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The driver known to legions of race fans simply as “Junior” turned 40 in 2014, but Earnhardt appeared rejuvenated. With four victories, he doubled his total with Hendrick Motorsports and completed his best season across the board in a decade. Earnhardt drew first blood in the new “win and you’re in” Chase format, capturing the Daytona 500, and he crossed an item off his personal bucket list when he won the fall race at Martinsville.
Earnhardt had extra incentive to win races and contend for his first Cup title. Early in 2014, crew chief Steve Letarte announced that he’d be stepping down at season’s end to pursue a career in television. Earnhardt, who credits Letarte with salvaging his Cup career, wanted his longtime partner to go out on a high note.
It was a run of bad luck in the Chase that kept the third-generation driver from holding the big trophy, part of a shocking Chase in which all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers — winners of 13 of 36 races in 2014 — failed to make the Final Four at Homestead.
Following those results, the organization hopes a new personnel mix will change its luck in 2015. Of course, there will be a new voice in Earnhardt’s head, as Greg Ives steps in for Letarte. Ives, who guided Chase Elliott to the 2014 Nationwide Series title, was the engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s team before teaming with Elliott. He’s a product of the Hendrick system and should fit well with Earnhardt, who excels with a crew chief who keeps him focused on the big picture. Ives, who shadowed Letarte for the better half of 2014, is already well integrated with Earnhardt, a driver who needs time to build confidence in this type of relationship. While Ives is not as much of a cheerleader on top of the box, the hope is that Earnhardt has matured enough in the past few years that he no longer will need his crew chief to motivate him.
Earnhardt is a good fit in the Hendrick Motorsports stable. He and Jimmie Johnson work well together, and the two like a similar feel in their cars. Hendrick gives them the best equipment money can buy in both chassis and engines. The pit crew, typically strong, will be the only piece of the puzzle that’s a bit untested. Three of Earnhardt’s over-the-wall members, along with car chief Jason Burdett, have moved on post-Letarte.
Earnhardt will have new backing this year from Nationwide Insurance, which joins his team for 21 races, replacing the National Guard. Diet Mountain Dew and AMP Energy drink return as well, although the organization is still looking for additional backing. The struggle to fund Earnhardt, a perennial choice by fans as the series’ Most Popular Driver, is puzzling at best, concerning for NASCAR at worst.
Here’s the key number for Earnhardt: zero, the number of victories he’s earned for each season he debuts with a new crew chief. Earnhardt should make the Chase, however he likely won’t start jelling perfectly with this new pairing until 2016.
Taking advantage Earnhardt benefited from Hendrick horsepower in his sweep of the Pocono races and up-front runs at Michigan and Indianapolis in 2014. If it appears that his Hendrick team has its usual advantage in the motor department, he’ll be a favorite during the summer portion of the schedule.
Daytona stealth His Daytona 500 win was atypical because he led 54 laps en route to the win. It was the only race in his last six Daytona attempts that he led a single lap. His 14th-place finish after averaging a 26.2-place running position in the July race was more like the current iteration of Earnhardt at DIS.
Strong closer The ends of races tend to work in Earnhardt’s favor. The diligent closer gained 1.9 and 1.1 positions in the final tenth of races in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Nationwide Insurance, Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy, Kelley Blue Book
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Greg Ives
Year With Current Team: 8th
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 3rd (2003)
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: Oct. 10, 1974
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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Jeff Gordon’s season was lost in a matter of moments — but boy, what a season it was. His four wins were the most he had posted in a single year since his dominant 2007 campaign, and his 10.4 average finish was the best among all drivers in 2014. Gordon, who turned 43 years old in August, looked more like the driver of his youth than he has in nearly a decade.
It was a cut tire at Texas that cost Gordon his championship chance, as he rubbed fenders while fighting for the lead. But what made Gordon a contender in the first place was that he was a threat to win almost anywhere. From short tracks to road courses to superspeedways, the No. 24 team was fighting for victories virtually every time they dropped the green. That versatility has been a hallmark of Gordon’s career; he doesn’t have a weakness in terms of racetracks. He has wins on every track he’s visited as a Sprint Cup driver with the lone exception of Kentucky Speedway, which was only added to the schedule four seasons ago.
Throughout his career, Gordon has enjoyed remarkable stability, and nothing has changed for the four-time champion entering 2015. Gordon has driven his entire career for Hendrick Motorsports, an organization with more than 200 Cup wins and 11 championships; it had 31 and 0, respectively, when he joined the fold for 1993.
Gordon announced in late January that 2015 would be his last season as a full-time driver behind the wheel of the No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports. With this the final 36-race season for Gordon, there's plenty of added pressure for this team to send the Indiana native out as a champion. Chase Elliott will replace Gordon next season as a full-time driver for Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon’s equipment remains a step ahead of the competition with the cash to stay there. Gordon finished every race in 2014, a testament to the durability of his No. 24 cars. Hendrick horsepower is some of the best in the business, and it’s likely that new rules changes will play to the strengths of this organization. Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, is typically the best at finding solutions, and that information will filter down to the Hendrick shops.
One area that won’t be a problem is financial backing. Axalta Coating Systems, primary sponsor for 10 races this year, bought out DuPont’s automotive paint division a few years ago. DuPont was Gordon’s first Sprint Cup sponsor, now on the car for 20-plus years. Few drivers have enjoyed that kind of loyalty from a backer. Also returning are AARP’s Drive to End Hunger (13 races), Pepsi (two races), and Panasonic (two races). Rounding out the sponsorship will be 3M, on board for 11 events.
Gordon’s team remains intact with crew chief Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Gordon’s pit crew was strong in 2014, and Gustafson knows how to come to the track prepared. In-race, the two work well together; Gustafson is more of a technical guy than a coach, and that fits Gordon, who doesn’t need a cheerleader but rather a crew chief who can take feedback and turn it into performance.
If there’s a question mark for 2015, it’s Gordon’s health. The driver has been plagued by back problems for years, and while he’s driven through them, there have been times when he hasn’t looked like the aggressive, skilled driver who has racked up more than 90 career wins.
Another roadblock for Gordon has been the Chase system, which he has never been able to master. Without these changes to the postseason format, it’s widely speculated that Gordon would have seven Cup titles in hand; he earned the most points under a season-long format in 2004, ’07, and ’14. There are other variables there, but the fact remains that the titles have eluded Gordon under NASCAR’s playoff system. Some might say he’s not aggressive enough; even after Texas, Gordon could have advanced to the Final Four at Phoenix, but he failed to rough up Kevin Harvick down the stretch.
Whether or not he wins another championship, Gordon has earned his place as the best of his era. He’ll be worth watching this year for another reason, too. Sitting eight victories shy of 100 career Cup wins, he’d be the first to hit the century mark entirely inside the sport’s modern era. He won’t likely get there this season, but as he approaches triple digits, expect the old fire to ignite. The chances for title No. 5 are running out for Gordon, who knows he can’t let another season like 2014 just slip away.
The planets aligned Gordon averaged a single-digit running position in 25 of 36 races in 2014, up from 15 in 2013. His focus on winning the title and a rules change that catered to drivers with a preference for tight-handling cars played into Gordon’s favor last year. It’s no guarantee that everything will just fall into place for him again this season.
Hendrick horsepower The summer stretch of the schedule caters to powerful engines, and Gordon benefited from having Hendrick power plants last year, winning at 2.5-mile Indianapolis and two-mile Michigan. He’s a good bet to shine again at these facilities. He averaged a 5.8-place finish at non-restrictor plate tracks two miles or longer.
Plate track problems His worst track type is the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. He averaged a finish of 20.3 in the point-paying races there last year.
No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: AARP/Drive To End Hunger, 3M, Axalta, PepsiMax, Panasonic
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Year With Current Team: 23rd
Under Contract Through: Lifetime
Best Points Finish: 1st (Four Times)
Hometown: Pittsboro, Ind.
Born: Aug. 4, 1971
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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Teams have started to report to spring training in Florida and Arizona, which means the 2015 MLB season has officially begun. Opening Day is still six weeks away, but here are 15 storylines to whet your appetite between now and then.
1. He’s the Manfred
Baseball hasn’t started a season with a new commissioner since 1993, the spring after Bud Selig took over for the ousted Fay Vincent. Massive changes followed in the next few years: realignment, a strike that wiped out a World Series, wild cards, interleague play and expansion, all while the steroid issue bubbled to the surface. Selig stepped down in January, and his successor, Rob Manfred, seems less inclined to implement radical change to a game that is booming financially. Then again, Manfred has been coy about his plans. After owners elected him as commissioner-elect last August, Manfred would not identify any priorities: “I think probably the single biggest challenge is filling the shoes of the gentleman standing to my right,” he said, referring to Selig. “He’s established a great tradition of unity among the 30 clubs, and I’m going to work very hard to try to maintain that.” In a way, Manfred is right. For all of Selig’s obvious successes, his greatest skills were political, steering a group of owners with competing interests to a common cause while ending with 20 years of labor peace. But fans want to see more than maintenance, and Manfred will need to find ways to speed up a game that is getting ever slower; revive flagging national TV viewership (although local viewership is strong); make the amateur game safer for pitchers and more accessible to low-income athletes; resolve the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay; negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement in 2016; and so on. He inherits a healthier industry than Selig did, but the agenda is already full.
2. Miami Millions
The Miami Marlins’ megacontract for Giancarlo Stanton (13 years, $325 million) was not even official before folks began wondering how long Stanton would actually stay. Such is the skepticism around the Marlins, who have a history of aggressive spending and equally aggressive dismantling. It’s also a fair question because of Stanton’s opt-out clause after 2020. For now, though, the money will catapult Stanton to a new level of stardom and celebrity, and it will be interesting to see the kind of image he cultivates with that platform. Far more compelling, though, is that vicious Stanton swing, the kind that launches majestic drives over any outfield wall and connects at a higher rate than just about any other slugger. He’s an edge-of-your-seat performer in person, and if you’ve got tickets to a Marlins game, be sure to get there for his batting practice. You won’t regret it.
3. Dodgers Brainpower
The Dodgers have proven at least two things since their new owners took over during the 2012 season: They know how to win the National League West, and, boy, can they write checks. They’d like to continue doing the first without doing as much of the second. To that end, they hired two maestros of small-market success — Andrew Friedman, the former general manager of the Rays, and Farhan Zaidi, the assistant to Billy Beane in Oakland. Friedman is the president of baseball operations, Zaidi is the GM, and Josh Byrnes, the former San Diego general manager, is also on board as “senior vice president of baseball operations.” That’s a big group of smart, innovative thinkers with years of experience handling small payrolls. Now that they have much more money, will they stay as disciplined in seeking and exploiting market inefficiencies? What kind of edge will the team gain from their knowledge of statistics? And will Don Mattingly, a manager they did not hire, be on board? As a concept, this sounds promising. But the Dodgers, despite October letdowns, are starting from a high point. So the pressure’s on for the new front office to win big — right away.
4. (More) Cuban Imports
Jose Abreu became the latest, and most successful, Cuban defector to hit the majors last season, winning the Rookie of the Year award for the White Sox while leading the majors in slugging. His example helped Rusney Castillo get a $72.5 million contract from the Red Sox in August, and Yasmany Tomas land a $68.5 million pact from the Diamondbacks in December. The secret is out: Cuban sluggers like Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig are a safe buy, and Castillo and Tomas will try to become the latest. Castillo played for the Red Sox in September and, like Tomas, profiles as a slugger with speed who can cover ground in the outfield. But teams and fans won’t really know until we see them more consistently. The contracts are largely based on faith, with teams having few opportunities to see these players in high-level competition before signing them. Someday, one will be a bust. But the air of mystery surrounding them and the possibility of Abreu-like success make Castillo and Tomas especially intriguing to watch.
5. How the Astros Handle the Draft
For the first time since 2011, the Houston Astros will not be picking first in the June draft. The Diamondbacks will choose first, but the Astros will be right behind them, as compensation for failing to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken, a high school pitcher, last summer. The Astros will also pick fifth overall, giving them two of the top five selections and a chance at an unprecedented haul of top-end amateur talent. The Astros have passed on Byron Buxton and Kris Bryant at the top of recent drafts — taking Carlos Correa and Mark Appel instead — so their choices will be intriguing no matter what. But this year, they will bear even closer scrutiny by the union, which was furious last summer after the Astros backed out of an agreement with their fifth-round pick, pitcher Jacob Nix, whose bonus amount was tied to Aiken’s. The Astros will have a bountiful pool of bonus money to use on their picks, and the way they allot it will be just as fascinating as the players they select.
Related: A Look Back at the 2005 MLB Draft
6. Will the Mets Pass the Yankees?
The Mets and the Yankees awoke last Sept. 10 to a strange reality — both teams were exactly five and a half games out of a playoff spot. The story was a source of amusement in New York, another way to make fun of the Mets (do you believe the Yankees are this bad?), and by the end of the year the teams were in their regular roles: the Yankees with a winning record, the Mets a losing record. But neither team made the playoffs, and while the Yankees struggle to break free of their over-the-hill character, the Mets may finally have found the right mix of veterans and prime-age, ascending talent to go with their core of emerging pitchers. The Mets have a streak of six losing seasons in a row (tied with Houston for the majors’ longest), and the Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992, so this might be a longshot. But it would be foolish to bet on the Yankees’ older, declining hitters suddenly rediscovering the best versions of themselves, and the Mets can dream on catcher Travis d’Arnaud, first baseman Lucas Duda and Gold Glove center fielder Juan Lagares. Veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer — David Wright’s childhood friend from Virginia — offers nice value for two years and $21 million, and a rotation led by Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom, with top prospect Noah Syndergaard nearly ready, could be a legitimate force. The results still have to show it, but for real baseball optimism in New York, Citi Field is now the place to be.
7. Montreal Momentum?
For the second year in a row, baseball will hold two exhibition games in Montreal at the end of spring training, this time with games between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cincinnati Reds. Last year’s games, between the Blue Jays and the Mets, drew more than 96,000 fans and fueled hope that MLB could return to the city that hosted the Expos from 1969-2004. “I think they would be an excellent candidate in the future,” Bud Selig said in July, at his final All-Star game as commissioner. “No question about it.” Of course, there is one overriding question — how will the city build and finance a viable alternative to decrepit Olympic Stadium, where the Expos failed to draw 1 million fans in their final seven seasons? Until that question can be answered, it’s still a fantasy. But the Tampa Bay Rays are suffering from chronically poor attendance, an outmoded stadium and an exodus of talent from the clubhouse and the field. The Rays maintain they have not discussed relocation, but as long as baseball stays at 30 teams, the failure of the Tampa Bay franchise seems like the best hope for Montreal. Former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie has been arranging a local coalition of politicians and businessmen looking for an opportunity to bring a team back. Again, a lot must take place for this to happen, but the trend lines could be pointing Montreal’s way.
8. Back in Action
Though the incidence of the injury mercifully slowed as the summer went along, the torn ulnar collateral ligament was the story of the early 2014 season, claiming Jose Fernandez (left), Matt Moore (right), Jarrod Parker, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Brandon Beachy, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Griffin, Ivan Nova, Bruce Rondon and Luke Hochevar. All of them needed Tommy John surgery, like the Mets’ Matt Harvey, who spent the season recovering from his Oct. 2013 procedure. Harvey should be ready to go at the start of spring training, and the others should come along soon after. Major League Baseball formed a task force and a website in November to address the issue, aimed largely at keeping amateur elbows healthy. The results of those efforts, which include formal, coordinated recommendations and several research projects, will take years to see. For now, we are eager for the return of the missing pitchers, especially Harvey and Fernandez, two of the more dynamic young righthanders in the game. This could be a transition year for both, but at least they will be back on the mound, hopefully working back to the form that offered such promise.
