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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Maybe the best situation for Lane Kiffin is for his players to talk for him.
First off, Alabama’s players are saying nice things about the new Crimson Tide offensive coordinator. That’s a good place to start. Center Ryan Kelly said the reputation that preceded the former USC and Tennessee head coach to Tuscaloosa was one of an “offensive mastermind.”
Secondly, Kiffin didn't have anything to say during the spring, which isn't bad for a man with his track record. Kiffin was quiet by rule by Nick Saban’s longstanding edict that his assistants will not meet with the media. In theory, the off-field foibles that clouded Kiffin’s time as a head coach will be kept to a minimum in the controlled atmosphere of Saban’s program.
Granted, Kelly, a junior and a returning starter, probably knows better than to admit that he knows anything else of Kiffin’s background — that Kiffin needled Urban Meyer while the coach at Tennessee or a stepped into a series of mini-controversies at USC.
"It’s going to be different. ... It’s going to be a lot more flexible with the passing game and getting the running backs involved."
-Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones
Nope, Kelly only speaks to optimism for what Kiffin can do on the field.
“Now that he’s been here for one spring, I’m looking forward to the fall with him,” Kelly said.
So there’s excitement at Alabama for Kiffin, who was one of the more compelling hires of the offseason. The move pairs Saban, who has a firm grip over the program, with an offensive coordinator with a rebellious streak that couldn't be fully contained by the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee or USC.
Those traits were enough to raise the eyebrows of Alabama athletic director Bill Battle, who told the Anniston (Ala.) Star his initial reaction to Saban seeking out Kiffin “wasn’t very positive.” Battle eventually warmed to the idea after speaking to USC athletic director Pat Haden and former Tennessee senior associate AD David Blackburn, who is now the AD at UT Chattanooga.
Besides, Saban needed an offensive coordinator with experience calling plays in a pro-style offense. Those coaches at the college level aren’t as plentiful as they once were.
“We tried to keep some of the things we’re doing and allow Lane to do the things he wants to do,” Saban said. “We’ve bought into that and he’s doing really, really well. I think he’s a great asset to our staff in terms of knowledge and experience.”
Saban and players said some of the changes have been subtle, but the receivers, at least, seemed to embrace the new approach as much as anyone.
That's with good reason.
Under Kiffin in 2011, USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee both had 1,000 yards and at least 10 touchdowns. In 2012, Lee caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to the Biletnikoff.
Even though, Alabama’s projected starting quarterback, Jacob Coker, isn’t yet on campus, receivers are expecting a more dynamic passing game under Kiffin.
“It’s going to be different,” wide receiver Christion Jones said. “It’s usually Alabama, run game, run game, run game, pass here or there. It’s going to be a lot more flexible with the passing game and getting the running backs involved. It’s flexible enough where everyone can get a touch.”
That won’t be all that’s tweaked. Even though Kiffin brings the pro-style background Saban likes, he also brings hurry-up elements to the table.
“Coach Kiffin likes a lot motion and wants us to get up to the ball, not an Oregon-type offense,” Kelly said. “Late last year we were snapping the ball with six, five, four seconds left on the play clock. (Now it’s) Not so much of the no-huddle, but something to get our procedures up running ... to make the offense more effective.”
More than that, Saban said Kiffin can be a sounding board.
The Alabama coach has never been wary of hiring former head coaches to his staff. Bobby Williams (Michigan State), Kevin Steele (Baylor) and Mario Cristobal (FIU) all ran their own programs before arriving at Alabama.
None, though, was at a powerhouse program like Alabama. Between his time as an assistant and head coach Kiffin spent 10 seasons at USC, six years of which when the Trojans were the dominant program of the early part of the decade.
“It’s been great for me too to have a guy who’s had some of the issues and problems we have,” Saban said. “I really feel good about his addition to our staff.”
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David discusses the rookies in the news as they enter their first All-Star Race weekend.
Both the haves and the have-nots of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie class are approaching this weekend’s All-Star festivities at Charlotte Motor Speedway looking to make history — two rookies, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman, have won the All-Star Race — but it is a “will-not” and his team that made headlines early this week.
Justin Allgaier’s HScott Motorsports team won’t be participating in Friday night’s Sprint Showdown, a companion event to the All-Star Race for non-winners that transfers the top two finishers to Saturday’s show. Instead, they’ll be taking a breather and focusing on the points-paying Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in two weeks and other upcoming events.
A Cup Series regular skipping any race nowadays is heresy to some, but the decision to sit on the sidelines amounts to a savvy one, at least financially.
Any weekend a Cup car is placed in the hauler and headed to the racetrack — and actually planning to compete, not start and park — a team is expected to burn anywhere from $200,000 to $225,000 in a three-day span. If that price range stands true for Friday’s Sprint Showdown and Allgaier was to win the race, which offers a winner’s purse of $42,155 (per the NASCAR entry blank), the team would still be in the hole by over $150,000 … and have to exert more wear, tear and currency the following night in the All-Star Race. Sometimes the dollars and cents in this sport lack sense, and in this instance logic suggests that sitting out isn’t a bad thing. That $150,000 saved could be better allocated for a small team located outside the Charlotte race hub (in Spartanburg, S.C.) that doesn’t have a full season’s worth of sponsorship.
At some point this weekend, FOX’s Larry McReynolds will explain to you that some race teams are merely using the All-Star Race weekend as a test session for the next week’s 600-mile marathon. While that could technically be true, be aware of the exorbitant cost for which this “test session” calls.
If, hypothetically, a team rented out Charlotte Motor Speedway (not allowed per NASCAR rules, but track specs could be mimicked elsewhere) for a day and logged laps to accumulate data via telemetry (something teams aren’t allowed to do during a race), it would round out to about a $35 to $40 thousand cost. Tires for this weekend’s practice sessions and races alone will cost teams somewhere around $25,000 (teams can use tires already in their inventory for a test session). So if a team is, in fact, utilizing the All-Star Race weekend as a glorified test session, then it’s the Rolex of test sessions and certainly not a cost-effective way of obtaining information.
Owner Harry Scott and his team’s analysis of the cost benefit surrounding All-Star Race weekend participation showed that they’d be better suited to spend that money on more prudent events. It's a sign of financial intelligence, not competitive weakness, that they’re electing to channel their focus elsewhere.
Couch Potato Tuesday: FOX Kansas concerns while Cheever confounds
Friday night fighters
The Sprint Showdown pits the entire rookie crop, sans Allgaier, against drivers that failed to win a race in either 2013 or 2014. Clint Bowyer, a Chase participant each of the last two years whose most recent win came at Charlotte in the 2012 fall race, is the coyote roaming a house of hens. Two rookies — Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon — could potentially play the role of his spoiler.
Chip Ganassi Racing, which fields Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet SS, is a veteran of the Showdown — though, that’s probably not a designation they’re thrilled to have — having captured two victories in races dating back to 2004, including the 2013 race with Jamie McMurray. McMurray also finished third in the event in 2012, while Larson’s predecessor, Juan Pablo Montoya, finished fifth.
When Larson and team took part in the December rules package test at Charlotte, he was a frequent leader in winner in the simulated races. Though practice performance doesn’t necessarily translate to game success, his two top-5 finishes this season came on big tracks (Fontana, Texas) that offered a high groove for the rim-riding aficionado.
Dillon, whose No. 3 makes its first All-Star Race weekend appearance since Dale Earnhardt sported a pink and yellow Peter Max-designed paint scheme in 2000, has seen a mixed fare of results at intermediate tracks this season. However, it stood out at 1.5-mile tracks in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (winning twice at Kentucky) and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (wins at Las Vegas and Chicagoland).
Since 2008, two rookies have transferred from the Showdown to the All-Star Race. Sam Hornish drove a Team Penske car to a second-place finish in the ’08 event. Ricky Stenhouse, who will again be competing in the Showdown on Friday, finished second in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Six rookies, including the aforementioned sleepers, will look to emulate the feats of Hornish and Stenhouse this weekend.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 13.
• Days after Tommy Lasorda wished V. Stiviano would crash her car, she did. Yikes. What sort of voodoo is the old man practicing? Of course, I think the real culprit is that stupid visor the lady insists on wearing.
• Oklahoma's compliance office made a former player's girlfriend sign an affadavit that she was a girlfriend and not a benefit. Is this what we've come to?
• Tis the season for celebrity commencement speakers. In this video, Jay Bilas. In another, James Franklin, who advised students to stay broke as long as possible. No problem there.
• Today's public service: 30 commonly confused and misused words. You can infer from this link that I'm implying that many people are idiots.
• Rutgers dismissed transfer QB Philip Nelson after he put another guy in a coma. The dumpster fire that is Scarlet Knight athletics rages on.
• The life of LeBron: chat with Jay Z and Beyonce, then steal and slam.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The SEC West is the toughest division in college football. The tiers in the West seem to be clear, as Alabama and Auburn are the top-two teams, with LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Mississippi State battling for the No. 3 spot. Arkansas is expected to be picked at the bottom by most in 2014. Of course, LSU has been the most reliable team out of that mix in recent years, and Les Miles has another elite recruiting haul on the way for 2014.
Even though the tiers seem to be clear, Alabama, Auburn and LSU each have some personnel losses to overcome in 2014. The Tigers are replacing a handful of players on both sides of the ball and finished spring with uncertainty at quarterback.
Considering the losses at the top of the division, the door is open for Ole Miss to challenge in the West. The Rebels return 13 starters in 2014, including standout sophomores in receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner.
Injuries played a key role in the Rebels’ 8-5 record last season, as quarterback Bo Wallace was never 100 percent after offseason shoulder surgery. Additionally, defensive end C.J. Johnson missed nearly all of last year, and receiver Vince Sanders struggled to get on track after a collarbone injury in the preseason.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Athlon Sports' Top 25 countdown for 2014 is underway. LSU ranks as the No. 19 team, while Ole Miss checks in at No. 18.
Ole Miss or LSU: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC West in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s easy to pencil LSU among the top three in the West Division each preseason, but 2014 could be a different story. Yes, the Tigers have talent and are consistently in the mix for 10 wins. However, this LSU team seems to have more question marks than any in recent memory. The Tigers have uncertainty and inexperience at quarterback and receiver, while the defensive line and linebacking corps needs work. The Rebels aren’t without their own flaws, as Hugh Freeze’s team is thin on the offensive line, while quarterback Bo Wallace needs to take the next step. Despite Ole Miss’ question marks, I like the Rebels to finish ahead of LSU in the SEC West standings. In last year’s final tally, the Tigers were two games better in the division. Making predictions from year-to-year isn’t as simple as personnel losses, but LSU has to replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger, two 1,000-yard receivers, both starting defensive tackles and standout linebacker Lamin Barrow. The Tigers didn’t have a vintage defense last year, as they allowed 5.7 yards per play in SEC games, just a shade better than the Rebels (5.8). Ole Miss returns 13 starters, and the depth in this program has improved significantly over the last two years. Assuming quarterback Bo Wallace has recovered from his shoulder injury and can stay healthy, the Rebels should make the jump from 3-5 in conference play to 5-3, which will be enough to inch ahead of LSU in the West.
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
This is the season Ole Miss hopes to take a big step in the SEC West. Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M all have to replace their star quarterbacks from a year ago while Ole Miss returns third-year starter Bo Wallace. The Rebels also have a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball and a good amount of experience returning on defense.
LSU has to replace several key offensive players, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Then there’s the defensive tackle duo of Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, both of whom left early for the NFL.
All of this points to Ole Miss finishing ahead of LSU in the SEC West for the first time since 2008. But I don’t think it will be that easy. Ole Miss will have to play at LSU on Oct. 25 along with road trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M. Those won’t be easy. Nor will home games against Alabama and Auburn. In the end, I think both LSU and Ole Miss will finish with a 5-3 record in the SEC with LSU beating Ole Miss. Tiebreaker goes to LSU.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Neither of these two teams would be my pick to win the SEC West, but the race between the Rebels and Tigers might be the most interesting battle to watch in the division this fall. One program is surging with energy and excitement with a returning senior quarterback and loads of future NFL stars in key positions. And the other is LSU - a team with quarterback questions and holes to plug up the heart of the defense. That said, Les Miles and his Bayou Bengals are the established program with four straight seasons of at least 10 wins, two high-level coordinators and a decade of championship competition. That level of operation counts for something when the fourth quarter rolls around against top-flight competition. Hugh Freeze is the hotter name running a hungrier program, but Ole Miss will have to win in Baton Rouge to leap LSU in the standings and I don't see that happening... Yet.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Recent history says it’s not wise to bet against LSU, especially in favor of Ole Miss. Still, the two programs are at a crossroads of sorts. Ole Miss is on the way up while LSU looks like it might take rare off year, as in a year when it wins eight or nine games instead of 10. Ole Miss has the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, even if that quarterback, Bo Wallace, can be a little wild. The Rebels proved that their top-10 signing class in 2013 was more than just an “on paper” victory; The class is going to play a major role in turning Ole Miss. LSU, though, has too many questions, both at quarterback and in the middle of the defense (tackle, linebacker and safety). Ole Miss is knocking on the door of relevance in the West, signaled in part by a 27-24 win over LSU in Oxford. With frontline talent like Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell, the Rebels are ready to leapfrog LSU at least for this year.
Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
I'm a big believer in "past performance predicts future performance", especially when things remain constant. The constant for LSU has been Les Miles and over his nine years at LSU he has had seven double-digit win seasons, one nine win season and one eight win season. In other words, you can bank on LSU winning 10 games year in and year out and they have a basement of five conference wins.
Hugh Freeze and his Ole Miss Rebels are on the rise but in his first two seasons, the Rebels have been unable to rise above three conference wins.
It's certainly possible that LSU has a down year this year with all of it's changeover and Ole Miss breaks through but until that happens I'm putting my money on Les and LSU to finish higher in the SEC West than Ole Miss and Mr Freeze.
Since the turn of the millennium, Ole Miss has finished ahead of LSU in the SEC West standings just once (2008). The two teams tied at 7-1 in 2003, but the TIgers beat the Rebels to earn the right to play in the SEC Championship Game that year. So it's not an understatement to say LSU has had Ole Miss' number these past 14 seasons, including a 10-4 mark head-to-head, but I am predicting this to change this fall. Perhaps I am putting too much stock into the buzz that's coming from Oxford, but it's clear that Hugh Freeze has the Rebels headed in the right direction, especially when it comes to recruiting. I believe this will be the first season when the fruits of the coaching staff's labor on the trail starts to pay off, especially since LSU looks ripe for the picking. Les Miles has seen 17 players leave early for the NFL over the past two seasons, and even though he continues to churn out top-10 recruiting classes, at some point this will catch up to his roster, especially in the SEC. The Tigers will be introducing five new starters on each side of the ball, none bigger than whomever ends up taking over for quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Meanwhile, the Rebels welcome back all-conference candidate Bo Wallace under center along with several explosive playmakers and a defense that returns nine starters. Ole Miss does have a tough schedule to navigate, including a trip to Baton Rouge and a home date with Auburn back-to-back, but LSU has to go to Gainesville to face a Florida team that can't wait for a chance to redeem itself following last season's disastrous showing. Both host Alabama and open the season with tough non-conference matchups (LSU vs. Wisconsin at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas; Ole Miss vs. Boise State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta), but what truly matters is what happens once October and November roll around. Even though LSU will have home-field advantage on Oct. 25, I like Wallace to lead a Rebel uprising over the Tigers in the SEC West this season.
A total of 256 players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL Draft, but that doesn’t mean they will be the only ones joining the professional ranks. Every team signs a number of undrafted free agents after Mr. Irrelevant is announced at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
For example, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks had 21 players on their 53-man roster last season who started their NFL careers as undrafted free agents. There also are several members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who went undrafted, a number that’s sure to grow in the years to come.
So before you discount the chances of an undrafted free agent (UDFA) from not only making your favorite team’s roster, but having an impact this season, remember that Hall of Famers like Dick “Night Train” Lane and Warren Moon didn’t hear their named called on draft day either. Here is our list of the 25 top UDFAs over the last 25 years (since the 1989 NFL Draft):
1. Kurt Warner, QB, Northern Iowa
He played in three Super Bowls with the Rams and Cardinals and won the league’s MVP twice. He also was MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV when St. Louis defeated the Titans 23-16. Warner holds many postseason records and should make the Hall of Fame.
2. John Randle, DT, Texas A&I
The ferocious Vikings pass-rusher was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010. Randle totaled 137.5 sacks in his 14 seasons with the Vikings and Seahawks. He made seven Pro Bowls and was elected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
3. Antonio Gates, TE, Kent State
The Chargers turned to the basketball court to find Gates, who did not play college football. He’s made eight Pro Bowls in 11 seasons in San Diego, and currently sits 50th all-time in receiving yards (9,193) and is tied for 12th with 87 career touchdown catches. The only tight end with more TD grabs is the recently retired Tony Gonzalez.
4. Wes Welker, WR, Texas Tech
The ultra-quick Welker was initially signed by San Diego following the 2004 draft, but then was cut and landed in Miami. He joined New England in 2007 and proceeded to put up an NFL-leading 672 receptions, along with 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns, in his six seasons with the Patriots. Welker signed with Denver before last season and proceeded to post a career-high 10 touchdown receptions. Welker is already among the top 25 players all-time in receptions (841, 24th) and top 50 in receiving yards (9,358, 47th).
5. Adam Vinatieri, K, South Dakota State
Some may disagree with having a kicker this high, but Vinatieri’s contributions to elite teams should not be undervalued. He has been a part of four championships with the Patriots and Colts and made a last-second, game-winner in two of those Super Bowls. He’s one of just seven players in NFL history with 2,000 points in their career and currently sits in fifth place with 2,006.
6. Tony Romo, QB, Eastern Illinois
The popular, yet polarizing, Cowboys signal-caller is still building his legacy, but he has already made three Pro Bowls and has 208 touchdown passes in 108 career starts. He has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes and his career passer rating is 95.8, which ranks him fifth all-time.
7. London Fletcher, LB, John Carroll
After 16 highly productive NFL seasons, Fletcher the undersized tackling machine who consistently made plays retired after the 2013 campaign. Whether it was playing for the Rams, Bills or the Redskins, Fletcher exhibited a nose for the football (2,046 career tackles, 23 INTs, 23 forced fumbles) and was a constant in the lineup. He never missed a game in 16 NFL seasons and started every game from the beginning of the 2001 season until his final game this past December.
8. Jeff Saturday, C, North Carolina
The six-time Pro Bowler anchored the Colts' offensive line from 2000-11. During his time snapping to Peyton Manning, Indy won double-digit games nine times and won Super Bowl XLI. After one season in Green Bay, Saturday re-signed with Indianapolis last March so he could officially retire as a member of the team that brought him into the league.
9. Brian Waters, G, North Texas
Waters failed to latch on with the Cowboys during his first year out of college in 1999, but he found a home in Kansas City the next season. The elite blocker made five Pro Bowls with the Chiefs and then a sixth with the Patriots in 2011. After sitting out a season, Waters returned to the field in 2013, playing five games for Dallas, seemingly bringing his career full circle.
10. Rod Smith, WR, Missouri Southern
He played his entire 12-year career in Denver, and Smith’s 849 receptions put him in the top 20 in NFL history. He was a part of two Super Bowl winners with the Broncos and went over 1,000 yards receiving eight times.
11. James Harrison, LB, Kent State
Harrison played 10 seasons (2002, '04-10) in Pittsburgh before switching to AFC North rival Cincinnati last season. The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison went from undrafted rookie to a playmaking force for the Steelers and helped the franchise win two more Super Bowl titles.
12. Priest Holmes, RB, Texas
The former Ravens and Chiefs runner had a solid career with over 8,000 rushing yards and 94 total touchdowns. Holmes had an amazing three-year run in Kansas City from 2001-03, amassing 4,590 rush yards and 56 TDs on the ground.
13. Arian Foster, RB, Tennessee
Injuries limited the Texans’ star to just eight games last season, but prior to that Foster averaged 1,421 yards rushing from 2010-12. He led the NFL with 1,616 yards in 2010 and also has exhibited a nose for the end zone with 52 total touchdowns in 59 career games.
14. Pat Williams, DT, Texas A&M
The massive run-stuffer took a while to make a mark in the NFL, but he developed into a defensive stalwart for Minnesota. Williams made three straight Pro Bowls from 2006-08 while playing for the Vikings.
15. Jeff Garcia, QB, San Jose State
The four-time Pro Bowler starred in Canada to begin his professional career, and did not play in the NFL until age 29. However, Garcia made his mark by throwing for over 25,000 yards with the 49ers, Browns, Lions, Eagles and Buccaneers.
16. Jake Delhomme, QB, Louisiana-Lafayette
The Bayou native started slow with the Saints, but he found a nice niche with the Panthers from 2003-09. Delhomme passed for over 19,000 yards and 120 TDs during those seven seasons and led Carolina to a Super Bowl appearance in 2003.
17. Jason Peters, T, Arkansas
Initially a tight end in college, Peters went from undrafted rookie to special teams contributor to All-Pro offensive tackle in a relatively short period of time. After signing with Buffalo following the 2004 draft, Peters claimed the starting right tackle job in ’06 and proceeded to reel off five straight Pro Bowl invites (2007-11). Traded to Philadelphia in 2009, Peters has established himself as one of the NFL’s top tackles, as evidenced by his two All-Pro seasons (2011, ’13) and the five-year, $51.3 million extension he signed with the Eagles in February.
18. Bart Scott, LB, Southern Illinois
The entertaining linebacker played on some quality defenses with both the Ravens and Jets, and he made the Pro Bowl in 2006. From 2006-12 with the Ravens, Scott missed just one game and made 108 starts.
19. David Akers, K, Louisville
The reliable kicker led the NFL in scoring in both 2010 and '11. Akers has made 386 career field goals, good for ninth all-time, while connecting on 81 percent of his attempts. He has earned six Pro Bowl invites in his career kicking for the Eagles, 49ers and Lions.
20. Shaun O'Hara, C, Rutgers
The tough interior blocker started his career playing guard for the Browns, but he flourished with the Giants from 2004-10. During that span, O’Hara made three Pro Bowls and was a leader on the Giants' Super Bowl winner in 2008.
21. Wayne Chrebet, WR, Hofstra
The New York fan favorite was a classic underdog story, and he played his entire career with the Jets. Chrebet was especially effective from 1995-2002, when he caught 507 passes and 39 TDs during that eight-year span.
22. Barry Sims, T, Utah
The starting left tackle for two conference championship games and a Super Bowl in 2002, Sims played 12 NFL seasons in the Bay Area. He was a solid blocker in Oakland for nine years before finishing his career in San Francisco.
23. Antonio Pierce, LB, Arizona
He had a fairly short NFL career but was a tackling machine from 2004-08 with the Redskins and Giants. Much like O’Hara, Pierce was an underrated leader for the Super Bowl XLII champions.
24. Cullen Jenkins, DL, Central Michigan
The younger brother of Kris Jenkins started his professional career in NFL Europe before joining the league in 2004. A solid interior defender with the Packers, Eagles and Giants, Cullen has 43.5 career sacks in 141 games (113 starts).
25. Cameron Wake, LB/DE, Penn State
After going undrafted in 2005, Wake turned to the CFL to continue his playing career. Little did he know the league up north would do much more than that. The CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie of the Year in 2008 and a two-time (2008, ’09) Most Outstanding Defensive Player honoree; Wake parlayed his strong play in Canada into a four-year contract with Miami. After collecting 5.5 sacks in 2009, Wake broke out the following year with 14 sacks. A three-time Pro Bowler (2010, ’12-13), Wake also earned All-Pro honors following his 15-sack 2012 campaign. In 77 career games (62 starts), Wake has recorded 51.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles.
After finishing 2013 with wins in six out of its last seven games, Kansas State is expected to be a top-25 program in 2014. However, the Wildcats suffered a setback on offense this week, as GoPowercat.com has reported receiver Daniel Sams has decided to transfer.
Sams competed with Jake Waters for the starting quarterback spot last season and finished 2013 with 452 passing yards and four touchdowns last season, while rushing for 807 yards and 11 scores.
With Jake Waters entrenched as the starting quarterback, Sams was expected to move to receiver in 2014.
It’s uncertain if Sams will transfer to a FCS school and play immediately or sit out 2014 and return at a BCS program in 2015.
Losing Sams is a setback for the Wildcats, but the receiving corps still has options. Receiver Tyler Lockett is one of the best in the nation, and junior college recruit Andre Davis is expected to contribute immediately.
Sams’ departure could play a bigger role on Kansas State’s 2015 quarterback plans, as Waters is in the final year of his eligibility, and the backup situation heading into 2014 is uncertain.
Conference scheduling is a hot topic in college football, and the ACC is the latest league to settle on a future format.
After the first day of its league meetings, the ACC announced it would stick with an eight-game conference format in the future. The league was considering shifting to a nine-game slate, which would have allowed the teams in the league to have another crossover game each season.
However, the ACC decided to stick with eight games, but there is a caveat to the future schedules. All 14 ACC teams must play an opponent from one of the other four power conferences or Notre Dame each season.
The scheduling announcement is similar to the SEC, which announced an eight-game format with one non-conference game against a Power 5 opponent.
ACC votes to remain at 8-game conference schedule— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) May 12, 2014
ACC will require each school to play at least 1 Power 5 non-conference team starting in 2017— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) May 12, 2014
Years removed from a major championship win and a brief stint at No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking, Martin Kaymer has returned to the top of the PGA Tour heap with a win in the Tour's flagship event, the Players Championship at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
It wasn't easy. Swing changes and poor play saw Kaymer plummet in the rankings; he entered this week at No. 61 and in the midst of a worldwide winless drought that dated to late 2012.
