12 before losing to No. 14 seed Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
If there’s hope for Kentucky, it could look toward 2000-01 Arizona, which lost eight games during the regular season, slipped to 24th in the AP poll but rebounded to reach the national title game.
What kind of precedent is Kentucky setting, here’s how all the preseason No. 1 teams fared since Indiana flopped in 1979-80.
|How AP Preseason No. 1 Teams Fared since 1979-80|
|Preseason No. 1 Team||Final Record||Lowest Rank||NCAA Tournament|
|13-14 Kentucky||21-8||No. 25||--|
|12-13 Indiana||29-7||No. 7||Sweet 16|
|11-12 North Carolina||32-6||No. 8||Elite Eight|
|10-11 Duke||32-5||No. 5||Sweet 16|
|09-10 Kansas||33-3||No. 3||Second round|
|08-09 North Carolina||34-4||No. 5||National champion|
|07-08 North Carolina||36-3||No. 5||Final Four|
|06-07 Florida||35-5||No. 7||National champion|
|05-06 Duke||32-4||No. 3||Sweet 16|
|04-05 Kansas||23-7||No. 12||First round|
|03-04 UConn||33-6||No. 9||National champion|
|02-03 Arizona||28-4||No. 4||Final Four|
|01-02 Duke||31-4||No. 3||Sweet 16|
|00-01 Arizona||28-8||No. 21||National runner up|
|99-00 UConn||25-10||No. 24||Second round|
|98-99 Duke||37-2||No. 4||National runner up|
|97-98 Arizona||30-5||No. 8||Elite Eight|
|96-97 Cincinnati||26-8||No. 12||Second round|
|95-96 Kentucky||34-2||No. 5||National champion|
|94-95 Arkansas||32-7||No. 12||National runner up|
|93-94 North Carolina||28-7||No. 5||Second round|
|92-93 Michigan||31-5||No. 7||National runner up|
|91-92 Duke||34-2||No. 1||National champion|
|90-91 UNLV||34-1||No. 1||Final Four|
|89-90 UNLV||35-5||No. 14||National champion|
|88-89 Duke||28-8||No. 14||Final Four|
|87-88 Syracuse||30-8||No. 17||Elite Eight|
|86-87 North Carolina||32-4||No. 5||Elite Eight|
|85-86 Georgia Tech||27-7||No. 7||Sweet 16|
|84-85 Georgetown||35-3||No. 2||National runner up|
|83-84 North Carolina||28-3||No. 2||Sweet 16|
|82-83 Virginia||29-5||No. 7||Elite Eight|
|81-82 North Carolina||32-2||No. 2||National champion|
|80-81 Kentucky||22-6||No. 11||Second round|
|79-80 Indiana||21-8||NR||Sweet 16|
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
1. Matt Leinart, USC (2003-05)
Stats: 10,693 yds, 99 TDs, 23 INTs, 64.8%, 9 rush TDs
Leinart won two national titles and played for a third in three years starting at powerhouse USC under Pete Carroll. He finished in the top six of Heisman voting in all three seasons, winning the award in 2004, finishing sixth in '03 and third in '05. He also earned AP Player of the Year, Manning, Walter Camp, Unitas and consensus All-American honors during his remarkable Heisman campaign. He capped the season with arguably the second-best performance by a quarterback in a national title game by dissecting Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. He threw for 332 yards and a championship game-record five touchdowns in the most lopsided win in series history. Leinart owns the career conference record with 36 consecutive games with a touchdown pass and his 99 TD passes were a league record until Matt Barkley came along. He also is just one of three players in league history to throw for 3,000 yards in three seasons (Derek Anderson, Andrew Walter).
2. Andrew Luck, Stanford (2009-11)
Stats: 9,430 yds, 82 TDs, 22 INTs, 67.0%, 957 yds, 7 TDs
Pete Carroll has always said that if he could design a quarterback from scratch that it would have the physical tools of Palmer. After two middle-of-the-pack seasons as the starter in L.A., Palmer won the Heisman Trophy, Unitas Award and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2002. That year, Palmer threw for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading USC to a conference championship and Orange Bowl win over Iowa. He is No. 2 all-time in league history in total offense (11,621) and yards passing (11,818). His 72 touchdown passes rank 10th all-time in Pac-12 history and he is one of nine players to throw for at least 2,500 yards in three seasons. Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
4. Aaron Rodgers, Cal (2003-04)
Stats: 5,469 yds, 43 TDs, 13 INTs, 63.8%, 336 yds, 8 TDs
Clearly one of the greatest players to ever come through the league, Rodgers led Cal back to relevance, finishing 18-8 in two years as the starter and posting 10 wins in a season for the first time since 1991. He scored 51 times in just 25 games with only 13 interceptions, finished ninth in the Heisman voting in 2004, led the NCAA in completion percentage (66.1) and yards-per-attempt in his final season (8.1). Rodgers was a first-round pick of the Packers in the 2005 NFL Draft and is widely considered the best active quarterback on the planet today.
5. Joey Harrington, Oregon (1998-01)
Stats: 6,911 yds, 59 TDs, 23 INTs, 55.2%, 210 yds, 18 TDs
He will always be remembered as the guy on the Times Square billboard and as the third overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. However, during his three-year run at Oregon, few players were ever as productive and successful as Harrington. He went 25-3 as a starter, including an 11-win Pac-10 championship and the program's first-ever BCS bowl appearance and win. He was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in the Heisman voting. He accounted for 63 total touchdowns in his final two seasons in Eugene.
