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The AFC South was the weakest division in the AFC because of the horrendous seasons by the Jaguars and Titans, who both saw major setbacks last year. The Colts remained very consistent and dangerous, while the Texans moved from last place in 2013 to a very respectable 9-7 second-place finish.
Look below for players from each AFC South team who will be vital to their team’s success in 2015:
Arthur Jones, Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts (1st place, 11-5)
After signing a large contract, Jones was very disappointing in his first year with the team, after he played well with the Ravens. An ankle injury limited him to only nine games, starting in only three of those. He recorded just one sack, while he recorded more than four in each of the two years prior. The talent and upside are there for Jones, as he has proven it in the past. Remaining healthy will be key because the Colts really need his ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Other players to watch: centers Khaled Holmes/Jonotthan Harrison
Jadeveon Clowney, Linebacker, Houston Texans (2nd place, 9-7)
Another player to watch: quarterback Brian Hoyer
Luke Joeckel, Left Tackle, Jacksonville Jaguars (3rd place, 3-13)
The Jaguars have been one of the league’s worst teams for several years now, as they haven't even finished .500 since 2010. Thus, most of their players will really need to step up if 2015 is going to bring any improvement in the win column. However, Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2013 draft, has really not played up to his draft status. He was a part of an offensive line that gave up the most sacks in the league last year, which contributed to quarterback Blake Bortles' struggles and growing pains as a rookie. Bortles needs the support of his line if he's going to continue to develop, which is where the onus falls on Joeckel as he enters his third season in the league.
Another player to watch: quarterback Blake Bortles
Marcus Mariota, Quarterback, Tennessee Titans (4th place, 2-14)
With all the speculation surrounding what the Titans would do with the second pick, they ultimately took Mariota because they want him to be their franchise quarterback. It may be unfair to name him as a player who needs to step up because he is a rookie, but Tennessee needs some hope. He doesn’t even have to be great right away, but he’ll need to show growth and consistency so hopeful fans don’t become quickly disappointed. It’s hard to expect so much from one player, but he is a huge investment with great upside.
Another player to watch: running back Bishop Sankey
When the Clemson offensive coaches meet, Robbie Caldwell has to feel a little bit out of place, even if he has been coaching the Tiger offensive line for four seasons.
Leading the meeting is likely to be Jeff Scott or Tony Elliott, the program’s new co-coordinators and each a former Clemson wide receiver. Tight ends coach Danny Pearman played the position for the Tigers. Graduate assistants Tyler Grisham and Thomas Austin wore the Orange.
Caldwell went to Furman. It’s in South Carolina, but that’s not the same.
So, what happens during the meetings? Perhaps the other coaches make Caldwell bring coffee and donuts every day. They could force him to sing “Hail the Purple and White,” the Furman fight song. Or maybe “Tiger Rag,” the Clemson battle hymn, would be more appropriate. Do they speak in code around him? Grill him about school traditions, like the $2 bill?
“He’s been here longer than a lot of the other coaches have,” Elliott says about Caldwell. “Plus he has a daughter at Clemson. He belongs.”
It’s unlikely any program in the country has so many of its alumni coaching on one side of the ball. And while Caldwell no doubt feels comfortable amidst all of those Tigers, it will be interesting to see how he and the others handle the departure of former coordinator Chad Morris — now the boss at SMU — and the dual ascensions of Elliott and Scott to the vacant spot. Clemson’s attacks under Morris were extremely potent, and one of the more interesting stories heading into the 2015 season is how well Scott and Elliott, in their new co-coordinator roles, will be able to replicate Morris’ success.
In 2012, the Tiger offense was ninth nationally in total yards (512.7 ypg) and sixth in scoring (41.0 ppg). The following season, Clemson was again ninth in total offense (508.5 ypg) and tied for eighth in scoring (40.2 ppg). That performance earned Morris AFCA National Assistant Coach of the Year honors. Although the losses of weapons such as wideout Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd caused a drop in the Tigers’ 2014 production, Morris remained a man in demand, and the Mustangs hired him last Dec. 1, leaving Clemson coach Dabo Swinney with a decision to make. He stayed in-house, elevating Scott, who had been the Tigers’ receivers coach, and Elliott, who handled the running backs.
Related: Buy the 2015 ACC Preview Magazine
“This has been my plan for a while,” Swinney says. “It’s one of the easiest decisions I have had to make. The last four years, we have had a lot of success, and Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott are huge reasons why. They are incredibly bright young coaches who know what we do and love Clemson. It’s an easy fit.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job. No coach in Clemson history has won more games during a four-year period than has Swinney. But there is a sense that his strong assistant coaching staff, led by Morris and defensive coordinator Brent Venables, has been largely responsible for his success. Losing Morris, who had been one of the hottest assistants in the country, could interrupt that success.
No pressure, Jeff and Tony. Just keep cranking out units that score 40 points per game, and everything will be all right.
“Every coach knows they are judged by wins and losses and how the offense does,” Scott says. “When you move up the ladder and get coordinator titles, the expectations go up.
“We want to perform better than any Clemson offense has performed.”
• • •
Morris gets the awards, the attention, the opportunity to resurrect SMU’s flagging fortunes — and a fat contract to do. But during any given week over the past four seasons, he had a lot of help. Scott, Elliott and the rest of the Clemson offensive staff didn’t just focus on their positions. They had significant roles in developing gameplans.
For instance, Scott, the wideouts coach at Clemson for four of his seven years on the staff, was involved in deciding which passing plays the Tigers would use on first and second downs. He also decided which deep throws would work best against specific opponents and helped put together the offensive options on third-and-long situations. During games, Scott would make suggestions to Morris about when to try long shots.
“Coach Morris did a good job of delegating gameplan responsibilities among the other four coaches in the (offensive) room,” says Scott, the son of former South Carolina head coach and Clemson assistant Brad Scott. “This isn’t a huge transition.”
Elliott was in charge of studying opponents’ blitz packages and devising pickup strategies for the running backs, whom he coached for the past four seasons at Clemson. He also decided which plays would comprise the first- and second-down ground package. During games, he would recommend running plays to Morris.
Both coaches expect to have a similarly collaborative effort in the coming seasons. The process worked well in the Tigers’ 40–6 rout of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl that gave Swinney his fourth straight season with at least 10 wins. Although Clemson managed a modest 387 total yards, much of the second half was spent protecting the giant lead it had amassed in the first 30 minutes. Elliot and Scott, who were teammates and stretching partners during their time at CU, worked well together during the month leading up to the game and expect similar harmony moving forward.
Related: Clemson 2015 Preview and Prediction
“We complement each other well,” says Elliott, who has a degree in industrial engineering. “There are no egos involved. We want to put young men into position to succeed. It’s not going to be about me or Jeff.
“We are battle tested together. When you play with someone, you develop a bond that’s deep. When we get put into tough situations that we have to get through, the foundation of our friendship will help.”
Elliott will spend game days in the booth, where he is most comfortable, and will make the final decision on playcalling. Scott is more comfortable on the field, especially since he will continue to coach the receivers and needs to be close to the action to manage substitutions. The concept of co-coordinators has been gaining some steam in college football of late. TCU went to that model last season, and Ed Warinner and Tim Beck are splitting the position at Ohio State. Florida State, Mississippi State and Michigan State were among 2014’s top teams that employed the concept, so it’s not like Swinney was doing something outrageous when he elevated Elliott and Scott.
Since the two spent the past four years working under Morris and learning how he implemented the system, there is limited risk. Granted, it’s impossible to tell how their playcalling will work out and if they can maintain production with an offense that will include plenty of new faces. But Swinney hasn’t done this hastily.
“Four years ago, it wasn’t the right time for (Elliott and Scott) to be coordinators,” he says. “But I knew it was coming. Those guys are more than ready now.”
Scott and Elliott will direct an offense that hopes to have DeShaun Watson back as its primary triggerman. Watson underwent surgery for a partially torn ACL in December but expects to be ready for fall practice. In eight games last year (Watson missed three due to a broken bone in his throwing hand), the true freshman completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 1,466 yards and 14 TDs with only two interceptions. He also ran for 200 yards and five scores. He is perfect for the Tigers system and will have a bunch of talented skill players around him. Wayne Gallman (769 rushing yards, four TDs) leads a deep stable of backs, and Artavis Scott (76 catches, eight TDs) and Mike Williams (57 catches, six TDs) are back on the outside.
“I feel the same way I felt last year under Coach Morris,” Watson says. “I’m comfortable with the offense. I want to go out each game and get a W, get a lot of points, score touchdowns and play with a fast tempo. I want to spread the ball around so everybody gets the chance to make plays.”
Sounds like the Clemson way. Elliott and Scott are ready to keep the good times going, and they have plenty of Orange support in the meeting room — even from Caldwell.
LeBron James is testing out his vocal abilities in the new movie Trainwreck.
The Cavaliers star won't be starring as Batman as he always hoped, but he actually seems funny in this clip of the movie. Director Judd Apatow talked to Conan about working with James.
While many have become outraged by the recent trend in All-Star voting, including players, fans, and experts alike, MLB Network’s Greg Amsinger seems to have come up with the best way yet. The idea is not necessarily original, but he thinks that the MLB should take an approach similar to the Presidential election. By this method, voting is only open on one day, shortly before the All-Star Game. Votes could then be tracked in real time and viewed by fans to see who holds the lead.
He still believes that fans should be able to vote the allotted 35 times, but only within the time frame of a day. This would surely make the All-Star selection much more exciting, giving the drama that would unfold. In its current state, there is little excitement and just a simple announcement of the team. However, if revolutionized like this, it would create an event in itself that would also help better promote the actual game. Hopefully Amsinger is right on this one, as he has predicted several big plays in the MLB in the past.