But blister-inducing work on the range and some valuable one-on-one time with countryman Bernhard Langer have brought him full circle, culminating with a win on Mother's Day that was made even more meaningful by memories of his mother, whom he lost to cancer six years ago. "To win on Mother's Day ... we show our parents way too little,” Kaymer said. “We always need some occasions to show them, which is what you realize when they're not there anymore. So to win on those days, it adds a little bit of a nice thing to the whole week. I think about her every day. I don't need a Mother's Day.”
There were tense moments down the stretch. A three-shot lead heading into a weather delay was trimmed to one after a double-bogey on 15, and Kaymer needed a semi-miraculous par save on the notorious par-3 17th to fend off Jim Furyk, who closed with a 66.
Don't expect Kaymer to rest on his hard-earned return to prominence.
“You don’t get to No. 1 in the world for no reason, and I think he appreciates the good things a little more now," said Kaymer's caddie Craig Connelly. "He’s a brand new Martin. He’s obviously a much-improved golfer, but the mindset is the old Martin.”
Here are the key numbers from the weekend at TPC Sawgrass.
28'6" Martin Kaymer's par-saving putt at the par-3 17 covered a circuitous 28 feet, six inches and featured about six feet of break. In other words, an answered prayer. Kaymer is the first player in the SHOTLink era of tracking measurements to make a putt from 28 feet or greater on his 71st hole of play and win the event by a stroke.
-17 Rory McIlroy played the back nine in a record 17-under this week on his way to a T6 finish. McIlroy birdied No. 18 all four days and in each of the final two rounds he birdied all three holes of The Gauntlet (Nos. 16-18).
5'11" Kaymer's underrated scrambling was a key part of his victory. In 10 trips to greenside bunkers over the four days, Kaymer averaged a proximity to the hole of five feet, 11 inches on his recovery shots, allowing him to convert seven of them successfully.
75 Kaymer found the green in regulation 75 percent of the time — 54 of 72 — to rank third in the field.
$54K With his third-place finish, Sergio Garcia moved within $54,000 of Tiger Woods on the all-time Players Championship money list. Garcia has made 11 consecutive cuts at the Players and won the event in 2008.
Here's Kaymer's tournament-clinching par save at 17.
Twenty years. That’s how long it’s been, on May 29, since Jeff Gordon won his first NASCAR Cup Series race at the ripe old age of 22. One of the first to do so well, so young, Gordon encapsulated the perfect mix of talent, speed, sponsorship and confidence cloaked in invincibility. Four titles in a seven-year span had many pegging him as the man to knock off Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt atop the Cup championship ladder.
My, how quickly time flies — and people forget. Gordon, now at the veteran age 42, was arguably listed fourth best within his own organization, Hendrick Motorsports, at the start of the season. It’s a freight train of multi-million dollar success, one he helped build only to cede victories and championships to hand-picked teammate Jimmie Johnson. In the place of records, of which Gordon has many, is a broken record of retirement talk which was heightened this offseason when young Chase Elliott was bumped to the Nationwide Series full-time under a Hendrick partnership. Long-term contracts for teammates Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne made Elliott’s long-term road fairly clear. Gordon, for his part, didn’t help matters by claiming one more miracle championship would have him seriously consider hanging it up. The No. 24 team, after needing a special Brian France intervention to make the Chase last fall, seemed a group in transition rather then one ready to trounce the field.
But living legends — armed with an energy reserve one can never estimate — who’ve risen to the top in awe-inspiring fashion can never be truly doubted. Eleven races into 2014, and after Sunday’s win at Kansas, Gordon not only enjoys a 15-point lead atop the Cup standings but an all-important early victory that virtually locks him in the Chase. The No. 24 team is tied for the series lead in top-10 finishes (8) and lead-lap results (10 of 11). But perhaps the most important number is an average result of 4.0 on 1.5-mile ovals — tracks which comprise half of the 10-race postseason and where raw green-flag speed, not late-race restarts (long Gordon’s Achilles’ heel) often rule the day.
With Johnson still seeking an early playoff bid of his own, it’s Gordon’s chance to rekindle lost magic at Hendrick. There’s now a new generation of NASCAR fans, a younger crowd that doesn’t even remember how dominant Gordon once was; that last title (2001) is over a dozen years in the rearview mirror, after all. Eighty-nine career wins may be nice on the stat sheet — including a modern-era record 13 in 1998 — but in a way, Gordon’s renaissance now is making him prove that track record all over again.
That’s how it goes in sports, where age creeps in and makes all superstars human. A man who once defined the pinnacle and who claims he’d like to retire there now has to spend the rest of the season bending over backwards to convince us it’s still possible. Reaching Victory Lane wasn’t a be-all, end-all for that … but it’s a start. And most importantly, for a man who was pained by a mulligan to make the Chase, the father of two has dropped that frustration for a far more enticing word:
“Through the Gears” post-Kansas we go …
FIRST GEAR: Harvick’s loss is Gordon’s gain.
Gordon, after knocking on the door all year, earned the Kansas victory through a stroke of racing luck. During the last set of green-flag stops, Kevin Harvick ran out of gas heading to pit road and stared at his fuel gauge instead of the tachometer. Slowly creeping to his stall, the lost time was just enough to throw the No. 24 out in front and give Gordon the clean air needed to hold off all challengers.
“It came down to track position,” said Harvick, who led a race-high 119 of 267 laps. “Those guys executed a little bit better than I did.”
No one will accuse the No. 4 team of hanging back, even though Gordon’s team has a strong technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick pulled some banzai moves late to run down the No. 24, creeping within a few car lengths, but ultimately came up short on a third victory in 2014. Still, the speed shown by this team on 1.5-mile ovals has to be confidence-building going forward. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers seem to have the most pure speed of anyone in the garage right now.
And as for Gordon? He’ll take that “gift” after coming so close so many times during the first 10 races this season leading up to Sunday.
“That first win is so crucial,” Gordon said. “Once you get that, just being able to roll the dice and be more aggressive … it only leads you to the ability to take risks to get the next win.”
Gordon, after so many years of close Chase shaves, can exhale. And with the track record he has don’t be surprised if the No. 24 team suddenly snags two, three, maybe even four more trophies before September.
SECOND GEAR: Kansas? More like “Krashfest.”
The Gordon-Harvick battle, while entertaining, was one of the few highlights in a race that was one of the worst NASCAR’s put forth this season. A repaved Kansas track, despite a new single-zone tire compound, still didn’t mesh well with the aerodynamics of the sport’s reconfigured Cup cars. Speeds of over 205 miles an hour entering the corner led to drivers living on the edge in a race where passing was difficult, if not impossible, and cars seemed stuck in place after green-flag restarts.
Take Harvick, by far the dominant car through the early portion of the event, as an example: 20 laps in and he was 10 seconds ahead of fifth place and nearly lapped half the field before the first caution. But after getting caught on pit road when the caution waved during a set of green-flag stops, the No. 4 car was kicked back in the pack. Dirty air and rough traffic doomed Harvick from that point on; it took him nearly 150 laps to make it back towards the front.
“I think after the last race we saw here,” said Harvick, referring to a record-setting 15 cautions in the fall, “Everybody kind of knew it was going to be hard to pass.”
Rough conditions led to rougher racing, a lot of running in place interspersed with drivers simply losing control of their cars. Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer were among veterans spinning out on their own, while a vicious multi-car accident tore Justin Allgaier’s and David Gilliland’s cars to shreds. Yet another ugly wreck saw Jamie McMurray flatten his McDonald’s car after seemingly cutting down a tire.
The crashes kept the racing bunched up closer than it could have been; otherwise, under the right circumstances, Harvick would not only have won but potentially lapped all but the top-5 cars in the field. It was a return to “old school” NASCAR, one that brought about the ride height rule changes in the first place and raised questions as to why tracks ever choose to repave these days.
How bad did it get at Kansas? The backstretch lights went out, darkening the TV shots for viewers and the cherry on top of a racetrack that simply still has a looooong way to go.
THIRD GEAR: Danica’s career night.
The big story transcending NASCAR from this race (albeit just a little) is Patrick’s best career finish, a seventh-place run. At one point, she ran inside the top 5 while mixing it up with drivers that usually fight to lap her.
“Honestly, the most rewarding part of my night was when I drove around the outside of the No. 48 on a restart,” she said. “It’s a big deal because he is Jimmie Johnson.”
Perhaps the best part of Patrick’s weekend was the overall consistency. So often in her two years running Sprint Cup the No. 10 car will qualify well, maybe show potential in one practice or a short green-flag stint in the race. But keeping it up over three days and 400 miles? Virtually unheard of until Saturday night.
“It was really good on restarts, when it wasn’t quite right, and long runs,” Patrick said. “Hard work pays off … I think that just goes to shoe they built a great (new car). We’ve got more of these coming.”
Can she capitalize on much-needed momentum? Hard to tell. Charlotte, another 1.5-mile track, is up next which bodes well for a driver that handled Kansas. But Patrick has been a rollercoaster since Day One of jumping inside a stock car; it’s hard to anoint continued success with a track record that has just two top-10 results.
FOURTH GEAR: Missed opportunities.
Kansas, especially as a track position race, offered some “mid-level” drivers a chance to cash in based on past experiences. But all of the longshot picks, each of whom came in with some degree of momentum, never really played a factor. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who led much of this race last April, saw girlfriend Danica duel up front while his No. 17 car stumbled to 22nd. Martin Truex Jr. was one spot ahead, continuing a dismal start for the Furniture Row Racing team after running in the top 5 here last year.
Even Aric Almirola, who nearly won Kansas a year and a half ago, had to be somewhat upset after running eighth. For the Richard Petty Motorsports team, like those other two drivers, potential Chase bids come few and far between. The way the race worked out, with track position and so many cautions, the gambles could have been there for those who played their cards right. However, none of these three seemed to have the speed to get in the game.
NASCAR has to be concerned about so many cars catching fire after wrecking. Jamie McMurray’s incident was so serious Saturday night the crew on pit road had to rush to the No. 1 car and help him out. That’s two weeks after the Richmond tire fires, one of which put Reed Sorenson in danger. I thought with a more fire-friendly fuel cell, plus a water system inside triggered by temperature these new cars would be less dangerous. … Since winning Martinsville, Kurt Busch has suffered through runs of 39th, 31st, 23rd, 33rd and 29th. Three of those have been crash DNFs and the fourth involved an in-race tire problem. The fifth? Another spinout, this time at Kansas where Busch was at least able to get it together and finish. Chase bid or not, that’s the kind of frustration which leads to a legendary explosion in the near future. … Hendrick Motorsports put four cars inside the top 9, including Kansas winner Gordon. That’s the second time it’s happened this year, joining Las Vegas in March. The common theme? They’re both 1.5-mile ovals, the “it” track in the Chase this fall. Competitors, watch out.
Penn State is one of the Big Ten’s most intriguing teams to watch in 2014. The Nittany Lions are under the direction of new coach James Franklin, who comes to Happy Valley after three seasons at Vanderbilt.
Franklin guided the Commodores to three consecutive bowl games and won nine contests in back-to-back seasons. Vanderbilt is the toughest job in the SEC, but Franklin elevated the program and should be a great fit at Penn State.
Franklin and his staff inherit plenty of All-Big Ten talent, but there are question marks about this team’s depth and offensive line.
Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is one of the best signal-callers in the Big Ten, and he will have plenty of support from a solid stable of running backs and a deep group of tight ends. Only one starter is back on the offensive line, and depth is a huge concern with freshmen expected to make a major contribution in 2014.
Penn State should be solid on defense with the return of six starters, including linebacker Mike Hull, defensive end Deion Barnes, cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos.
Also working in the Nittany Lions’ favor is the schedule. Penn State could be favored to win at least nine games in 2014.
Athlon Sports' Top 25 Countdown for 2014 is underway. Penn State ranks as the No. 22 team for 2014.
How Many Games Will Penn State Win in 2014? Over/Under: 9.5
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
At first glance, winning 10 games in James Franklin’s first year seems a bit optimistic. However, take a closer look at Penn State’s schedule and it’s not out of the question to reach double-digit wins in 2014. And as evidenced by Franklin’s ability to get the most out of a roster during his three years at Vanderbilt, 10 wins suddenly looks more manageable. The Nittany Lions should be favored to win at least nine contests, with games against Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State the toughest on the 2014 slate. Of course, games at Indiana or Illinois won’t be easy, but those two matchups are late in the year, allowing Penn State time to develop on the line. With the Spartans and Buckeyes coming to Happy Valley, I think the Nittany Lions find a way to win one of those games and finish with a 10-2 record in Franklin’s first season. With a lack of depth, an injury or two on the offensive line could be a huge setback in the win column. However, if Franklin keeps Hackenberg upright in the pocket, Penn State should be a top-25 team in 2014.
Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
Under. I think Penn State will be competitive in James Franklin’s first season, but I can’t see any scenario in which it reaches 10 wins. Ineligible for the Big Ten title game and a bowl game, the Nittany Lions need to go 10-2 in the regular season to hit the over. Bill O’Brien was lauded for his work in two years in State College – he won 2012 Big Ten Coach of the Year – and he won eight and seven games. If Franklin won 10 in Year 1, with both the talent the Nittany Lions lost from last season and the NCAA sanctions still affecting depth, they’d start designing a statue. Simply put, there are too many question marks facing this team, from the aforementioned depth issues, unproven wide receivers and the competitive East Division, to name a few. I see another season of seven or eight wins.