6. Cade McNown, UCLA (1995-99)
Stats: 10,708 yds, 68 TDs, 41 INTs, 55.2%, 577 yds, 16 TDs
Although small in stature, McNown was one of the league's biggest stars early in the BCS Era. He nearly led his team to the inaugural BCS title game in '98 and helped UCLA claim its last outright conference championship. He earned Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm honors and was a consensus All-American. He is third all-time with 11,285 total yards of offense and was the 12th overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
7. Matt Barkley, USC (2009-12)
Stats: 12,327 yds, 116 TDs, 48 INTs, 64.1%, 6 rush TDs
When it comes to records, no one stands above Barkley. He is the all-time leader by a wide margin in Pac-12 history as the only player with 12,000 yards as well as 100 touchdown passes. He also is the only player in league history with four seasons of at least 2,500 yards passing and set the Pac-12 single-season record with 39 touchdown strikes in 2011. Amidst heavy NCAA sanctions, Barkley started 47 games, winning 34 of them. He also opened and closed his collegiate career with bowl appearances in the only two bowl-eligible seasons while he was a Trojan. His 10-win, record-breaking junior season is arguably the best season by a Pac-12 quarterback in history.
8. Marcus Mariota, Oregon (2012-present)
Stats: 6,342 yds, 63 TDs, 10 INTs, 65.8%, 1,467 yds, 14 TDs
It's only been two seasons but Mariota has already established himself as one of the league's greats. He set a freshman NCAA record by completing 68.5 percent of his passes and set a Pac-12 freshman record with 32 touchdown passes. Mariota set the league record for most consecutive passes without an interception (353) and should own every major Oregon statistical record by the end of his junior season. He is 23-3 as a starter and has accounted for 77 total touchdowns and nearly 8,000 yards of total offense — and he isn't even an upperclassman yet.
9. Marques Tuiasosopo, Washington (1997-00)
Stats: 5,501 yds, 31 TDs, 28 INTs, 54.9%, 1,374 yds, 20 TDs
He was the Huskies' first true freshman to ever start at quarterback when he took the reins from injured Brock Huard in 1997. By his junior year under a new coaching staff, Tuiasosopo earned the starting nod at QB in Seattle. He eventually led Washington back to the Rose Bowl as Pac-10 champions in 2000. He was named Offensive Player of the Year, finished eighth in the Heisman voting and Rose Bowl MVP in his final season. Tui was taken in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft.
10. Darron Thomas, Oregon (2008-11)
Stats: 5,910 yds, 66 TDs, 17 INTs, 719 yds, 9 TDs
A slightly less talented version of Mariota, Thomas helped lead Oregon to its only BCS National Championship Game and undefeated regular season in 2010. He posted back-to-back seasons with at least 2,700 yards passing and 30 touchdowns in the only two seasons he started. Thomas won two Pac-12 titles and went 24-3 in his two seasons under center. He did everything he could in his the title game, throwing for 363 yards in the three-point loss to Auburn. Had Oregon won, he would undoubtedly be the most important Duck of the BCS Era.
Just missed the cut:
11. Dennis Dixon, Oregon (2004-07)
Stats: 5,129 yds, 38 TDs, 21 INTs, 63.9%, 1,208 yds, 12 TDs
After a stellar first season running Mike Bellotti's offense as a junior, Dixon began his final season with high hopes. And after eight wins in nine games, the Heisman frontrunner's knee buckled just two weeks after initially injuring his knee against Arizona State. Dixon earned All-Pac-10 recognition twice and was a finalist for many national awards but couldn't finish his final season. In just over nine games, he had accumulated 2,136 yards passing and 20 TDs on 67.7 percent passing and just four interceptions along with 583 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on the ground. He was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year despite the injury.
12. Andrew Walter, Arizona State (2001-04)
Stats: 10,617 yds, 85 TDs, 36 INTs, 54.9%
When he left school, the case could be made that Walter was the most productive signal-caller in the Pac-12's long and storied history. His 85 touchdowns were an all-time record and he had thrown for more yards in a game than anyone in history (536). He is one of only three players in history to have three 3,000-yard passing seasons and threw for at least 24 touchdowns in each of those seasons. In the conference record books, he is currently eighth all-time in passing yards and tied for third all-time in touchdown passes. He played in 48 games and as a senior (2004) helped lead ASU to nine wins for the first time since 1997.
13. Brett Hundley, UCLA (2012-present)
Stats: 6,811 yds, 53 TDs, 20 INTs, 66.7%, 1,103 yds, 20 TDs
With the possible exception of Mariota, few players have stepped onto the national scene with more gusto than Hundley. He has nearly 8,000 yards of total offense in his first two seasons on the field. He enters his junior year with a shot to break nearly every UCLA record should he continue his torrid pace. He's already led the Bruins to 19 wins, two bowl berths and a South Division title.
14. Akili Smith, Oregon (1997-98)
Stats: 5,148 yds, 45 TDs, 15 INTs, 56.6%, 367 yds, 6 TDs
He only played two seasons in big-time college football but his '98 campaign was one of the Pac-12's best. He won Offensive Player of the Year by throwing for 3,763 yards and 32 touchdowns against only eight interceptions while scoring four times on the ground. He was the third overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
15. Jason Gesser, Washington State (1999-02)
Stats: 8,830 yds, 70 TDs, 39 INTs, 54.7%, 177 yds, 4 TDs
Earning his way into the lineup as a sophomore, Gesser posted back-to-back seasons with at least 3,000 yards passing and exactly 28 total touchdowns for the Cougars. He won 10 games in both of those seasons, leading Wazzu to its last Rose Bowl appearance and winning Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior.