Watch below as Amsinger correctly predicts a Mike Trout triple in last year's All-Star Game:
While famous rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs has been involved in a fight at UCLA with a coach, the bigger sports story that seems to arise out of it comes from the coach involved, Sal Alosi. While most may not remember that name, he happens to be the same person involved in the Jets’ tripping incident back in 2010. He was suspended for the action and resigned soon after because of the backlash from the incident.
He joined UCLA football as a strength and conditioning coach, where he allegedly toughly treated the rapper’s son, a defensive back on the team. Whether he was the victim or the one who provoked the altercation is unknown, but Alosi apparently treated players tough in the NFL. In addition, back when he was in college, he was accused of assault, but later pleaded guilty on harassment instead.
Take a look back at Alosi's tripping incident:
Mark Wahlberg is definitely one of the most famous Boston die-hards.
The "Ted 2" actor went on "The Today Show" to talk about his new movie and of course, Tom Brady's balls.
It was a previously scheduled trip with some college buddies to experience the whole Sin City thing after finishing their senior year at Michigan. There were the usual Vegas trappings, coupled with the added bonus of being in town during one of the most memorable sporting days in recent memory. But there were a few times — actually, more than a few — when Miller found himself in his hotel room, flipping on ESPN or the NFL Network to see what was happening with the draft.
He watched the scroll and saw names of familiar foes throughout the Big Ten. Names of kids he knew from high school games and offseason camps. And of course, three of his Wolverine teammates.
A few years ago, Miller would’ve pictured this day unfolding differently. He’d be watching with eagerness. He’d be thinking how a year from now, he’d be waiting for his name to be called — waiting to find out which NFL team would be providing his livelihood for the next decade. Instead, Miller was having what he calls his “rare days.”
Days where he misses football.
“There are days where it’s hard,” Miller says, “where I think, ‘Boy, I do miss the game.’ There’s no other way in the world where you can hit somebody at full-speed and not get in trouble for it. Part of that, I have to get used to. But at the end of the day, I know it was the right decision for me. And I’m at peace with it.”
Jack Miller is 21 years old. He’s in his second month of retirement from the game of football.
His story, though, is becoming far less uncommon. Miller, a 16-game starter at center for Michigan, announced in early March that he would be leaving the team and quitting football before his fifth season with the Wolverines. One reason was that he was burned out from the game. Another was that he was concerned about his own health, largely because of concussions. He was a kid with a potential future in the NFL who decided that continuing to play wasn’t worth the risk.
And he’s not the only one who has recently made the difficult decision to walk away. Patrick Willis, the San Francisco 49ers All-Pro linebacker, retired in the offseason at the age of 30 after eight seasons. Jason Worilds, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, retired in March at the age of 27 after five seasons — despite being one of the most coveted free agents this offseason. Jake Locker, the Tennessee Titans quarterback and eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, called it a career after only four seasons at age 26. And Chris Borland, a linebacker and teammate of Willis in San Francisco, retired at the age of 24 after only one season in the NFL.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” in March. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
He’s not alone.
Getting out too late?
By the time that Hunter Hillenmeyer decided to retire, there wasn’t much football left for him to play. At 29, he’d already maxed out his potential with the Chicago Bears. A fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt in the 2003 draft, he was selected by the Green Bay Packers and was assigned to the team’s practice squad. He was cut by the end of the preseason but resurfaced with the Bears and spent most of his rookie season on special teams.
A year later, he started 11 games at strong-side linebacker. The next season, 12 starts. Pretty soon, he was an invaluable member of a Bears linebacking corps that was the nucleus for the 2006 NFC champion team, which lost to the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI.
He also was being concussed at an alarming rate.
“I had a concussion in the preseason of 2010, got out there for the season-opener and, without even getting hit, just didn’t feel right,” Hillenmeyer recalls about his final game. “They pulled me off the field and ran the battery of tests. And after the game, we went through my entire history of my five diagnosed concussions. And the fact is that I had gotten to a susceptibility point where I really couldn’t take a hit to the head.”
That was when Hillenmeyer knew it was time to retire.
Today, at 34, he doesn’t consider his decision to retire to be anything like that of Borland, Willis, Worilds or Locker. Those players decided to walk away from the game while their health was still intact. Hillenmeyer didn’t, despite being at the forefront on the head trauma issue during his time in the league. He managed his career around his concussions instead of stopping it because of them.
He says he is symptom-free of any concussions five years later. He doesn’t have chronic headaches or memory loss or any of the early signs of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which has been linked to concussions related to football. Yet, he wonders sometimes if a headache is just a headache or if it’s a warning sign of something more serious. If forgetting a phone number or where he put the car keys is cause for alarm.
Hillenmeyer has great respect for the players who choose to walk away early, because for them, staying in the game another year for another big payday or fame or any of the other trappings associated with being in the NFL simply isn’t a priority.
“I feel great,” Hillenmeyer says. “In some ways, the fact that I was as informed as I was for a player playing during the 2000s helped. Even in 2006-07, I was aware that I needed to be very cautious with how I handled a brain injury. But when you’re a retired player in your 30s and you look at the generation ahead of you — I’ve been to a couple of alumni events in Chicago — and anecdotally, they paint a pretty grim picture.”
Hillenmeyer knows that his situation might be on the rosier side, too. He was an academic All-American at Vanderbilt and while in the league served on the NFL’s Player Safety and Welfare Committee. He was privy to the arguments being made by the medical community about the long-term effects of concussions.
Hillenmeyer, who co-founded the gaming app company OverDog, where fans can compete against pro athletes, wonders what his life might be like in a few years if that “grim picture” becomes a reality for him. He never hid concussions from the Bears, but he also continued to play the sport even though he was aware of the risks. He wonders if going the route that Borland, Worilds and Willis took might not have been the better plan.
“You don’t see a lot of guys that are aging very well — and that scares you,” Hillenmeyer says of his conversations with older NFL retirees. “Unless you’re just burying your head in the sand, any player would get a little nervous when they look at that. So at worst, you’re headed in the exact same trajectory. So you do have to step back, take pause and ask yourself, ‘Was it all worth it?’”
‘It’s kind of like a depression’
Before the end came for Reggie Wilkes, he had begun the process of preparing himself. A linebacker with the Eagles and Falcons from 1978-87, Wilkes took classes at Temple University’s School of Medicine early in his career. After realizing that medical school and the NFL couldn’t co-exist, he turned his attention to business, and he began taking classes at Penn’s Wharton School.
Midway through his career, he started working for Merrill Lynch in the offseason as a second job. So when he was released following an injury during the 1987 season, he decided it was time for the next step.
“I was just ready, mentally, to go and move on,” Wilkes says. “I knew it was going to end.”
Why is Wilkes’ story an important one? Because he was prepared for life after the NFL. He parlayed his experiences with Merrill Lynch while he was a player into a successful career in business, returning to the wealth management giant in 2007. He is now a senior financial advisor in suburban Philadelphia, where many of his clients are current or former professional athletes.
And more often than not, he sees players who think they are mentally ready to leave professional sports. But most aren’t.
“Every professional athlete — whether you’ve played one year in the league or 10 — goes through a physiological change,” Wilkes says. “It’s kind of like a depression. You’re trying to figure out how you wean yourself off of something that you’ve been so emotionally and physically attached to.”
For Wilkes, his safety net was his financial career. For Hillenmeyer, it was his own company.
Some players transition better than others.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall, a former first-round pick in 2008 with the Steelers, abruptly retired after the 2013 season. He was 26. “Football was pretty cool, but I don’t want to play anymore,” he wrote in an article for The Huffington Post announcing his retirement. Mendenhall is now a screenwriter, living in Los Angeles, where he recently served as a script consultant for an upcoming HBO series about the life of retired pro football players.
Worilds, whose representatives declined an interview for this story on his behalf, left the NFL and began working with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For others, the absence of football can only make a bad situation worse.
“For football players, on average, the retirement age is 25,” Wilkes says. “You still have 60 years of living, so you’ve got to figure out how your money is going to last. Players don’t think about that — that normal people are earning income until around 55 years, but for football players, it’s half that. The average length of a career is 3.5 years, so once you’re 25, you’re on the down end of your career in football.”
A new path
When he’s asked about football, Miller is clear: He did not leave the game to become a crusader against it.
Without football, he doesn’t get from Perrysburg, Ohio, to the University of Michigan. Without football, he doesn’t get the opportunity to learn some of the life lessons about discipline, accountability and teamwork. Without football, he doesn’t get to begin the next phase of his life — entering the business world.
But at some point, between high school and college, it stopped being fun.
“It’s a job. It’s your livelihood, whereas before that, it’s a game,” Miller says. “It becomes work, and that’s okay. We all know that’s what we’re signing up for.”
Miller had thoughts last season about making the 2014 campaign his final one in a Michigan uniform, but he decided to give it another go after Jim Harbaugh was hired to replace Brady Hoke. He went through the offseason workout programs and the first week of spring practice — which he described as one of his best. But he no longer had the desire to play and announced his intention to leave the team.
“For some people that’s really hard to understand,” he says. “And I understand that. To play college football is a blessing.”
There were some people who tried to convince him that he was making a short-sighted and ill-informed decision. Miller wouldn’t be swayed. He had already suffered one concussion in high school, and he believes he had two or three more at Michigan (though he only reported one). Given what he knows about the long-terms effects, he decided that if he had lost the desire to play, it wasn’t worth it.
Miller wasn’t the only college football player to make that decision this spring. Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinette — who started five games in two seasons — retired from the sport in March. Robinette, who will enroll at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine in the fall, missed five games last fall after suffering a concussion against South Carolina. He also had a concussion in high school.
West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett, a two-year starter, was forced into retirement before the Mountaineers’ bowl game. Trickett had suffered five concussions in a 14-month span. He hid two of them from team trainers in order to keep playing.