9. Free Agent Pitchers
It’s impossible to predict who will be traded during the season, but a useful place to start is by looking at the upcoming free agent class. And next winter, barring contract extensions, it will be loaded with starting pitchers, including David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Cliff Lee, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Rick Porcello, Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir and Mat Latos. That’s more than two rotations’ worth of high-quality starters. Some of them may sign new deals before free agency, some may stay with their teams through the end of the season, and some may be traded. All will bear watching to see how their stock changes before their status does, but expect to hear a lot about Cueto, especially. Cueto, the Reds ace who finished as the runner-up for the NL Cy Young, will need a deal larger than that of teammate Homer Bailey, who somehow scored a six-year, $105 million contract before last season. Can the small-market Reds, who also have Joey Votto on an exorbitant contract, really afford another mega-deal? Likewise, while the White Sox acted boldly to trade for Samardzija, who grew up a fan of the team, they’ve never given out a $100 million contract. If Samardzija pitches well and the White Sox struggle, they might have to consider flipping him to a contender. And if Lee proves that his elbow is healthy, the clearly rebuilding Phillies will be eager to move him — though the structure of Lee’s deal (with a $12.5 million buyout for 2016, if a $27.5 million option does not vest) will limit the return they can get.
10. Pedro Martinez’s Hall of Fame Speech
When the mood struck Pedro Martinez, the great righthander could be just as entertaining behind a microphone as he was on the pitcher’s mound. He could wax nostalgic, reminiscing about his boyhood under the mango trees in the Dominican Republic. He could turn feisty, challenging Babe Ruth to rise from the grave and grab a bat. He could be creatively conciliatory, calling the Yankees his daddy after another rough game. Martinez showed the depth of his insights on the modern game during TBS’ postseason coverage, and he has always had a deep respect for baseball history. As a new inductee to the Hall of Fame, Martinez will bring his best stuff to Cooperstown for his induction ceremony in late July. Expect richly detailed memories, unfiltered opinion, fanciful wordplay and a whole lot of emotion.
11. Broken Hearts in the Desert?
Tony La Russa used most of last season to survey what he had with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hired the Hall of Famer to oversee their baseball operations after a disastrous start. En route to an MLB-worst 98 losses, La Russa decided to replace general manager Kevin Towers with the ace of his old Oakland teams, Dave Stewart. A rookie manager, Chip Hale, takes over for Kirk Gibson. Now the Diamondbacks have to get real. One of Stewart’s first moves was to trade prospects for Jeremy Hellickson, the former Rookie of the Year for the Rays, who has a 5.00 ERA the last two seasons. La Russa’s former pitching coach, Dave Duncan, works for him in Arizona and turned around Stewart’s career in the mid-1980s. Perhaps he can work his magic on Hellickson and other Diamondbacks, because without some unforeseen surge, it’s hard to picture this team as a contender for 2015. Arizona’s 4.26 staff ERA ranked 14th in the NL, and the offense has little to fear besides Paul Goldschmidt, Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas (if he’s as good as advertised) and the big-power, on-base-challenged Mark Trumbo. But La Russa and his staff are dedicated to quickly reviving the Diamondbacks. As he told Arizona reporters in November: “I will be absolutely brokenhearted if we don’t have a winning record next year, which is 82–80. … I think the message that we’re careful to send to our fans is that we are not a patient bunch.” La Russa knows more baseball than just about anyone alive, but quick fixes rarely seem to work.
12. Royal Revolution, or just a KC Thing?
The Royals insist they were not trying to reinvent the game with their style of play while winning the American League pennant last season. General manager Dayton Moore’s disciplined, single-minded mission to acquire athletic players with speed who excelled on defense was born of necessity. Kauffman Stadium’s outfield has the most square footage of any park in the majors, and the Royals need fielders who can cover it. They also need runners who can take extra bases when balls go in those gaps — and speed, of course, helps on defense and never goes into a slump. Such players are more cost-effective than power hitters, anyway, and they generally offer the added benefit of contact hitting. This is a lost art in baseball, but the Royals do it well, and it drove opponents crazy in the postseason. Kansas City hitters had the majors’ fewest strikeouts in an era when strikeouts rise across baseball every year. Will other teams take notice of the Royals’ success — their lack of empty at-bats — and preach contact? Or will the industry keep desperately pursuing home runs in an era of declining power? Moore isn’t sure. “You can only understand from your own perspective and what you have to do for your team,” he said. “It’s hard to say what someone else should do or how they should build their team. For us, it’s just the way we all set out to do it.”
13. The Crowds in Cleveland
On a pillar in the second deck in Cleveland, above right field, is the number 455 and the words, THE FANS. The Indians “retired” that number in 2001 to recognize the 455-game sellout streak that accompanied the team’s recent glory years. It took a unique set of circumstances for that streak to happen — a new downtown ballpark, the departure of the Browns, a boring Cavaliers team and, of course, a winning product on the field. Now, the ballpark is familiar, the Browns are back and the Cavaliers are exciting. But the Indians are winning again — and the fans don’t seem to notice. Only the Rays and the Indians drew average crowds under 20,000 last season. The Indians have been hurt by the changing economy in Cleveland — 20 years ago, there were 100,000 more people who worked downtown — and have embarked on a two-year renovation plan that will eliminate 7,000 seats at Progressive Field, which remains a wonderful place to watch a ballgame. Terry Francona’s team has two of baseball’s best players in outfielder Michael Brantley and AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, who leads an intriguing rotation. The Indians have raised their payroll in recent seasons, won a wild card in 2013 and came close in 2014. If they contend for a third year in a row, will the fans respond? And if not, what more can the team do to entice them?
14. Bryce Harper
Baseball got a seven-game World Series to close out the postseason, and in the process found an October icon in Madison Bumgarner of the Giants. But the championship series and World Series were largely devoid of young, marketable superstars with potential to resonate beyond the baseball world. This was not the fault of Bryce Harper, the 22-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder, who seemed poised to break out in a big way. Harper crunched three home runs in the division series against the Giants, showing off the kind of monstrous power that can captivate the casual fan. The Nationals are strong but have not escaped the first round in two trips to the postseason. Likewise, Harper is enormously talented but has not escaped the injury bug in his young career. His high-energy (some would say reckless) style has led to injuries in the field and on the bases, and Harper has no plans to change. In short, he’s the perfect player to dream on: He’s offered us a taste of what he can do, while leaving us eager to see more. And if Harper can lead a Washington team to a World Series title for the first time in 90 years? Then we’ve got a legend in the making.
15. Padres Cycle or No-Hitter
This is one of those baseball oddities that defies explanation. How could a franchise exist for 46 seasons and not once, in more than 7,000 games, have a player hit for the cycle or a pitcher throw a no-hitter? It’s happened to the San Diego Padres. Of course, the Padres have not been big winners, with two pennants and no championships in all that time. But they’ve had their share of stars, too, and simply by showing up for all those games, you would think at least one of those feats would have happened. The Padres have had close calls, including a near-cycle last year by Tommy Medica, who missed by a single in May. For the record, there have been 120 no-hitters and 140 cycles since the start of the 1969 season — and because of the lightning-bolt nature of those events, few, if anyone, predicted they would happen before those games began. But just for fun, we’ll keep an eye on Andrew Cashner, the big righthander with overpowering stuff. Cashner struggles to stay healthy; he’s 28 years old but has never made more than 26 starts in a season. Yet he pitched one-hit and two-hit shutouts last year, and once faced the minimum 27 batters in a one-hitter. When he’s on, he’s always got a chance to make history.
— Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports
This season, it’s championship or bust for Carl Edwards.
That NASCAR’s most natural pitchman has lofty expectations in plain view for 2015 isn’t much of a surprise. Optimism and external motivation are hallmarks of Edwards’ personality.
But it is interesting to hear the two-time Chase runner-up talk so candidly about his expectations in 2015 after an offseason of such significant change. Edwards, 35, will drive the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing this season after a decade of driving Fords for Roush Fenway Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.
It’s a big move, no doubt, but to Edwards, it’s one that had to happen. The theory is that a new environment, after years of stagnation, gives the driver an automatic boost.
“Matt Kenseth’s move, Kevin (Harvick)’s move, Joey (Logano)’s move — when I talked to (Roush Fenway Racing President) Steve Newman and Jack Roush about my decision, those guys were evidence that sometimes change on its own can spur performance,” Edwards says. “I’m hoping that it works that way for me.”
That trio’s success could mark a shift in thinking that’s emblematic of NASCAR’s decades-long push for on-track parity — a movement that has pushed every well-funded, competitive team within tight technical parameters and minimal setup diversity. No longer does a crew chief have to find the optimal way to communicate with a driver to maximize performance. The team leader just has to make sure that a team of engineers can appropriately mesh on-car data acquisition with driver feedback, and then he has to hope that the team’s overall approach isn’t lagging behind the competition. If that all goes well, then the driver’s heavy lifting gets a bit easier.
Edwards also sees NASCAR’s newest championship format — the revised Chase for the Sprint Cup featuring a regular season, three elimination rounds and a final best-finisher-take-all race — as another hurdle eliminated in the process of reaching the sport’s greenest pasture with a new team.
“I don’t have to perfectly mesh with everyone or figure out the race cars right away,” Edwards says. “All I have to do is get a win in the regular season and be at top form at race 36. I’m certain, that as a driver, I can do that.”
The process Edwards speaks of is very similar to how Harvick won the 2014 title. Harvick won twice early in 2014 and ran relatively well for the entire season, but he hit rocky stretches in which mechanical issues, bad luck and pit crew problems knocked him from contention on a seemingly weekly basis. The wins, however, provided his team with the championship eligibility safety net. By race No. 27, the team was firing on all cylinders.
But Harvick also had the benefit of an open testing policy that’s been completely shelved in 2015, turning laps in his new No. 4 just weeks after his stint with Richard Childress Racing ended. Edwards’ only time on the track with his new JGR team will come on race weekends, NASCAR-scheduled test sessions and an occasional Goodyear tire test.
To make up the difference, Edwards is expecting that the opportunity to work again with Kenseth — they were teammates at RFR from 2004-12 — at JGR will shorten the learning curve. Their reunion may rekindle memories of a time when the two didn’t get along so well — including an awkward post-race incident at Martinsville Speedway in 2007 — but Edwards insists that the relationship has improved. “There were times when we didn’t get along, but that’s ancient history,” Edwards says. “He’s a guy I really look up to.”
Edwards will start the season with Darian Grubb as crew chief. There’s irony here as the duo once battled when Grubb led Tony Stewart’s team, winning the 2011 title that Edwards lost on a tiebreaker. Grubb is a strong engineer who will help a new team get off the ground. His chemistry with Edwards is unknown, but keep in mind that he’s got wins with three of the best in the business: Denny Hamlin, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.
Then, there’s owner Joe Gibbs, one of NASCAR’s best, who waited nearly a decade to expand from three teams to four. He wanted the perfect financial combination (in this case, ARRIS and Stanley Tools) paired with the right driver capable of contending immediately. Expectations for the new No. 19 will be high.
“To us, to me, that championship is it,” Edwards says. “Anything less and I won’t be satisfied.”
Needs some speed Roush Fenway’s No. 99 car ranked 18th in average green-flag speed, per NASCAR. Joe Gibbs Racing cars should supply Edwards with a jolt in the speed department.
Road course standout Edwards averaged a third-place finish last year at the road courses and scored his first career road course win at Sonoma.
Still a threat on the quad-ovals Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta proved comfortable for Edwards during a down 2014 season. The fast intermediates were his best oval track type per average finish (7.5) and saw him close adeptly, gaining 37 positions in the final tenth of races.
Positive regression forthcoming His 135 laps led in 2014 were his fewest in a season since becoming a full-time Cup Series driver in 2005. It’s doubtful he’ll perform that poorly again, especially in JGR equipment.
No. 19 Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing
Primary Sponsors: ARRIS, Stanley
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
Year With Current Team: 1st
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 2nd (2008, ’11)
Hometown: Columbia, Mo.
Born: Aug. 15, 1979
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
College football’s spring practice session is already underway for some teams, which means the countdown to the 2015 season can officially start.
Quarterback play is always under a microscope and several playoff or conference title contenders are breaking in a new starter in 2015. While pinpointing breakout players is easier after spring practice, it’s never too early to examine some of the top rising stars at quarterback.
The list of quarterbacks on the rise takes into account players that were not a starter for a full season of games in 2014.
10 College Football Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2015
Kyle Allen, Texas A&M
Since joining the SEC in 2012, the Aggies have averaged 41.3 points per game. Life after Johnny Manziel presented a few challenges in 2014, but the arrow on Texas A&M’s offense is pointing up headed into 2015. Allen started the final five games for coach Kevin Sumlin, including a four-touchdown performance against Auburn and a 294-yard effort against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. The Arizona native finished 2014 with 1,322 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. Allen will be pushed by talented freshman Kyler Murray this offseason, but the edge in experience should help the sophomore hold onto the starting job. With a talented receiving corps returning, Texas A&M’s passing offense should be among the SEC’s best once again in 2015.
Mike Bercovici, Arizona State
Bercovici steps into the spotlight in 2015 as he assumes the keys to Arizona State’s high-powered offense from Taylor Kelly. The California native is already a known commodity for coordinator Mike Norvell, as Bercovici started three games in place of Kelly due to injury in 2014. Bercovici torched USC for 510 yards and five scores and threw for 245 yards and one touchdown in a 26-10 win over Stanford last year. In his Arizona State career, Bercovici has thrown for 1,478 yards and 12 scores. He also boasts a 62.2 percent completion percentage and produced three passing plays of 40 yards or more in 2014. The Sun Devils will miss receiver Jaelen Strong, but Bercovici is more than capable of keeping Arizona State’s passing attack firing on all cylinders.
Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee
The insertion of Dobbs into the starting lineup in late October sparked Tennessee to a 4-2 finish over its last six games. The Georgia native threw for 192 yards against Alabama after replacing Nathan Peterman in the first half and guided the Volunteers to a 45-42 upset win over South Carolina by accumulating 467 total yards and five scores. Dobbs also played well in the bowl win over Iowa by accounting for 205 yards and three scores. The junior should have more help from his supporting cast in 2015, as Tennessee should be healthier at receiver, and a young offensive line has a full offseason to grow. Dobbs should push for All-SEC honors in 2015.
Jeremy Johnson, Auburn
Johnson varies slightly in style to former starter Nick Marshall, but Auburn’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat in 2015. The Alabama native ranked as the No. 11 pro-style quarterback in the 2013 signing class and has played well in limited action over the last two years. Johnson completed 29 of 41 passes for 422 yards and six scores in 2013 and threw for 436 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. He also has two starts under his belt, including one against Arkansas (2014). Johnson may not have the dynamic mobility of Marshall, but the junior is going to have a huge season directing the offense for coach Gus Malzahn.
Josh Rosen, UCLA
Perhaps it’s too early to place much pressure on Rosen, but there’s little doubt the freshman is ready to push for the starting job at UCLA in 2015. With Brett Hundley off to the NFL, the Bruins have an open battle for the quarterback spot this spring, with Jerry Neuheisel and Rosen considered the favorites. Rosen ranked as the No. 12 overall recruit and as a five-star prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite. While Neuheisel has the edge in experience, Rosen has more overall talent and upside. And since he enrolled in time to compete this spring, Rosen should have plenty of time to pickup the UCLA offense. Needless to say, the future is bright for the Bruins with Rosen at the helm.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
It’s no coincidence Oklahoma State’s improvement on offense late in the year came with Rudolph at the helm. The Cowboys scored at least 30 points in five games against Power 5 opponents. Rudolph was the quarterback for two of those efforts, including an impressive 38-35 win over Oklahoma and a 30-22 bowl win over Washington. The South Carolina native finished 2014 with 853 passing yards and six scores in three appearances. Rudolph needs more help from his supporting cast in 2015, but the potential is certainly there for the sophomore to earn All-Big 12 honors.