Kevin McGuire, (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
Penn State picking up ten wins is going to be a tall order in 2014, despite the momentum being created with James Franklin taking over as head coach of the program. Penn State has a tough division with both of last season’s Big Ten championship game participants (Ohio State and Michigan State) as well as alight game at Michigan in Big Ten play. Things start off with a game in Ireland against defending American and Fiesta Bowl champions UCF, although the Knights figure to take a step back this season. The Nittany Lions should get off to a good start and see some great growth in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, but at some point the lingering concerns about depth as a result of the sanction phase in the program could come in to play along the way. Penn State won seven games last year, which would mean needing to improve by three wins to cover. If I had to bank on a result right now, I think nine might be the ceiling for Penn State in 2014.
Don't get me wrong, I love the James Franklin hire for Penn State and fully expect him to enjoy quite a bit of success leading the Nittany Lions. However, this is Franklin's first go-round in the Big Ten, and while the SEC may be the nation's toughest conference, that doesn't mean the B1G won't come with its own learning curve for Franklin and his staff. Franklin does have the luxury of an elite quarterback at his disposal in Christian Hackenberg, but the talented sophomore signal-caller will be without his top target this season, as All-Big Ten wide receiver Allen Robinson will be in an NFL training camp this summer, not in Happy Valley. In fact, the offense returns just three other starters besides Hackenberg, while the defense brings back just six. Bill O'Brien didn't leave the cupboard bare for Franklin, but this program is still dealing with the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions handed down as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, so depth is still an issue. The schedule is certainly manageable, but with Ohio State and Michigan State in the same division, there's very little margin for error when it comes reaching double-digit wins. The future of the program is in very good hands with Franklin, but I'll take the under on 10 victories in Year 1.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
That’s the under for me, easy. Picking the over means Penn State has to go 10-2 during the regular season. Penn State has won 10 regular season games three times since 1997. That’s three times without NCAA sanctions. James Franklin was a miracle worker at Vanderbilt, that’s downright impossible at Penn State. I know other people on this panel are going to point to Penn State’s easily navigated schedule, but we’re essentially counting on Penn State to beat Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State while being perfect the rest of the way. The Nittany Lions entered spring practice with two scholarship offensive tackles and lost a starting guard to injury. Christian Hackenberg may be a first-round talent, but that line is going to catch up with him at some point during the season. Even if Penn State expects the defense to rebound, the Nittany Lions don’t have the depth to put together a 10-win season, no matter the schedule.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 12.
• NFL WAG of the day: former Miss Utah Marissa Powell, fiancee of Lions pick Kyle Van Noy. She also happened to give one of the more nonsensical answers in pageant history.
• Unable to play the "I was misquoted" card, Donald Sterling says he was baited into saying what he said.
• Martin Kaymer won the Players Championship on the strength of an insane par-saving putt on 17.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The ink literally isn’t dry on the 2014 NFL Draft since most of the newest members of the NFL haven’t even signed contracts yet.
So it’s a perfect time to start looking ahead to this fall and the subsequent 2015 NFL Draft.
Compared to the 2014 class, which appeared to be thin at outside linebackers and hybrid rush defensive ends, the ’15 group looks to be loaded at the position as you will find nine defensive ends in the top 50. The quarterback position also looks to be much better next fall than this year as three of the top five players in next year's draft could be signal-callers. However, the safety class in ’15 doesn’t look to be nearly as deep as the ’14 group that featured four taken in the first round.
The ranking below isn’t a true mock draft or predictions of which players will go to what team. This is specifically a projection of the who the best NFL prospects will be after the '14 season. For example, no one believes that any running backs will go in the first round, but Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon are certainly two of the top 32 players in the nation.
That said, there are two high-profile names atop our 2015 "Mock Draft:"
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State (6-4, 235)
The redshirt sophomore has maturity issues he is dealing with but can erase all (most) of those questions with another stellar season. He is the best player in the nation, led his team to a championship, has a perfect build and skill set for the NFL and has yet to lose a game. If he keeps his nose clean and wins another ACC title, he should be the top pick.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (6-4, 215)
The smooth signal-caller from Oregon lost the Heisman Trophy and a chance at the national championship when a knee injury cost Oregon two games late in the year. His athletic ability is special but he is also an accurate and efficient passer while providing leadership in the huddle and off the field. These two will battle for No. 1 for the next 12 months.
3. Andrus Peat, T, Stanford (6-7, 312)
Other than QB, left tackle is the most sought-after position on the field and Peat is the best college football has to offer. The rising junior has elite size, athletic ability, toughness and pedigree (his father, Todd, played in the NFL for seven years). There is little doubt Peat won’t be a first-round selection next fall.
4. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State (6-4, 257)
After the signal-caller and his blind side protector, defensive end is the third-most important position. Calhoun is a playmaking machine with a huge frame and rangy athletic ability. He helped the Spartans lead the Big Ten in defense and won Defensive Lineman of the Year in the Big Ten.
5. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA (6-2, 225)
Yet another third-year Pac-12 starting quarterback with elite upside and pro potential. Much like Mariota, Hundley has produced huge numbers in two seasons and has won a bunch of games (18 in two years). He can move the ball with his legs but is just as comfortable in the pocket. The winner of the likely meeting between Mariota and Hundley in the Pac-12 title game could find himself atop the draft rankings come next spring.
6. Leonard Williams, DL, USC (6-5, 290)
This monster dealt with a shoulder injury last season, making his numbers all the more impressive. He can play multiple positions up front in multiple schemes and brings a massive frame and excellent production to the defensive front. Offenses have to account for Williams at all times.
7. Landon Collins, S, Alabama (6-0, 215)
Mark Barron, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and now Collins. Alabama’s run of elite NFL safeties continues with this excellent and physical tackler. He flies all over the field, makes plays against the run and pass and rarely misses an open-field tackle. Collins will maintain Nick Saban’s dominance of first-round defensive backs.
8. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska (6-6, 245)
The Huskers' pass-rusher has a great frame and size for the pro game. He needs to bulk up in order to stuff the run better on the next level but there is no reason to think that won’t happen in 2014. Gregory has rare combination of size, athletic ability and toughness.
9. Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson (6-2, 235)
Cut from the Jarvis Jones cloth, Beasley is a bit undersized in the hybrid OLB/DE mold. That said, he is a fierce playmaker for a team that has won at an unprecedented level at Clemson. He can play with his hand in the dirt or standing up, making him an ideal outside backer in a 3-4 scheme.
10. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon (5-10, 195)
He’s a playmaker, has excellent size, has won boatloads of games and has matched up against the nation’s top wide receivers for three seasons. In a league that needs tough, physical corners to stop receivers that are getting bigger and bigger, Ekpre-Olomu is the best the ’15 class has to offer.
11. Mario Edwards Jr., DL, Florida State (6-3, 294)
A slightly smaller version of Williams, Edwards also can play multiple positions along the line. He has a big sturdy frame with top-level size, potential strength and overall athletic ability. Edwards really developed during his sophomore season en route to a BCS national title.
12. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Eastern Illinois (6-5, 220)
He screwed up his chances at Mizzou but has one calendar year to fix his reputation. Because if he can, there is no doubt he is the most gifted pass-catcher in next year’s class. He has special size, speed and upside — See the SEC Championship game a year ago. If he keeps his nose clean, DGB will be a first-rounder.
13. Cedric Ogbuehi, T, Texas A&M (6-5, 300)
The recent run of elite Texas A&M left tackles should continue in 2015 with Ogbuehi all but a lock to be one of the first O-lineman taken next year. He’s extremely versatile as he has excelled at both guard and right tackle before moving to left tackle in 2014.
14. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama (6-0, 205)
There aren’t many who possess as explosive a first step as Cooper. He was an elite recruit coming out of high school and was a playmaker the second he stepped onto the field for Alabama two seasons ago. He is electric, explosive and a lock to make an NFL starting lineup — if he can stay healthy.
15. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia (6-0, 235)
The best running back in the nation isn’t likely to be a first-round pick since the NFL currently despises early RB picks. But when it comes to overall talent, size, ability and production, no one in the country can match Gurley. He posted over 1,400 yards from scrimmage last season while missing three complete games and parts of others. He’s scored 34 times in 24 total games.
16. Shaq Thompson, OLB, Washington (6-2, 230)
The converted safety turned linebacker can fly around the field. He has a huge frame and unusual athletic ability. Thompson has a nose for the ball and has been a starter since the second he stepped onto campus in Seattle. What’s more? He could see time on offense in 2014 — which would only further boost his profile amongst scouts.
17. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State (6-2, 290)
He makes the move to nose guard this year but is still expected to be a nasty combination of run-stuffing power and pass-rushing explosiveness. Bennett is a quiet leader who posted seven sacks from the tackle position last year and has tremendous strength. He is extremely disruptive.
18. Dante Fowler, DE/OLB, Florida (6-3, 277)
He’s played in 25 games in his two-year career for one of the best defenses in the land. His rare size and athletic ability means he can play the hybrid outside backer/end position or more of a true end in a 4-3 scheme. Fowler is a big physical player who can take over a game when he’s playing at his best.
19. Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa (6-5, 310)
The Hawkeyes' left tackle was a big reason for a huge turnaround in the win-loss column a year ago. He has great size and plays at a program known for developing blockers. He may not have the elite upside of some other tackles in this class but there is no downside with Scherff next spring.
20. Cameron Erving, T, Florida State (6-6, 302)
The Erving-Scherff comparisons may continue all season long. Erving has a lot more talent around him making him look good, including another potential first-round draft pick along the OL. He has great size, footwork and should be a two-time All-American by the time he leaves Florida State.
21. Devonte Fields, DE/OLB, TCU (6-4, 240)
As a pure defensive end, he may be a bit small but as a hybrid player, Fields has elite skill. Fields has had some focus issues off the field and missed most of last year with an injury. That said, he flashed brilliance as just a freshman when he was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
22. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State (6-0, 195)
Williams was named BCS title game MVP with seven tackles and an interception against Auburn last January. Like Ekpre-Olomu, Williams has the great size that NFL teams covet from the cover corner position. He has great hips and feet and should be a lock to make the first round a year from now.
23. Cedric Reed, DE, Texas (6-5, 258)
Similar to Gregory or Calhoun, Reed has a massive frame that makes NFL scouts drool. Reed, despite a lack of coaching, produced at an elite level a year ago, posting 77 tackles, 16.5 for a loss and 10 sacks opposite Jackson Jeffcoat. Now, with Charlie Strong running the ship, Reed should develop into one of the nation’s best.
24. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon (6-3, 297)
Rarely does more than one center go in the first round so for Grasu to grade out as a potential late first-rounder means he is special. He has excellent athletic ability and has been playing at an extremely fast pace for years at Oregon. He should be able to start right away on the NFL level.
25. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama (6-2, 220)
No, it is unlikely a running back goes in the first round but Yeldon is easily one of the 32 best players in college football. He’s posted back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons for Alabama and should see yet another 200-plus carries in 2014. He has great toughness, burst and drive and, gasp, may remind people of that guy carrying the football for the Vikings.
26. Josh Shaw, CB, USC (6-1, 195)
Shaw has seen a lot of changes in his career. The former five-star recruit signed with Florida before transferring back home to California where he switched positions to safety. Cornerback is a more likely landing spot for him due to elite athletic ability, quickness and coverage intangibles.
27. Benardrick McKinney, MLB, Mississippi State (6-4, 235)
His size and frame stand out when watching this Bulldog on Saturdays. His team should be one of the best in the nation and he has produced at an elite level since entering the starting lineup as freshman two seasons ago. Try 172 tackles on two bowl teams as an underclassman.
28. Tre' Jackson, G, Florida State (6-4, 339)
Like Grasu at center, Jackson appears to be the lone first-round guard in the 2015 class. He is a likely two-time All-American and has a massive frame that lends itself to immediate success on the next level. He will maul his way through the ACC this fall.
29. Alex Carter, CB, Stanford (6-0, 200)
He isn’t a household name today but he will be by season’s end. He has great size and instincts on a defense known for producing great players. Carter was a big-time recruit and has proven himself worthy with over 100 tackles in two seasons from his cornerback position.
30. Jalen Mills, CB, LSU (6-1, 190)
The long, rangy playmaker is the next in a long line of elite LSU defensive backs. He has great size and has played a lot of big-time football in two full seasons as a starter. Mills enters his junior season with 124 tackles and five interceptions and he will add some snaps at safety this season to his resume as well.
31. Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State (6-3, 252)
He needs to stay out of trouble off the field (he’s been suspended briefly) but should he stay on the right path, Spence has all the tools to be an All-American player for Ohio State. He is explosive off the edge and can play a true end technique.
32. Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland (6-0, 195)
Few players in this class can match the explosiveness that Diggs brings to the table. He was an All-ACC performer as just a freshman and was on pace for another great season a year ago before a broken leg slowed him down. Should he stay healthy, he could work his way into the top 15 of next year’s first round with ease.