Best of the rest:
16. Jake Locker, Washington (2007-10)
Stats: 7,639 yds, 53 TDs, 35 INTs, 54.0%, 1,939 yds, 29 TDs
17. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State (2011-present)
Stats: 6,705 yds, 57 TDs, 21 INTs, 64.6%, 1,148 yds, 10 TDs
18. Mark Sanchez, USC (2006-08)
Stats: 3,965 yds, 41 TDs, 16 INTs, 64.3%, 33 yds, 4 TDs
19. Cody Pickett, Washington (1999-03)
Stats: 9,916 yds, 53 TDs, 42 INTs, 57.7%, 11 rush TDs
20. Drew Olson, UCLA (2002-05)
Stats: 8,532 yds, 67 TDs, 32 INTs, 57.8%, 2 rush TD
21. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State (1998-01)
Stats: 9,375 yds, 52 TDs, 29 INTs, 50.3%, 4 rush TDs
22. Nick Foles, Arizona (2009-11)
Stats: 9,986 yds, 67 TDs, 33 INTs, 4 rush TDs
23. Rudy Carpenter, Arizona State (2005-08)
Stats: 10,491 yds, 85 TDs, 35 INTs, 61.0%, 2 rush TDs
24. Derek Anderson, Oregon State (2001-04)
Stats: 11,249 yds, 79 TDs, 57 INTs, 50.7%, 8 rush TDs
25. Sean Mannion, Oregon State (2011-present)
Stats: 10,436 yds, 68 TDs, 46 INTs, 65.3%, Rush TD
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly likely welcomed the turn of the calendar this New Year.
The calendar year began with his team getting trucked in the national title game by Alabama, continued with his star quarterback getting suspended in the spring and ended with a lackluster four-loss season that both began and ended with a sputter. The Irish began the season 3-2 with disappointing losses to fellow bluebloods Michigan and Oklahoma. After four solid wins, the Irish ended the year losing two out of three with a bad loss at Pitt and yet another painful defeat at the hands of rival Stanford.
A nine-win season is a solid year for most programs but Kelly has raised expectation levels after his run at perfection two seasons ago. However, competing for national championships is what coaching at Notre Dame is all about. Quarterback Everett Golson returns to the team after his semester-long hiatus and one of the most gifted rosters in the nation — the 10th-best roster in the nation to be exact — should take the field with a goal of landing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
And Kelly will do so with two new coordinators.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 9-4
Spring Practice Opens: March 3
Spring Game: April 12
|Sept. 20||Bye Week|
|Oct. 25||Bye Week|
Three Things to Watch in Notre Dame's 2014 Spring Practice
Welcome back, Everett
Near the end of the 2012 run to the BCS national title game, Everett Golson was developing into a future star under center for Brian Kelly. In fact, one could argue he was the only player who didn't look like he quit against Alabama. But after missing an entire season due to academic problems, Golson returns to the practice field this spring in his customary red jersey. Tommy Rees wasn't bad, considering the hand Kelly was dealt by Golson, but quarterback was clearly an issue on this team a year ago. Golson has the talent to be a special player and he gives Kelly what he desperately craves at quarterback — mobility. The signal caller spent two months working with QB guru George Whitfield but questions still exist about Golson's ability to step right back into the swing of things. Is Golson rusty? Is he focused off the field? How much has the year off set him back? This month of practice is a great chance for Golson to prove his fantastic freshman campaign was no fluke and earn his way back into the starting lineup.
Rebuilding the front seven
Brian Kelly and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have their work cut out for them up front on the defensive side of the ball. Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III departing for the NFL has literally left a 635-pound gapping void along the defensive line. Additionally, the linebacking corps will lose the top two tacklers on the team in Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese as well as Prince Shembo's 48 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Finding star power and developing experience up front will be critical if Notre Dame is going to compete for a playoff spot in 2014. Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and a host of other names have elite upside and are ready to make plays as Kelly has recruited extremely well on the defensive side of the ball in recent years. Look for VanGorder, a specialist at developing linebackers, to settle on a rotation up front this spring.
Replace Zack Martin
The Irish were great at protecting the quarterback a year ago, ranking second nationally with just eight sacks allowed, due in large part to the play of their stud left tackle Zack Martin. However, this unit ranked just 80th nationally running the football and filling holes at left tackle and left guard (Chris Watt) will be difficult. The surest way to help Golson ease his way back into play-making form will be to develop a running game and find protection for his blindside. The good news is Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock return plenty of talent returning up front in the form of tackle Ronnie Stanley (13 starts), center Nick Martin (11) and guards Christian Lombard (7) and Steve Elmer (4). And there are highly touted recruits from the last few classes lined-up to earn a starting spot. With plenty of capable ballcarriers in the backfield and the return of a star at quarterback, creating running lanes and protecting the passer should be the focus of the new offensive hierarchy in South Bend.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
Notre Dame once again has a nasty schedule to face in 2014 with potentially seven preseason top 25 teams and 11 potential bowl teams on the slate this coming fall. Navigating that schedule to 11 wins — likely what it takes to reach the playoffs — will be extremely difficult while breaking in a new supporting staff under Kelly. That said, this is one of the best collections of talent in the nation and the Golson returns to lead the offense after a year off. The early part of the schedule is manageable as the Irish could easily be 4-0 heading into a home game with Stanford, but the final two months will feature the reigning BCS champs, the reigning Pac-12 champs, road games at Pac-12 South frontrunners USC and Arizona State and two home dates with ACC contenders North Carolina and Louisville. This team has the talent to compete for a playoff spot, but the Irish will have to win critical rivalry games amid a brutal final two months to put itself into postseason contention.
While many teams are fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament from the bubble, another key part of the bracket is still being determined.
A No. 1 seed carries with it not just prestige, but also a decisive advantage history wise to advance to the second weekend of the Tournament. A No. 1 seed has never lost its first game and has more often won the national title (18 times) than it failed to reach the Sweet 16 (13).
As many as 10 teams could be in the running for one of the four No. 1 seeds. Some teams would have to collapse to lose a spot on the top line (Arizona, Florida and Wichita State) while others may need a major break to get to that top spot (Wisconsin, Michigan).
|NCAA Tournament No. 1 Seed Staff Predictions|
Here’s a look at how the race for the No. 1 seeds is playing out:
Arizona (27-2, 14-2 Pac-12)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Arizona is No. 1 by the RPI, KenPom and Sagarin. The Wildcats are 10-1 against the RPI top 50 and faced a schedule ranked sixth in the country. Arizona’s resume includes four RPI top 25 wins away from Tucson against Duke in Madison Square Garden and Michigan, San Diego State and UCLA on the road. Neither of Arizona’s losses should harm the resume (No. 28 Arizona State and No. 53 Cal, both on the road).