That’s a familiar refrain, even at the next level.
“After I retired, I had two good friends of mine who were still on the Bears call me with a slightly different version of the same story,” Hillenmeyer says. “That Tuesday or Wednesday after they took a big hit in a game, they definitely felt a little bit off, but they didn’t tell the trainers or get noticed by the trainers. But now they were pretty sure they had a concussion, and they were trying to decide whether or not to tell the doctors.”
That’s why Borland decided not to risk more years in the NFL. That’s why Willis and Worilds and Locker made the same decision. That’s why Hillenmeyer decided it was time to stop playing and trying to avoid the next big hit. That’s why Wilkes warns players that their careers won’t last forever.
That’s why one of Miller’s “rare days” when he misses football lasted only briefly during the NFL Draft.
It was his dream, but now he has a different one. He hopes to get into high school coaching, where he can work with kids before the game of football gets to be too big.
“Some people love the game more than I do, and that’s their only way,” he says. “And that’s fine. That’s their prerogative. For me, it wasn’t that. And I’m very excited about the next chapter.”
-By Brendan Prunty
Some people are crazy, but Jameis Winston seems to take it to a new level with his latest statement. During a rookie preview for the NFL, he exclaimed that he is most excited for his Week 3 matchup against JJ Watt and the Houston Texans. While most players will cower in fear at last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Winston seems to be challenging him right out of the gates.
Winston clearly displayed his high caliber skills and production in college, but it may be too early to really challenge Watt. The defensive end surely won’t shy away from the challenge, as he’ll try to continue his success against opposing quarterbacks. He can do it all on defense, and hopefully for Winston he won’t embarrass him like he did to the Titans’ Zach Mettenberger last season. Watt will surely have some celebration lined up for the game.
Take a look below at some of Watt's renown celebrations:
The Finger Wag:
The Discount Double Check:
Gronk loves the limelight, and he has never shied away from displaying how much fun he has. But he shockingly announced that he hasn’t spent any of the money he’s made on his NFL contract. Not even a single cent from it. Instead, he’s been able to support himself financially off of his endoresement deals, which is surely a sizeable amount.
In a league that has often produced players who go into bankruptcy soon after retirement, the NFL’s top tight end seems to understand this common path for many. However, he knows that it is avoidable, and that is why he has saved his money and not made any large, luxurious purchases. As one of the league’s most marketable players, he should be able to continue to live very well off of endorsement alone, as he remains in the midst of a six year, $54 million contract through 2019.
Look below for just one of many of Gronk's endorsements:
There may not be a better general manager/head coach tandem in the NFL than what the Cardinals have with GM Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians. In just two years, they’ve completely transformed the franchise, in terms of both perception and results. But the Cardinals are in a tricky place. Their window to win is small given the age (35) and injury history of quarterback Carson Palmer. Also, Larry Fitzgerald will be 32 when the season begins. Arizona suffered significant losses on defense in the offseason, the most notable being defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who left to become the head coach of the New York Jets. Bowles’ blitzing schemes were widely credited for Arizona’s sum being better than its parts. Given those losses — and Palmer’s knees — it’s tempting to write off the Cardinals. But the Keim/Arians combo engenders more trust — and faith — than any front office in franchise history. Doubt them at your own risk.
Arizona’s offense comes with a big if: If Palmer can stay healthy, the Cardinals should be a productive if not particularly high-scoring offense. The drop-off from Palmer to back-up Drew Stanton is steep; Stanton simply isn’t as accurate and doesn’t throw the deep ball as well as Palmer.
Palmer isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks but shouldn’t have to be given the resources the Cardinals have put into the offensive line. The addition of Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and the expected development of former first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper should fortify what was a weakness last year, the interior of the line.
The line’s improvement also should bode well for the Cardinals’ running game, which took a hit last season when Andre Ellington went down with a knee injury in Week 1 and then was lost for the season in early December due to a hernia. When healthy, Ellington is a game-changer, capable of going long every time he touches the ball. Ellington’s only drawback is his size. He’s not built to carry the ball 20 to 25 times per game or thrive in short-yardage situations. The Cardinals hoped to land either Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley in the draft to complement Ellington, but both were long gone by the team’s 24th overall pick. Arizona needs either Stepfan Taylor or third-round pick David Johnson from Northern Iowa to step up and carry the ball 10 to 12 times per game. That would help keep Ellington fresh — and dangerous — over the course of the season.
If Palmer stays healthy — there’s that “if” again — the wide receivers should be a strength. Fitzgerald was on pace for a 1,000-yard season in 2014 before Palmer got hurt; without the starting QB he was ineffective and sometimes ignored. Fitzgerald is no longer one of the NFL’s elite receivers, but he can still be a productive No. 1 wideout for a playoff team. Michael Floyd is still too inconsistent heading into his fourth season — there are weeks he disappears — but he still had 841 yards and six touchdowns last year. Like Fitzgerald, he needs Palmer to stay upright. John Brown provides the deep threat. He averaged 14.5 yards per reception last year, his first in the league.
Talk about a unit that suffered some big losses. Bowles left to become a head coach. Defensive end Darnell Dockett, who missed the 2014 season with a knee injury but still was a team leader, signed as a free agent with San Francisco, and nose tackle Dan Williams joined the Oakland Raiders. Inside linebacker Larry Foote retired, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie joined Bowles with the Jets.
The biggest problem — besides losing Bowles’ innovative mind — is the lack of an edge pass rusher. The Cardinals had just 35 sacks last year and didn’t have a single player in double digits. The draft didn’t provide any immediate help, so improvement will have to come from within. The onus falls on defensive end Calais Campbell to become a dominant player. He has his moments — he had seven sacks last year — but there are too many weeks where he’s not a factor.
Williams’ loss can’t be overstated. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level late in the 2014 season, and no one on the current roster can duplicate his abilities. With the Cardinals also being vulnerable at inside linebacker with Foote’s retirement, teams might be able to exploit Arizona up the middle in the run game. The Cardinals signed Sean Weatherspoon to replace Foote, but he’s been injury-prone his entire career, only once playing a full 16-game season.
The strength of the defense will be the secondary, even with Cromartie’s departure. Patrick Peterson had a rough 2014, but some of his issues can be attributed to the discovery that he has diabetes. Assuming he has the disease under control, he should revert back to being one of the best corners in the game. Arizona also believes the combination of Justin Bethel, who’s been a special-teams demon, Jerraud Powers and New England cast-off Alfonzo Dennard can more than make up for Cromartie’s absence. Arizona could have one of the best safety tandems in the league with Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon. Mathieu is a ball hawk who also will light up receivers, and Bucannon excels against the run. He’s also an effective pass rusher, particularly when the Cardinals blitz.
The Cardinals’ kicking game is in good hands. The same can’t be said yet for the kick returners. Placekicker Chandler Catanzaro had a brilliant rookie season, making 29-of-33 field-goal attempts, including 12-of-14 from 40 yards plus. He could find his way to the Pro Bowl at some point in the near future. Punter Dave Zastudil should be back after a 2014 season that was lost to a nagging groin injury. He led the league in punts inside the 20 in 2013 and ’12. Arizona needs to find someone who can give its return game some pop. Peterson could return punts, but the Cardinals are hesitant to let such a valuable every-down player expose himself to injury on special teams. Look for rookie receiver J.J. Nelson to get a shot. Nelson averaged 38.3 yards per kickoff return for UAB his senior year and was the national leader in combined kick returns (kickoffs and punts).
The Cardinals finished 11–5 last year despite Palmer being lost for the season in early November with a torn ACL and Ellington never being healthy all year. Palmer, whose quarterback rating was 95.6 (the second-highest mark of his career) at the time of his injury, makes Arizona’s offense go; receivers Fitzgerald and Brown in particular were much more effective when he was behind center.
If there’s a concern, it’s the defense. Arizona lost key contributors at every level, from Dockett to Foote to Cromartie. The Cardinals still don’t have a great edge pass rusher, and they have no idea if or when inside linebacker Daryl Washington will return from his league-imposed suspension. But if Arizona can figure out a way to be just average on defense, the offense should be good enough for another double-digit win season and a shot at supplanting Seattle atop the NFC West.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC West
Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead walked into a mess in 2012, inheriting a franchise that lost 65 of 80 games from 2007-11 — an NFL record for futility over a five-year span.
They brought the team back to respectability immediately with a 7–8–1 record in 2012. But as they enter their fourth season in St. Louis, the Rams haven’t been able to get over the hump despite harvesting a bounty of draft picks in the RGIII trade. In fact, they’ve backslid a bit each season, going 7–9 in 2013 and 6–10 in ’14.
After three consecutive years of entering the season as the youngest team in the league, that won’t be the case this season. St. Louis has a roster full of young veterans who should be approaching their primes.
The Rams can no longer blame their woes on injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford. He was traded. So with a defense that should be formidable, there really are no excuses this season. It’s win or go home.
After weeks of hearing Fisher and Snead utter variations of “Sam’s our guy,” Bradford was unceremoniously shipped off to Philadelphia for Nick Foles in a surprising trade that also included an exchange of draft picks. Foles’ arrival is just part of a massive facelift on offense. The Rams also have a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti and a new quarterbacks coach in Chris Weinke. They will have a new feature back in Todd Gurley and an overhauled offensive line.
Cignetti promises to streamline the playbook and simplify the play-calling. But the overall theory will remain the same for a Fisher-coached team: The Rams want to run the football, be physical and mix in the play-action pass. After a so-so 2014 season in Philadelphia that was over by midseason because of a broken collarbone, Foles will try to recapture some of the magic he displayed in 2013, when he threw 27 touchdowns with just two interceptions and had success throwing the deep ball.