Seth Russell, Baylor
Over the last five seasons, Baylor’s starting quarterback has averaged 4,031 yards and 30 touchdowns. With Bryce Petty off to the NFL, the keys to a high-powered offense are in Russell’s hands. Of course, he has to hold off a challenge this offseason from sophomore Chris Johnson and talented true freshman Jarrett Stidham. However, there’s a clear edge in experience for Russell, as he has one start under his belt and completed 48 of 85 passes in 2014. The Texas native torched Northwestern State for five scores and 438 yards last year and completed 8 of 17 passes for 82 yards in relief of Petty against Texas Tech. With one of the nation’s top receiving corps in place, Russell – if he wins the job – will be next standout quarterback for coach Art Briles.
Greg Ward, Houston
New coach Tom Herman has to be excited about Ward’s potential in 2015. The converted receiver replaced John O’Korn under center and started the final eight games at quarterback. Ward showcased his dual-threat potential in the bowl win over Pittsburgh, throwing for 274 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 92 yards on 14 attempts. He also passed for 360 yards against Cincinnati and 336 against Tulane and finished the year with 573 rushing yards and 2,010 through the air. Ward is far from a finished product, but the potential is there for a monster season in Herman’s offense for the Cougars in 2015.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Clemson has won at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons and has a good shot at extending that streak to five in 2015. Watson is the biggest reason for optimism and potential at contending for the ACC Championship, as the sophomore is expected to be at full strength in his recovery from a torn ACL by the season opener. The Georgia native ranked as the No. 41 recruit in the 2014 signing class and completed 93 of 137 passes for 1,466 yards and 14 scores in his debut. Watson also rushed for 200 yards and five scores last season. The departure of coordinator Chad Morris was a big loss for Clemson, but with Watson’s return and a talented group of skill players, the Tigers will be among the ACC’s best on offense in 2015.
Malik Zaire, Notre Dame
Zaire isn’t guaranteed the starting job for 2015, as Everett Golson remains in the mix after throwing for 3,445 yards last season and enters next season with 23 starts under his belt. However, all signs point to Zaire emerging as Notre Dame’s No. 1 option under center. In seven appearances last season, Zaire completed 21 of 35 passes for 266 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for 187 yards and two scores. The Ohio native’s most-impressive outing took place against LSU in the Music City Bowl, throwing for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding 96 yards and a score on the ground in the upset win over the Tigers. With a strong supporting cast in place, Zaire has all of the necessary pieces for a breakout year.
Other Quarterbacks to Watch in 2015
Kurt Benkert, East Carolina
Shane Carden posted big numbers in East Carolina’s offense over the last three years. Coordinator Lincoln Riley also departed this offseason, but the Pirates aren’t expected to change much on offense. Benkert – a sophomore – will have the first shot at replacing Carden this spring.
Jake Coker, Alabama
The Florida State transfer was supposed to win the job last season but never made a start thanks to the emergence of Blake Sims. Now that Coker has a year of experience in coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense, will the Alabama native claim the starting job?
William Crest/Skyler Howard, West Virginia
Crest was poised to spend 2014 as Clint Trickett’s backup at West Virginia but a shoulder injury ended his freshman season. The Baltimore native has tremendous upside and should benefit from another offseason to learn under coach Dana Holgorsen. If Crest is unable to win the job, the Mountaineers have a good fallback option in Skyler Howard, who threw for 829 yards and eight scores in 2014.
Luke Falk/Peyton Bender, Washington State
Falk was pressed into the starting job in 2014 after Connor Halliday suffered a season-ending leg injury against USC. The former walk-on threw for 601 yards against Arizona State but also tossed six picks over his last two games. Falk will be pushed by Bender – a three-star recruit in the 2014 signing class – for time this spring. The winner of this battle will post huge numbers in coach Mike Leach’s high-powered passing offense.
Tyler Ferguson, Louisville
Three quarterbacks – Will Gardner, Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin – started for coach Bobby Petrino’s team in 2014. Ferguson should push for time next season, as the Penn State transfer is eligible after sitting out last year. In his only season with the Nittany Lions, Ferguson completed 10 of 15 passes for 155 yards and one score.
Ryan Finley/Brett Rypien, Boise State
The Broncos have personnel voids to address on offense with the departure of quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi, but expect coach Bryan Harsin to find the right answers this offseason. The quarterback battle between Ryan Finley (a sophomore) and Matt Rypien (a true freshman, four-star prospect) will be one to watch this spring. Finley has the edge in experience, but Rypien was a big pickup on the recruiting trail for Boise State.
Brooks Haack, UL Lafayette
The Ragin’ Cajuns must replace quarterback Terrance Broadway, but coach Mark Hudspeth has a few talented options in place. Haack was a three-star recruit by the 247Sports Composite in 2012 and the Texas native has been solid as a backup over the last two years, completing 41 of 58 passes for 403 yards and three scores.
Ben Hicks, SMU
Hicks seems to be the perfect fit for new coach Chad Morris’ high-powered offense. The Texas native ranked as a three-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite for the 2015 signing class and should push Matt Davis for the starting job this offseason.
Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State
In its first season of FBS play, Appalachian State quietly finished 2014 on a six-game winning streak. Lamb turned in a promising freshman campaign, throwing for 2,381 yards and 17 scores and rushing for 483 yards and four touchdowns. The Georgia native started the final 10 games and led the Mountaineers to an average of 34.8 points per contest in that span.
Jack Milas, Ball State
Milas emerged as Ball State’s starter midway through 2014 but missed the last game of the year due to a wrist injury. The Illinois native showed promise by throwing four touchdowns and 326 yards against Western Michigan and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in three out of his six games.
Brice Ramsey, Georgia
Ramsey isn’t guaranteed the starting job next season, as he will be pushed for time by Jacob Park and Faton Bauta. However, regardless of whether it’s Ramsey, Park or Bauta under center, there’s a good chance the starter puts up solid numbers in Georgia’s offense.
Hayden Rettig, Rutgers
Rettig – the brother of former Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig – will compete with Chris Laviano to start in 2015. After sitting out a year due to a transfer from LSU, Rettig will have three seasons of eligibility remaining. Rutgers will have a new play-caller in 2015 after Ralph Friedgen decided to step down, and coach Kyle Flood promoted receivers coach Ben McDaniels to coordinator.
Thomas Sirk, Duke
Coach David Cutcliffe is one of the top quarterback gurus in college football. And assuming Sirk holds off Parker Boehme, the Florida native should be the next solid quarterback from Durham. In limited action last season, Sirk completed 10 of 14 passes for 67 yards and three scores. He also rushed for 238 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014.
Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
Northwestern hopes to get back to a bowl after a two-year absence, and the first step to a winning record will be settling the quarterback battle. Thorson will compete with Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti for the starting job this spring, and the talented redshirt freshman will be tough to keep off the field. Thorson ranked as a four-star prospect in the 2014 signing class and was the No. 188 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite.
Step back five years and the list of football-basketball coaching tandems in the ACC looks pretty crazy.
That Mike Krzyzewski is the basketball representative at Duke probably makes sense, but what about the Blue Devils having a successful football coach?
Now, that’s weird.
And what about the No. 2 and No. 3 teams on our list: Louisville and Notre Dame were hardly a glimmer in the eye of the ACC several years ago. Notre Dame, of course, isn’t a full member, but we’ve included the Irish here since men’s basketball is an ACC team and the football team by contract plays its fair share of ACC schools.
Semantics aside, with Duke football plus Louisville and Notre Dame in the fold, the ACC has assembled a solid group of football-basketball coaching duos.
The goal of our coach tandem rankings is to look at each football and basketball duo as a pair. In general, we’re looking at the duos most likely to keep each school’s fans happy and entertained from the start of football season through the end of basketball season.
Football: David Cutcliffe | Basketball: Mike Krzyzewski
Krzyzewski’s resume is self-explanatory: More than 1,000 career wins, 11 Final Fours and four national titles. Early NCAA Tournament exits (Mercer in 2014, Lehigh in '12) have vexed the Blue Devils, but that appears to be unlikely with the group Coach K has assembled this season. Cutcliffe has done the unthinkable with the football program by turning the perennial ACC bottom-feeder into a factor in the league race. Duke has won 19 games the last two seasons, reached three consecutive bowl games and won the ACC Coastal Division in 2013.
Football: Bobby Petrino | Basketball: Rick Pitino
The Petrino/Pitino duo is back at Louisville for the first time since 2006. Having both coaches is still a boon for the Cardinals. Petrino went 9-4 and finished in the top 25 in his first season back with the Cardinals, a notable feat considering the revolving door at quarterback and that it was the football program’s indoctrination into the ACC. Petrino has finished in the top 25 in six of 10 seasons as a head coach, including four times in five total seasons at Louisville. Pitino has seven Final Fours and two national championships, including the 2013 title.
3. Notre Dame
Football: Brian Kelly | Basketball: Mike Brey
Is Notre Dame a year-in and year-out powerhouse in either sport? Not yet. Still, both coaches deserve credit for putting the Irish back into the mix. The Irish are two years removed from an undefeated regular season in football, and Kelly is the first Notre Dame coach to post five consecutive winning seasons since Lou Holtz. Mike Brey’s consistency — six NCAA appearances in eight years — gets overlooked because his team hasn’t made it to the Sweet 16 since 2003. Now if only both of them could go a season without losing a player to an academic-related suspension...
4. Florida State
Football: Jimbo Fisher | Basketball: Leonard Hamilton
Florida State’s football program is the healthiest it has been since Bobby Bowden was in his prime. In the last three seasons, Fisher has led the Seminoles to a national title, 29 consecutive wins, a College Football Playoff appearance and three ACC titles. The basketball program was on a nice hot streak from 2009-12 under Hamilton with four consecutive NCAA appearances, an ACC tournament title and a trip to the Sweet 16. In three seasons since, FSU has yet to post a winning ACC record.
5. North Carolina
Football: Larry Fedora | Basketball: Roy Williams
North Carolina fans don’t like to hear this, but both coaches leave us wanting more these days. Williams is a Hall of Fame coach with seven career Final Fours and two national championships. Yet his team will have five or more ACC losses for the third consecutive season. If Carolina doesn’t reach the Sweet 16 this season, Williams will face his longest Sweet 16 drought since 1998-2000 at Kansas. Fedora’s win total has decreased every season at Carolina, and he’s never finished better than 5-3 in the league.
6. Virginia Tech
Football: Frank Beamer | Basketball: Buzz Williams
On career achievements, this duo should rank higher. Virginia Tech is a factor in football because of Beamer, who has been the coach since 1987. And despite 22 consecutive winning seasons, the Hokies are having a bit of identity crisis. The 10- and 11-win seasons have become seven- and eight-win seasons during the last three years. Williams’ credentials at Marquette were impeccable — two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and five consecutive NCAAs through 2013 — but he’s working through a major rebuilding project in his first season in Blacksburg.
Football: Al Golden | Basketball: Jim Larranaga
Golden left Temple with the reputation of a miracle worker and walked into the Nevin Shapiro mess at Miami. After a self-imposed bowl ban in his first two seasons, Miami went 9-4 in his third year before falling to 6-7 last season. With quarterback Brad Kaaya starting his second season, Golden is entering a critical fifth year. Larranaga has taken George Mason to a Final Four and won the ACC at Miami. That’s a pretty darn good career right there, never mind that he has 547 career wins otherwise.
Football: Scott Shafer | Basketball: Jim Boeheim
Boeheim probably would like us to spend more time thinking about the four Final Fours, the 2003 championship and the 964 career wins rather than the last 12 months. The Orange were the last undefeated team in the country last season and ended on a 3-6 skid. And now, due to NCAA issues, Syracuse forfeited its chance to go to the postseason this year (in a season that likely would have ended in the NIT anyway). Shafer has had a rough two seasons since taking over for Doug Marrone. Syracuse football is 10-15 overall and 5-11 in the ACC under Shafer.
Football: Mike London | Basketball: Tony Bennett
Bennett is quickly becoming college basketball’s best miracle worker. Despite no McDonald’s All-Americans on his roster, Bennett has the Cavaliers en route to a second consecutive ACC regular-season title. He also has a pair of Sweet 16 appearances under his belt at Virginia and Washington State. London may have saved his job with a three-game improvement in 2014, but the Cavs’ football coach still has three losing season in five years.
Football: Pat Narduzzi | Basketball: Jamie Dixon
Few coaching tandems seem so perfect for their particular school. Dixon has already established a rugged, blue collar program with Pitt basketball, and Narduzzi did the same with his defenses at Michigan State. Dixon’s overall resume at Pitt is great (10 NCAA appearances in 12 seasons), but Pitt is flirting with its second NCAA miss in four years. The Panthers also haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2009. Narduzzi is a first-time head coach, but he was in demand as one of the best DCs in the country at Michigan State.
Football: Dabo Swinney | Basketball: Brad Brownell
Swinney has returned Clemson to national prominence. The Tigers have won 10 or more games in four consecutive seasons and finished four seasons in a row in the AP top 25, the first time either has happened since the late '80s/early '90s. The lingering question for 2015 is if he can do it without offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Clemson is no basketball power, but Brownell hasn’t exactly elevated the Tigers, either. He has one NCAA appearance in five seasons. His win in the 2011 First Four is Clemson’s only NCAA win since 1997.
12. Georgia Tech
Football: Paul Johnson | Basketball: Brian Gregory
Just when it appeared Georgia Tech hand slid into mediocrity, Johnson led the Yellow Jackets to an 11-win season, a top-10 finish and an Orange Bowl victory. Johnson is unconventional beyond the option offense, but he led Georgia Tech to an ACC title in 2009 and has never had a losing conference season. Gregory is headed to his fourth consecutive season with at least 12 conference losses in four seasons in Atlanta.
13. NC State
Football: Dave Doeren | Basketball: Mark Gottfried
Doeren improved from 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the ACC in his first season to 8-5 and 3-5 in his second. Now, the question is if he can take that momentum into his third season. Gottfried has upped the talent level for the basketball program but has delivered sporadic results. Consistency, though, eludes the Wolfpack in basketball right now.
14. Boston College
Football: Steve Addazio | Basketball: Jim Christian
Addazio has two identical seasons of 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the ACC, two seasons which actually exceeded preseason expectations. Boston College will have its fourth consecutive losing season overall in Christian’s first season with the program. He has a long climb ahead.
15. Wake Forest
Football: Dave Clawson | Basketball: Danny Manning
Clawson and Manning had successful runs at Bowling Green and Tulsa, respectively, but Wake Forest hasn’t given them much to work with in their first seasons in Winston-Salem.
It’s not just you: The Duke-North Carolina rivalry is played a little later these days.
The two Tobacco Road foes meet for the first time on Feb. 18 this season. Last year, they didn’t meet for the first time until Feb. 20. Compare that to years past when the first game generally will be played in early February.
The late start doesn’t make the meeting any less interesting. Perhaps even it raises the stakes as both teams have more of their regular season resumes behind them. A win for Duke would be another item on a ledger for a potential No. 1 seed. A win for North Carolina would be a key building block for the Tar Heels’ postseason run.
North Carolina at Duke
Site: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, N.C.
Time: Wednesday, 9 p.m. Eastern
What’s up for grabs?
Duke will look to continue its recent dominance of the rivalry. The Blue Devils are 8-3 against North Carolina since 2009 with only one of those losses coming at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Beyond that, postseason considerations are at play. Both teams will have trouble catching Virginia for the ACC regular season title, so both will try to hang onto a top-four finish in the standings and a bye to the quarterfinals in the ACC tournament. Duke is No. 3 in the league at 9-3 while North Carolina is tied for fourth with Louisville at 8-4.
You’ll tune in to watch:
Another strong Duke performance or a bounceback effort from North Carolina. The second-half comeback against Virginia on Jan. 31 seemed to re-energize Duke. At that point, the Blue Devils had gone 3-3 in their last six games. Starting with the Virginia win, Duke has won five in a row, including a 30-point rout of Notre Dame. North Carolina will need to be better than what it has shown if it’s going to stop Duke’s momentum. The Tar Heels are starting to look like a team with a clear ceiling. They’ve lost three of their last four to Louisville, Virginia and Pittsburgh and have not defeated a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team since Jan. 10.