The case against a No. 1 seed: Not much. The selection committee has shown it will taken into account a late-season change in personnel, such as the season-ending injury to Brandon Ashley. However, Arizona has won four in a row without him. Arizona likely would have to lose to Oregon State and lose its first game in the Pac-12 tournament to fall off the top line. Arizona may be closer to claiming the overall No. 1 seed than falling to a No. 2.
Duke (23-6, 12-4 ACC)
The case for a No. 1 seed: The Blue Devils are ranked eighth in the RPI and third in KenPom. Duke has three top 26 wins, including Syracuse, Virginia, Michigan and UCLA. The Blue Devils have ample opportunities for more high-profile wins with North Carolina to end the regular season plus potential matchups with Syracuse and/or Virginia in the ACC Tournament.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Home-cooking. Duke has only two RPI top 100 wins away from Cameron Indoor Stadium (at Pittsburgh, UCLA in Madison Square Garden). Of course, all that can change in Greensboro.
Florida (27-2, 16-0 SEC)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Florida has dominated the SEC and may be the first team to go 18-0 in league history (other teams have gone 16-0 with a shorter schedule). The Gators’ only losses came early in the season on the road with a shorthanded roster against Wisconsin and Connecticut, the latter on a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier.
The case against a No. 1 seed: The SEC. Florida may have to lose to South Carolina on Tuesday and lose its first game in the SEC Tournament to slip to a No. 2. Both would qualify as bad losses.
Kansas (22-7, 13-3 Big 12)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Kansas played the toughest schedule in the country with 19 games against RPI top 50 teams. The team that played the No. 2 schedule (Wisconsin) faced 11 top 50 teams. The Jayhawks took their losses early in the season, but they may end up the regular season and tournament champion of the top conference in the RPI.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Seven losses is a lot for a No. 1 seed. In the last 10 seasons, only 2011-12 Michigan State was a No. 1 seed with seven losses. Like Kansas, the Spartans played the toughest schedule in the country that season. An eighth loss for this year’s Kansas team, though, may push the Jayhawks to a No. 2. Worth keeping in mind: Kansas has shut down star freshma Joel Embiid (back) for the last two games of the regular season.
Michigan (21-7, 13-3 Big Ten)
The case for a No. 1 seed: The Wolverines have a two-game lead in the Big Ten, rank ninth in the RPI and have eight top 50 wins.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Like Kansas, Michigan has seven losses, two of which are Charlotte and Indiana. Kansas may have a better shot at a No. 1 seed with eight losses than Michigan would if it wins out.
Syracuse (26-3, 13-3 ACC)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Syracuse started 25-0, defeating teams like Villanova, Duke and North Carolina along the way. The seven RPI top 50 wins for Syracuse is more than anyone else in the ACC.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Everything that happened since the 25-0 start. A home loss to a Boston College team ranked 177th in RPI would be toxic for most teams vying for a No. 1 seed. Road losses to Duke and Virginia, both in the top three in KenPom and in the top 10 in the RPI, aren’t deal breakers. But Syracuse has hardly looked like a team that’s has lost its last game before Selection Sunday.
Villanova (26-3, 14-2 Big East)
The case for a No. 1 seed: The Wildcats built plenty of clout in the Battle 4 Atlantis, defeating Kansas and Iowa. Those wins contributed to a No. 4 ranking in the RPI despite ranking 26th in strength of schedule, but not as much as no losses outside of the top 10.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Creighton. The Bluejays swept Villanova by a combined 49 points. A 4-3 record against the RPI top 50 may not be No. 1 seed material unless Villanova can atone for its regular season losses to Creighton in the Big East Tournament.
Virginia (25-5, 16-1 ACC)
The case for a No. 1 seed: The Cavaliers opened a three-game lead in the ACC by defeating Syracuse on Saturday. Virginia’s only loss since the New Year is by four on the road against Duke. Tempo-free analytics love the efficient Cavaliers as they rank second in KenPom.
The case against a No. 1 seed: The unbalanced ACC schedule and non-conference losses. The Cavaliers will play Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina once apiece before the ACC Tournament. The Cavaliers also lost in the non-conference schedule to Tennessee and Green Bay, both on the road. Winning the ACC Tournament is a must.
Wichita State (31-0, 18-0 Missouri Valley)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Have you heard? Wichita State is 31-0 and will be favored to get to 34-0 in the Missouri Valley Tournament. Banishing an undefeated team to a No. 2 seed, no matter the strength of schedule, would be a bold call. The Shockers are sixth in the RPI.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Wichita State’s strength of schedule is ranked 100th by the RPI. The Shockers’ best win — on the road against Saint Louis — might not look as impressive after the Billikens lost to Duquesne at home last week. At most, Wichita State will get to Selection Sunday with only three wins over teams with NCAA at-large credentials (BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee).
Wisconsin (24-5, 11-5 Big Ten)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Wisconsin’s wins over Florida and Virginia are even more impressive than they were back in November and December. After a cold streak early in the Big Ten schedule, the Badgers have reeled off seven consecutive wins. Despite those losses, Wisconsin is fifth in the RPI and second in strength of schedule.
The case against a No. 1 seed: The Badgers’ midseason slump included losses to Indiana and Northwestern, the latter at home. The five losses puts Wisconsin at second in the Big Ten despite a head-to-head win over Michigan. Another in the Big Ten Tournament might be needed.
One thing you can say about Kevin Harvick: he’s a quick learner. Thirteen years ago, in the midst of NASCAR mourning its national tragedy, he won in just the third Cup start of his career. Replacing Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3 wasn’t easy, but he made it seem like a breeze, beating Jeff Gordon — in his prime — by a nose at Atlanta.
It was all so seamless, turning an earthquake of a change into little more than a small tremor while the rest of his team cried tears of healing all around. It should come as no surprise, then, that in just his second race of a new program, the second team of his Cup career, Harvick was already visiting Victory Lane. And, just like in 2001, while everyone else appears to be adjusting to the change — the pit crew still needs name tags — the driver is the one having the most fun, acting like it’s all another day at the office.