A strong running game would obviously helps Foles out, and the hope around Rams Park is that Gurley is ready sooner rather than later as he completes his rehab from a November knee injury and subsequent surgery at Georgia. A healthy Gurley can be a game-changer, and paired with speedy Tre Mason — last year’s Rams rushing leader as a rookie — St. Louis has the makings of a formidable one-two backfield punch.
The receiving corps returns intact — all five wideouts from the ’14 squad and all four tight ends. In terms of continuity, that’s a luxury few teams have. Kenny Britt and Brian Quick will provide big targets as the starting wide receivers, and once again the theme for Tavon Austin is to get more involved in the offense. We’ll see if Cignetti can accomplish what predecessor Brian Schottenheimer couldn’t on that front.
The key question comes on the offensive line, where the Rams are inexperienced and could have as many as three linemen making their first NFL starts to open 2015.
With the exception of a December meltdown against Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants, the Rams had one of the league’s elite defenses over the second half of 2014. There’s no reason to believe they can’t pick up where they left off. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, entering his second season with the club, knows his players and how to use them.
Basically the entire defense is back: Seven of the top nine defensive linemen from a year ago return, as do all three starting linebackers. All 11 defensive backs who were under contract at the end of 2014 remain under contract.
In short, the Rams could be formidable on this side off the ball. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are the bookends at end in the team’s 4-3 alignment. Reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald provides a disruptive force at tackle with his quickness and savvy. Free-agent pickup Nick Fairley gives the Rams five first-round draft picks on their defensive front. If motivated and healthy, the former Detroit defensive tackle provides another playmaking presence in the trenches.
The addition of Akeem Ayers at outside linebacker gives the Rams yet another pass-rushing option; it will be interesting to see what packages Williams cooks up for him. James Laurinaitis is as steady as it gets in the middle. Alec Ogletree on the weak side has shown pursuit and playmaking ability in his first two NFL seasons but needs to get out of the gate quicker to start the season.
The strength of the secondary is the McSafeties — strong safety T.J. McDonald and free safety Rodney McLeod. McDonald is a thumper in the box; McLeod was much improved in coverage a year ago. But the cornerbacks still give up too many big plays. Consistency remains elusive for Janoris Jenkins, who makes big plays at times and then gambles and gives up big plays at times. Look for Lamarcus Joyner, who at times looked overmatched as a rookie, to step up his play.
Punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein form one of the league’s top kicking tandems. Hekker made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and was nearly as good in ’14. He can punt for distance and direction and is amazingly consistent, almost never hitting a bad one. And watch out for him on trick plays: The former high school quarterback can’t be ignored as a threat passing the ball out of punt formation. Zuerlein hasn’t been booming them from long distance like he did in his 2012 rookie season, when he earned the nicknamed Greg The Leg, but his accuracy has improved. In the return game, Austin hasn’t disappointed on punt returns. He still needs to be more decisive, with a little more north-and-south and a little less wiggle. But he has had a lot of big returns called back by penalties in his first two seasons, so a little more discipline by blockers should lead to bigger and better things. Benny Cunningham is an unlikely looking kickoff returner. While most are sleek and fast, Cunningham looks like a tank rumbling up field at 5'10" and 217 pounds.
The Rams have invested a lot of money and high draft picks on the defense. Now it’s time for that defense to carry the day by shutting teams down and flashing dominance whenever possible. That will be especially important early in the season while the offense gets its act together. Even without a 100 percent Gurley early, the Rams should have enough on offense with Mason and the receiving corps to grind out some victories. There are two big “ifs” attached here, however. Foles must stay healthy, and the offensive line must overcome its youth and provide effective protection. We’re guessing Foles gets it done; it’s a little more dicey when it comes to the offensive line. But after 11 long seasons at or below sea level, the ingredients are in place for the Rams to post their first winning season since 2003 and keep Fisher and Snead around for another year or more.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC West
After leading the 49ers to the NFC title game three times and the Super Bowl once in his first three years, Jim Harbaugh saw his reign in San Francisco end with a tumultuous, dysfunctional 8–8 season. Harbaugh says he was pushed out by 49ers owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke. The team claims there was a “mutual” decision to part ways. The bottom line is the 49ers lost a coach who went 49–22–1 (including the postseason) and replaced him with Jim Tomsula, their longtime defensive line coach. Tomsula’s only experience as a head coach came during one season in the defunct NFL Europe and the 49ers’ final game in 2010 after they fired Mike Singletary.
“Jim did a heck of a job,” Baalke says of Harbaugh, who took the job as Michigan’s coach. “I think he’s gone his direction, we’ve gone ours. I feel very good about the direction we’re headed, and I’m sure he does as well.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the architect of San Francisco’s elite defense, left to fill the same position with the Chicago Bears after being bypassed for the 49ers’ top job. The 49ers promoted offensive assistant coach Eric Mangini, a former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator, to replace Fangio. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman left for the same job with the Buffalo Bills after taking much of the blame for the 49ers’ offensive futility in 2015. Quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst was promoted to replace Roman. Chryst’s only experience as an offensive coordinator was in 1999-2000 for the Chargers under Mike Riley.
Tomsula will try to resurrect a 49ers team that lost a long list of key players, including running back Frank Gore, guard Mike Iupati and linebacker Patrick Willis.
The 49ers believe Harbaugh and Roman strayed too far from the power-running attack last season in an attempt to boost their anemic passing game. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick actually regressed, and the 49ers ranked a dismal 25th in scoring at 19.1 points per game, down from 11th (25.4) in 2013. Kaepernick’s passer rating dropped from 91.6 in 2013 to 86.4 last year, and the 49ers ranked 30th in passing offense, exactly where they ranked in 2013. For the first time in Harbaugh’s four seasons, the 49ers had more passing attempts (487) than runs (470). Even so, the 49ers ranked fourth in the league in rushing at 136.0 yards per game.
As Chryst tries to get the 49ers’ offense untracked, he won’t have Gore, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, to lean on. Gore signed with Indianapolis as a free agent after the 49ers showed little interest in keeping him. Carlos Hyde, who rushed for 333 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries in a solid rookie season, will start and should get most of the carries. But he’ll share the running load with veteran Reggie Bush, a key free-agent pickup, and Kendall Hunter, who’s returning from a knee injury.
The 49ers lost wide receiver Michael Crabtree in free agency, but they added former Ravens wideout Torrey Smith, giving Kaepernick a legitimate deep threat for the first time. Smith will be paired with Anquan Boldin, one of the NFL’s most physical receivers. The 49ers need former Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis to rebound after catching just 26 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns.
San Francisco’s offensive line, which had long been a team strength, needs to bounce back, too. Kaepernick was sacked 52 times last season, and the line was in disarray most of the season. Center Daniel Kilgore missed the final nine games with a broken leg. Right tackle Anthony Davis missed nines games with assorted injuries. Right guard Alex Boone reported late because of a contract dispute and never got untracked, and he’s still unhappy with his contract. After the season, the 49ers lost Pro Bowl left guard Iupati to Arizona as a free agent. Brandon Thomas, who missed his rookie season last year with an ACL injury, should get the first shot at replacing Iupati, but he’ll battle free-agent pickup Erik Pears. Left tackle Joe Staley, a four-time Pro Bowl choice, still anchors a line that needs to regain its spot among the NFL’s elite.
The hits kept on coming during the offseason for a 49ers defense that is still solid but nowhere near the force it was a few years ago. Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowl pick, retired in early March because of chronic foot injuries. Days later Chris Borland, his backup, retired because of health concerns over concussions. Then in late May, Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith announced he was retiring after a successful 14-year career. Defensive end Ray McDonald was released after yet another off-field incident. The 49ers also lost two of their top three cornerbacks — Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox — to free agency. The 49ers used a first-round draft pick on Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead, but he needs time to develop. Veteran defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, a free-agent pickup, is coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2014 season. Young D-linemen Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine might have to take larger roles.
The 49ers’ biggest loss on defense could well be Fangio, who set the bar extremely high. Under Fangio, the 49ers’ ranked as high as third and never dropped below fifth in total yards allowed.
The 49ers expect to have All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman back in the lineup after he missed the entire 2014 season while recovering from a devastating knee injury. Starting cornerback Tramaine Brock missed most of last season with a turf toe injury but is expected to regain a spot in the starting lineup and be paired with ex-Chargers cornerback Shareece Wright, a free-agent pickup. The 49ers have one of the NFL’s top safety tandems in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks in 2012, should get back on track after being suspended the first nine games last season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct and substance-abuse policies.
Punter Andy Lee, a three-time Pro Bowler, was traded in early June to Cleveland for a 2016 seventh-round draft pick. This move was expected as soon as the 49ers used a fifth-round draft pick in May to select Clemson punter Bradley Pinion, who doubles as a kickoff man. That could turn out to be a key skill, considering that placekicker Phil Dawson, who is coming off of a subpar season, struggled to kick the ball deep. As a rookie last season, wide receiver Bruce Ellington handled most of the return duties. Jarryd Hayne, a rugby superstar from Australia, was signed as a free agent and could give Ellington some competition.
The 49ers won’t have to deal with as much dysfunction this year, but they lost a lot of talent, both on the field and in the coaching ranks. Baalke did little in free agency or the draft to help the 49ers’ struggling offense. The 49ers finished third in the NFC West last year, and it’s difficult to see them finishing ahead of defending division champion Seattle or Arizona, which was second. Even holding off the last-place St. Louis Rams could be a problem.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West
The Seahawks were less than a yard from the end zone — a Marshawn Lynch plunge from sure victory, just 26 seconds from becoming an NFL dynasty — when they made what has been labeled the worst play call in Super Bowl history.
In the wake of Russell Wilson’s disastrous goal-line interception against New England, preventing consecutive victories for this team on pro football’s largest stage, Seattle will attempt to shake off any lingering residue and resume its role as a championship contender.