33. A.J. Johnson, MLB, Tennessee (6-2, 242)
34. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (6-1, 210)
35. La’El Collins, T, LSU (6-5, 315)
36. Eric Striker, OLB, Oklahoma (6-0, 220)
37. Nick O’Leary, TE, Florida State (6-3, 244)
38. Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State (6-3, 208)
39. Spencer Drango, T, Baylor (6-5, 315)
40. Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State (6-1, 185)
41. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor (6-2, 225)
42. Nelson Agholor, WR, USC (6-0, 185)
43. Ellis McCarthy, DT, UCLA
44. Denzel Perryman, MLB, Miami (6-0, 240)
45. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss (6-2, 220)
46. Jordan Jenkins, OLB/DE, Georgia
47. Ray Drew, DE/OLB, Georgia
48. Danny Shelton, DT, Washington (6-1, 325)
49. Jordan Richards, SS, Stanford (5-11, 210)
50. Derron Smith, S, Fresno State (5-11, 200)
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, a new roof cam, a new night race, Kurt Busch’s Double, Goodyear tires and the Family Blaney kick off a weekend of racing at Kansas Speedway.
1. Roof camera makes return on intermediate tracks
Look just above the windshield on every Sprint Cup car this weekend at Kansas Speedway and you’ll see something new: a small, teardrop-shaped device pointing toward the nose of the car. The little device marks the official return of roof-mounted cameras on 1.5- and 2-mile tracks.
Citing concerns that the previous roof camera mount — a circular structure that rose about two inches above the roof line commonly referred to as the “Big Mac” — was giving a lead car downforce advantages in clear air racing conditions, NASCAR wiped the popular mount from many aerodynamically-sensitive tracks in February 2013. It remained on the car, however, at short tracks and superspeedways.
In response, the company who builds and supplies the on-car camera systems went to work on new designs. Broadcast Sports Incorporated presented those prototypes before the 2014 season for NASCAR review, according to Sports & Entertainment Media’s Andy Jeffers.
Jeffers, who owns Knoxville-based SEM and works as a liaison between BSI, television broadcasters and potential on-car camera sponsors, said NASCAR’s research and development center made the final call on which new example to use.
“This was an ongoing process since last season to find a sleeker, smaller and lighter camera mount,” Jeffers said. “It’s great to have it back.”
The new roof camera — about five inches front to back and about two inches wide as it slopes to a flush mount with the roof line — will beam 16x9 high-definition signals for television viewers but it won’t offer the ability for a 360-degree pan like its predecessor. And while every car will have the new teardrop-shaped cell above the windshield, only a handful will actually have cameras inside for Saturday night’s race as usual.
2. Kansas hosting night racing for the first time
The lights went up in Kansas in 2011 – about four years too late for the likes of Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson. For Greg Biffle, the timing was just fine.
Those three drivers were involved in a controversial finish at the end of the October 2007 race when Biffle ran out of fuel and slowed coming to the checkered flag under yellow. The race, ending prematurely due to darkness brought on by prior rain delays, sparked immediate controversy when both Bowyer and Johnson passed the slowing Biffle before the finish line.
NASCAR ruled in Biffle’s favor by saying later that he had maintained appropriate speed.
Such issues shouldn’t develop this weekend as NASCAR races for the first time under Kansas’ lights. Since the lighting system was installed, only ARCA and Grand-Am (on the track’s infield road course) have raced at night at the speedway.
Kansas serves as one of 10 points races on the Cup schedule in 2014 scheduled for night racing.
3. Kurt Busch begins IndyCar-NASCAR juggle
Kurt Busch spent his Tuesday turning more test laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for his first Indianapolis 500 start in two weeks. The IndyCar test day followed his completion of the track’s Rookie Orientation Program a week prior and subsequent role reversal back into his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing machine for NASCAR’s 500-miler last Sunday at Talladega.
With the official opening of practice on the oval scheduled for Sunday at IMS, Busch is officially immersed in what will be the busiest time of his 2014 season. Kansas’ high speeds and still-new pavement will force Busch to adjust more between the two car types, he says:
“(Kansas) will be fast. Cars will definitely be on edge. This will definitely be one of the tougher challenges of this whole Indy/NASCAR back and forth. The car on edge at Kansas is very different then the car on edge at Talladega.”
Logistics won’t be a big concern this weekend, however. Even if Saturday night’s NASCAR race gets delayed or postponed, more than 37 hours of practice time are available at Indianapolis before qualifying next Saturday.
4. Goodyear hopes Kansas tire test pays dividends
Since Kansas’ repave in 2011, drivers have often been on edge. Two of the three races have set records for caution flags – the most coming last fall when Kevin Harvick took the win.
Drivers complained that the race tire simply didn’t grip the track well and left them with a feeling of racing on pins and needles. Combined with NASCAR’s changes to the downforce and suspension packages used this season, Goodyear opted to perform a test on April 14. The test revealed a change was needed. Out was last year’s right-side tire and in was the right-side tire used at Michigan International Speedway in 2013.
Aric Almirola was one of many drivers who participated in the tire test.
“I feel like the track has aged well,” Almirola says. “It's slicked up a little bit and lost a little bit of grip which allowed Goodyear to bring a little softer tire.”
5. Ryan Blaney tries to join father in first Sprint Cup race
It may be Mother’s Day weekend, but Ryan Blaney hopes he has plans with his father in Kansas.
Ryan, the son of longtime Sprint Cup veteran Dave Blaney, is entered in Saturday night’s race with Penske Racing’s No. 12 Ford. His father is also trying to make the show with Randy Humphrey’s No. 77 Ford. Should Dave make the field, it would mark just his third start of 2014.
The Blaneys would join some cool company by taking the green flag together. The last father-son combo to race in NASCAR’s top division was Bobby Hamilton and Bobby Hamilton Jr. in 2005. Other families that once featured father racing son in Cup include the likes of the Earnhardts (Dale Sr., Dale Jr. and Kerry), the Allisons (Bobby, Clifford and Davey), the Pettys (Lee, Richard, Kyle and Adam) and the Bakers (Buck and Buddy).
From the moment Roger Goodell was first booed, the 2014 NFL Draft was everything fans expected and/or didn’t expect. As usual, trades, tears and tacky suits dominated the first round. But there were a few wild and crazy moments of note from the NFL’s prime time must-see Thursday night TV reality show.
Johnny Football’s long fall
Even Jerry Jones passed on Johnny Manziel, who fell all the way down the board to the Cleveland Browns at No. 22 overall — the exact same spot mistakes by the lake were made on quarterbacks Brandon Weeden (2012) and Brady Quinn (2007) not so long ago. But Johnny Dawg Pound is a different breed; he’s planning to make “taking the Browns to the Super Bowl” more than just a euphemism.
Jon Gruden commentary
ESPN’s crew of booming blow-hard Chris Berman, “Who the hell is” Mel Kiper and first-time long-time Ray Lewis wouldn’t have been the same without the many faces of Jon Gruden, whose love affair with Johnny Laceless Football was in full bloom on draft night. Even Frank Caliendo couldn’t do justice to Chucky’s performance, which gave the simulcast edge to ESPN over NFL Network — which was highlighted by Marshall Faulk’s oversized bowtie.
Blake Bortles’ girlfriend
Were ESPN and NFL Network in cahoots? Why was the lovely Lindsey Duke not given more airtime? After all, her man Blake Bortles was the No. 3 overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team down the road from the University of Central Florida. Instead of Duke, it was Taylor Lewan’s mom who showed off some MILF cleavage while her son rocked a Macklemore-inspired hairdo.
Sammy Watkins’ selfie
The Buffalo Bills splashed the hot-wing sauce by trading up from the No. 9 overall pick to the No. 4 spot — trading away their 2015 first- and fourth-rounders in order to secure Clemson playmaker Sammy Watkins. The top wideout in the draft was also the top Instagram man, pulling a Chain Smokers move by taking a selfie after his bro-bear-hug with Commissioner Goodell.
Browns’ Draft Day drama
Kevin Costner did it again. First, he bamboozled Buffalo for future picks. Then, he moved the Browns up from No. 26 overall to No. 22, beating the Minnesota Vikings to the spot to take Johnny Manziel. Wait? It wasn’t Costner? It was first-year GM Ray Farmer doing what embattled owner Jimmy Haslam wanted — or was told by a homeless man to do, according to our pal Sal Paolantonio. Either way, Cleveland rocked the draft, if not the box office. As Johnny's OVO would say, "YOLO."
The SEC-Big 12 Challenge doesn’t have the long-standing status of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but at least in 2014, the event could match in marquee games.
We had a hard time picking between Texas-Kentucky and Florida-Kansas as the top game in the event. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. This will be an excellent double header featuring potentially four top-10 teams early in the season. Both are can’t-miss games.
Those are the key matchups, but the some of the others offer compelling reasons to watch in December. Here are all of them, ranked.
1. Texas at Kentucky (Dec. 5)
Expect a battle of big men with freshman Myles Turner joining Cameron Ridley at Texas to face Kentucky’s massive front line that includes Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles and Karl Towns. The Longhorns can make an early statement as a top 10 team that returns everyone from last year’s squad.
2. Florida at Kansas (Dec. 5)
Both teams have heavy personnel losses but plenty of reasons to believe they can contend in 2014-15. Florida had two McDonald’s All-Americans waiting their turn in Kasey Hill and Chris Walker plus a handful of transfers. Kansas expects Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden to take over while adding elite freshman forward Cliff Alexander.
3. Arkansas at Iowa State (Dec. 4)
Is Arkansas ready to turn the corner to become an NCAA Tournament team? Mike Anderson has his top three scorers back from a team that finally learned how to win on the road. This will be a tough one against a preseason top 25 team.
4. LSU at West Virginia (Dec. 4)
Shouldn’t we expect more out of both programs? LSU lost Johnny O’Bryant to the draft but has highly touted recruits Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin who are now veterans. West Virginia will return high-scoring point guard Juwan Staten, but fellow guard Eron Harris left via transfer.
5. Kansas State at Tennessee (Dec. 6)
New Volunteers coach Donnie Tyndall has to figure out how to fill his roster before worrying about Kansas State, which will be led by the sophomore backcourt of Marcus Foster and Jevon Thomas.
6. Baylor at Vanderbilt (Dec. 4)
Expectations won’t be high for Baylor next season as the Bears lose Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Isaiah Austin. Vanderbilt is just treading water in the middle of the SEC.
7. Missouri at Oklahoma (Dec. 5)
Missouri is starting from scratch with a coach new to Division I (Kim Anderson) and a a roster without its top three scorers. Oklahoma will be as solid as you’d come to expect from a Lon Kruger team.
8. Oklahoma State at South Carolina (Dec. 6)
The big three for Oklahoma State is down to Le’Bryan Nash. This could be a chance for an early season statement for a Gamecocks team led by exciting sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell.
9. Auburn at Texas Tech (Dec. 3)
If anything, this will be an interesting coaching matchup between Bruce Pearl and Tubby Smith.
10. TCU at Ole Miss (Dec. 4)
Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers were Ole Miss’ only double-figure scorers last season. Only Summers returns.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 9.
• Another day of the NFL Draft, another Draft WAG slideshow. This one includes Kyndal Kaire, linked to newly minted Brown Johnny Manziel.
Read more at: http://nesn.com/playlist/katherine-webb-lindsey-duke-kacie-mcdonnell-among-top-10-nfl-draft-wags/6/
Read more at: http://nesn.com/playlist/katherine-webb-lindsey-duke-kacie-mcdonnell-among-top-10-nfl-draft-wags/6/
• No surprise here - the Draft was a ratings bonanza, peaking when the Cowboys were on the clock.
• Of course, the Browns managed to poop a little on their special night thanks to nuggets like this one from Sal Paolantonio.
• Note to teams spending high picks on wide receivers: They're prone to insane behavior.
• A handy list of draftee walk-up music. An awful lot of Drake there.
• Inspirational video of the day. Prepare for chills and/or tears.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The first round of the 2014 NFL Draft is in the books. The action was furious and unpredictable and extremely entertaining for fans. Johnny Manziel is now a Brown after Cleveland finally took the Texas A&M quarterback with their third trade of the first round. Jadeveon Clowney will be playing in Houston as many expected. And the Rams landed two elite line of scrimmage prospects in Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald.
But while fans fawn over their favorite new player, NFL front offices are working feverishly to find the middle-round gems. In fact, this is where most NFL teams are built — with quality second- and third-round selections. Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl signal-callers can be found on Day Two of the NFL Draft and 2014 won't be any different — just ask the Lions how good Larry Warford was as a rookie.