Pivotal player: Justise Winslow
Duke’s Big Two freshmen of Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones is back to being a Big Three. Winslow is averaging 14 points per game since going scoreless against St. John’s on Jan. 25. Duke is averaging 120 points per 100 possessions during Winslow’s hot streak.
Biggest question: Can North Carolina stop anyone?
North Carolina is coming off a miserable defensive performance against Pittsburgh. The Panthers couldn’t miss against the Tar Heels, averaging 1.44 points per possession, shooting 65 percent from the field and assisting on 30 of 37 made field goals. Roy Williams says North Carolina guarded capably in that game, and Pitt just made shots. That may be true, but UNC is 10th in the ACC in defensive efficiency and hasn’t held an opponent to under one point per possession since facing Wake Forest on Jan. 24.
David Fox: Duke 80-67
Mitch Light: Duke 76-70
Jake Rose: Duke 78-66
Ohio State’s quarterback situation will be one of the nation’s most intriguing battles to watch this offseason.
Out of the trio competing for the No. 1 spot – Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett – Jones is the only passer healthy for spring ball.
While Miller and Barrett aren’t expected to participate in spring ball, both have indicated via social media over the last few weeks that they are getting closer to full strength.
On Tuesday, Barrett posted a picture on Instagram of the screws from his ankle, which was injured against Michigan:
6. Tyreke Evans
Evans has been doing point guard duty for his New Orleans Pelicans lately, but only because of an injury absence from Jrue Holiday — the two is ‘Reke’s natural spot. The 25-year-old’s vast talents have not been truly unlocked in New Orleans, or with his previous Sacramento Kings squad. But a terrific winter has shown that Evans is a crazy-talented freelancer who’s capable threatening triple-double territory on any given night. Combined with Holiday and Anthony Davis, Evans is in the best situation of his career, and looks poised to spread roundball optimism down south.
5. Wesley Matthews
Damian Lillard’s coming-out party over the past two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers has been a hell of a story. But it wouldn’t be possible without Matthews at his side; the Blazers’ guard is one of the most underrated players around, providing a “three-and-D” combo that’s the envy of front offices across the league. He’s made the third-most three-pointers in the NBA this season, and he stymied James Harden through much of his team’s first round series victory over the Houston Rockets last year. Does his resumé really need anything more?
4. Jimmy Butler
The Bulls’ breakout All-Star is one of the most frenetic players in the league. He covers more distance than anyone in the NBA, according to mileage reports, and that bit of data is hardly surprising. Watching Butler, one begins to wonder whether he’s got a clone who secretly subs in for him every few minutes; he affects nearly every Bulls play, on both sides of the ball. He finds alley-oop opportunities, open jumpers, invades passing lanes and runs down scorers with the intensity of a soldier. Does he even sleep? It came as no shock when Floyd Mayweather recently said that the relentless Butler could make an easy transition into boxing.
3. Kyle Korver
The Hawks’ historically hot-handed shooter is so good a marksman that he’s rarely appreciated for the all-around player that he is. Korver can’t create shots for himself at a high rate, but there really aren’t any other deficiencies to his game. He’s a crisp passer with an eye for the open man, a firm defender, and a terrific hustle player with more muscle and speed than you think. And at 6’7”, he creates some matchup issues that are going to tie opposing defenses into knots when the Eastern Conference playoffs roll around.
2. Klay Thompson
37 points, one quarter. Klay Thompson’s internet-breaking performance isn’t soon to be forgotten, and here’s the thing: it was a representative feat. While Steph Curry’s backcourt partner with the Golden State Warriors can’t shatter record books every night, you always have to guard him like he might. As deadly a shooter as there is, Thompson is also shrewd at recognizing defenses and creating opportunities, and a staunch to defender to boot. If the vaunted Warriors are going to make a real run at a title this season, it’ll be in no small part because of their All-NBA candidate Klay.
1. James Harden
James Harden’s defensive embarrassments are a thing of the past, and so is acknowledging him only for his singular facial hair and scoring ability. Harden must now be mentioned among the very best players in the game, as he’s whipped himself into one of the fiercest competitors around. A more willing — and smarter — facilitator than he’s ever been, the 2015 version of Harden is a roving, hyper-intelligent army tank who creates problems on every play with his I.Q. and unparalleled footwork. No team relies as much on one player as the Rockets do on Harden, and they could hardly be making that investment in a better man.
— John Wilmes
Take a look at any draft, no matter the sport, and there are going to be some people chosen in the top eight or 10 picks who never make it. In some years, the misses far outweigh the hits.
The 2005 MLB version didn’t fit that description. If you’re looking for a prime example of the exception to the draft rule, consider this episode. Six of the first seven and eight of the first 12 players picked became All-Stars. And we’re not talking just a bunch of one-and-dones for the Midsummer Classic. Five of the eight earned multiple berths. And three of the four players who didn’t gain that distinction enjoyed big-league careers. That’s a pretty good winning percentage for those doing the drafting.
It had hits elsewhere, but for sheer star power at the top, it’s tough to beat 2005.
1. Diamondbacks: Justin Upton, OF
Great Bridge (Va.) HS
’07-12, Arizona; ’13-14, Atlanta
A steady source of outfield power who has hit more than 25 homers in a season four times, Upton had his biggest year in 2011, when he hit .289 with 31 homers. Although he will strike out quite often (100-plus Ks in seven straight seasons), Upton is a big run-producer. Though not the superstar Arizona thought he would be when it drafted him No. 1 overall, Upton has delivered considerably.
All-Star Games: 2
2. Royals: Alex Gordon, 3B
University of Nebraska
’07-14, Kansas City
A cornerstone of the Royals’ rebuilding process that culminated in a trip to the 2014 World Series, Gordon is an all-around standout who has won four Gold Gloves and been a productive middle-of-the-order bat for K.C. A two-time All-Star, Gordon began as an infielder but settled in left field. He has hit 20 or more home runs twice and in 2011 led the majors with 51 doubles.
All-Star Games: 2
3. Mariners: Jeff Clement, C
’07-08, Seattle; ’10, ’12 Pittsburgh
Clement’s abbreviated career was hampered by injury and poor production, as he managed just a .218 batting average as a part-time catcher, first baseman and DH. He bounced around the minors in between shortened MLB stints and never gained enough traction to become an everyday player. After spending September 2012 with the Pirates, he became a free agent, never reached the majors again and retired before the ’14 season.
All-Star Games: 0
4. Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
University of Virginia
A two-time Silver Slugger winner, Zimmerman personifies the Nationals like no other member of the organization. He has been part of the franchise since its move to D.C. and has been a stalwart at third base and in left field. Zimmerman has hit 25 or more homers four times and driven in 100 or more runs twice. In 2009, he hit .292, with 33 homers and 106 RBIs.
All-Star Games: 1
5. Brewers: Ryan Braun, 3B
University of Miami
The five-time All-Star and 2011 NL MVP has had a career that has featured triumph and controversy. One of baseball’s most accomplished sluggers, he was also suspended for the final 65 games of the ’13 season for PED use. He won the 2011 MVP award after hitting 33 homers and knocking in 111 runs. He was suspended for the first 50 games of the 2013 season for a positive urine test. He appealed, and the penalty was overturned on a technicality. He was caught again in 2013, and the charges stuck.
All-Star Games: 5
6. Blue Jays: Ricky Romero, LHP
Cal State Fullerton
After a blazing start to his career over the first three seasons, Romero’s fortunes faded, as poor performance and injury removed him from the majors. He won 42 games from ’09-11 and was 15–11 in 2011 with a 2.92 ERA and 178 strikeouts, a performance that earned him an All-Star invite. But he became increasingly ineffective after that and spent 2014 in the minors and on the DL, due to a knee injury.
All-Star Games: 1
7. Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Long Beach State
One of the premier infield talents in the majors, “Tulo” combines the ability to hit for power and average with excellent fielding that has earned him a pair of Gold Gloves. A four-time All-Star, Tulowitzki has topped 30 homers twice and has batted over .300 four times. But injuries have limited his production over the past three years, and he missed a total of 222 games from 2012-14.
All-Star Games: 4
8. Devil Rays: Wade Townsend, RHP
Townsend was drafted by Baltimore in 2004 but couldn’t agree to terms and returned to finish his degree at Rice before entering the draft again in ’05. A rare miss by Tampa Bay, he never climbed higher than AA ball and posted a 7–21 record in five minor league seasons. He was plagued by injury during his time in the minors and underwent Tommy John surgery and a procedure to repair a torn labrum.
All-Star Games: 0
9. Mets: Mike Pelfrey, RHP
’06-12, New York Mets; ’13-14, Minnesota
At one point, Pelfrey was considered a linchpin of the Mets’ rotation, and his 15–9 record in 2010 was proof of that. For four seasons, he was a fixture among the team’s starting pitchers, but after a 7–13 performance in 2011, Pelfrey underwent Tommy John surgery and missed almost all of the ’12 campaign. He has spent the past two years with Minnesota, but elbow, groin and shoulder injuries limited him to just five starts last season.
All-Star Games: 0
10. Tigers: Cameron Maybin, CF
T.C. Roberson (N.C.) HS
’07, Detroit; ’08-10, Florida; ’11-14, San Diego
With a blend of speed and size, Maybin was considered the perfect outfield prospect. But during his eight years in the majors, he has not delivered on his substantial promise. Maybin has had his moments, like when he stole a total of 66 bases in 2011-12 for the Padres. But his highest batting average for a season has been .264, and he has spent just two campaigns (’11-12) as a full-time outfielder.
All-Star Games: 0
11. Pirates: Andrew McCutchen, CF
Fort Meade (Fla.) HS
The four-time All-Star was voted NL Most Valuable Player in 2013 and has become one of the majors’ top all-around players. McCutchen’s blend of speed, power and the ability to hit for average has made him a catalyst in the Pirates’ recent run to the postseason. McCutchen has hit above .300 for the past three years, and in 2012 he smacked a career-high 31 homers. That year, he also won his first Gold Glove.
All-Star Games: 4
12. Reds: Jay Bruce, CF
West Brook (Texas) Senior HS
A two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger winner, Bruce has been a steady power producer for the Reds, hitting at least 20 homers in each of his first six years in the league and at least 30 from 2011-13. A torn meniscus hurt his production in 2014, but Bruce remained a formidable presence in the middle of the Cincinnati lineup. In 2012, Bruce had a slugging percentage of .514, and the next season he drove in a career-high 109 runs.
All-Star Games: 2
13. Orioles: Brandon Snyder, C
Westfield (Va.) HS
’10-11, Baltimore; ’12, Texas; ’13, Boston
It took Snyder five years to reach the majors, and he hasn’t been able to find a regular job during the parts of four years he has been on big-league clubs. Snyder has spent time at catcher, first and third but was never a full-time member of a team. He signed a minor league contract with Boston before the 2014 season but never reached the big leagues, instead playing 35 games in AAA and hitting .206 with eight homers.
All-Star Games: 0
14. Indians: Trevor Crowe, CF
University of Arizona
’09-11, Cleveland; ’13, Houston
For a while, it looked as if Crowe was headed for a spot in the Cleveland outfield. After making his big-league debut in 2009, he played in 122 games, hitting .251, with 24 doubles. But Crowe lasted in Cleveland for just 15 games the next season and was out of the majors in 2012. He played 60 games for the Astros in 2013 but hit only .218, and after signing a contract with Detroit in 2014 was cut loose in July.
All-Star Games: 0
15. White Sox: Lance Broadway, RHP
’07-09, Chicago White Sox; ’09, New York Mets
After pitching a total of 27 games — with two starts — and compiling a 2–2 record with a 5.24 ERA in three seasons with the White Sox and Mets, Broadway was out of the majors. He made 20 starts for the Blue Jays’ AAA team in 2010 and went 3–11, in the conclusion of his professional pitching career. Broadway has since taken up acting.
All-Star Games: 0
16. Marlins: Chris Volstad, RHP
Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Community HS
’08-11, Florida; ’12, Chicago Cubs; ’13, Colorado
Although Volstad only had one year with a winning record as a starter, he did make 102 starts from ’08-11 with the Marlins and went 12–9 in 2010. He became a free agent after the 2011 campaign and was signed by the Cubs, for whom he went 3–12. Volstad appeared in six games for the Rockies in ’13 but failed to register a decision. He spent the 2013 and ’14 seasons in the minors and had 17 starts in the Korean Baseball Organization.
All-Star Games: 0
17. Yankees: C.J. Henry, SS
Putnam City (Okla.) HS
There are those who believe Henry should have stuck with his other sport, basketball, for which he was highly recruited. His brother, Xavier, plays in the NBA, but C.J. never made it to the Show. In fact, he didn’t escape High-A ball. He struggled in the field and at the plate and was out of the minors after 2008. He played in the Frontier League in 2013 but didn’t compete in ’14.
All-Star Games: 0
18. Padres: Cesar Carrillo, RHP
University of Miami
’09, San Diego
The total of Carrillo’s MLB experience is three starts for the Padres in 2009 — a 1–2 record with a ghastly 13.60 ERA and 16 hits allowed in 10.1 innings pitched. He has spent 10 years in the minors, the last two in independent ball. He was implicated in the Biogenesis scandal in 2012 and was suspended for 100 games. Though Arizona signed him to a contract in early 2014, he couldn’t hang with the team.
All-Star Games: 0
19. Rangers: John Mayberry Jr., RF
’09-14, Philadelphia; ’14, Toronto
Son and namesake of the former Royals slugger, Mayberry never displayed the necessary consistency to warrant a full-time starting position. Mayberry spent five-plus seasons with the Phillies as a reserve, going on occasional short binges that would tantalize before reverting to his inconsistent form. He hit 15 homers in 2011 and 14 in ’12 but wasn’t able to drive the ball on a regular basis. Philadelphia traded him to the Jays in a waiver deal on Aug. 31, 2014.
All-Star Games: 0
20. Cubs: Mark Pawelek, LHP
Springville (Utah) HS
The lefty never climbed higher than High-A ball during his five years with MLB organizations and topped out at three wins during that time. His final season was 2010, when he made three starts for Gateway of the Frontier League. In 2013, he pitched for Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.
All-Star Games: 0
21. A’s: Cliff Pennington, SS
’08-12, Oakland; ’13-14, Arizona
Pennington spent most of three years (’10-12) as the A’s regular shortstop and hit a career-high .264 with 26 doubles in 2011. He was traded to Arizona following the ’12 campaign, after losing his starting job and has been a reserve middle infielder for the D-backs the last two seasons.
All-Star Games: 0
22. Marlins: Aaron Thompson, LHP
Second Baptist (Texas) School
’11, Pittsburgh; ’14, Minnesota
Thompson had a strong beginning to his professional career and was named a South Atlantic League All-Star at one point, but his pitching record during five years in the Marlins’ system was 22–34. He pitched in four games for the Pirates in 2011, making one start, and threw seven times for the Twins last year with a 2.45 ERA and six strikeouts in 7.1 innings pitched.
All-Star Games: 0
23. Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
’07-13, Boston; ’14, N.Y. Yankees
A strong all-around player with good speed, a quick bat and excellent glove, Ellsbury is a former All-Star who can create trouble for opposing teams with his bat and on the basepaths. He has led the AL in steals three times, including a career-high 70 in ’09. In 2011, Ellsbury was the runner-up in the MVP voting, thanks to a .321 average, 32 homers and 105 RBIs. After the 2013 season, he signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees.
All-Star Games: 1
24. Astros: Brian Bogusevic, LHP
‘10-12, Houston; ’13 Chicago Cubs
Although Bogusevic was drafted as a pitcher and spent three-plus years in Houston’s system as a hurler, he was converted to the outfield in ’08. He hit .287 with the Astros as a part-time outfielder in 2011 and was a starter in ’12 but hit only .203. After spending part of 2013 with the Cubs, he was in the minors for all of ’14 and signed a minor league deal with the Phillies after the season.