“I felt like I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work,” he said. “I get to do this with a lot of my friends, with Tony. I feel like we've had a great relationship in the past. He's driven my Nationwide cars. I feel like as we go through situations, I've learned that Tony is one of the smartest people that I know.”
Stewart sure is. His new team, a complete rebuild with the shop’s recent expansion, took just two races to lock itself into the Chase, beating defending champ Jimmie Johnson, Harvick’s former RCR program, and two entire manufacturers (Ford & Toyota) in the process. That’s impressive, considering there’s so much to worry about within the walls of Stewart-Haas Racing. With four “Type A” personalities in Stewart, Harvick, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, a blowup could happen at virtually any moment.
But Sunday, as “Through The Gears” will illustrate, was a prime example of what can happen when they don’t.
FIRST GEAR: Harvick hauls the mail out west
Three wins in the last four Phoenix races. 224 laps led. It seems like Phoenix has become “Harvick’s House” the same manner that Jimmie Johnson owns Dover or Darrell Waltrip once mastered Bristol. But the biggest distinction between this win over the others is Harvick’s input on setup — or lack thereof. It seems the driver wasn’t even needed on this one despite his previous success on Phoenix’s one-mile oval. Crew chief Rodney Childers, a rising head wrench in the Cup garage, had the mechanical side well under control, to the point the No. 4 car was two-tenths of a second faster than the field virtually all weekend long.
“We’ve been to three tests and two races now,” Childers said Sunday. “I don’t think I’ve asked him one time how he wanted a car set up yet. It’s our job. He doesn’t need to be worried about that. He needs to get in the car and drive as fast as he can, not have to worry about it.”
To have that type of trust within the driver-crew chief dynamic this early in a working relationship can only mean good things. It also frees Harvick up to be the leader co-owner Stewart expected on the competition side. With Busch, Patrick, and even Stewart himself struggling (he was markedly short with reporters on Friday, a sign that healing leg is still pesky) the pressure of keeping the program successful falls squarely on the No. 4. The other trio will have to build off the confidence Harvick exudes, a trickle-down effect that’s needed for the rest of the program. Chances are that doesn’t happen without Harvick and Childers, clearly in some type of honeymoon phase.
“For me it's been adrenaline and confidence that we can do this,” Childers said. “Really just feeds off of that every day. Working 17, 18 hours on some days, I go home, I don't even feel tired. The adrenaline will wear off at some point but hopefully we can keep it going.”
SECOND GEAR: A changing of the guard at Ford?
For years, Roush Fenway Racing didn’t just lead the Blue Oval crowd, it was the dictator of anything Ford. To get any engines, chassis or information from that manufacturer you had to sell your soul to RFR, then watch as Jack Roush’s organization still ran circles around you anyway.
But that era, which lasted almost a decade, appears to be ending. Penske Racing has come out swinging in 2014, its two-car program starting the season with three top-5 finishes in four attempts. Compare that to Roush Fenway, whose three-car team has yet to run higher than seventh and seems a step below its counterparts in handling. RFR is being outgunned in laps led (89-17), poles (Keselowski won at Phoenix) and even in social media relevancy (Twitter? Carl Edwards? Still not a match).
On a serious note, Penske’s Phoenix performance incorporated the type of teamwork and symmetry RFR won’t have with two drivers entering a contract year. Edwards and Greg Biffle have yet to sign new deals; until that happens, the specter of uncertainty hangs over a program that’s been a step below what both have been expecting the last two seasons. And Cup sophomore Ricky Stenhouse jr.? Despite a strong Daytona run, he’s yet to live up to expectations and was woeful Sunday until a free pass late helped him salvage an 18th-place finish.
“We needed to qualify better,” said Edwards, the Phoenix race’s 2013 winner, who could only muster an eighth after starting 23rd. “We did it to ourselves.”
So far this season, Penske doesn’t have to play that blame game. That’s why it’s already a step ahead.
THIRD GEAR: Rehashing repaving
Chances are, if you weren’t a Kevin Harvick fan, the racing at Phoenix left much to be desired. Since a 2012 repave, this track in the desert has dried up in terms of side-by-side competition up front: three of its last four events have come packaged with less than 15 lead changes. Passing has been difficult, if not impossible, as teams deal with tires that don’t fall off, causing too much parity as the top-20 cars run around with nearly the same lap time. How can a driver pass another when both are running the same speed for an entire green-flag run with little hope of gaining an advantage?
It’s an issue not uncommon to Phoenix, unfortunately; Michigan, Darlington, even Pocono (although initial racing was good) fell victim to the dangers of new asphalt. There has to be a way NASCAR can accelerate the aging process, whether jokingly adding a speedbump in Turn 4, doing a crappy job of smoothing it out… whatever it takes. Some of these racetracks, at the rate they’re going, will take a decade to produce solid racing again and race fans simply won’t pay for a seat that long. You can only produce boredom, so many times until …
FOURTH GEAR: Gordon’s great start
Team Hendrick is on Cloud Nine with Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading the point standings while defending champ Jimmie Johnson has two top-six finishes. (Johnson claimed the No. 48 team was “unprepared” after Phoenix, running a step behind the others with 2014 rules. Geez, if these results are how he does while a step off the pace, God help us all when he and crew chief Chad Knaus start swinging for the fences again). Clearly, the 48/88 tandem will not only be in the Chase but should be considered title contenders.
“Hold on a sec,” says a little voice sitting at the other end of the Hendrick shop. It’s hard to hear, since no one has talked about Jeff Gordon this season other than paired with the word “retirement.” (The four-time champ, turning age 43 this season, alluded to hanging up the driving shoes if he won it all this year). Whether he is serious about retirement or not, the title part may not be out of the question. Gordon has started the year with two top-5 finishes, the first time he’s done so since 1997 and sits third in Cup Series points. Add in the Pepsi Test Drive II, an act of commercial brilliance and “old man Gordon” has learned a whole bag of new tricks.