Here are Athlon Sports best available players left on the board after the first round was finished on Thursday evening.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt (6-3, 214)
The most productive wideout in SEC history isn't the most explosive, but no other player at his position can match his intangibles. He has great size and every defense knew he was going to get the ball and still couldn't stop him. While he doesn't have burst and won't make people miss after the catch, he does have solid straight-line speed that builds as he goes. J-Matt is a great locker room guy who will help any team win games.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota (6-6, 310)
There is some off-field focus issues to deal with but his blend of size and athleticism is extremely rare. He also helped the Gophers produce their best season in quite some time as he stuffed the middle against some of the best running games in the nation. There is no replacement for his size.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State (6-3, 220)
When Penn State needed a big play down the field, it turned to Robinson and he never let them down. He has a huge frame, excellent ball skills and produced huge numbers that no other Nittany Lion has ever matched. He is a game-ready prospect who shouldn't need too much development to see snaps.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC (6-0, 192)
Speed was a huge part of his game and it helped him set several school and Pac-12 records two seasons ago. He had to deal with some nagging injuries and a new quarterback — as well as three different head coaches — and that might have led to his numbers dropping in 2013. He has the talent to produce in a big way and should make a quick impact.
Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State (6-3, 336)
Like Kentucky’s Larry Warford before him, Jackson has consistently been recognized as one of the SEC’s best blockers for years. He was a three-time All-SEC selection in some shape or form and played on the only Mississippi State team that went to four straight bowl games. He isn’t tall but is plenty wide and will be a regular in the NFL for the next decade.
Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA (6-4, 307)
He took a two-year break for a Mormon mission but was an instant contributor for the Bruins both before and after his break. He isn't a massive prospect but he has great athletic ability and should be able to play multiple positions if needed.
Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU (6-0, 233)
I’ve already written about Hill plenty here and he may move too quickly up draft boards by the time the second round rolls around. But there is a chance he’s the best back in the class. He has workhorse size, power and toughness and only carried 345 times in two college seasons so there is plenty of tread left on the tires. Hill has a chance to be an extremely good player over the next 4-5 years.
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (5-9, 207)
Carey touched the ball over 700 times in the last two seasons, racking up over 4,200 yards and scoring 44 times. That is production. He isn’t afraid of contact, will catch passes, picks up the blitz and is durable. Other than one small off-the-field distraction during his sophomore offseason, there is no downside to the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American.
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State (6-1, 303)
Sutton is the first player in the Pac-12 to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors since Steve Emtman in 1990-91. He has played multiple positions at multiple weights and is a leader in the huddle and on the practice field for a team that has won 18 games over the last two seasons and posted the best record in the conference. Sutton is a bit undersized but he is extremely disruptive behind the line of scrimmage — so say his 45.5 tackles for a loss and 20.5 sacks.
Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford (6-5, 250)
Cut from the DeMarcus Ware cloth, Murphy is a perfect hybrid end/linebacker outside rusher. He posted 25.0 sacks and 41.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons for a defense that was among the best in the nation. He won two Pac-12 titles during those two years as well. He also showed his athletic ability by returning both career interceptions for touchdowns (40 and 30 yards).
Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech (6-3, 252)
This doesn’t appear to be a very deep class of outside linebackers — hybrids or true 4-3 players. Attaochu is a true pass-rusher from the OLB position and would fit into a 3-4 very well as a third-down specialist to begin his career. The Yellow Jacket prospect is long and rangy and can get to the quarterback as his 31.5 career sacks (22.5 in the last two years) and 43.5 tackles for a loss indicate.
Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State (5-8, 185)
He is a veteran, a leader and a champion. Joyner is a bit undersized but he can play all over the defense and is a physical player despite his overall lack of bulk and power. He is quick, aggressive and simply makes plays — he posted 5.5 sacks as a senior from his defensive back position. Look for coordinators to use him all over the field on the next level.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, DB, Nebraska (6-3, 218)
Size is the first thing that comes to mind with the Nebraska defensive back. He has a massive frame and could easily slide into a role at safety at the back end of an NFL defense. He led his team in interceptions as a senior and should continue to flourish on the next level with his rare blend of size, speed and athleticism.
Kony Ealy, DL, Missouri (6-4, 273)
The big defensive lineman has excellent up-the-field ability and can move around the line if needed. He took Mizzou to new levels as SEC East champs alongside Michael Sam and has the talent to produce on the next level. The only thing that kept him from a first-round grade is the tweener status that comes with a player who can play both end or tackle.
Baylor’s climb to the top of the Big 12 continued last season with an 11-2 final record and a conference championship. The Bears lost in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF, but there’s clearly staying power with Art Briles at the controls in Waco. Baylor has a few holes to fill in 2014, but quarterback Bryce Petty is back after throwing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last year.
In addition to Petty’s return, the Bears are loaded at the skill positions with talent, including running back Shock Linwood and receiver Antwan Goodley. The offensive line has question marks but getting left tackle Spencer Drango back to full strength after a back injury will be huge for the play in the trenches.
There’s no doubt Baylor’s recruiting and overall roster have improved in recent years. But with only eight returning starters, can the Bears hold off Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas for the top spot in the conference?
Oklahoma finished in a three-way tie for second last season and closed the year on a high note by beating Oklahoma State in Stillwater and defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
After finishing 11-2 in 2013, Oklahoma is loaded for a run at the Big 12 title. The Sooners return 16 starters, including a rising star at quarterback. Bob Stoops’ team also has an edge in the schedule, as Baylor visits Norman in 2014.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Baylor or Oklahoma: Who Wins the Big 12 in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Although Baylor returns the Big 12’s top quarterback and is the defending conference champion, I like Oklahoma to win the league title in 2014. In what was essentially a rebuilding year in 2013, the Sooners went 11-2 and capped the season with a huge win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, we can’t read too much into bowl results, but Oklahoma is loaded for a run at a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. The defense returns nine starters, with the defensive line and linebacking corps poised to be among the best in the nation. Linebacker Eric Striker is a difference maker in the front seven, and cornerback Zack Sanchez is also poised for a big season after starting 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2013. Although Trevor Knight still has plenty to prove, and the receiving corps loses standout receiver Jalen Saunders, there’s reason to believe the offense will be improved in 2014. Knight’s performance against Alabama was impressive, but his output against Kansas State (253 total yards, two scores) shouldn’t be overlooked. Knight may have to carry the offense early in the season, especially as Oklahoma looks for a No. 1 running back. Bob Stoops isn’t hurting for options, including potential breakout stars in Keith Ford, Joe Mixon and Alex Ross. In addition to having few weaknesses on the depth chart, the Sooners’ schedule is very favorable. Oklahoma hosts Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State and doesn’t have a tough non-conference game. I still think Baylor is among the top 10-15 teams in the nation, but I would take the Sooners to win the Big 12 and finish among the top-five teams in college football at the end of 2014.
Allen Kenney, (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Baylor's rise to the top of the Big 12 may have caught most observers around the country off guard, but it didn't happen overnight. Art Briles has steadily built up his program by turning over rocks in Texas and finding speedy offensive playmakers to suit his version of basketball on grass. What set the 2013 team apart was its veteran defense, which was better than just "good for Baylor." Statistically, it was easily the best Briles has had, and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's aggressive philosophy complemented the uptempo O.
While the Bears have talented skill players in place to replace departed standouts such as Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, they don't have the same depth on D. Four of their top six tacklers for a year ago have departed, including tackling machine Eddie Lackey linebacker and stars of the secondary Ahmad Dixon and Sam Holl. Despite having some studs up front, those losses are going to hurt.
On the other hand, the Sooners have the most complete team in the conference. The D is stout in the front seven, and Bob Stoops' staff has recruited well enough in the secondary to plug in promising youngsters at safety and cornerback make up for the departures of Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin. Offensively, the team's true Achilles' heel from '13, quarterback, now looks settled. OU did take some hits at receiver through graduation, although sensation junior Sterling Shepard should be able to carry that unit.
Most importantly, the schedule breaks decidedly in OU's favor. The Sooners catch Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home to go along with the annual trip to Dallas to face Texas. Meanwhile, in addition to going to Norman, Baylor also has a trip to Austin on deck. Even if the margin between the two squads proves to be thin, that gives OU the edge.
Baylor is the defending Big 12 champion, has loads of offensive firepower returning and is enjoying the best stretch of sustained success in program history. However, I'm going to take Oklahoma to unseat the Bears this season, as the Sooners return 16 starters from a team that won 11 games in 2013, the last one a convincing victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Whether Big Game Bob is truly back remains to be seen, but Stoops should be in position to win a bunch of games this fall thanks to the emergence of dual-threat quarterback Trevor Knight and a loaded defense that finished top 20 nationally last season and welcomes back all but two starters. Baylor will score plenty of points once again with reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty back at quarterback and a bevy of athletic, dynamic and explosive pass-catchers, but the offensive line must replace three starters and, more importantly, the defense returns just four starters. Although recruiting has certainly picked up since Art Briles came to Waco, Baylor still falls behind Oklahoma in this department, which makes replacing five all-conference defenders a tougher task for the Bears. What's more, Baylor has to face both Texas and Oklahoma on the road, while the Sooners' toughest conference road game looks to be at TCU, not including the Red River Showdown date with the Longhorns in Dallas. Baylor demolished Oklahoma 41-12 last season in Waco on it way to its first outright conference crown since 1980, but I am picking the Sooners to reign supreme in the Big 12 in 2014.
Never mind that the games won’t occur for another seven months. Three of the teams involved in the ACC-Big Ten challenge aren’t even officially in their new leagues.
If, in some way, Virginia and Maryland played a basketball game today, they would meet in an ACC league game. By December, it’s a non-conference showcase. Louisville officially joins the ACC on July 1. Same for Rutgers and Maryland in the Big Ten.
Either way, we can start looking forward to the key games, particularly the marquee game in the 2014 edition of the challenge between Duke and Wisconsin. The Blue Devils take their star-studded freshman class into Madison to face a team that returns all but one key player from a Final Four team.
That won’t be the only key matchup. Here are all of them ranked.
1. Duke at Wisconsin (Dec. 3)
This may be the top non-conference game of the year as both will be in the preseason top five. All eyes will be on potential All-America freshman Jahlil Okafor, a superstar prospect and a traditional center for Duke, and NCAA Tournament standout Frank Kaminsky, who is not a a traditional center for the Badgers.
2. Ohio State at Louisville (Dec. 2)
Two traditional powers must replace invaluable seniors — Aaron Craft for Ohio State and Russ Smith for Louisville. The Buckeyes’ Shannon Scott and the Cardinals’ Chris Jones step into the spotlight, but at least Jones can feed the ball to center Montrezl Harrell.
3. Syracuse at Michigan (Dec. 2)
These won’t be the teams you saw for most of last season. Syracuse and Michigan were decimated by NBA Draft early entries, perhaps more than Jim Boeheim and John Beilein expected.
4. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
The Spartans are rebuilding around Branden Dawson while Notre Dame looks to put a losing season in the rearview mirror. The Irish get Jerian Grant back after he missed most of last season to an academic issue.
5. Iowa at North Carolina (Dec. 2)
The Tar Heels will be one of the top teams in the ACC in the preseason while the Hawkeyes may take a step back without Roy Devyn Marble. This could be a mismatch at this stage of the season.
6. Pittsburgh at Indiana (Dec. 2)
Neither team will show up in many preseason top 25 countdowns after Pitt enters 2014-15 without Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna and Indiana heads into the year without Noah Vonleh and Will Sheehey. Both teams are relying on veteran point guards (Cameron Wright and Yogi Ferrell) to shepherd these squads early in the year.
7. Nebraska at Florida State (Dec. 1)
Perhaps Nebraska deserved a better matchup than Florida State after reaching the rare NCAA Tournament last season. The Seminoles, though, could be a tough out in Tallahassee even without Ian Miller and Okaro White.
8. Minnesota at Wake Forest (Dec. 2)
Richard Pitino takes the NIT champions on an interesting road trip against a junior-laden Wake Forest team under first-year coach Danny Manning.
9. Virginia at Maryland (Dec. 2)
Yes, that’s a meeting between two charter ACC members in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Virginia will be on the fringe of the top 10 after winning the league while Maryland is facing questions with four recent transfers, including point guard Seth Allen.
10. Illinois at Miami (Dec. 2)
Thanks to a handful of newcomers, Illinois and Miami are both looking to rebound after they missed the NCAA Tournament last season. The Illini add two transfers (Ahmad Starks from Oregon State and Aaron Cosby from Seton Hall) while the Hurricanes get Angel Rodriguez eligible from Kansas State.
11. NC State at Purdue (Dec. 2)
The Wolfpack faces an early road trip, adding Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey stepping into the shoes of T.J. Warren in a backcourt with Anthony Barber. Purdue is still in rebuilding mode after going 5-13 in the Big Ten last season.
12. Georgia Tech at Northwestern (Dec. 3)
A former ACC assistant is coaching the Big Ten team (Chris Collins), and a former Big Ten assistant (Brian Gregory) is coaching the ACC team. It will be a long time before either takes on their former employers (Michigan State and Duke) in the conference challenge.
13. Virginia Tech at Penn State (Dec. 3)
Virginia Tech has Buzz Williams. Penn State has D.J. Newbill. That’s a little interesting.
14. Rutgers at Clemson (Dec. 1)
Maryland draws Virginia while fellow newcomer draws a Clemson team without K.J. McDaniels.
Larry Johnson says he hasn’t inadvertently introduced himself as “Larry Johnson from Penn State” since he landed at Ohio State on Jan. 14. That said, he’s still adjusting to referring to Michigan as the pejorative “team up north.”