Outside of a blockbuster trade — acquiring tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round draft pick from New Orleans for one-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round selection — the Seahawks didn’t make mass changes. They used the offseason to forgive and forget.
Seattle retains all of its important ingredients — the vaunted defense, inhospitable stadium, feel-good coach, durable Lynch and now rededicated Wilson — as it attempts to become the third team to make three or more consecutive Super Bowl appearances, joining Miami (1972-74) and Buffalo (1991-94). At 30–8 (including playoffs), the Seahawks still have the best record in the league for two seasons running. There’s plenty to play for, especially redemption. “I won’t allow one play or one moment to define my career,” Wilson promises. “Every setback has a major comeback.”
Any major retooling for this team will come across the offensive line, where two starters must be replaced, seemingly a yearly chore. Patrick Lewis and Alvin Bailey are the new center and left guard, respectively, though not all that new. Lewis started four times in place of Unger, with his steady performance making it easier for the team to part with the incumbent player. The versatile Bailey was in the opening lineup five times at three different line positions, starting on three occasions for departed left guard James Carpenter, a former first-round draft pick who couldn’t stay healthy and earn the team’s considerable investment in him. Bailey, with his long arms and good balance, was especially effective against the pass rush. Left tackle Russell Okung, right tackle Justin Britt and right guard J.R. Sweezy are returning starters — solid, rather than upper-echelon players.
The big position upgrade was adding Graham to the receiving corps, giving the Seahawks something they haven’t had for several seasons — a superior pass-catcher. Graham’s 51 touchdowns in five seasons in New Orleans and general elusiveness bode well for his new team’s preference to emphasize the tight end position, which also features speedy Luke Willson. Seattle had a combined 48 tight end receptions in 2014, sixth fewest in the NFL, necessitating added help. Holdover wideouts Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin are capable of making big plays but often go unnoticed for long stretches. Rookie Tyler Lockett will get an opportunity to cut into their playing time.
The backfield is the only place on the offense that remains unchanged. Lynch continues to defy the standard aging process for an NFL running back, to the point the Seahawks signed him in the offseason to a three-year, $31 million contract extension. Considering the punishment he takes and delivers, the player known as Beast Mode might be good for just one more year. At 29, he’s turned in four consecutive regular seasons of more than 1,200 rushing yards while carrying the ball nearly 1,200 times, numbers that typically invite rapid decline.
Wilson returns for his fourth season, offering a Seahawks career highlighted by a 42–14 overall record as a starter and a resounding Super Bowl championship. The team is hoping Wilson’s slow-paced contract-extension negotiations don’t detract from his play.
No unit across the NFL is more respected, feared or solidified than the Seattle defense. It returns all but one starter, needing only an able cornerback replacement for the departed Byron Maxwell. The Seahawks come off three consecutive seasons as the league leader in scoring defense, something not done since Minnesota from 1969-71, after limiting opposing teams to a modest 15.9 points per game in 2014. Talk persists that this is one of the league’s better defenses of modern times.
The front four gets an effective push from ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril and tackles Tony McDaniel and Jordan Hill. Bennett, the best of this bunch, reportedly used his status to demand a trade (which he denied) and skipped voluntary workouts. The tackles get much-needed depth with the return of former starter Brandon Mebane from a season-ending hamstring injury and the free-agent acquisition of Cleveland starter Ahtyba Rubin.
The linebacking corps is just as sturdy as the front wall if not a lot less complicated, comprised of K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin on the outside flanking Bobby Wagner. A former defensive end, Irvin is the flashy one, scoring twice in 2014 on interception returns. However, Wagner is the indispensible one, with the Seahawks stumbling through a lackluster 3–2 spell when a toe injury sidelined the highly productive player who has been compared to Ray Lewis and others because of his dependability.
The real jewel of this smothering group remains the secondary, manned by All-Pro safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and similarly decorated cornerback Richard Sherman, and one that still identifies itself as the Legion of Boom. The three returnees are all potential Hall of Famers, each capable of holding his own in one-on-one coverage without the benefit of blitzing teammates. Thomas is considered the league’s best at his position, Sherman at his. Each of them played injured in the Super Bowl. Sherman came up with a team-best six interceptions, counting the postseason, even as most teams refused to throw his way. Maxwell’s replacement will come from among offseason acquisitions Cary Williams and Will Blackmon and holdover Tharold Simon.
For four consecutive seasons now, the Seahawks’ kicking game has been in solid hands across the board. Placekicker Steven Hauschka has extended his field-goal range to 58 yards and been no worse than 83 percent on accuracy, while punter Jon Ryan averaged 44.1 yards per kick and threw a crucial postseason touchdown pass. Where the team needs a noticeable boost is in each return game, where a multitude of players failed to post a runback longer than 47 yards. Lockett was drafted to fill this need.
The Seahawks still have the talent to make another Super Bowl run, which is getting almost routine for the franchise. Over the previous decade, just three teams took three trips to the big game: Pittsburgh (2–1), New England (1–2) and Seattle (1–2). While there’s always concern that complacency, big-contract squabbles or, in this case, bitter disappointment will break up a good thing, the Seahawks would be pursuing an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory and entertaining best-ever chatter if not for that fateful interception against the Patriots. Provided the offensive line comes together, there’s still football life in Lynch, and Wilson has a short memory, this team should be a serious postseason factor once more
Prediction: 1st in NFC West
Players often express their disappointment when they are cut from a team, but former Ohio State standout Terrelle Pryor had an unprecedented reaction after being dropped by the Cincinnati Bengals. After very unsuccessfully vying for a backup quarterback spot, the team sent him packing. He had a strong rookie minicamp but quickly showed flaws in OTAs. Instead of accepting being dropped, Pryor took to Twitter and released multiple videos of him participating in full drills.
While the media is not allowed to film this part of practice, Pryor clearly got hold of the videos. The move shocked the Bengals, who never saw such a bizarre reaction coming. Shortly after this outburst, Pryor removed the videos and was picked up by the division rival Cleveland Browns to play wide receiver. It will be interesting to see if he can make it at this new position, or what will happen to the Browns if he doesn’t.
Look below at some of what Pryor put on Twitter:
Terrelle Pryor is celebrating his move from QB to wide receiver by....tweeting practice videos of him at QB... pic.twitter.com/t2z6M5deER— Jason Marcum (@marcum89) June 22, 2015
The Fighting Irish started off the weekend adding speed and athleticism to their 2016 recruiting class, landing wide receiver/cornerback Jalen Elliott and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson.
Elliott helped L.C. Bird (Va.) High School to a 14-2 record in 2014 earning national recruiting attention along the way. The 6-1, 175-pound, two-way star has picked up offers from Auburn, Georgia, Miami, N.C. State, North Carolina, Wake Forest, East Carolina, Maryland, and in-state powers Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Auburn, Georgia, and Notre Dame each hosted Elliott on unofficial visits before he committed to the Fighting Irish on Friday.
Stepherson is heading to South Bend from Jacksonville, Fla., powerhouse high school First Coast. In 2014 the Buccaneers racked up a 12-1 record before falling in the third round of the playoffs 64-48 to Apopka. With 2015 Florida State quarterback signee De’Andre Johnson slinging the pigskin around the yard the 6-0, 180-pound, receiver hauled in 33 passes for 756 yards with 11 touchdowns.
Some of the same colleges showing interest in Elliott also put offers on the table for Stepherson including Florida, Georgia Tech, LSU, Iowa State, Michigan State, Central Florida, West Virginia, Rutgers, North Carolina and South Florida.
Both Stepherson and Elliott are widely considered 3-star prospects by national recruiting services.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly signed a top-15 recruiting class on National Signing Day in February. He placed a heavy emphasis on the team’s secondary, signing five to the back four, while also adding four wide receivers to his 2015 class. The focus thus far to the 2016 class has been on offense, where up to six recruits of the eight current commitments could line up at for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame 2016 Verbal Commitment List
OT Liam Eichenberg, 6-6, 290, St. Ignatius HS, Cleveland, Ohio
CB/WR Jalen Elliott, 6-1, 175, Lloyd C. Bird HS, Chesterfield, Virginia
RB Tony Jones Jr., 6-0, 212, IMG Academy, Bradenton, Florida
OT Tommy Kraemer, 6-5, 305, Elder HS, Cincinnati, Ohio
CB Julian Love, 5-11, 175, Nazareth Academy, LaGrange Park, Illinois
DE Julian Okwara, 6-4, 220, Ardrey Kell HS, Charlotte, North Carolina
LS John Shannon, 6-2, 230, Loyola Academy, Wilmette, Illinois
WR Kevin Stepherson, 6-0, 180, First Coast HS, Jacksonville, Florida
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.
If there was ever a knock on the LSU program during head coach Les Miles' tenure it would be the play under center. Year after year despite producing NFL-quality wide receivers, the Tigers' passing game has left a lot to be desired.
On Monday LSU added some future game experience under center with the announced addition of former Purdue starting quarterback Danny Etling.
Etling (6-2, 216) has a long way to go before being a gridiron savior in Baton Rouge, but he brings two years of starting experience to the Tigers’ roster. As a 4-star quarterback out of South Vigo High School in Terre Haute, Ind., he started the final seven games for the Boilermakers in 2013, passing for 1,690 yards with 10 touchdowns as a freshman.
Trouble hit for Etling in 2014 when Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell opted for a change. Etling was eventually beat out by fellow sophomore Austin Appleby for the starting quarterback job. Appleby threw for 1,449 yards with 10 touchdowns against 11 picks. Etling passed for 800 yards, connecting on six touchdown passes against five interceptions. Etling completed 55 percent of his passes while Appleby completed 53 percent.