NASCAR’s rookie class had a second straight rough week. Kyle Larson, after a strong qualifying effort, was the only one to even finish on the lead lap (20th). Daytona’s polesitter Austin Dillon (24th) was never a factor, and among the others, Justin Allgaier triggered the only major wreck of the day by spinning out… Danica Patrick was an innocent victim there, sustaining damage and later wrecking again with a flat tire. Despite a good car, where she slowly moved through traffic early, a second straight race with misfortune left her 39th in the season standings… Kurt Busch, whose Daytona late-race spin where no caution was thrown, had his engine go south at Phoenix. It’s not exactly what Gene Haas envisioned paying for — two races, two runs outside the top 20 for the former Cup Series champ. “Just a word to the 41 crew,” Busch said on the radio. “Appreciate the work, but you've got the driver who was the worst luck. Terrible luck.” … Another candidate in the “woe is me” category? Michael Waltrip Racing, still reeling from Richmond-gate has yet to score a top-10 finish this season. Drivers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers are both outside the top 20 in Cup points.
The Honda Classic was Rory McIlroy's to lose, and lose it he did, stumbling to a final-round 4-over 74 to fall into a four-man playoff won by Russell Henley with a two-putt birdie on the first playoff hole. McIlroy narrowly missed his first PGA tour win in 18 months when an eagle putt on the 72nd hole slid past the cup, but he regained a heavy dose of confidence in navigating the tricky Jack Nicklaus-designed PGA National, home to the touted "Bear Trap," the stretch of holes from 15 to 17 that claimed more victims on a difficult final day. Here are some key numbers from the weekend's action.
1 Henley was the only player in the four-man playoff to birdie the first playoff hole, converting a routine two-putt birdie on the par-5 18th.
4 Henley becomes the fourth player under 25 with multiple wins, joining McIlroy (6) and Harris English and Patrick Reed (two apiece).
3 Henley was three shots behind McIlroy after a bogey at 10, and a double at 15 seemed to end his chances, but he took advantage of McIlroy's repeated stumbles down the stretch.
13 Holes that Tiger Woods completed on Sunday before withdrawing with back pain. It marked the sixth withdrawal of Tiger's career and raises questions about his health heading to Augusta.
0 Tournaments that Woods has finished in two starts this season. He missed the Saturday cut at the Farmers after a 79 before his withdrawal at the Honda.
When Oregon’s season hit a critical point, the Ducks leaned on a fifth-year senior who has been around the block.
Mike Moser, a veteran who has played for UCLA and UNLV, kept the Ducks in NCAA Tournament contention with back-to-back double doubles during the weekend.
Moser had 12 points and 20 rebounds in an 87-83 overtime win over UCLA on Thursday and followed that with 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 78-63 win over USC to earn Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors.
As Oregon has recovered from a 2-8 swoon from Jan. 5-Feb. 8, Moser has been the leader. He’s scored at least 20 points in three of the last four games, and of his five double-doubles this season, two came last week.
Photo courtesy of Eric Evans/GoDucks.com.
Athlon Sports Weekly College Basketball Awards
National Player of the Week: Mike Moser, Oregon
The well-travelled Moser is playing his best basketball as an Oregon Duck at the right time of the year. Moser, who played one season at UCLA and two at UNLV before opting to spend his final year of eligibility in Eugene, scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the Ducks to a 78–62 win at USC. Moser is averaging 17.6 during Oregon’s current five-game winning streak.
National Freshman of the Week: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Arizona has answered any questions left by the void of Brandon Ashley in recent weeks. A major reason has been the play of Aaron Gordon, the freshman defensive whiz who is becoming a more consistent contributor in the offensive end. In routs of Stanford and Cal, Gordon totaled 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting. Gordon also contributed 15 rebounds against the Cardinal.
Under-the-Radar Player of the Week: Bryant Mbamalu, Louisiana-Lafayette
Mbamalu was spectacular in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 102–76 win over South Alabama. The senior guard scored 32 points and grabbed 11 rebounds (both season highs) to lead UL-Lafayette to its 10th Sun Belt win of the season.
Other Standout Performances of the Week:
Antonio Barton, Tennessee
After scoring a total of six points (and missing all eight 3-point attempts) in his previous two games, Barton had season highs in both scoring (21 points) and assists (six) to lead Tennessee to an easy 76–38 win over Vanderbilt. The fifth-year senior, a transfer from Memphis, hit 7-of-11 from the field, including 5-of-7 beyond the 3-point arc.
Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
Finney-Smith broke out of an extended scoring slump by averaging 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds to help Florida improve to 16–0 in the SEC. The transfer from Virginia Tech scored 19 points — including a huge 3-pointer in the final minute — to lead the Gators in a 57–54 win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. Then, on Saturday, he scored 16 points in a 79–61 win over LSU that clinched the SEC title for Florida.
Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma
Oklahoma completed a season sweep over rival Texas with a 77–65 win in Norman. Cousins, a sophomore guard, led the way with a career-high 24 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field. Since missing all eight shots against Oklahoma State two weeks ago, Cousins has converted 17-of-31 from the field.
Tyler Haws, BYU
Haws continues to score at a high level as his BYU Cougars are making a late charge at a possible at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. The junior guard scored 25 points in Saturday’s win at San Diego. Haws, who leads the West Coast Conference with a 23.4-point average, has scored in double figures in every game this season.
Justin Martin, Xavier
Martin rebounded from a subpar effort (three points, three rebounds) in a win over St. John’s on Tuesday by scoring 19 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in Xavier’s huge 75–69 win over Creighton in Cincinnati. It was the first career double-double for the junior forward from Indianapolis.
Brenton Williams, South Carolina
Williams poured in a game-high 24 points to lead South Carolina to a surprising 72–67 win over Kentucky — easily the biggest victory of the Frank Martin era in Columbia. Williams only hit four field goals but connected on 15-of-16 from the foul line — including four following the two technicals that led to John Calipari’s ejection.
Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara
Brownridge scored a career-high 38 points and added seven rebounds, three assists and two steals as Santa Clara posted an 86–78 win at Pepperdine. A freshman guard from Aurora, Ill., hit 12-of-22 from the field, including 7-of-9 from the 3-point line.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Smart overcame a slow start (one point in the first half) to lead Oklahoma State to its biggest win of the season — a 72–65 victory over Big 12 champion Kansas. The sophomore guard scored 20 points in the second half to help the Cowboys rally from a 10-point deficit. In the final 10 minutes, he hit 4-of-4 from the field and had three assists and zero turnovers.
K.J. McDaniels, Clemson
McDaniels, one of the nation’s most underrated players, had perhaps the best game of his junior season. He scored 26 points and had 14 rebounds and six blocks to key the Tigers’ 77–73 double-overtime win over Maryland. The Birmingham, Ala., native is averaging 16.8 points and 6.9 rebounds.
West Virginia’s entrance to the Big 12 hasn’t gone according to plan. The Mountaineers started 5-0 in 2012 and seemed to have all of the momentum on their side. But since that 5-0 start, Dana Holgorsen’s team is just 6-14 in its last 20 games. Holgorsen is starting to feel a little heat, and a schedule that features non-conference games against Alabama and Maryland, along with road trips to Oklahoma State and Texas won’t provide any breaks.
Despite the disappointing 4-8 mark last year, West Virginia has reasons for optimism entering 2014. Holgorsen’s offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions, but will a quarterback emerge? On defense, improvement was noticeable last season. However, injuries wreaked havoc and forced the Mountaineers to dip deeper into the depth chart for replacements. The injuries hurt the starting lineup last year, but West Virginia has more depth and talent on defense entering 2014.
This is a crucial spring for Holgorsen. West Virginia was a few plays away from getting to a bowl last year. Can the Mountaineers find the right solutions as they enter their third season of Big 12 action?
West Virginia Mountaineers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 4-8 (2-7)
Spring Practice Opens: March 2
Spring Game: April 12
Five Things to Watch in West Virginia’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. The quarterbacks: Considering Dana Holgorsen’s background, it was surprising to see West Virginia’s offense ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in points scored last season. The Mountaineers averaged 26.3 points per game and 5.5 yards per play in 2013, which isn’t awful, but certainly not up to the level most expected from this unit. Three quarterbacks received snaps last year, and Holgorsen enters spring practice with plenty of uncertainty. Clint Trickett led the team with 1,605 passing yards, but he will miss spring practice due to shoulder surgery. Ford Childress transferred, leaving Paul Millard (1,122 yards, 6 TDs) and junior college recruit Skyler Howard as the frontrunners for the starting job. Incoming freshman William Crest could work his way into the mix in the fall. Can Millard seize the job with Trickett sidelined? Or will Howard make an impression? Junior college recruits are hit or miss, so it’s not guaranteed that Howard can make an immediate impact. If West Virginia finds stability here, the offense will easily improve on last year’s numbers.
2. Developing a pecking order at running back: Holgorsen would prefer his offense to lean on the pass, but West Virginia has one of the deepest backfields in the Big 12. Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell is an intriguing option after sitting out last year due to NCAA rules. Shell rushed for 641 yards with the Panthers in 2012. Dreamius Smith rushed for 494 yards and five touchdowns last season and opened spring practice at No. 1 on the depth chart. Wendell Smallwood and Dustin Garrison are back after combining for 240 yards in 2013, while Andrew Buie rejoins the team after a year absence. There’s no shortage of options here. Will Shell emerge as the go-to back? Or will Smith and Shell end up sharing carries?
3. Breaking in three new starters on the line: Neither of the above storylines will have much of an impact on the 2014 season if West Virginia struggles to find replacements for three starters on the line. Tackles Nick Kindler and Curtis Feight and center Pat Eger have expired their eligibility, leaving guard Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski as the only returning starters. Spain and Glowinski should be a solid pairing at guard, but can the Mountaineers find some clarity at the other positions? Tyler Orlosky is the early frontrunner at center after starting three games last season. Sophomore Adam Pankey opened spring practice holding the No. 1 spot at left tackle, while junior Marquis Lucas is slated to start at right tackle. However, Holgorsen added competition from the recruiting trail in the form of junior college recruits Justin Scott and Sylvester Townes, and redshirts Marcell Lazard and Tyler Tezeno will factor into the mix. There’s plenty of competition and options here for line coach Ron Crook. Can he exit spring feeling confident about the three vacated positions from 2013?
4. Coaching staff tweaks on defense: The Mountaineers were hit with a surprising departure in early February when defensive coordinator Keith Patterson bolted Morgantown for Arizona State. Holgorsen had to act quickly to replace Patterson with spring practice approaching, and long-time assistant Tony Gibson will call the plays in 2014. Gibson is known as an excellent recruiter but has never been a defensive coordinator. Damon Cogdell was hired to coach the defensive line from Miramar High School, but the key addition on Holgorsen’s staff was former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley. With Gibson calling the defensive signals for the first time, having a veteran like Bradley will help with developing the gameplan, as well as making in-game adjustments.