All-Star Games: 0
25. Twins: Matt Garza, RHP
’06-07, Minnesota; ’08-10, Tampa Bay; ’11-13, Chicago Cubs; ’13, Texas; ’14, Milwaukee
A starting pitcher who has posted a 75–75 record during his big-league career, Garza bounced among four teams before signing a four-year, $50 million deal with the Brewers before the ’14 season. Garza’s finest season came in 2010, when he went 15–10 with a 3.91 ERA for Tampa Bay. Garza struck out 197 hitters in 2011 with the Cubs and has twice logged more than 200 innings in a season.
All-Star Games: 0
26. Red Sox: Craig Hansen, RHP
’05-06, ’08 Boston; ’08, ’08-09, Pittsburgh
Although Hansen had a stretch with the Red Sox during which he appeared in 70 games during parts of two seasons, he never became a reliable reliever, and his career was waylaid by sleep apnea and a weakening of the arm that ended his time in professional baseball. In four seasons, Hansen posted three saves and had an ERA of 6.34.
All-Star Games: 0
27. Braves: Joey Devine, RHP
’05-07, Atlanta; ’08, ’11, Oakland
If Devine had not had to endure two Tommy John surgeries, he might have become one of the majors’ top relievers. But he missed 2009 and ’10, and after a solid 2011, had to go under the knife again.
All-Star Games: 0
28. Cardinals: Colby Rasmus, CF
Russell County (Ala.) HS
’09-11, St. Louis; ’11-14, Toronto
Rasmus has been a steady outfield producer for the Cards and Jays, although he has never had a breakout season. After a lackluster 2014 (.225 average, 18 HR, 40 RBI), Rasmus became a free agent.
All-Star Games: 0
29. Marlins: Jacob Marceaux, RHP
In six professional seasons, Marceaux never reached the majors. He rose as high as AA ball, and in 2008 was 4–1 as a reliever with the Marlins’ Carolina affiliate. Marceaux began as a starter but couldn’t develop consistency.
All-Star Games: 0
30. Cardinals: Tyler Greene, SS
’09-12, St. Louis; ’12, Houston; ’13, Chicago White Sox
A utility infielder who saw action with three teams over five seasons, Greene never became a consistent starter. His greatest activity came in 2012, when he played 77 games with the Cardinals.
All-Star Games: 0
Other Notable Selections
Luke Hochevar, RHP
Dodgers (Round 1 – Supplemental) • University of Tennessee
Hochevar didn’t sign with the Dodgers, spending a year in an independent league. He was then taken No. 1 overall the following season by Kansas City.
Clay Buchholz, RHP
Red Sox (Round 1 – Supplemental) • Angelina (Texas) College
A two-time All-Star, Buchholz has become a fixture on the Red Sox starting staff, amassing a 66–44 record in eight seasons.
Jed Lowrie, 2B
Red Sox (Round 1 – Supplemental) • Stanford
After spending five seasons as a part-timer with Boston and Houston, Lowrie spent 2013-14 starting for Oakland and hit .290 in 2013. He signed a three-year deal with the Astros in December.
Chase Headley, 3B/OF
Padres (Round 2) • University of Tennessee
Headley hasn’t been a star throughout his nine years with San Diego and the Yankees, but in 2012, he won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and led the NL with 115 RBIs. He signed a four-year deal with the Yankees in the offseason.
Yunel Escobar, SS
Braves (Round 2) • Martires de Barbodos (Cuba) HS
Escobar has not earned an All-Star berth during his time with Atlanta, Toronto and Tampa Bay, but he has been steady in the field and reliable at the plate.
Brett Gardner, OF
Yankees (Round 3) • College of Charleston
Gardner has been a fixture in the New York outfield for the past five years. He led the AL in steals (49) in 2011 and in triples (10) in ’13.
Jeremy Hellickson, RHP
Devil Rays (Round 4) • Hoover (IA) HS
Although Hellickson was laid low by elbow surgery before the 2014 season, he had been a big part of the Tampa Bay rotation from 2011-13, when he won 35 games. He was traded to Arizona after the ’14 campaign.
Marco Estrada, RHP
Nationals (Round 6) • Long Beach State
Estrada bounced between the starting rotation and the bullpen during his seven seasons with the Nats and Brewers. The hard thrower was dealt to Toronto in the offseason.
Michael Brantley, OF
Brewers (Round 7) • Central (Fla.) HS
In his sixth big-league season, Brantley had his best year, posting 20 home runs, 97 RBIs and a .327 batting average for Cleveland, a performance that earned him an All-Star berth and a third-place finish in the American League MVP voting.
Will Venable, OF
Padres (Round 7) • Princeton
Venable has demonstrated the ability to play all three outfield positions during his seven years with San Diego, including the last five as a starter. In 2013, he slugged 22 homers.
Austin Jackson, CF
Yankees (Round 8) • Billy Ryan (Texas) HS
Jackson has led the AL in triples twice during his five years in the big leagues and has played well in the field. The runner-up in the 2010 Rookie of the Year balloting, Jackson was traded by Detroit to Seattle during the 2014 season.
Logan Morrison, LF/1B
Marlins (Round 22) • Northshore (La.) HS
Morrison has proven to be a valuable outfielder and first baseman, first for the Marlins, for whom he hit 23 homers in 2011, and most recently for Seattle.
Tommy Hanson, RHP
Braves (Round 22) • Riverside (Calif.) Community College
From 2009-12, Hanson was a solid contributor to the Braves’ rotation, winning a total of 45 games. But injuries have detoured him and limited his MLB starts to 13 over the past two years.
Jaime Garcia, LHP
Cardinals (Round 22) • Sharyland (Texas) HS
During his first two full years in the majors, Garcia looked like a potential ace and won 26 games. Since then, shoulder problems have limited him greatly and cast doubt over his future.
Sergio Romo, RHP
Giants (Round 28) • Colorado Mesa University
Romo has become a valuable part of the Giants’ success and is one of the top closers in the majors. In 2013, he earned an All-Star berth on the way to 38 saves.
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports
Seton Hall suspended guard Sterling Gibbs for two games for throwing a punch at Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono while fighting for a loose ball during the Wildcats’ 80-54 win Monday.
Gibbs was ejected for a flagrant foul for the incident in the second half.
Gibbs was clearly remorseful after the incident, apologizing publicly to Arcidiacono on Twitter. To the Villanova guard’s credit, he accepted the apology and moved on.
In a statement after the game, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said:
“I am extremely disappointed in Sterling’s actions tonight. Our student-athletes are entrusted to uphold the morals and values of good sportsmanship and personal conduct that we preach to them on a daily basis. Tonight’s incident involved a young man of high character showing poor judgement in the heat of competition. It was regrettable, and we will address the issue.”
In the immediate aftermath, ESPN analyst Jay Williams tweeted that Gibbs should be suspended for the remainder of the season.
Sterling Gibbs should not be allowed to play the rest of the season for that strike to the face. It was intentional & Violent. @ESPNCBB— Jay Williams (@RealJayWilliams) February 17, 2015
The Gibbs incident is the latest setback in a season that started with promise for Seton Hall. The Pirates, who have not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2006, started 12-2. However, Seton Hall has lost five in a row and eight of its last 10 in conference play.
Gibbs and star freshman Isaiah Whitehead nearly came to blows after a loss to Georgetown last week, reported The Setonian, the school’s campus newspaper. Starting guard Jaren Sina abruptly left the team last week.
Willard attempted to downplay the issues surrounding his team.
“There is no chaos outside the program,” Willard told NJ.com. “The only chaos is you guys (the media).”
Predicting where Matt Kenseth will end up at the end of this season isn’t easy after the results he’s turned in during the past two years. But there is good news buried inside that confusion: Even if Kenseth replicates the worst of his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he’ll be a top-10 driver.
Kenseth, of course, was simply golden during his first run with JGR in 2013. He won a series- and career-high seven times and pushed Jimmie Johnson harder than any other driver.
But last season proved to be far different. Kenseth was largely as consistent as ever, recording the same number of lead-lap finishes (30) as the previous year while increasing his top-5 and top-10 results. However, in the stat that counts — visits to Victory Lane — he put up a surprising goose egg. Kenseth qualified for the postseason through points, a product of his consistency, and actually remained eligible for the title through the third round.
For a time, it even looked like he could become the sport’s first winless champion. When it didn’t happen, Kenseth was realistic, recognizing the lack of speed that hampered him.
“In 2013, we were exceptionally fast at most race tracks,” Kenseth says. “Between the (2014) aero changes and getting the cars down and all that stuff, we just didn’t seem to have a handle on it the way we did the year before. Our balance was just way off, and we never really did get it fixed the way we wanted to.”
Interestingly, Kenseth wasn’t too surprised at how he and his JGR teammates performed. In testing before the 2014 season, the JGR Toyotas never had the same handling comfort — and thus the speed — as they had with the 2013 rules package. It’s a deficit from which they never recovered. That’s changed for this season, Kenseth said after test sessions revealed major improvement based on 2015 rules.
“I feel the best about the aero changes, getting the downforce off the cars,” Kenseth says. “Hopefully that will make it a little bit easier to pass in traffic and the cars a little more free. I’m hoping that will help.”
Among the tweaks this year are decreased rear spoiler heights, a reduced-horsepower engine and a new set of in-car suspension adjustment tools for the driver’s use. Should Kenseth adapt well, expect it to make a substantial difference in how well he and the rest of the JGR stable perform. Despite teammate Denny Hamlin earning a spot in the final race to determine the champion, JGR teams won only twice in Sprint Cup — and one of those wins came on the restrictor-plate track at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s ultimate equalizer.
In Kenseth’s favor is the addition of Carl Edwards, Kenseth’s former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, to the JGR lineup as the multi-car operation expands from three to four teams. Kenseth and Edwards had a positive working relationship at RFR prior to Kenseth’s departure for JGR in 2013. Edwards also brings in substantial new sponsorship, allowing JGR to hire more engineers and shop staff while dedicating more resources to research and development. An influx of funding from Kenseth’s main backer, Dollar General, and the addition of old partner DeWalt give the team more funding even with the departure of longtime JGR supporter Home Depot.
The organization is also undergoing a hefty transition of several key staff members thanks to the addition of Edwards and the disappointment of 2014 — though Kenseth’s main point of contact, crew chief Jason Ratcliff, won’t change. This season, Edwards will work with Darian Grubb, who moved over from Denny Hamlin’s team. Grubb was replaced in that role over at the No. 11 Toyota by Kyle Busch’s former crew chief, Dave Rogers. That leaves Busch with Adam Stevens, promoted from the JGR XFINITY Series teams, on his pit box going forward. Expect the changes to boost performance.
Kenseth, 43, will start his 545th Sprint Cup race and 16th consecutive full-time season at NASCAR’s highest level when the green flag drops on the 2015 Daytona 500. Having made 10 of 11 Chases, a record topped only by Jimmie Johnson, there’s no reason to believe the consistency will stop.
“I really feel more confident about (2015) than I did last year at this time,” Kenseth says.
With changes made and plans for improvement over a moderately successful run a year ago, it’s not hard to understand why.
No wins? No problem Kenseth’s fall from seven wins in 2013 to zero in 2014 had more to do with speed than skill. His No. 20 car dropped from second to seventh in average green-flag speed rank. If JGR regains speed in 2015, look for Kenseth to take advantage.
Expect excellence The one- to 1.49-mile tracks, such as Phoenix, Dover and Darlington, are welcome sites for the veteran, who averaged a 7.4-place finish in seven races at tracks that fall in that mileage range last year.
Seal the deal Kenseth gained 37 positions in the final 10th of races last year. His closing acumen was amplified in the daylight, where he gained 46 positions across 25 races in daytime hours.
A top-10 fixture In what many felt was a down season after a career year, Kenseth scored two more top-10 finishes — 22 in all, up from 20 — in 2014.
No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: Dollar General, DeWalt
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliff
Year With Current Team: 3rd
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 1st (2003)
Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Opening Day is less than two months away.
Just keep repeating that, Boston Red Sox fans. Maybe it will help warm the soul. After one look at Fenway Park, though, maybe not.
Boston is enduring its snowiest month on record, and not even Fenway can escape.
The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore and his producer Steve Petyerak tweeted several images of Fenway buried in snow during the last few weeks. The white stuff is piled up to the right field wall but not quite to the Green Monster. Yet.
The images are pretty remarkable.
The Red Sox home opener is April 13 against the Nationals, assuming the snow can be cleared by then.
Sunset over the Green Monster pic.twitter.com/h1ll0pTbz7— Steve Petyerak (@StevePetyerak) February 12, 2015
Snow in the stands at Fenway pic.twitter.com/6TLZWYKt4P— Steve Petyerak (@StevePetyerak) February 12, 2015
Fenway Park covered w/ snow pic.twitter.com/NDO5ybS419— Steve Petyerak (@StevePetyerak) February 12, 2015
Kyle Busch demands perfection from the racecar and has no qualms about ratcheting up the pressure on his crew chief to make that happen. It’s understandable that Busch has a periodic revolving door of team leaders, a merry-go-round that resulted in the move of former crew chief Dave Rogers to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 team for this year.
The two were at odds for much of the Chase, which is surprising, because that’s when Busch snapped it together after a summer slump that endangered his playoff bid. Outside of a Talladega wreck, you could argue that the 2014 Chase was Busch’s best in terms of consistency. Busch won once last year and finished 10th in points, impressive considering he was 17th — with four DNFs — heading into the Chase.
Busch, who’s been vocal about the changes for 2015, insists that his relationship with Rogers was just fine, thank you. Any public back-and-forths between the two were a case of two parties demanding nothing less than perfection.
Internal sources claim differently, although Rogers’ move in the offseason was part of a larger shift of employees at JGR, both across series and across teams. When the music stopped, it was Busch’s XFINITY (formerly Nationwide) Series crew chief Adam Stevens who landed on Busch’s Sprint Cup team for this year.
Stevens wasn’t necessarily Busch’s first pick. “There was definitely a wish list on my end, and there was definitely a ‘Hey, you’re getting Adam Stevens’ on their end,” Busch says. “I went and did some of my due diligence, talked to a few of the guys that I had on my list. I got a good response from that, but at the end of the day it just all came down to bringing Adam up.”
Busch sees Stevens’ transition from managing an XFINITY Series team to a Cup program as a challenge. “For Adam, just going from the (XFINITY) level to the Cup level, you’re working with probably 40 people in the (XFINITY) shop and with 400 in the Cup shop,” Busch says. “It’s a lot more people, a lot more things on your plate, and I’m sure you can get overwhelmed quite quickly.”
Should Stevens manage the transition, the organization has high hopes. Since pairing up at the start of the 2013 season, he and Busch have 19 XFINITY victories in 52 starts, winning at an unthinkable 36.5 percent clip. Even a sliver of that success puts Busch on better footing in Cup, where he’s struggled by comparison.
Stevens is making the transition to Cup just as JGR is undergoing an expansion to four teams with the addition of Carl Edwards. This move has Busch enthused, as he felt for much of 2014 that the lack of a satellite program, like Hendrick Motorsports has with Stewart-Haas Racing, left his organization with a big disadvantage in terms of resources.
“Having Carl on board is going to be great for the team. He’s obviously gotten results in years past,” Busch says. “Having a bunch of new people at JGR and getting the engineering department all ramped up with more people. … It’s just going to make us a stronger team.”
Busch says any jumps in performance won’t come from the new rules package that cut downforce and reduce horsepower. It’ll make the Cup cars handle more like their XFINITY series counterparts. “It’s just a baby step. I don’t think it’s markedly different,” he explains. “You’re going to see some speeds slow down from the track records maybe, but it’s just going to be about trying to see what balance is going to be like with the horsepower to drag and everything else.”