Appleby proved to be more of a dual-threat, as the 6-5, 229-pounder rushed for 198 yards with five touchdowns and was sacked 12 times. In 2013 Etling was sacked 31 times to go with his 11 last season in 100 fewer drop backs than Appleby.
Collecting wins in West Lafayette has been difficult under Hazell. The Boilermakers posted win-loss records of 1-11 in 2013 and 3-9 in '14.
In Baton Rouge, LSU’s situation under center entering this season is tenuous after last week’s announced arrest of 2014 starting quarterback Anthony Jennings. Jennings along with two other LSU players were arrested for unlawful entry into a fellow classmate’s apartment, retrieving goods that were allegedly stolen from Jennings days prior. After the incident Miles suspended Jennings indefinitely for his role in the altercation.
If Jennings is not reinstated for the fall, LSU is expected to turn to true sophomore Brandon Harris with Justin McMillan serving as the backup quarterback. Due to NCAA transfer rules Etling will have to sit out this season, but will have two years of eligibility remaining starting in 2016.
As a sophomore Jennings had an up-and-down 2014 season, passing for 1,611 yards with 11 scores against seven picks. The former Marietta, Ga., high school star completed just 48.9 percent of his passes but managed to scramble for 292 yards despite taking 22 sacks.
As the LSU roster and recruiting efforts currently stand, a quarterback battle will take place during fall camp in 2016 with Jennings, Harris, McMillan, and Etling dueling for a starting position plus the potential addition of 4-star Class of 2016 Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks.
Etling reportedly also visited Arkansas as a potential landing spot before making the decision to enroll at LSU in the fall.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.
Clayton Kershaw is having an off year. Well, an off year for a player who has won three of the past four Cy Young awards, in addition to the MVP last year. His ERA and WHIP are up from the past few seasons at 3.33 and 1.04, respectively. He’s still a very above average player with these stats and has some of the nastiest pitches in the league. Where he’s really getting blasted is in home runs, where he has already let up 11, two more than he let up all of last year. He’s on track to allow a career high, and that total has been in large part due to rookie players.
Young slugger Kris Bryant and fellow teammate Matt Szczur both launched homers off of the league’s most revered pitcher. Bryant took a usually unhittable curveball and sent it deep into right field, while Szczur homered to left center. With their home runs, they join the Brewers’ Hector Gómez and Rangers’ Joey Gallo as the MLB’s newest players to hit one off of Kershaw. Even Giants’ ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner destroyed a Kershaw pitch for a home run last month.
Take a look below at a few of the memorable home runs off of Kershaw this year:
The NBA season is over, but the summer of ridicule for LeBron James seems to just be beginning.
After James' Finals loss, Nike release a powerful "Imagine If" ad detailing all that he's done for the Cavaliers. While people are focused on the star player's Finals record, 2-4, the ad focuses on James leading a team that had no business being in the Finals.
New Nike LeBron ad pic.twitter.com/p5Of0avA1u— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) June 21, 2015
Enter Dan LeBatard and Papi. The "Highly Questionable" hosts make a parody of the ad, making light of the James praise.
The 2015 college football season is just around the corner, and it’s time to honor the best of the best for the upcoming year. Several of the nation’s top players from 2014 are in the NFL ranks, but there’s no shortage of talent returning to the FBS level.
Athlon Sports released its 2015 all-conference teams earlier this offseason, and now the focus shifts to the All-America team. Whether it’s quarterback, defensive end or a spot on the special teams, picking the best of the best is no easy task.
And it should be no surprise Ohio State - the defending national champion and Athlon's pick to win it all in 2015 - leads the All-America team with 11 selections. Alabama is second with seven selections, followed by USC (six) and then four teams tied with five (full table of team selections at the bottom of page). The SEC leads the way with 27 overall selections, and the BIg Ten checks in at No. 2 with 24 picks.
An important note on the All-America teams: These are based on how players will perform in 2015. Career statistics and previous awards matter in player evaluation, but choosing players for the 2015 All-America team and all-conference teams are largely based on predicting and projecting the upcoming year.
2015 Athlon Sports All-Conference Teams
Athlon Sports 2015 All-America Team
|C||Max Tuerk |
|G||Pat Elflein |
|G||Taylor Decker (OT)|
|Le'Raven Clark (OT)|
|Denver Kirkland (OT)|
|Darian Thompson (S)|
|CB||Vernon Hargreaves III|
|S||Jalen Ramsey (CB)|
Conference Breakdown of All-America Selections
Team Breakdown of All-America Selections
|Team||Number of Selections|
When putting together Athlon Sports' college football magazine and preseason Top 25 each year, a huge part of the process is scheduling. Non-conference games, crossovers, home-road splits and timing all play a role in determining order of finish.
And don’t forget that the College Football Playoff Committee made it very clear in its first season that it values scheduling.
So who has the toughest schedule in the Pac-12 this fall? Who has the easiest path?
There is no easy schedule in the North, but Cal is probably the most unlucky team in the division. Road trips for the season include games at Texas, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Utah and Washington with USC and Arizona State at home. Washington also has a tough run starting Week 6: at USC, Oregon, at Stanford, Arizona, Utah, at Arizona State.
Arizona State and USC have the two toughest slates in the South division but the Men of Troy get the nod here. The Trojans have to face Notre Dame on the road in non-conference action as well as the projected top four teams in the North: Oregon (road), Stanford (home), Washington (home) and Cal (road). The division split sends USC to Arizona State for a critical 60 minutes. The only comfort is getting key division games with UCLA, Utah and Arizona at home.
The Huskies are in rebuilding mode and they didn't get much help from the schedule makers. A road trip to Boise State will be filled with emotion for Chris Petersen (and UW could be an underdog) and Utah State is much better than most Pac-12 fans will acknowledge. Road trips in the league, however, are what make this schedule brutal. Washington will face USC, Stanford, Arizona State and Oregon State away from Seattle. Oregon, Cal, Arizona and Utah dot the home slate.
4. Arizona State
Arizona State and USC appear to be the class of the South and if either team wins the division or the league, their strength of schedule will likely put them into the Playoff. The Sun Devils get Texas A&M in Houston, which is far from a true neutral-site game. The road slate is intriguing, as trips to UCLA and Utah in the division are huge, as well as trickier-than-they-appear trips north to Cal and Washington State, but there are no preseason-ranked teams on the slate away from Tempe. USC, Oregon, Washington and Arizona highlight an extremely tough home slate.
Stanford is getting a lot of love as a sleeper team to win the Pac-12 but the Cardinal will have to earn their division title for this to happen. The non-conference slate includes Notre Dame of course but also tricky games with UCF and at Northwestern. All of the big games in the Pac-12 come at home (minus one) but each one should be a battle between Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Arizona and Washington. The road slate in the league isn't terribly difficult as only USC makes Stanford a true road underdog.
The Utes start the year with three really interesting non-conference games. Utah will be favored against Michigan, Utah State and Fresno State but all three are tough outs. Four road trips within the league (USC, Oregon, Arizona and Washington) are devastating with a not-so-easy home schedule against Cal, Arizona State and UCLA. Utah misses the worst two teams from the North.
Per usual, Colorado doesn't get to face Colorado, automatically making it one of the toughest schedules in the South Division. The non-conference slate offers chances for wins with four winnable games (not three) because of Hawaii. Facing Oregon and Stanford from the North hurts and having five road trips in the Pac-12 adds difficulty as well. The Buffaloes face Oregon, USC, Stanford and Arizona at home, meaning any Pac-12 wins might have to come on the road.
8. Washington State
The showdown with Rutgers last year was memorable at the very least and now Wazzu flies all the way to East Coast for its toughest non-con game in the rematch. The Cougars get five home games and miss USC and Utah from the South and has two winnable road games in Oregon State and Colorado. Huge swing games that likely decide if WSU is going bowling or not will come at home in Cal, Arizona and The Apple Cup.
Oregon faces arguably the toughest non-conference test of any team in the nation when it heads to East Lansing to face Michigan State. However, the Ducks should roll through the rest of their home schedule with the exception of USC. Huge road trips to Stanford and Arizona State loom as well. But this schedule looks like a four-game slate with three huge road trips and the Trojans at home. Cal and Utah would be tricky if they weren't in Autzen Stadium and trips to Seattle and Boulder shouldn't cause too much concern.
10. Oregon State
There are no easy schedules in the North but Oregon State gets the nod by default because the Beavers miss both Arizona State and USC in crossover and get Stanford, Washington and UCLA at home. A non-con trip to Michigan still keeps this slate from being far from "easy" however.
Clearly, there are no easy schedules in this league but UCLA might have one of the more manageable slates — which comes at a great time to break in a new quarterback. Virginia and BYU are tricky but winnable in the non-conference, while missing Oregon and Washington from the North Division seems like a big positive. Sweeping home games with Arizona State, Cal, Colorado and Washington State is very doable and road trips to Arizona, Oregon State and Utah also could be winnable. Trips to USC and Stanford are the toughest games of the year.
First of all, there is no easy schedule in the South. Five teams could win the division so crossover play and non-conference games are the deciding factors. UCLA and Arizona have the two easiest slates because both avoid Oregon from the North, but Zona gets the nod for the least difficult due to a non-conference slate that should provide three easy wins.
Every team has star players and leaders who you know will need to play their best week in and week out in order for their team to have any success whatsoever. There are, however, a couple of players on each team in the Big Ten who will play key roles that could push their respective teams past even there own expectations.
Related: Big Ten Football 2015 Predictions
These "wild card" players fly a little under the radar, but stepping up, reaching their full potential or failing to do their jobs could be the difference between their squad having a successful 2015 campaign and putting a coach on the hot seat.
We've highlighted two players from each team — one on offense and one on defense — who could be the "wild cards" that make the difference in how things shake out in the Big Ten.