But if Johnson caught himself, in passing, uttering Penn State as part of his title, could anyone blame him?
Before January, Penn State had been the only collegiate employer Johnson had known. For nearly 20 years, Johnson introduced himself as a Penn State assistant to recruits and high school coaches up and down the mid-Atlantic and through Pennsylvania.
“I try hard not to do that,” Johnson said while on the road recruiting for Ohio State in Connecticut in recent weeks. “It’s easy to do, but I’ve been pretty good.”
In the last month, Johnson has patrolled the same recruiting area he ruled at Penn State, now in scarlet and gray. His departure from Penn State to Ohio State in January could emerge as one of the most important assistant coach moves through the entire college football calendar.
"If you know about the East you know about Larry Johnson."
-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer
“If you know about the East you know about Larry Johnson,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Johnson won’t be alone in aggressively recruiting Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, the Northeast and Washington, D.C., for Big Ten territories.
New Penn State coach James Franklin, who offered Johnson spot on his first staff, has vowed to own not just Pennsylvania in recruiting, but Maryland and New Jersey as well. His staff has already picked up four top-100 commitments from the region for 2015.
Meanwhile, new Big Ten member Maryland has been able to protect its home turf since 2012 with the return of Mike Locksley, now offensive coordinator. After landing the top two prospects in the state of Maryland, Locksley was 247Sports’ top recruiter in the Big Ten in 2014, followed by four Ohio State assistants.
And in 2012, 247Sports named Johnson and Locksley two of the top 10 recruiters in the Big Ten for that year’s recruiting cycle, quite the feat considering Penn State at that time had just begun its NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Maryland was coming off a 2-10 season.
Despite all the accolades and expectations for Locksley and the new Penn State staff, few have been more effective recruiting this region of the country than Johnson was at Penn State.
He was Rivals.com’s national recruiter of the year for the 2005-06 cycle. His haul that year included NaVorro Bowman from Suitland, Md., Aaron Maybin from Ellicot City, Md., and Jared Odrick from Lebanon, Pa. All three were first-round picks. A year earlier, Johnson helped Penn State land national No. 1 recruit Derrick Williams from Greenbelt, Md.
In a 2011 ranking, Rivals named Johnson the No. 5 recruiter of the previous decade.
He was the only coach in the top five never to land a head coaching gig, which leads us to why he’s at Ohio State rather than Penn State. (In the end, the track record of elite recruiters-turned-head coaches is checkered. Three of the four recruiters listed ahead of him were fired from their head coaching jobs in less than five years — Larry Porter at Memphis, Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and Tim Brewster at Minnesota. The fourth, Jimbo Fisher, just won the national title.)
Johnson twice interviewed for the head coaching position at Penn State, once to replace Joe Paterno and again to replace Bill O’Brien. Ironically, O’Brien opened the door for Johnson to defect to the border rival. O’Brien hired Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel to coach linebackers with the Texans, opening a spot on the Meyer’s staff for a line coach and ace recruiter.
Johnson checked both boxes.
“Larry just fits right in where everyone on the staff is hard-working recruiter,” 247Sports Director of Recruiting Steve Wiltfong said. “Where he was at, there were times where he was on a coaching staff where not everyone was excited about recruiting as he was.”
That sets up two traditional Big Ten powers (Ohio State and Penn State) and one star recruiter (Locksley) competing for prospects in the talent-rich area of Maryland, D.C., North Carolina, Pennsylvania and the Northeast. And two of these coaches have good reason to recruit with an edge — Johnson was twice passed up for the Penn State job, Franklin was once Maryland’s coach-in-waiting before a new athletic director reversed course.
Ohio State rarely dipped into these areas in recent years, but Johnson gives Meyer instant credibility to cast his recruiting net East.
“Everyone is recruiting those states,” Johnson said. “There are outstanding players here. The area is saturated with good coaches. The ACC is there, the Big Ten is there. That’s a good sign because it means you’re on the right guy.”
Near the end of his Penn State tenure, Johnson was on the right recruits, but the instability in Happy Valley meant he had trouble landing all of them. Now, he’ll have a chance to coach them at Ohio State.
For the Nittany Lions, he recruited linemen Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Tommy Schutt. All picked Ohio State. Schutt had been a Penn State commitment before switching to Ohio State. Spence was a five-star prospect from Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt who opted for the Buckeyes.
Even though he’s on the same field with players who spurned Penn State years ago, Johnson said there’s no hard feelings.
“I never really get upset at things like that,” Johnson said. “They have a right to change their minds. It’s got to be a fit for them. Your chance to be successful is where you’re a good fit.”
Besides, Johnson’s job — other than reeling in top recruits — is to prepare a line that will be the anchor of the defense. Spence and Bosa at end and Michael Bennett at tackle combined for 39 tackles for a loss last season.
With a secondary that struggled last season and a linebacker group that will miss Ryan Shazier, the line has to set the tone, and Johnson intends to do that with an active eight-man rotation.
To do that, Johnson kept his players in constant movement in spring practice. Meyer said his linemen were as active as any group he’s had.
“The way he runs his drills, non-stop movement, some drills are long, some drills are short,” Bennett said. “It gets you ready for hurry up, going back and forth from sidelines. You’ve done it again, again and again. Your body is ready for it.”
The movement may be normal for Johnson, but it was a change of pace at Ohio State during the spring.
In other words, what was old hat for Johnson is new again.
“At the end of the day, sometimes you have to move forward,” Johnson said. “I will never forget where I started. I will never do that.”
His present, though, may be far more interesting.
The 2014 NFL Draft first round took a few twists and turns but ended up where many projected it to be (with Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater in the first round) and with the same big winner from a college perspective (the SEC).
Jadeveon Clowney, subject of the dissection that comes with any high draft pick, was the No. 1 overall pick, the same spot he seemed destined for after his sophomore season.
Clowney was the SEC’s fourth No. 1 overall pick since 2007, and the first non-quarterback during that run (Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and JaMarcus Russell were the others).
As usual, he was just the start for the league, as the SEC had double-digit first-round picks again. The final pick of the first round, however, signaled one of the major winners with Teddy Bridgewater representing the third first-round pick from the newest team in the ACC.
11. First-round picks from the SEC
Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Draft Day is the SEC’s day. The league produced 11 first-round picks. That’s three more than any other league, and that’s counting Louisville in the ACC’s tally. If Louisville’s first-round delegation is counted for the American, it’s a different story:
SEC West by itself produced more first-round picks (8) than any other conference.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) May 9, 2014
64. First-round picks from SEC schools since 2009
The SEC has more than double the first-round picks of any conference in the last five drafts, using the 2014 alignments. That’s more than the next two leagues, the ACC and Big Ten, combined. The major conferences shake out like this since 2009:
26 Big Ten
25 Big 12
0. Top 10 picks from Alabama
Alabama had to wait until C.J. Mosley went to the Ravens at No. 17 to celebrate, the longest wait for Nick Saban since 2008. Without a top 10 pick in 2014, Alabama from 2009-13 merely tied USC from 1993-97 for five consecutive years with a top 10 pick.
1. No. 1 overall pick for Steve Spurrier
Spurrier has won a Heisman Trophy, coached a Heisman winner, won a national championships and revived three college football programs. One thing he never did until Thursday was coach a No. 1 overall draft pick. Perhaps unexpectedly, Spurrier’s top three draft picks are all defensive linemen: Clowney, Florida’s Gerard Warren (No. 3 in 2001) and Florida’s Kevin Carter (No. 6 in 1995)
3. First-round picks from Louisville
Two notes from Louisville: First, the Cardinals had no draft picks a year ago. Second, two players were selected before quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and the Minnesota Vikings had to trade back into the first round to get him. The former wasn’t too much of a surprise since few Cardinals were draft eligible after 2012. The latter, though, was a little more of a shocker for anyone who watched the season. Still, three first-round picks tied Texas A&M for most first-round draft picks. Maybe Louisville will find a way to thrive in the ACC.
3. First-round picks from Texas A&M
At one point, Texas A&M realistically could have had three consecutive picks in the top 10 when offensive tackle Jake Matthews went sixth to the Falcons and wide receiver Mike Evans went seventh to the Buccaneers. Quarterback Johnny Manziel didn’t go to Cleveland with the eighth pick, but he ended up there anyway at No. 22. That gave the Aggies’ offense three first-round picks, the most of any team in the SEC.
4. Players who tied or became their school’s highest draft pick in the first five selections
South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney matched 1980 Heisman winner George Rogers as a No. 1 overall pick. Jacksonville made No. 3 pick Blake Bortles UCF’s second first-round pick after fellow quarterback Daunte Culpepper went 11th overall in 1999. Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins went third overall to Buffalo, one spot higher than defensive end Gaines Adams in 2007 and running back Banks McFadden in 1940. Khalil Mack, the fifth overall pick, wasn’t just Buffalo’s highest pick in school history. He was the Bulls’ first pick in the first or second rounds.
2. Top-five picks from the MAC
MACtion, indeed. Mack joined Central Michigan offensive tackle, the No. 1 overall pick last year, as top-five picks from the MAC in the last two drafts. Quite impressive, especially since Central Michigan and Buffalo aren’t flagship programs for the league.
8. First-round picks from Florida high schools, most from any state
And the most surprising part is that only two of them played in state. Oviedo quarterback Blake Bortles stayed local with UCF, and Glades Central wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went to Florida State. The others went to college out of state: Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins (South Fort Myers), Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack (Fort Pierce Westwood), Louisville safety Calvin Pryor (Port St. Joe), Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier (Plantation), Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Orlando Dr. Phillips) and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami Northwestern).
6. Consecutive years without a top 10 pick for the Big Ten
The last top 10 pick to play in the Big Ten was No. 1 overall pick Jake Long from Michigan in 2008. The forthcoming Big Ten alignment has produced two top 10 picks since then — Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2010 and Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey — but that’s still a troubling number from a maligned major conference.
With a favorable schedule, 2014 could be a big season for BYU. The Cougars could go 10-2 or 11-1, which would place Bronco Mendenhall’s team in the discussion to be a top-25 team in 2014.
And BYU plans to change up its home uniforms for 2014, wearing four different variations, including royal blue, black and white.
Here’s a look at BYU’s home jerseys for 2014 (all images from BYUCougars.com):
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 8.
• Beach volleyball is a combination of some of the best things in life. See if you don't agree.
• Inevitable, but still amusing: A fan taunted Jameis Winston with crab legs.
• Tonight's draftees will get their choice of walk-up music. Where was Roger Goodell when this was approved?
• This seems right: The later NFL Draft has given scouts and teams time to get dumber.
• Kevin Durant had an MVP-worthy flop last night. He even got air.
• Yasiel Puig bat-flipped on a routine fly ball. Don't ever change, Yasiel.
• A piece of outfield wall fell on Alex Gordon's head. Nice park you got there, Padres.
• Goal of the night: Evgeni Malkin's spinning no-look job.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The Pac-12 is always home to some of the nation’s top offenses, and the quarterback play in the league should be strong once again in 2014.
Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is one of the favorites to win the Heisman, and big things are expected of Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. Kelly finished with 3,635 yards last season, while Hundley threw for 3,071 yards on 248 completions.
The quarterback play in the Pac-12 is expected to get better this season, as USC’s Cody Kessler, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau will only get better with more snaps. Also, Travis Wilson returns after missing a portion of last year due to injury, and he should benefit from the addition of coordinator Dave Christensen.
Arizona and Washington have unsettled quarterback situations, but it’s likely both teams will find an answer in the fall. Former USC quarterback Jesse Scroggins is considered a slight favorite for the Wildcats, while Cyler Miles – provided he is reinstated to the team – is likely the No. 1 quarterback in Seattle.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Who Leads the Pac-12 in Passing Yards in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Let’s keep in mind when answering this question that this isn’t the best overall quarterback in the conference. That spot is clearly reserved for Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. However, when it comes to leading the conference in passing yards, I suspect the answer to this question is outside of Eugene, Ore. Washington State’s Connor Halliday is my pick to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards in 2014. In 13 games last season, Halliday’s right arm got quite a workout, leading the nation with a whopping 714 attempts. He completed 449 of those throws for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns. Halliday needs to improve his interception total (22), but there’s no doubt the attempts and yards should be there for Washington native. And the senior should have plenty of help from the receiving corps, as Washington State’s group should be among the best in the Pac-12. And after learning for three years under coach Mike Leach, I suspect Halliday’s best is yet to come.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a fantastic question because the best three quarterbacks in the league — Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly — aren't likely to even be in the mix. With pass-happy offenses and returning starters at Cal (Jared Goff), Washington State (Connor Halliday), Colorado (Sefo Liufau) and Oregon State (Sean Mannion), the race to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards should be an entertaining one to track all season. The favorites, however, have to been Halliday and Mannion after both topped 4,500 yards last season. So between the two, I can't pick against a Leach-coached QB, so I will go with Halliday. The Wazzu signal caller led the nation in pass attempts last year (714) and has a deep and talented receiving corps returning around him this fall. With some improved efficiency and another 700 pass attempts, Halliday could be the frontrunner to lead the nation in passing yards in 2014 and is my pick to top the Pac-12 charts.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I can’t go wrong with a Mike Leach quarterback, right? And a Leach quarterback who started last year at that. Connor Halliday has to be the odds-on favorite to lead the Pac-12 in passing. Halliday will have every opportunity to put up huge numbers. His 714 pass attempts last season were 55 more than anyone else last season and more than 100 more than anyone else in the Pac-12. But it’s more than just the fact that Leach has a returning starter at quarterback. Halliday will have nearly all of his receivers back. If there’s one concern it’s the departure of three starting offensive linemen. Now that Leach is three seasons in, I don’t think we can expect a repeat of 2012 when the line was revolving door, but a drop off from last season is certainly possible. That might be enough to open the door for Sean Mannion or Jared Goff, but I’m going to take Halliday on this one.
Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
Who better to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards in 2014 than the quarterback who did so in 2013? Certainly Oregon State's Sean Mannion is a safe pick, coming off a conference record-setting campaign of 4,662 yards.
If Oregon State head coach Mike Riley has his way, however, Mannion will not need to put up such astronomical numbers again. Mannion's production was partially a byproduct of the Beavers' inability to establish a consistent run game. A new offensive coordinator, Terron Ward and Storm Woods back healthy should take some of the burden off Mannion (not to mention the departure of Brandin Cooks).
Conversely, Washington State head coach Mike Leach is just fine with his quarterback throwing all around the field, just about all the time. For that reason, expect Connor Halliday to lead the Pac-12 in 2014. Halliday finally had the reins to himself exclusively in his third year in the program, and he finished just behind Mannion for the league lead with 4,597 yards passing. Were it not for the Cougars' collapse in the final minutes of the New Mexico Bowl, his six touchdowns that afternoon would have been the story.
Halliday has plenty of options with a deep receiving corps of Dom Williams, Gabe Marks, River Cracraft, Isiah Myers...and that's only scratching the surface. The pieces are all in place for Halliday to register some eye-popping numbers.
The Pac-12 is welcoming back six quarterbacks who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season and a seventh that just missed. The conference has become very offensive, in a good way, and there's little doubt the pigskin will be flying out West this fall. But when it comes to picking a clubhouse leader, I'll bypass the Heisman Trophy candidates (Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley) as well as the Pac-12's leading returning passer (Sean Mannion), a dual-threat Sun Devil (Todd Kelly) and two other Golden State signal-callers (Cody Kessler, Jared Goff). Instead, let's head to Pullman, Wash., where one Connor Halliday serves as the trigger-man for the Washington State offense. While he may not be as heralded as Mariota or Hundley as accomplished as Mannion or hyped as Kessler, Halliday does have the luxury of playing in head coach Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense (emphasis on "Air"). Halliday attempted 714 passes last season, the most of any quarterback in the country. He threw for 4,597 yards, which ranked him just behind Derek Carr and Mannion, and there's no reason to expect anything different this season. All of Halliday's primary targets return and considering Wazzu's defense finished 102nd in the nation in yards allowed, let's just say it's not likely Leach will be looking to control the clock by running the football. In fact, don't be surprised if Halliday posts one of the "quietest" 4,500-plus-yard seasons in college football history.
Athlon Sports continues its series looking back the best players of the BCS Era (1998-2013). Today, the staff ranks the 10 best tight ends to play at least one season during the BCS Era.
Note: Florida's Aaron Hernandez was No. 5 initially but has been removed from the rankings by choice.
1. Chase Coffman, Missouri (2005-08)
Stats: 247 rec., 2,659 yds, 30 TDs
It didn’t take long for Tigers fans to see what they had in Coffman as he earned first-team Freshman All-American honors in 2005. He then broke Mizzou tight end receiving records with 58 receptions, 638 yards and nine touchdowns as just a sophomore. After two straight All-Big 12 seasons, Coffman claimed the John Mackey Award as a senior as the nation’s top tight end after posting 90 receptions, 987 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008. Missouri went 22-6 over his final two seasons in what many believe to be the best two-year run in program history. And the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Coffman was a huge part of that success.
2. Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma (2006-09)
Stats: 111 rec., 1,629 yds, 26 TDs
Had the 6-foot-6, 260-pound star tight end stayed healthy and played his fourth season at Oklahoma, Gresham likely would have been the best player at his position during the BCS era. He scored 25 touchdowns in two seasons as the starter from 2007-08 — just eight shy of the NCAA tight end record (33). His All-American junior season features Sooners' tight end records for yards (950) and touchdowns (14) — one shy of Mark Clayton’s all-time single-season record regardless of position. He was arguably the top playmaker for a Big 12 champion and BCS National Championship runner-up that year as well. His season-ending knee injury prior to the start of his 2009 campaign left those in Norman wondering what could have been.
3. Dallas Clark, Iowa (2000-02)
Stats: 77 rec., 1,251 yds, 8 TDs
The walk-on began his career as a linebacker but quickly developed into a star at tight end. He earned All-Big Ten recognition as a sophomore and then became the nation’s top tight end as a junior in 2002. The John Mackey Award winner caught 43 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns while helping Iowa (11-2) to a Big Ten co-championship and Orange Bowl berth. The dynamic in-state talent was a first-round pick and proved in the NFL that his college career was no fluke.
4. Heath Miller, Virginia (2002-04)
Stats: 144 rec., 1,703 yds, 20 TDs
Perhaps the greatest tight end in ACC history, Miller became the first player in league history to win the John Mackey Award in 2004. He wrote his name into the school and conference record books for receiving by a tight end, setting a new benchmark in all three major receiving categories despite only playing three seasons. However, it wasn’t just his elite receiving ability that made the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder one of the game’s best. Miller relished the blocking side of the game and his physicality and dependability is what has made the consensus All-American one of the NFL’s best tight ends for the last decade.
5. Marcedes Lewis, UCLA (2002-05)
Stats: 126 rec., 1,571 yds, 21 TDs
The red-zone touchdown machine improved his production each of his four seasons at UCLA, culminating with All-American and John Mackey honors as a senior in 2005. He set school records in all three major categories for a tight end that year and helped UCLA to its best record (10-2) since 1998. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound consensus All-American was a matchup nightmare for defenses and was the Pac-10’s best player at his position during the BCS era in a league known for its great tight ends.
6. Jeremy Shockey, Miami (2000-01)
Stats: 61 rec., 815 yds, 10 TDs
The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder was one of the most physically gifted players to ever play the position. He didn’t have the huge stats of other elite players but he was an All-American and helped Miami win the national title in 2001. He was one of three finalists for the Mackey Award before leaving school early to become a first-round NFL Draft pick.
7. Dennis Pitta, BYU (2004, '07-09)
Stats: 221 rec., 2,901 yds, 21 TDs
Few tight ends during the BCS era combine the statistical production, team success and overall NFL talent that Pitta did. He began his career as a freshman in 2004 before taking his Mormon mission and returning in 2007. His teams went 32-7 during his three-year starting career and few tight ends in the history of the sport have topped 200 catches, nearly 3,000 yards or 20 touchdowns — much less all three. He owns nearly every major receiving record at BYU for tight ends and is BYU’s all-time leading receiver with 221 receptions regardless of position. His 2,901 career receiving yards are an NCAA record for tight ends.
8. Travis Beckum, Wisconsin (2005-08)
Stats: 159 rec., 2,149 yds, 11 TDs
From a speed and agility standpoint, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound pass-catcher has few peers. One of the fastest and most dynamic tight ends in BCS history, Beckum switched to tight end as a sophomore and became a second-team All-American in just his first season playing the position. He posted back-to-back 900-yard seasons and saved his best games for the biggest competition (9 rec., 140 yds vs. Ohio State, 10 rec., 132 vs. Michigan State, for example). He was poised to set NCAA records for a tight end until a broken leg in Week 6 ended his college career. At a school known for elite All-American tight ends, Beckum was the most explosive, most talented and most productive.
9. D.J. Williams, Arkansas (2007-10)
Stats: 152 rec., 1,855 yds, 10 TDs
The star Razorback never had an 800-yard season, never caught more than 61 passes and never scored more than four times in a year, but Williams is one of the BCS’s best. His career numbers are excellent and he was extremely dependable for three full seasons for the Hogs. His career culminated in a John Mackey Award in 2010 and helped lead Arkansas to 10 wins and a Sugar Bowl berth.
10. James Casey, Rice (2007-08)
Stats: 157 rec., 1,914 yds, 17 TDs, 362 rush, 11 TDs, 2 TD passes
Affectionately known as “Thor,” no other tight end during the BCS era was as versatile and productive in two seasons as Casey. He didn’t face elite competition, obviously, but no tight end has ever put together a season like Thor did in 2008: 111 rec., 1,329 yards, 13 TDs, 241 yards rushing, 6 TDs, 14 punt returns for 112 yards and even two touchdown passes. He was the No. 1 overall college fantasy player in 2008 regardless of position (yes, that includes quarterbacks) and it has to be considered the best season for a tight end in NCAA history.
Just missed the cut:
11. Kellen Winslow, Miami (2001-03)
Stats: 119 rec., 1,365 yds, 9 TDs
Bizarre post-game interviews aside, Winslow was a monster on the field at Miami. He played a small role on the national championship team in 2001 and was a huge force — 57 rec., 726 yds, 8 TD — on the '02 team that was defeated by Ohio State in the title game. He was a consensus All-American and John Mackey Award winner despite just one touchdown catch in 2003.
12. Martin Rucker, Missouri (2004-07)
Stats: 203 rec., 2,175 yds, 18 TDs
The complementary piece to Coffman at Mizzou was Rucker, a star from St. Joseph’s (Mo.) Benton. Playing three years with Coffman, Rucker is one of the just five tight ends on this list who topped 200 receptions and one of just 10 names on this list with 2,000 yards. He was a consensus All-American and senior leader for a 12-2 Tigers team that finished fourth in the AP poll.
13. Jason Witten, Tennessee (2000-02)
Stats: 68 rec., 797 yds, 7 TDs
The numbers were never huge, but Witten is clearly one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the sport. He never missed a game during his three-year career at Tennessee and helped the Vols to a 27-11 record and an SEC East championship. From a dual-threat (blocking and receiving) perspective, Witten might be the best tight end to play the game during the BCS era.
14. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington (2011-13)
Stats: 146 rec., 1,840 yds, 21 TDs
There is some projecting with ASJ, but he has already broken most school tight end records and will make a push this fall for the John Mackey Award. He was the No. 1 TE recruit in the nation two years ago and is poised for one of the greatest careers in Huskies history.
15. Ron Gronkowski, Arizona (2007-08)
Stats: 75 rec., 1,197 yds, 16 TDs
The Gronk played just 20 career college games but was a touchdown machine in college well before setting NFL tight end touchdown records. Unfortunately, the 'Zona tight end missed all of the 2009 season after preseason back surgery after being named a preseason first-team All-American and the Mackey Award frontrunner.
16. Fred Davis, USC (2004-07)
Stats: 117 rec., 1,408 yds, 13 TDs
It took some time for Davis to develop, especially considering the wide receiver talent asking for the football at USC during his career. But when he made his mark as a senior in 2007 it was as the best tight end in the nation. He won the John Mackey Award that year and was an All-American. He played in two national title games, winning one as a freshman in 2004.
17. Zach Miller, Arizona State (2004-06)
Stats: 144 rec., 1,512 yds, 14 TDs
Miller gets a slight nod over fellow Sun Devil Todd Heap due to slightly better production and All-American recognition. He is the school’s all-time leading receiver at the tight end position and consistently made big plays for his offense. He was one of three Mackey finalists in 2006.
18. Todd Heap, Arizona State (1998-2000)
Stats: 112 rec., 1,658 yds, 10 TDs
Arguing between Miller and Heap is futile. Both were great players and Heap’s NFL career proved his school records were legitimate. The “Golden Retriever” was a two-time All-Pac-10 performer who was as dependable as any player at his position.
19. Dwayne Allen, Clemson (2009-11)
Stats: 93 rec., 1,079 yds, 12 TDs
A consensus All-American, Allen was one of the most clutch performers in the game during his time at Clemson. When the Tigers needed a big play on third down or in the red zone, Allen was the go-to target. He claimed the Mackey Award as a junior, was an All-American and helped Clemson win its first ACC title in two decades in 2010.
20. Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame (2008-10)
Stats: 90 rec., 1,032 yds, 8 TDs
He missed some time as a sophomore and junior but when he was on the field, he was virtually uncoverable. He was also the first true freshman tight end to start every game as a true freshman. Rudolph went on to be a second round NFL Draft pick in 2011.
21. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame (2010-12)*
22. Daniel Graham, Colorado (1998-2001)
23. Matt Spaeth, Minnesota (2003-06)
24. Vernon Davis, Maryland (2003-05)
25. Tim Stratton, Purdue (1998-2001)
26. Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State (2005-08)
27. Dustin Keller, Purdue (2004-07)
28. Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin (2008-10)
29. Garrett Graham, Wisconsin (2007-09)
30. Ladarius Green, UL-Lafayette (2008-11)