Differing from the majority, Busch claims that the JGR problems are in-house, related simply to getting the cars to turn better. But having the cars in Cup handle more like those in the second-tier series may be a step in favor of Busch’s on-track handling preference. He’s become a regular dominator of the XFINITY Series in recent seasons — which brings things back full-circle to the Stevens promotion.
“The relationship we’ve had over the last year has gone really well,” Busch says. “We’ve won lots of races and we’ve been competitive. That level at the (XFINITY) level is obviously a lot less than what it is at the Sprint Cup level, but I still think he’s got a good repertoire within the shop and his guys. When you can have all of that, then there’s no better thing than to try and move that guy up.”
It’s a mixed message coming from Busch, who seems torn on all the changes. But replicating any XFINITY success on the Sprint Cup level would mean very positive things for Busch come November.
The car didn’t fit him It’d be tough to find a driver who desires a car with a looser handling condition than Busch, who was stymied by the tight-skewing rules package of 2014. It affected his laps led; the 453 he led for the season was his lowest total since his rookie year in 2005.
Gotta love those quad-ovals Busch averaged an eighth-place finish on the quad-oval intermediates of Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta in 2014.
The spring Richmond race In the last eight spring races at Richmond, Busch won four times, led 613 laps and averaged a finish of 4.4. His last eight fall races at Richmond? Zero wins, 53 laps led and an average finish of 12.1. Perhaps he just prefers Virginia in the springtime?
Crew chief help Busch’s crew chief fed him 57 positions across green-flag pit cycles at all oval tracks, save for Daytona and Talladega.
No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: M&M’s, Interstate Batteries, Doublemint Gum, Snickers
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Adam Stevens
Year With Current Team: 8th
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 4th (2013)
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: May 2, 1985
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
The 2015 MLB Draft isn't until June 8-10, but it's never too early to take a look at the next potential crop of impact players. When it comes to making the leap from high school to a top prospect in the minor leagues, look no further than the reigning MVPs in each league. Clayton Kershaw out of Highland Park (Texas) High School was the No. 7 overall pick in 2006, while Mike Trout from Millville Senior (N.J.) was taken with the 25th overall selection in 2009. Obviously, those two first-round picks have worked out well for the Dodgers and Angels, but what about this year's high school class? Are there any Kershaws or Trouts in this group? Only time will tell.
1. Brendan Rodgers, SS, Lake Mary (Fla.) HS
Rodgers, a Florida State commit, has an advanced bat with a chance to hit for average and power while sticking at shortstop.
2. Kolby Allard, LHP, San Clemente (Calif.) HS
Last year’s high school class featured countless players with plus fastballs. Allard fits right with that group, with an easy 91-94 mph fastball and a solid breaking ball.
3. Justin Hooper, LHP, De La Salle HS, Concord, Calif.
A massive (6'7") lefty with massive stuff, Hooper has one of the best fastballs in the class as he’ll touch 95-97 mph at his best.
4. Trenton Clark, OF, Richland HS, N. Richland Hills, Texas
Speedy outfielder who is among the fastest players in the class and shows an advanced understanding of how to put the bat on the ball and get on base.
5. Daz Cameron, OF, Eagles Landing Christian Academy, McDonough, Ga.
Son of long-time big league outfielder Mike Cameron, Daz is also a smooth center fielder with excellent bat speed and the speed to create havoc when he gets on base.
6. Nick Plummer, OF, Brother Rice HS, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
If you’re a hitter from a northern state, you better play well on the summer showcase circuit as you won’t face the same competition during the high school season. Plummer positioned himself well with an excellent summer.
7. Chris Betts, C, Woodrow Wilson HS, Long Beach, Calif.
One of the better power bats in the draft class, Betts has shown significant improvement behind the plate. He became more and more polished as a receiver throughout the summer.
8. Ashe Russell, RHP, Cathedral HS, Indianapolis
Russell, a Texas A&M signee, is one of the pitchers batters hate to face, especially with a wood bat, as his ability to make the ball run in on batters breaks bats.
9. Mike Nikorak, RHP, Stroudsburg (Pa.) HS
Nikorak has been one of the hardest throwers in this class, topping out at 96 mph at the Perfect Game National showcase.
10. Garrett Whitley, OF, Niskayuna (N.Y.) HS
A speedy outfielder with excellent range and instincts in center field, Whitley impressed throughout the summer, showing more advanced instincts than expected for a prospect from the Northeast.
11. Demi Orimoliye, OF, St. Matthew HS, Orleans, Ont.
Orimoliye intrigues scouts now, but they are even more excited about what he could be with further polish. The big (6'4", 225) outfielder has power and speed.
12. Beau Burrows, RHP, Weatherford (Texas) HS
Burrows has the makings of three quality pitches with a 90-95 mph fastball, a quality changeup that has late movement and a 12-to-6 curveball.
13. Kyle Tucker, OF, Plant HS, Tampa, Fla.
The younger brother of Astros outfield prospect Preston Tucker, Kyle is one of the more well-rounded prospects in this year’s class. Has good speed and strength.
14. Austin Smith, RHP, Park Vista Community HS, Lake Worth, Fla.
Another potential power pitcher with size, Smith throws a heavy 88-93 mph fastball that he works down in the zone to generate ground balls.
15. Cornelius Randolph, SS, Griffin (Ga.) HS
Randolph may end up moving to second or third base because of his thick lower half, but he is a left-handed hitting infielder with a chance to hit for average and power.
16. Juan Hillman, LHP, Olympia HS, Orlando, Fla.
The school that has produced first-rounders Jesse Winker and Nick Gordon in recent years could get another first-rounder in 2015.
17. Donny Everett, RHP, Clarksville (Tenn.) HS
Clarksville doesn’t produce a whole lot of baseball players — the last player from Clarksville High School to be drafted was back in 1967. Everett, a Vanderbilt commitment, should change that, as he throws strikes with a 90-94 mph fastball.
18. Triston McKenzie, RHP, Royal Palm Beach (Fla.) HS
A long and lean (6'5", 160) Vanderbilt commitment, McKenzie gets swinging strikes thanks to his lively low-90s fastball.
19. Chandler Day, RHP, Watkins HS, Pataskala, Ohio
The 6'4", 167-pound Day is a skinny righthander with lots of projection ahead of him, but he has present stuff with an easy 91-93 mph fastball. Also committed to Vanderbilt.
20. Cole McKay, RHP, Smithson Valley HS, Spring Branch, Texas
McKay has shown a 92-94 mph fastball with good riding life to run in on right-handed hitters. The LSU commit has mixed in a curveball and changeup with impressive potential.
21. Alonzo Jones, 2B/OF, Columbus (Ga.) HS
Jones is one of the fastest players among this year’s high school class, but he’s not just a speedster —he’s thickly built with some strength to go with that blazing speed. Jones is also committed to play at Vanderbilt.
22. Kyler Murray, SS/OF, Allen (Texas) HS
Murray is one of the best athletes and best prospects in this year’s draft class, but scouts aren’t even sure he’ll keep playing baseball after high school. He’s also one of the top quarterback prospects in the country and has signed to play at Texas A&M.
23. Kyle Molnar, RHP, Aliso Niguel HS, Aliso Viejo, Calif.
An athletic pitcher who works to both sides of the plate with a 91-93 mph fastball and a quality breaking ball and changeup, Molnar is one of the more polished pitchers in the class.
24. Dakota Chalmers, RHP, Lakeview Academy, Gainesville, Ga.
Chalmers, a University of Georgia signee, has stuff that got better as the summer heated up. By October, Chalmers was sitting at 91-93 mph while showing excellent control.
25. Luken Baker, 1b/RHP, Oak Ridge HS, Conroe, Texas
Better known as a pitcher despite his plus power at first, the big and thick Baker gets lots of ground balls with a 90-95 mph fastball with plenty of sink. He’s committed to TCU.
The 2015 MLB Draft isn't until June 8-10, but it's never too early to take a look at the next potential crop of impact players. Among the college prospects, defending College World Series champion Vanderbilt leads the way with three Commodores in the top 10. At the top of the list is lefthander Brady Aiken, last year's No. 1 overall pick who didn't sign with Houston. Will Arizona take Aiken first again this June?
1. Brady Aiken, LHP, TBD
We don’t know where Aiken will play this year after last year’s overall No. 1 pick’s deal with the Astros fell through because of elbow concerns. But his arm looks healthy, and he’s got the best pure stuff in the class.
2. Michael Matuella, RHP, Duke
Matuella carries plenty of concerns because he’s taken summers off, and he has a back injury that forced him to sit out fall ball, but he has shown top-five stuff for Duke.
3. Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville
The ace of Louisville’s College World Series team last year, Funkhouser has big stuff. But befitting someone with his name, his nasty stuff isn’t always easy to control and throw for strikes.
4. Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt was so deep that Buehler was the fourth starter on its national championship club last year and now is one of the top pitching prospects in the country.
5. Dansby Swanson, 2B/SS, Vanderbilt
Swanson was arguably the best player in the College World Series last year. Now he gets a chance to move from second to shortstop to quarterback the Commodores’ title defense.
6. Nathan Kirby, LHP, Virginia
Virginia’s aces don’t have a great pro track record yet (Danny Hultzen is the most prominent example), but Kirby is a lefthander with polish and athleticism.
7. Alex Bregman, SS, LSU
The 2013 SEC Freshman of the Year struggled as a sophomore — he hit .316 after a .369 freshman campaign — but has lots of swagger and a track record of hitting.
8. Riley Ferrell, RHP, TCU
Ferrell was a closer who came in to finish off Brandon Finnegan’s starts last year with a 95-100 mph fastball. Now, he will get a chance to start on Friday nights for the Frogs.
9. Kyle Cody, RHP, Kentucky
Cody is a big-bodied (6'7") righthander with a big fastball (93-96 mph). He battled injuries as a sophomore, but a strong summer in the Cape Cod League has scouts very interested.
10. Carson Fulmer, RHP, Vanderbilt
Fulmer served as a moment-of-truth pitcher for the Commodores last year, switching from the pen to the rotation and pitching well as the starter in Vanderbilt’s national championship win. He’s an emotional leader with the results to back it up.
11. Jake Lemoine, RHP, Houston
Unlike most of the pitchers on this list, Lemoine doesn’t really have above-average stuff yet. But thanks to a good body and a very clean delivery, scouts believe he will continue to develop.
12. Ian Happ, OF, Cincinnati
Happ might be able to stick at second base in pro ball, but most scouts believe he’ll move to the outfield. That will hurt his draft value, but his track record of hitting makes him hard to ignore.
13. James Kaprielian, RHP, UCLA
Kaprielian has one of the best breaking balls in the draft class, as he showed repeatedly with Team USA last summer. But he’s got to prove his fastball is good enough to set up his breaking ball.
14. Phil Bickford, RHP, College of Southern Nevada
A first-round pick in 2013 who was erratic as a freshman at Cal State Fullerton, Bickford was better this summer as a reliever in the Cape Cod League. He transferred to a junior college to become draft eligible this summer.
15. Kevin Newman, SS, Arizona
Newman is a typical college shortstop prospect. He may not be able to stick at short in pro ball, but his quality bat and defensive versatility will make him a potential first-round pick.
16. D.J. Stewart, OF, Florida State
Stewart has always hit, and he looks like he could hit for power. But so far he’s been a corner outfielder who doesn’t provide the home run numbers one would expect. He’s got one more year to prove to scouts there’s more thump.
17. Cody Ponce, RHP, Cal Poly Pomona
A Division II righthander, Ponce used the Cape Cod League to rocket onto the national scene by showing a 93-96 mph fastball and a very useful cutter.
18. Gio Brusa, OF, Pacific
Brusa hit for average and power in the Cape Cod League last summer, but he did it with a swing-at-everything approach that scares scouts.
19. Jacob Nix, RHP, TBD
Nix signed with the Astros last summer as a fifth-round pick, but ended up having the contract voided when Brady Aiken didn’t sign. He may have to go to a junior college because of eligibility issues.
20. Richie Martin, SS, Florida
Another well-rounded college shortstop who won’t wow scouts with exceptional tools, but he impresses with his baseball aptitude, athleticism and understanding of the game.
21. Tyler Jay, LHP, Illinois
Jay is an electric, small-bodied, left-handed reliever who had a great summer with Team USA. He’s going to try to start, but can he hold up in that role?
22. Dillon Tate, RHP, UCSB
Tate is an athletic, high-energy reliever who was hitting 97-99 mph for Team USA last summer in short stints.
23. Jon Harris, RHP, Missouri State
Harris showed some versatility for Missouri State, serving as both a weekend starter and a closer during his sophomore season. He should be the club’s ace this spring.
24. Mac Marshall, LHP, Chipola (Fla.) JC
Another of the Astros’ 2014 draft refugees, Marshall ended up not signing when the Astros didn’t sign Aiken and Nix. He’s a lefty with plus stuff and some feel for pitching.
25. Marc Brakeman, RHP, Stanford
Brakeman has largely worked as a reliever at Stanford but will start this spring after striking out 47 batters in 33 innings in the Cape Cod League. He mixes a quality 90-95 mph fastball and an above-average changeup.
The television ratings for the NFL Network's broadcast of the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine were up 60 percent compared to 2010.
In fact, the 2015 rendition will start a day earlier — Friday through Monday — in an effort to continue ratings growth.
People love the underwear Olympics, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why.
Maybe it's football withdrawal, maybe it's fantasy uber-nerds trying to get a leg up on drafts that are six months away or maybe it's simply being able to see a favorite player's face sans gladiator helmet.
But I still can't comprehend what value is gleaned this made-for-TV event. In particular, for NFL decision-makers.
Unless Amari Cooper runs a six-second 40-yard dash or Leonard Williams benches 225 pounds three times or Marcus Mariota can't complete a single pass against air, there won't be any redeeming value to the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine.
Not on the field, at least. In fact, more times than not, the on-field evaluations at Lucas Oil Stadium actually muddy the scouting waters rather than clarify them. Scouts too often value what a prospect does in spandex running in a straight line over three or four seasons' worth of actual football games.
There is tremendous value for head coaches, general managers and scouts who get to sit down and get to know future employees face-to-face. These job interviews are the only aspect of the NFL Combine with any substantial meaning, and, of course, this is the only part of the circus that isn't televised.
Every year the draft is littered with guys who weren't good players in college but impressed at the Combine only to go on to fail miserably in the NFL.
J.J. Watt is a huge dude who is really strong and can run fast, jump high and works really hard. Julio Jones has a massive wing span, tremendous ball skills and elite explosiveness. Aaron Donald has superhuman strength, hands and quickness for a guy of his size.
It doesn't take an expert of NFL scouting to know those guys were elite players and belonged at the top of the draft. No, all you need is two eyeballs and a TV set on Saturdays.
The funny thing about great football players is that they are, well, great. But that doesn't stop NFL franchises — ones that spend a considerable amount of money scouting and drafting players — from making bone-headed decisions in the draft based on how guys perform in their skivvies.
Someone is going to draft Oregon's Arik Armstead in the first round this year.
The former five-star recruit is a 6-foot-7, 290-pound defensive end who projects as a high first-round pick because he's going to look really pretty in shorts and a t-shirt in Indianapolis. Otherwise, there is no reason he should be considered a first-rounder.
The Ducks D-lineman played in 39 games in his three-year career in Eugene and never finished higher than sixth on the team in sacks or 10th in tackles. His career production for one of the best teams in college football: 87 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, 4.0 sacks, two passes broken up and one forced fumble.
Watt posted 61 tackles, 20.5 for a loss, 7.0 sacks, seven passes broken up, three forced fumbles and three blocked kicks in his final season alone at Wisconsin. Armstead is projected to be a top-10 pick — which is higher than Watt was taken in 2011 when Houston made him the 11th overall selection. That's insane.
Armstead is just the next in a long line of combine-induced, head-scratching first-round draft selections.