Let's take a look:
Big Ten East Division
Offense: Jordan Howard, Running Back
Howard draws the unenviable task of replacing one of the most electric players in the country (Tevin Coleman) a season ago. He doesn't need to do what Coleman did, but he will need to be a consistent threat on the ground, running behind a relatively experienced offensive line. If he is able to do that, it will take a lot of pressure off Nate Sudfeld — one of the best pure passers in the conference.
Defense: Nate Hoff, Defensive Tackle
Hoff will be the youngest member of the defensive line rotation — a group that should be the strength of a defense littered with underclassmen. He'll need to step up and play like a veteran, helping to control the line and even provide penetration in order to take pressure off his young teammates at linebacker and secondary.
Offense: Derwin Gray, Offensive Tackle
Gray could be one of three freshmen starting on the offensive line for the Terrapins. He'll need to play like a seasoned junior or senior in order to protect Caleb Rowe against some of the most lethal pass rushers in the nation. His ability to do so could be the difference between a winning season with a bowl bid and finishing at the bottom of the division.
Defense: Sean Davis, Cornerback
Maryland isn't exactly the most talented team in the conference when it comes to its defensive front seven. As a result, opposing quarterbacks are likely to have plenty of time to throw. When they do, they'll avoid William Likely as often as possible and challenge Davis all day. If he's not up to the challenge, Maryland will be one of the easier teams to move the ball against through the air.
Offense: Ty Isaac, Running Back
Jim Harbaugh's offenses always feature a running back capable of getting the tough yards when needed. Isaac is going to need to be that guy, and there won't be many excuses not to. He'll be running behind one of the more experienced offensive lines in the Big Ten. If he can't get the job done, it'll be detrimental to graduate transfer quarterback Jake Rudock's success under center and help make Harbaugh's first season in Ann Arbor a long one.
Defense: Jabrill Peppers, Safety
Outside of Rudock, Peppers is pretty much the only household name on the Michigan roster. He'll need to live up to all of the hype and potential immediately, as Brady Hoke left the talent cupboard fairly bare on the defensive side of the ball. There are too many elite passers in Michigan's division for Peppers to play like a freshman in the secondary.
Offense: Aaron Burbridge, Wide Receiver
Big things are expected from quarterback Connor Cook this season, especially considering he's playing behind what might be the best offensive line of Mike Dantonio's tenure. In order for those big things to happen, Cook is going to need guys making plays downfield. Enter Burbridge. He's likely to be the primary target in the Spartan offense now that Tony Lippett is gone. Michigan State's success on offense will rest largely on Burbridge's effectiveness.
Defense: Riley Bullough, Linebacker
Bullough will take over in the middle full time in 2015. He'll play a critical role for what has been one of the better defenses in the nation over the past couple of seasons. There will be extra pressure to know everyone's assignments and make reads with the departure of coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Bullough's success will be the difference in whether or not the Spartan defense remains elite in 2015.
Offense: Curtis Samuel, Running Back
Yes, Samuel is a backup, but he's backing up arguably the most valuable player in the conference — if not the country — in Ezekiel Elliott. The Buckeyes are going to ride Elliott a lot this season. He's going to need plenty of breathers, including at the end of games Ohio State already has in hand. The Buckeyes need Samuel to be able to step in and not miss a beat when Elliott leaves the field, regardless of the situation.
Defense: Raekwon McMillan, Linebacker
McMillan was one of the more heavily recruited players in the country a couple of years ago. The time for him to make his impact is now, as he'll be manning the middle linebacker position amongst seven returning starters from last season's championship team. The Buckeyes will be looking for his hard-hitting style to set the tone on defense all season, adding another element of "shock and awe" to a team that will already be favored in every game they'll play.
Offense: Paris Palmer, Offensive Tackle
The Nittany Lions return four starters from an offensive line that gave up 44 sacks last year. They'll need to get better, and Palmer will have the most important job on the line — protecting the blindside of Christian Hackenberg. He'll likely draw matchups with the likes of Joey Bosa and Shilique Calhoun in games against Ohio State and Michigan State. Palmer will need to be at his best if Penn State is going to have any chance of finishing better than third in the division.
Defense: Grant Haley, Cornerback
With Jordan Lucas moving to safety, the Penn State secondary should be a formidable one. Haley will be the newcomer in the group and the perceived weak spot by opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. As a result, he'll be challenged often. If he can hold his own, there is enough talent on the rest of the defense to be one of the better units in the conference.
Offense: Derrick Nelson, Center
With only three returning starters (excluding Paul James) on offense, Nelson will play a pivotal role in the continuity, stability and development of the Scarlet Knight offense throughout the year. He'll need to be a leader and a calming voice in both the locker room and the huddle, especially as Rutgers makes the transition to a new quarterback under a first-time offensive coordinator.
Defense: Kemoko Turay, Defensive End
Turay will need to continue to improve after earning freshman All-America honors a season ago. If he can make the move to elite status, joining the likes of Joey Bosa and Shilique Calhoun, Rutgers could end up having one of the better defenses in the division. There is NFL-caliber talent in various spots on the Scarlet Knight defense (including Turay). If they can all play to their full potential, it could be a special season for the fans that pack High Point Solutions Stadium.
Big Ten West Division
Offense: Malik Turner, Wide Receiver
Turner is the only one of the three projected top receivers without any starting experience. After losing Mike Dudek, the team's top receiver in the spring, Turner's role became much more valuable in Champaign. Running back Josh Ferguson is going to draw a lot of attention, as he'll be the focal point of the Illini offense. It will be up to the other receivers, especially Turner, to establish a solid connection with Wes Lunt in the passing game in order to keep opposing defenses guessing.
Defense: Jihad Ward, Defensive End
Ward continues to improve every season and has quietly developed into somewhat of a star in the conference. He'll need to be more effective in the pass rush, taking presser off what should be a solid and experienced secondary. If he can excel, it will go a long way in keeping the Illini out of the basement of the division and getting them back to a bowl game.
Offense: Tevaun Smith, Wide Receiver
With Jake Rudock leaving town and C.J. Beathard taking over under center, Hawkeye fans are knocking on wood that the offense will be a bit less conservative in 2015 than in past years under Kirk Ferentz. In order for that to happen, Smith is going to need to realize his full potential and establish himself as one of the best downfield threats in the conference. Doing so would only create more room for what is normally a decent running game to flourish even more and put Iowa squarely in the race for the West Division title.
Defense: Nathan Bazata, Defensive Tackle
Nate Meirer and Drew Ott might be the best defensive end duo in the conference, but they'll still need help up front. They should get it in Bazata, a former state champion wrestler who doesn't stop moving and will be the better athlete in almost every one-on-one encounter on the line. If he can develop into the unstoppable, penetrating force Iowa recruited him to be, the Hawkeye front four will be one of the most feared in the Big Ten.
Offense: Lincoln Plsek, Tight End
There are rumblings in some circles of the Golden Gophers being the favorite to win the Big Ten West in 2015. For that to happen, someone will need to replace the playmaking ability of Maxx Williams. It looks like Plsek has drawn that assignment. He'll need to be more than just a safety net and check-down option for Mitch Leidner in the passing game if Minnesota's offense is going to scare anyone.
Defense/Special Teams: Jalen Myrick, Cornerback/Kick Returner
Depending on the offensive sets opposing teams employ against the Gopher defense, Myrick should get a considerable amount of snaps on that side of the ball alongside two of the best corners in the conference. That said, Myrick will impact games more on special teams than anywhere else, as he might be the Big Ten's best kick returner. Obviously, his ability to create shorter trips to the end zone for Leidner and the offense will be vital to Minnesota's success. And let's not rule out the chance of Jerry Kill inserting his fastest player into a few offensive packages.
Offense: Cethan Carter, Tight End
Nobody outside of the locker room in Lincoln knows exactly what sort of offense Mike Riley plans on installing and running. Be that as it may, we can assume he'll be some sort of pro-set where the tight end will be utilized much more than during Bo Pelini's tenure. Carter has the physical tools to be a great one — possibly good enough to play on Sundays. If he can reach his full potential, he'll only make what many believe to be the conference's best receiving corps that much more dangerous.
Defense: Michael Rose-Ivey, Linebacker
Rose-Ivey returns after missing all of 2014 with a knee injury. As a freshman in 2013, he quickly shot up the depth charts and finished the season as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. If he can return to anything near his 2013 form, we could be looking at the one of the best versions of the "Blackshirts" since the Tom Osborne era.
Offense: Dan Vitale, Tight End/Fullback
Continuing our trend of anointing tight ends as the "Wild Card," Vitale fits the role as well as anyone. He's an extremely dynamic and athletic player for his size and you should expect Pat Fitzgerald to utilize both of those traits regularly in 2015. Someone is going to need to produce and be enough of a threat to take some of the attention off of running back Justin Jackson. Vitale should be up to the task.
Defense: Godwin Igwebuike, Safety
Igwebuike had a solid freshmen campaign in 2014, including a monster game against Wisconsin where he logged eight tackles and three interceptions. He showed flashes of greatness throughout the season and will be a key piece of one of the more seasoned secondaries in the conference. If he can improve on his 2014 performance, the Wildcat defense is going to be tough to score on.
Offense: Markell Jones, Running Back
Purdue returns all five starting linemen, a starting quarterback and two starting receivers on offense. Enter Markell Jones at running back — Indiana's Mr. Football from 2014. Purdue hasn't has a player on offense the caliber of Jones since Drew Brees. He has a chance to be a Tevin Coleman-type player for the Boilermakers and could very well be the piece of the puzzle Darrell Hazell needs to turn the corner in West Lafayette.
Defense: Leroy Clark, Cornerback
Clark will line up opposite of Anthony Brown at corner and have All-Big Ten second-teamer Frankie Williams behind him at safety. With five of the front seven returning from a season ago, Clark has a chance to be a real difference-maker in an underrated secondary. An interception here or there could be enough to get Purdue bowl eligible if the offense can do its part.