5. Finding replacements on the defensive line: Each unit on West Virginia’s defense has holes to fill, but the line needs to replace end Will Clarke and nose tackle Shaq Rowell. Clarke was a second-team All-Big 12 selection last year, while Rowell recorded 47 tackles and was a key cog as the team’s 3-4 nose tackle position. Sophomore Christian Brown played in four games due to injuries in 2013 and is slated to replace Rowell at nose tackle. Kyle Rose should be one of the leaders up front as he started 11 games last season and recorded 49 tackles. Senior Dontrill Hyman opened spring practice as the No. 1 end opposite of Rose, but West Virginia needs to find more depth here. Freshman Davonte James is a name to watch this spring, while redshirt freshman Jon Lewis and sophomore Noble Nwachukwu will be looking to carve out a bigger role in the line rotation this year. Cogdell’s first spring in Morgantown will be busy with an unsettled depth chart in the trenches.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 5-7
If you trust recruiting rankings, West Virginia has the No. 6 roster in the Big 12 for 2014. So while the roster may have some inexperience, there is some talent available for Holgorsen and his staff. Going 4-8 is always going to put a coach on the hot seat, but Holgorsen deserves some time to navigate West Virginia through the conference transition. On the surface, four wins last year was a significant disappointment. However, the Mountaineers lost in overtime to Texas and Iowa State. A couple of breaks in a different direction and West Virginia is 6-6 and playing in a bowl. Improvement should be noticeable in 2014. But a non-conference schedule featuring games against Alabama and Maryland doesn’t allow any margin for error.
BYU went 8-5 for a second straight season last fall, but the Cougars followed two different scripts to get there. In 2012, the nation’s No. 3-ranked defense, both in yards and points allowed, led the way in a season that culminated with a victory over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Last season, the offense carried the load, as the Cougars finished 10th in the country in rushing and 15th in total offense and went 8-4 in the regular season, including a convincing victory over then-No. 15 Texas in Provo, Utah. However, the season ended with a loss as BYU couldn’t get past Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Even with that setback, Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to at least seven victories in each of the past eight seasons and a bowl game in all nine he’s been in charge. The Cougars return plenty of experience this season with a total of 14 starters on both sides of the ball, but also lost some key personnel that will need to be replaced if they want to maintain their recent level of success.
BYU Cougars 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 8-5
Spring Practice Opens: March 3
Spring Game: March 29
Three Things to Watch in BYU’s 2014 Spring Practice
|Nov. 22||Savannah State|
1. Taysom Hill’s progression as a passer. There’s no quarterback controversy in Provo, Utah. Hill, a junior, is the unquestioned starter and leader of BYU’s offense. One of the most dynamic dual threats in the country, Hill finished among the top 25 rushers in FBS with 1,344 yards on the ground. He also threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns, but there’s still plenty of room for growth in this area. Hill completed less than 54 percent of his passes on the season and also tossed 14 interceptions. On four different occasions last season, Hill completed fewer than half of his pass attempts in a game and, not surprisingly, the Cougars went just 1-3 in those contests. Hill and talented junior running back Jamaal Williams (1,233 yards rushing in 2013) form a potent one-two punch on the ground, but the offense needs the passing game to keep defenses honest. Entering his second full season as the starter, it’s up to Hill to take that next step in his development as a quarterback or otherwise opposing defenses may focus their efforts on keeping him in the pocket instead of letting him beat them with his legs. Mendenhall and his staff also will have to figure out who is going to backup Hill since Ammon Olsen, who saw action in four games last season, announced in January he was transferring to Southern Utah University. With just one scholarship quarterback (Billy Green) and a group of walk-ons left to compete for the No. 2 job, this spring could prove critical as it relates to the future of the quarterback position.
2. Identifying reliable targets. The foundation of BYU’s offense is pretty well set with Hill and Williams in the backfield and all five starters returning along the line. But that’s where the stability ends, however, as the Cougars saw their top three wide receivers graduate, including all-time leading pass-catcher Cody Hoffman. The returning leading receiver is junior Mitch Mathews, who caught 23 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns last season. He is expected to team with senior Ross Apo (14-204-3) to serve as two of Hill’s primary targets, but some others will need to step up as well. Help could be on the way in the form of UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie (44-612-7 last season for the Miners) and junior college transfers Devon Blackmon and Nick Kurtz. Kurtz has a leg up on the other two, as he will participate in spring practice with Leslie and Blackmon coming in the summer. With only four scholarship wideouts participating in the spring, Kurtz could end up seeing plenty of starter reps and solidify his position on the depth chart by the time fall camp rolls around. Whatever happens between now and the season opener on Aug. 29, this much is certain – BYU’s receiving corps will feature plenty of new faces.
3. Starting over at linebacker. As much production and experience BYU lost at wide receiver it pales in comparison to the rebuilding job Mendenhall and defensive coordinator Nick Howell ahead of them when it comes to their linebacking corps. Besides losing playmaker Kyle Van Noy (17.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INTs) to graduation, the Cougars also bid farewell to fellow starters Uani Unga and Tyler Beck. This trio was responsible for nearly a quarter of the team’s total tackles last season and about 35 percent of all stops made behind the line of scrimmage. Senior Alani Fua is back to lead the group, but the other returnees at the position made just five starts combined last season. Developing this group is obviously one of the staff’s priorities this spring, as running back Michael Alisa, who has rushed for nearly 800 yards in his BYU career, is slated to make the switch to linebacker. Additional reinforcements are on the way in the form of incoming freshmen and returning missionaries, but between now and the first game of the season in late August, this linebacking corps will be a fluid situation to say the least.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
For nearly a decade, Bronco Mendenhall’s team has consistently been good for at least eight wins each season and I don’t expect that to change this fall. As an independent, BYU has one of the trickier schedules in the nation and 2014 is no different. Starting with the season opener on the road at Connecticut and finishing with the finale at California, BYU will traverse nearly 15,000 round-trip miles and visit six different states in a span of three months.
There are some familiar foes on the docket, as the Cougars will play seven teams they faced in 2013. They went 6-1 against these opponents last season with the only loss coming against Virginia on the road. This time, the Cavaliers come to Provo, Utah, as does Houston, Utah State, Nevada, UNLV and Savannah State. Also, the likes of Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Utah and Wisconsin have been replaced by the aforementioned Huskies, Golden Bears, Rebels and UCF Knights. Even with the loss of production at both wide receiver and linebacker, BYU has plenty of offensive talent and enough experience on defense returning to fare no worse than it did last season. In fact, if everything comes together, the Cougars could wind up with double-digit wins by season’s end.