USC's R. Jay Soward was a first-round pick of the Jaguars in 2000 after glistening with potential at the Combine despite a mediocre college career. He lasted 13 games and caught 14 career passes in the NFL. The Jags also drafted quarterback-turned-wide receiver Matt Jones a few years later only to have that blow up in their face as well. How about John McCargo of the Bills in 2006? He was the third-best member of his own defensive line at NC State and Buffalo traded up to draft a player who would go on to start one NFL game. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Troy Williamson were top-10 picks in 2009 and '05 after speedy 40 times only to prove unworthy of their lofty draft status.
Quickly, who was the sixth overall pick in the 2003 draft that the Saints traded two first-round picks to acquire? Yup, Johnathan Sullivan. He had 1.5 sacks in three NFL seasons.
LSU has featured more than a few first-round Combine busts. JaMarcus Russell is a poster child for why Combine or Pro Day workouts should be taken with a grain of salt. He's literally the biggest bust in NFL history after only one quality season at LSU. That same year, Craig Davis landed in the first round because of his overall speed and quickness. Yet, Davis didn't even start at LSU until his senior year and caught seven career touchdowns in college. He hauled in two career NFL touchdowns in two career NFL starts. Tyson Jackson and Barkevious Mingo largely underachieved in college, dominated the Combine and haven't even proven they can be NFL starters.
Despite not being a first-round pick, my favorite Combine workout warrior is Chris Henry. The Arizona Wildcats running back started three games in college, rushing for 892 yards in four years at a clip of just 3.3 yards per carry. Yet, his freakish combine led the Tennessee Titans to draft Henry 50th overall early in the second round in 2007.
He rushed for 122 yards on 32 career carries in his four-year NFL career.
The lesson should be don't overvalue what takes place this week in Indianapolis. How a player looks in tight shorts or how fast he runs in a straight line or how high/far he can jump standing still in a t-shirt should not supersede how a prospect plays the game.
Again, the funny thing about great players is they are great. You know, on the field, between the lines when the ball is snapped.
Each year, the NFL drafts players in the first round based entirely on the NFL Scouting Combine or Pro Day workouts. To be considered a combine bust a player must fit three criteria:
1. They were average college players
2. They performed well at the combine/Pro Day
3. They are not good NFL players
Here are the top first-round NFL Combine busts of the modern era (1999):
1999: Lamar King, DE, SEA
The pride of Saginaw Valley State posted 12 sacks against the likes of Michigan Tech and Ferris State. But his freakish 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame played extremely well at the Combine. He posted 12 sacks in 37 career NFL starts and was out of the league after just five seasons.
2000: R. Jay Soward, WR JAC
The USC wide receiver was always dripping with potential but was never a star in college. He never improved on a modest sophomore season and busted out of the NFL after just 14 catches in 13 games.
2003: Johnathan Sullivan, DL, NO
The Saints traded not one, but two first-round picks to move up to take this problematic lineman. He was never a star at Georgia but scouts salivated over his 6-foot-3, 315-pound frame at the Combine. Sullivan registered 1.5 sacks in three NFL seasons.
2003: Andre Woolfolk, CB, TEN
The former Sooner was a below-average wide receiver for Oklahoma for three years before moving to corner for his final year. The Titans made the big mistake of taking the bust in the first round just a few picks ahead of Nnamdi Asomugha, Charles Tillman, Rashean Mathis and Drayton Florence. Woolfolk started 12 games in his NFL career.
2005: Troy Williamson, WR, MIN
The Vikings mysteriously drafted this unproductive pass catcher after he ran well at the Combine. He caught 13 total touchdowns in college and never caught more than 43 passes in any season at South Carolina. But Minnesota took him seventh overall anyway. He caught four touchdowns in his five-year career.
2005: Travis Johnson, DT, HOU
He wildly underachieved in three years at Florida State before a solid final campaign. But an impressive showing at the Combine made him the No. 1 DT taken in the 2005 draft. He lasted four years in Houston and two in San Diego, posting six career sacks.
2005: Matt Jones, ATH, JAC
Jones was 30-20 as a starter at quarterback for Arkansas who never topped 2,600 yards of offense in any season. Yet, his freakish upside overshadowed his off-the-field issues and got him drafted in the first round. Jones lasted four years and never caught more than five touchdowns or recorded more than 761 yards receiving in a season.
2006: John McCargo, DL, BUF
He had a huge frame and appealing measurables at the Combine but the Bills made a huge mistake trading up to get this NC Stater. Maybe they thought he was like first-round teammates Mario Williams or Kamerion Wimbley despite lacking any recognition or statistical production. He started one game in his NFL career.
2007: Jamarcus Russell, QB, OAK
He had one solid season at LSU but largely underachieved even in Baton Rouge. Matt Mauck and Matt Flynn led LSU to BCS national titles the year before and after Russell's three-year stint as a starter. Rehashing his NFL career isn't even worth the time. He's arguably (and literally) the biggest bust in NFL history after what experts called the best Pro Day workout in draft history.
2007: Craig Davis, WR, SD
The burner from LSU wasn't even considered a starter for the Tigers until his final season. He caught seven total touchdowns in college before an impressive Combine got him into the first round. He caught two career NFL touchdowns in two career NFL starts.
2007: Chris Henry, RB, TEN
Okay, he wasn't a first-rounder but he is the inspiration for this list. He was a terrible college player, starting three career games in four years and averaging 3.3 yards per carry. He was a Combine beast, posting huge numbers in most events. And he was a garbage NFL player, rushing for 122 yards on 32 career NFL carries.
2008: Kentwan Balmer, DE, SF
Balmer posted just 3.5 sacks in his final year at North Carolina but his Combine numbers got him into the end of the first round in '08. He lasted two seasons with the 49ers and started just 11 times in 46 career NFL games.
2009: Tyson Jackson, DL, KC
He was inconsistent at LSU and never a first-team, all-conference performer but his freakish athletic ability made him the third overall pick. In five years in KC, Jackson posted nine sacks in 55 career starts. He's stuck around but has been anything but a top-five pick.
2009: Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, OAK
Like Jackson, DHB has been a contributor on the NFL level. But nothing about his college career — three seasons between 600 and 800 yards receiving and 13 total touchdowns — should have made him a top-10 pick. But his Combine performance convinced the Raiders to take him seventh overall. He played on his third team in three years in 2014.
2010: Dan Williams, DT, ARI
Williams had a solid senior year at Tennessee but was never a star for the Vols. He's never started more than 11 games in any season and has just two career starts for the Cardinals. In 2014, he played in all 16 games for the first time in his NFL career.
2011: Danny Watkins, OL, PHI
The 23rd overall pick from Baylor started for two modest years in Waco. His bullish frame and quick feet got him drafted in the first round but the Eagles quickly found out how big a mistake that was, cutting him after just two seasons. He played one more year in Miami before retiring from football.
2013: Barkevious Mingo, DE, CLE
Mingo was dripping with potential his entire career at LSU but never delivered. He averaged less than 40 tackles per season with 5.0 sacks per year in three campaigns in Baton Rouge. His potential once again tricked the scouts at the Combine, as he ended up being the sixth overall pick in the '13 draft. He's started 14 games in two years and has 7.0 sacks. There is still plenty of time for him to develop.
2013: D.J. Hayden, CB, OAK
Hayden was a solid player for Houston in a much-less-competitive Conference USA. But the reason he was drafted unreasonably high (12th) was his pro day performance. Hayden has started 10 games in two seasons and has fewer tackles than 18 other defensive backs and fewer interceptions than 13 taken after him in the '13 draft.
The SEC in general is regarded as the nation’s most football-mad conference. That much is true, but no longer is that coming at the expense of basketball.
Football coaches in the league generally will have among the highest salaries in the country and the most tools at their disposal to contend for national championships.
Outside of Kentucky, basketball hasn’t been as much of a consistent priority.
All it takes to see that this is changing is a quick peek at Auburn. The Tigers have one of the top football coaches in the league in Gus Malzahn, arguably the best offensive mind in the SEC. Now, they have one of the top basketball coaches.
After rolling the dice on Jeff Lebo and Tony Barbee, Auburn went with a proven winner in the SEC and a big-time personality in Bruce Pearl. That move gives Auburn the best one-two coaching punch in the SEC.
The goal of our coach tandem rankings is to look at each football and basketball duo as a pair. In general, we’re looking at the duos most likely to keep each school’s fans happy and entertained from the start of football season through the end of basketball season.
So even though Alabama has a great football coach and Kentucky has a great basketball coach, their counterparts on the other side of the athletic department are working to pick up the slack — with varying degrees of success.
Football: Gus Malzahn | Basketball: Bruce Pearl
During the course of two seasons, Auburn made two hires that changed the trajectory of its football and basketball program. Football had been relatively consistent back to the Pat Dye era, but it was clear Malzahn and his up-tempo, run-oriented offense brought something special to the Tigers. He was the offensive coordinator of the 2010 championship team and took Auburn back to the title game in the first season after his return in 2013. The ascent won’t be as rapid for the basketball program under Pearl, who has reached the Sweet 16 or better in four of his last seven seasons as head coach. Still, he’s brought in elite recruits and already has Auburn basketball fans following his cult of personality.
Football: Mark Stoops | Basketball: John Calipari
Calipari has simply led the Kentucky basketball program to an undefeated start this season — and that’s on the heels of an appearance in the national championship game. Simply put, no one in the game is better at recruiting top talent, and he may never get the credit he deserves in managing the egos of players who are one step away from the NBA Draft lottery. The football program is a tougher sell, but Stoops is doing good work. Stoops signed a top-25 class in 2014 and kept the 2015 class respectable. Kentucky improved from 2-10 to 5-7 in Stoops’ second season and could have been bowl eligible if not for close calls with Florida and Louisville.
Football: Bret Bielema | Basketball: Mike Anderson
Say this about Arkansas’ coaching duo: They create a clear identity. Bielema knows exactly what he wants to do with his program — build a punishing run game behind an imposing offensive line. That led to a surprising turnaround in his second season with the Hogs, going from 3-9 to 7-6 in 2014. Anderson has a similar identity with the 40 Minutes of Hell inspired by his mentor Nolan Richardson. The turnaround has been a little slower for Anderson, though this will be his best season — and first NCAA appearance — in four years at Arkansas.
4. South Carolina
Football: Steve Spurrier | Basketball: Frank Martin
We liked this duo a little more a year ago. At that point, Spurrier had South Carolina on a streak of three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 finishes. On the basketball side, Martin deserved the benefit of the doubt as he tried to revive South Carolina’s moribund basketball program. History still says these guys will figure it out, but this has not been a great year for South Carolina’s football and men’s basketball programs. Six combined conference wins makes this a year to forget.
Football: Nick Saban | Basketball: Anthony Grant
Saban has few peers in college football coaching. In a ranking of football coaches alone, Saban would be at or near the top, depending on where Ohio State’s Urban Meyer fits. Basketball is another story. Grant arrived at Alabama as one of the hot young coaches in the sport after his tenure at VCU. The Crimson Tide, though, have been inconsistent on the court despite talented rosters. One NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons might not be enough for Grant to stay in Tuscaloosa.
Football: Jim McElwain | Basketball: Billy Donovan
The Spurrier-Donovan and Meyer-Donovan duos were among the best tandems in the country. The constant has been Donovan, who is having an uncharacteristically subpar season after three Elite Eights and a Final Four. That said, he should win 500 career games by the time he’s 50. McElwain’s track record as a head coach is only three years long, but he took Colorado State from four wins to eight to 10.
7. Ole Miss
Football: Hugh Freeze | Basketball: Andy Kennedy
Freeze has led Ole Miss on a steady rise on the football field from seven wins to eight to nine. The latest season was not a hollow nine wins by any means as the Rebels were ranked as high as No. 3 and reached one of the coveted Playoff contract bowl slots in the Peach Bowl. Meanwhile, Kennedy has been Ole Miss for nine years, hard to believe as it is. He finally got over the NIT hump in 2013 with a trip to the NCAA round of 32. He should lead Ole Miss to the second NCAA berth of his tenure this season.
8. Texas A&M
Football: Kevin Sumlin | Basketball: Billy Kennedy
Sumlin has proven that Texas A&M will be a factor in the SEC and in recruiting. He’s delivered upsets of No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Auburn, a Heisman trophy and a top-10 finish — yet overall his teams are 13-11 in the SEC. Kennedy has yet to deliver a 20-win season to the Aggies in four seasons in basketball. If that doesn’t change this year, it probably will next season when the Aggies add a highly touted signing class.
Football: Les Miles | Basketball: Johnny Jones
Perhaps no coaching duo in the country causes more high blood pressure among its fans. Miles’ teams have won 10 more games in four of the last five seasons, but end-of-game situations have been — shall we say — dramatic. Jones’ teams have had the talent to go toe-to-toe with teams like Kentucky, but they’ve been susceptible to puzzling losses during the last two seasons. LSU’s conference record in football has declined every year since 2011, and the basketball program has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament under Jones.
Football: Mark Richt | Basketball: Mark Fox
The Marks make up the longest-tenured football/basketball tandem in the SEC with 19 seasons combined. They’ve also been the victim of a little bad luck in recent years. Richt has watched key injuries claim some of his top players on offense (though his team won 18 games the last two seasons anyway), and Fox watched players unexpectedly leave early for the NBA Draft (though his team should reach the NCAA Tournament this season). Georgia football hasn’t won an SEC title since 2005, and Georgia basketball hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2002.
11. Mississippi State
Football: Dan Mullen | Basketball: Rick Ray
Mullen enjoyed a breakout last season, taking a consistent bowl team to College Football Playoff contention. Mullen was already the first Mississippi State coach to go to four consecutive bowl games before going 10-3 and reaching the Orange Bowl last season. Ray has a major rebuild on his hands with the basketball program, but the Bulldogs have already eclipsed last year’s SEC win total (from three to five) and could pass their overall win total (14) from his first season.
Football: Gary Pinkel | Basketball: Kim Anderson
Since 2007, Pinkel has led Missouri to two Big 12 championship games and two SEC championship games. The Tigers are 0-4 in title games, but Mizzou’s status as an overachiever in both conferences under Pinkel is ironclad. Missouri isn’t a recruiting powerhouse by any means, but the Tigers have been competitive with the powers in two conferences at the top of their games. In basketball, Anderson gets an incomplete grade at best. Coming from Division II, Anderson was a questionable hire to begin with, and his first roster at Mizzou is hardly SEC-ready.
Football: Butch Jones | Basketball: Donnie Tyndall
For the first time since Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee may have a football coach who will stick. Jones delivered the Volunteers’ first winning season since 2009 and picked up major momentum in recruiting during the last two cycles. Optimism is at a high point, but the Volunteers are still seeking their first winning conference season since 2007. Tyndall, a standout coach at the mid-major level, has done fine work with a rebuilding basketball team in his first season, but NCAA issues from Southern Miss are following him in Knoxville.
Football: Derek Mason | Basketball: Kevin Stallings
Mason has the unfortunate task of following up James Franklin at a place that just started to get used to competing in the SEC. Mason went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in his debut season and immediately shuffled his coaching staff. Stallings is the second-longest tenured basketball coach in the league after Donovan and is generally regarded as one of the league’s best minds. Yet since the Jeffery Taylor/John Jenkins/Festus Ezeli class left, Vanderbilt is 19-29 in the SEC in three seasons.
Michigan freshman basketball player Austin Hatch will receive the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Most Courageous Award for 2015 for his perseverance in the face of unthinkable adversity.
If you haven’t heard about Hatch’s background, you should. It’s been one of the most inspiring stories of the basketball season.
Hatch survived two separate plane crashes over the course of eight years, but lost members of his immediate family in both. Four years ago, after the second plane crash, Hatch spent two months in a coma with a traumatic brain injury.
After intensive rehab, Hatch eventually enrolled at Michigan where John Beilein honored his scholarship. He’s played in four games this season.