Offense: Michael Deiter, Guard
The running game is going to remain the bread and butter of what Wisconsin does, and that all starts up front. The Badgers only return two of five starters on the offensive line, the youngest being the freshman Deiter. Most people have Corey Clement putting up huge numbers and Wisconsin not missing much with the departure of Melvin Gordon. That won't be the case unless Deiter can step up and dominate the interior like an upperclassman.
Defense: Joe Schobert, Linebacker
Most people don't think of Wisconsin as a defensive powerhouse, but they were one of the stingiest units in the nation in 2014. They'll need to perform at the same level if they want to make a return trip to Indianapolis in 2015. Schobert will be a huge part of that. He showed flashes of greatness at times last season, most notably with his 11-tackle performance in Wisconsin's blowout win over Nebraska. He and Vince Biegel have a chance to be one of the better linebacking duos in the conference. If they are indeed that, the Badgers will likely claim their second consecutive division title.
The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team. And needless to say, it’s difficult to challenge for a conference championship or national title if the quarterback play is an issue all year or if the coaching staff’s status is uncertain after a slow start.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at linebacker, cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2015.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the other positions that must produce in 2015.
10 Big 12 Position Groups Under Pressure in 2015
Baylor Defensive Backs
The Bears return four starters from a secondary ranked 70th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Junior corner Xavien Howard and safety Orion Stewart are the group’s headliners and should perform at an All-Big 12 level in 2015. But coordinator Phil Bennett needs better overall play from this unit, with Howard and Stewart elevating their performance even higher. The Bears allowed 17 passing plays of 40 yards or more last season and 24 scores through the air. Those numbers have to decrease if Baylor is to earn a spot in the four-team playoff.
Related: Big 12 2015 Predictions
Iowa State Defensive Line
The Cyclones have several position groups in need of attention after a 2-10 campaign in 2014. While running back is a position with plenty of inexperience, the defensive line is an even bigger concern for coach Paul Rhoads. Iowa State allowed 246.3 rushing yards per game last year and generated only 15 sacks – the fewest in the Big 12. That’s the bad news. The good news? This group has experienced bodies returning, and two junior college recruits – Demond Tucker and Bobby Leath – should contribute in 2015.
Kansas Wide Receivers
Improving one unit isn’t going to be enough for Kansas to reach a bowl in 2015. There’s just too many holes for coach David Beaty to address in his first year in Lawrence. With the status of quarterback Michael Cummings uncertain after a spring game knee injury, the supporting cast on offense is even more critical to the development of this group. Senior Rodriguez Coleman was dismissed from the team in June, which leaves only two out of last year’s top 10 statistical receivers. Senior Tre’ Parmalee, sophomores Bobby Hartzog and Derrick Neal will be pressed to emerge as targets for Cummings, Montell Cozart or true freshman Carter Stanley or Ryan Willis in 2015.
Kansas State Wide Receivers
Kansas State returns six starters on offense, but this unit lost its top players from last year in quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett. In addition to Lockett, the receiving corps also has to replace Curry Sexton and Zach Trujillo. There’s experience returning in the way of Kody Cook (20 catches last year), Deante Burton and Kyle Klein. But is one of these players capable of replacing the big-play ability that Lockett brought to the offense?
Oklahoma Defensive Backs
A couple of position groups could be listed here for Oklahoma, including the offensive or defensive lines or the receiving corps. But the secondary deserves a mention in this space, as the Sooners fell from 29th nationally in pass efficiency defense (2013) to 55th last year. Oklahoma also allowed 24 passing plays of 30 yards or more (tied for sixth in the conference). Junior Zack Sanchez should be a candidate for All-America honors, but who will step up around him? Sophomores Jordan Thomas (CB) and Steven Parker (S) are two names to watch.
Oklahoma State Offensive Line
Flip a coin between running backs and offensive line here. Considering it’s easier to reload at running back than in the trenches, we’ll go with the five guys up front in this space. Oklahoma State’s offensive line struggled last year, allowing 40 sacks in 13 contests. But there’s hope for quick improvement in 2015. UAB transfer Victor Salako is penciled in at left tackle, and sophomore Zachary Crabtree is a rising star on the right side. This group should be better with a full offseason to mesh, and will have plenty of time during the regular season to grow before three critical games in November.
There are few areas of concern for coach Gary Patterson. The Horned Frogs finished 2014 at 12-1 overall, and Patterson’s team is in good shape to push for a playoff bid once again. Although defense is usually a strength for TCU, this unit does have a few critical areas of concern. The secondary loses three All-Big 12 performers, and the linebacking corps must replace standouts Marcus Mallet and first-team All-Big 12 selection in Pawl Dawson. Proven experience is thin here, and true freshman Mike Freeze and junior Sammy Douglas finished spring as the favorites to start.
Related: Big 12 2015 All-Conference Team
Texas Wide Receivers
It’s no secret quarterback play is still the biggest concern for Texas headed into its second year under Charlie Strong. But quarterbacks also need a good supporting cast to succeed. Running back Johnathan Gray is a good place to start the ground attack, and the offensive line should improve with four starters back and better depth. But the receiving corps is a concern for Strong, as John Harris and Jaxon Shipley both expired their eligibility. Senior Marcus Johnson (27 catches) is the top returning target, and there’s promising youngsters in the mix, including sophomore Lorenzo Joe, junior Jacorey Warrick and true freshman John Burt.
Texas Tech Defensive Line
Fixing the defense was the top priority for coach Kliff Kingsbury this offseason. The first step was hiring David Gibbs to work as the team’s coordinator. Now, Gibbs has to find the right pieces to run his scheme and improve a defense that allowed a whopping 41.3 points per game in 2014. Winning the defensive battle starts up front, and the Red Raiders have a key senior returning in standout Pete Robertson. But outside of Robertson, who will step up? Seniors Rika Levi and Keland McElrath need to plug the interior better, while Branden Jackson should anchor the other end spot. Developing depth and better overall play is a must.
West Virginia Wide Receivers
It’s safe to assume a Dana Holgorsen-coached offense will continue to rank among the Big 12’s best even with a few personnel question marks. But in order for Holgorsen to elevate West Virginia in the conference standings, the play of the receiving corps will be under the spotlight. No. 1 target Kevin White (109 catches) and Mario Alford (65) have expired their eligibility, leaving Jordan Thompson, Daikiel Shorts and Shelton Gibson as the top returning options at wide receiver. Running back Wendell Smallwood may also see time on the outside to help alleviate the losses of Alford and White. Incoming freshmen Gary Jennings and Jovon Durante, along with junior college recruit Ka’Raun White (Kevin’s brother) may also crack the rotation.
"They need a lot of work."
Those are the words of Mike Francesa in regards to Fox's U.S. Open coverage. While on Fox himself, the host went in on the network and sided with the majority of people saying Fox did a horrible job.
The classic line he delivers is, "I could sit here and bury Fox," and then actually proceeds to do it.
Andre Iguodala is having fun after his championship run.
The Finals MVP talked to Jimmy Kimmel about his secret notebook in his head that he uses to guard LeBron James. It must've worked because once he was inserted into the starting lineup, the Warriors started winning and the rest was history.
Iguodala also shared the "turn up ratings" for the Warriors in Las Vegas, in which Draymond Green won. Klay Thompson is a close second and who could blame the young team? They worked hard, and definitely played hard. The fun-filled summer is only beginning.
The NFC South was easily the worst division as a whole last season, producing not only the worst team in the league, but also no team over .500. However, that means the division is really up for grabs, and one team has to make the playoffs.
Take a look at some of the key players for each NFC South team for the upcoming season:
Michael Oher, Left Tackle, Carolina Panthers (1st place, 7-8-1)
The Panthers' offensive line struggled last year, and they tried to make some upgrades during the offseason. However, bringing in Oher seems like a strange move, as he was ranked as one of the worst tackles last season. There’s a reason why the Titans only kept him for one year out of his four-year contract. The Panthers need this improvement along the line, and they need Oher to return to the form that was really only present early in his career. Perhaps it will work, but if he plays like last year, then they’re in trouble.
Another player to watch: running back Jonathan Stewart
Jairus Byrd, Free Safety, New Orleans Saints (2nd place, 7-9)
The Saints' defense was really bad last year, against both the run and pass, but this side of the ball should see improvement with some key signings and returns from injury. Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowler, but was lost to a season-ending injury after the fourth game. New Orleans gave him a huge contract as a free agent last year, and the team is going to expect big returns from it. The Saints have one of the league’s best offensives, but they need a halfway decent defense if they want to win some more games.
Another player to watch: defensive end Akiem Hicks
Robert Alford, Cornerback, Atlanta Falcons (3rd place, 6-10)
The Falcons, like the Saints, struggled mightily on defense, ranking last against the pass. They already have one elite, lockdown cornerback in Desmond Trufant, but the other side is where needs help. Alford will start there for the second straight year, but his season was cut short last year by an injury. Atlanta needs him to really pan out and avoid penalties, as this defense has questions at safety. The Falcons need to show improvement on pass defense, but then again there's only way to go after finishing dead last in 2014.
Other players to watch: free safeties Charles Godfrey/Kemal Ishmael/Ricardo Allen
Jameis Winston, Quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4th place, 2-14)
As the worst team in the league last year, the Bucs need a lot of improvement almost everywhere. However, they are all in on Winston as being the future of this team, after taking the controversial signal-caller with the first pick in the draft. He’ll be starting from day one, and this team badly needs him to succeed right away. He has a bit more urgency than does Marcus Mariota with the Titans, especially with Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans as his receivers. He’ll still need his offensive line and running game to step up, but the weapons are there for him.
Another player to watch: running back Doug Martin