When Hatch was 8, he and his father survived a plane crash that claimed the life of his mother, older sister and younger brother. In 2011, after Hatch’s commitment to Michigan, Hatch was involved in another plane crash that claimed the life of his father and stepmother.
Hatch has shared his story several times this season. It’s worth your time to check it out:
Here’s a clip from Hatch’s first appearance in an exhibition game against Wayne State:
Projecting how high school athletes might perform on the college and pro level is difficult enough.
Now, Rivals.com will monitor at least two sixth graders for the first time in the history of the site.
In a post last week about a camp in Boston for middle school athletes, Rivals mentioned Tyson Thornton of Springfield, Mass., and Daron Bryden of Enfield, Conn., will be the first sixth grade prospects the site will “actively monitor.”
Monitoring eighth graders isn’t new for Rivals. The site is tracking as many as 15 eighth graders, but no seventh graders, according to SI.com. Even colleges have been known to take commitments from prospects as young as 13 or 14, even though they can’t by rule hand out written scholarship offers until the start of their senior years.
Sixth graders — that’s the class of 2021, by the way — is new and questionable ground.
Just as a point of clarity, let’s point out that the two sixth graders were moved up at the camp to compete with the eighth graders, so at least in the eyes of the NextGen Boston organizers, these kids are ahead of the curve. And Thornton is a 5-foot-11, 167-pound sixth grader.
But Bryden is a 5-foot-2 quarterback. By “actively monitor,” does Rivals intend on charting the kids’ growth spurts in real time? How often will Rivals recruiting analysts be in touch with middle school kids (or parents)?
Bryden actually has a pretty interesting story. Both his mother and father are deaf, though he and his siblings are not. Bryden also appeared on “Kids Do the Darndest Things” when he beat NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in an accuracy competition.
But this is all pretty weird, right? Covering 11-year-olds as recruiting athletes or college or pro prospects is a little overboard isn’t helpful to anybody, is it?
The perennial All-Star and reigning NBA MVP blasted All-Star reporters in New York City. After hearing a question he didn’t like about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks’ job security — a favorite topic of NBA analysts — Durant scolded the media. From Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com:
“You guys really don’t know (expletive)… To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to. So I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write. You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next. That’s a part of it. So I just learn how to deal with y’all.”
Durant went on to reveal much of his humanity:
“I'm 26 years old so I'm in my mid-20s, almost to 30. My first few years in the league I was just finding myself. I think most of the time I reacted based off of what everybody else wanted and how they viewed me as a person. And I'm just learning to be myself and not worry about what anybody says. I'm going to make mistakes. I just want to show kids out here that athletes, entertainers, whoever, so-called celebrities, we aren't robots. We go through emotions. We go through feelings. And I'm just trying to express mine and trying to help people along the way. But I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I'm just this guy that got programmed to say the right stuff all the time and politically correct answers. I'm done with that. I'm just trying to be me and continue to grow as a man.”
Transparency has been a big buzz word of all things Internet Era, and athletes like Durant and Lynch are using an increasingly informed, increasingly accessible audience to break down the athlete archetype of the strong, docile, well-meaning and silent type. It’ll be interesting to keep watching K.D.’s celebrity evolution.
— John Wilmes
A year ago, there were a lot of questions about Kyle Larson’s readiness and ability. Was he too young, at age 21, to drive in Sprint Cup? Did his track record — he was winless in the Nationwide Series — warrant a promotion? Was owner Chip Ganassi being too aggressive bumping veteran Juan Pablo Montoya, especially considering that his top prospect didn’t even sit in a stock car until 2012?
It took just five races for the rookie to change the narrative entirely. At Fontana, Larson nearly swept both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events, falling one position short of his first Cup win. From there, it was like a gun went off; Larson sped through the field like a bullet train while positioning himself as NASCAR’s next big superstar. It seems silly, in hindsight, to have ever possessed any doubt about his capability.
Related: Q&A with Kyle Larson
Simply earning top freshman honors, for which Larson bested a crowded field of eight, was the main goal for 2014. Now, he looks like a shoo-in for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup and the driver who can transform Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR operation.
Answering those doubts seemed to motivate Larson. “There was a lot of room on the Kyle Larson bandwagon to start (last season),” he said in November. “I think a lot of people chose Austin Dillon to win (Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year), and I was pretty confident in myself and in my team that we could do it.”
Larson won the award on the strength of eight top-5 finishes and 17 top 10s, besting Dillon by 88 points in the final standings. He finished second three times in 2014 and was oh-so-close to winning a race.
“I kind of set out as a goal to be a top-15 car all season, and I noticed right from the start of the season we’d be a top-10 car most races,” he says. “I changed the goals a little bit to run top 10 every race, and now, the way things are going, you want to be top 5.”
Larson shined the most once the Chase got underway. He missed qualifying for the title fight by just a few points but clicked off three top-5 finishes and six top 10s in the 10-race span to close the year. How impressive was the postseason? Had Larson qualified, he would have advanced all the way to NASCAR’s Round of 8.
All told, it was a sterling rookie debut, filled with momentum that should carry into 2015. Larson played a huge role in the success of the No. 42 and placed as the highest-achieving non-Chase driver in the season-ending point standings.
Perhaps most important, Larson’s racing style rarely brought criticism from the sport’s veteran driving corps, a group known for repudiating the ways of successful rookies.
Larson’s most successful tracks in 2014 were the 1.5- and 2-mile speedways that make up the majority of the schedule. His first win will come soon, possibly by the tour’s return to Auto Club Speedway on March 22. A Chase bid will follow, making him an intriguing postseason player. In just a year, he’s gone from question mark to unquestioned contender.
Reliable passer Larson ranked fourth in the series in adjusted pass efficiency in 2014 (53.13 percent) and first in efficiency at the quad-oval tracks, encompassing Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta, with a 54.22 percent mark.
Big gainer He averaged a finish better than his average running position on all track types except short tracks. At tracks 1.0-1.49 miles in length, he averaged a finish 3.6 positions better than where he typically ran.
Martinsville is the worst The sweeping high banks Larson enjoys at bigger tracks don’t exist at Martinsville, where he struggled in 2014, finishing 27th and 30th.
Not a leader Larson’s 53 laps led were paltry and reflected his output in smaller divisions. He led only 64 laps during a title-winning 2012 season in the NASCAR K&N East and just 102 laps in the Nationwide Series in 2013.
No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsor: Target
Owner: Chip Ganassi
Crew Chief: Chris Heroy
Year With Current Team: 2nd
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 17th (2014)
Hometown: Elk Grove, Calif.
Born: July 31, 1992
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Kyle Larson won the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, wheeling his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet SS to a higher top-10 finish rate (47.2 percent) than what Richard Petty (42.9) and Jeff Gordon (36.7) did during their freshman seasons in the sport’s most grueling division. In advance of his highly anticipated sophomore campaign, the 22-year-old racer sat down with Athlon Sports for an exclusive interview, discussing his dirt racing background, his strengths and weaknesses and the critics who questioned his rapid rise to the Cup Series.
Who was your biggest racing influence?
Probably my dad. He was the one that got me into this. He built me my first go-kart. He didn’t race at all; he was just a huge fan growing up. He grew up a couple of doors down from (two-time Knoxville, Iowa, Raceway Sprint Car champion) Tim Green. He’d go to West Capital Raceway (Calif.) when he was a kid. He met my mom when they were teenagers and got her into liking racing too.
In your first full season of stock car racing, you won the championship in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, widely considered NASCAR’s top developmental division. We’ve heard stories that you constantly picked everyone’s brain about this type of car while you were there. It seems like you worked awfully hard for someone perceived to be an overnight success.
Well in my eyes, I don’t know that I did, but I guess if that’s what is being said, then I probably was. I worry about the way cars drive more than the parts and pieces that go onto them. That first year, I hardly even led laps. I just tried to take everything in. I watched other young guys like Corey LaJoie, Brett Moffitt, Chase Elliott and Darrell Wallace Jr. and learned from them, because they all grew up racing stock cars. I learned a lot just driving behind them. I was just trying to adapt quickly.
Across your three years in stock cars, you haven’t led much despite having strong average finish records. Do you prefer playing from behind?
Oh, trust me, I wish I could lead all the laps and have the most dominant car. I think a big reason for not leading is because I’m a better long-run driver than short-run driver. Even though I’m not exactly trying to, I feel I take care of my tires early in runs, and then I’m able to pick spots off toward the end of them. Last year I felt like every time I was close to the lead it was time for green-flag stops or a caution came out. I think short-run speed takes experience. In Nationwide, I felt I was better on short runs in my second year than I was in my first.
As a rookie, you ranked fourth in adjusted pass efficiency (53.13 percent) in the Cup Series in 2014 while ranking first specifically on the fast intermediates (54.22 percent). Becoming that efficient usually takes drivers years. What has allowed you to become such a nuanced passer?
Understanding how the air works when you’re behind people, and trying to find clean air helps to pass, especially on the intermediates. I think that’s why it comes so easy there. Intermediates relate to 3/8- or half-mile dirt tracks. Winged sprint cars really helped me understand how dirty air works. You have that big wing on top that’s sticking up and punching a huge pocket into the air, and you have to find ways to keep good air on your wing so your car handles right. I’m glad I grew up racing the kind of cars I did, because it taught me to not waste time when you’re behind someone on the track.
There was a lot of interest in your driving services prior to 2011. What made Ganassi the most appealing option?
To me, I thought Chip (Ganassi) was the most excited about me coming into the organization. He didn’t have any development drivers at the time, and the other teams did. He had a plan for me. And even though their cars weren’t the greatest when I signed, you could see that they were getting better. I signed in 2011 and thought that if I got to Cup in 2015, I’d be in a great spot. I got to Cup earlier than I expected it, but now I feel like it was the perfect time.
Your crew chief, Chris Heroy, went from Juan Pablo Montoya, a driver with a seemingly rigid handling tolerance, to you, someone who can conceivably thrive regardless of a car’s setup. How do you feel the dynamic between you and Chris has improved?
It improved a lot. Even though we tested together in 2013, I came from a way different background than he did, and especially what Juan did. It took about six races … the terms I used to describe how the car was handling were different. At Phoenix (in March), I was really loose to start the race and he asked me to give him a 1 to 10 number on how loose I was. I told him I don’t like numbers, because my 7 might be different than his 7. I just want to get the car close (to my liking), and I’ll drive it. I feel like there are veteran drivers that worry too much about how well their car is handling and it gets in their head. I just feel like once you start the race, that’s what you’ve got. In stock cars, lines change during the race. I choose to focus more on moving around to find extra grip and a line that works for my car.
The short tracks were the only track type where you did not average a finish better than where you ran. Why do you feel a track like Martinsville presented such a challenge?
Martinsville is my worst racetrack, by far. I think it’s because in Sprint Cars, you might go race at a quarter-mile racetrack, but you’re still going to carry a ton of momentum into the corner. Martinsville is totally backwards from what I grew up learning. There, I almost come to a stop and try to get the car pointed before driving to the other end of the track. At mile-and-a-halfs, you try to carry a lot of momentum into the corner. That’s why I’m better there. Tracks like Martinsville and Richmond don’t really suit me that well because I have to use a lot of braking and slow down a lot. I’m sure I’ll get better over the years, but I’m definitely struggling at those places right now.
If you could have one race from 2014 to do over, which one would it be and what would you do differently?
The first Michigan race. We were really strong, and at the end we played fuel strategy right to where when we had to make a stop, we wouldn’t have to put a full fuel load in, making our pit stop quicker. Well, the stop before that, I sped on pit road and got penalized — I had to go to the back (of the field). Had I not sped, I would’ve had that track position, and we would’ve had a quicker stop than Jimmie Johnson’s team did. I don’t know if I would have won, but it would have been a really good chance to get a win.
There were many in the industry who felt you weren’t ready for the Cup Series when your promotion was announced in the fall of 2013. Do you feel now that you were ready back then?
Definitely. I’ve been “too young” everywhere I’ve raced. I knew there would be doubters. I was confident in myself that I could come out here and compete. I did it in go-karts when I was eight and did it in sprint cars when I was 14 and racing against 50-year-olds. I felt like I showed them that I belonged. I’m glad I did. I did an interview early last year with Darrell Waltrip, and he asked whether I thought I’d picked a bad year to come out as a rookie because I was going up against Austin Dillon. I laughed to myself because I was pretty confident that I would beat him.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Incoming freshmen usually steal the spotlight on college football’s signing day, but there’s no shortage of intrigue and potential surrounding the junior college recruits that may have inked signed in December.
While the transition from junior college to the FBS level is challenging, prospects already have at least one year of playing experience and are usually recruited to fill a specific void for the upcoming season.
The 2015 recruiting haul of junior college prospects is no exception, as several key transfers are headed to the SEC, with Auburn’s Jovon Robinson expected to be an impact performer. Outside of the SEC, Penn State tackle Paris Palmer, Florida State’s Lorenzo Phillips and USC receiver De’Quan Hampton are other names to watch.
Here’s a quick look at some of the key impact junior college recruits for 2015:
15 Impact Junior College Transfers for 2015
Tony Bridges, CB, Ole Miss
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 7 Overall, No. 1 CB
The Rebels had one of the stingiest pass defenses in the SEC last season, limiting opponents to just 12 touchdown passes and 192.1 yards per game. This unit has some offseason work ahead, as standout cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt have expired their eligibility. Golson’s ball skills will be missed after he recorded 10 interceptions and eight pass breakups last year. Bridges was a late flip to Ole Miss from Auburn, and the 6-foot-2 defensive back arrives in Oxford after earning NJCAA first-team All-America honors in 2014.
Chris Carson, RB, Oklahoma State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 23 Overall, No. 4 RB
Carson was a late flip from Georgia to Oklahoma State, and the Georgia native should be an instant-impact performer for the Cowboys. With three quarterbacks receiving snaps under center and a revamped offensive line, 2014 was a transition year for Oklahoma State’s offense. The Cowboys averaged only 121.7 rushing yards per game in Big 12 action. With Desmond Roland (770 yards) out of eligibility, combined with the dismissal of Tyreek Hill (534 yards), Rennie Childs (294 yards) is the team’s top option at running back. Expect Carson to at least earn a split of the carries in 2015, as his 6-foot-2 frame should add some punch to the rushing attack.
Davon Durant, LB, Arizona State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 6 Overall, No. 1 ILB
Arizona State’s defense returns largely intact next season, but Durant is expected to carve out meaningful playing time in coach Todd Graham’s aggressive scheme. Durant is expected to push for time at the Devilbacker position (defensive end/linebacker hybrid) in 2015, but even if he doesn’t start there, the South Carolina native will carve out snaps somewhere in the linebacking corps and add depth to a unit that already features Viliami Moeakiola, Salamo Fiso and Antonio Longino. Durant played in five games at Butler Community College in 2014 and recorded 45 tackles and three sacks.
Justin Evans, S, Texas A&M
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 29 Overall, No. 3 S
It’s no secret Texas A&M needs to upgrade its defense in order to win the SEC West. The Aggies took a big step towards that goal by hiring John Chavis away from LSU to coordinate the defense, and coach Kevin Sumlin also reeled in another elite class to upgrade the talent. Evans will have an opportunity to earn immediate playing time this season after the Aggies allowed 15 passing scores in SEC play. The Mississippi native intercepted six passes over the last two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and earned first-team All-MACJC honors in 2014.
Devonte Fields, DE, Louisville
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 5 Overall, No. 1 WDE
Fields is easily the most accomplished player on this list. The Texas native had a standout freshman campaign at TCU in 2012, earning AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the year honors after recording 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss. After an off-field incident prior to 2014, Fields was dismissed from TCU and landed at Trinity Valley Community College. Last season, Fields appeared in 12 games and recorded 6.5 sacks. With Lorenzo Mauldin and B.J. Dubose out of eligibility, Louisville is counting on Fields to help keep the pass rush near the top of the ACC. Fields has potential to earn All-ACC honors in 2015.
De’Quan Hampton, WR, USC
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 13 Overall, No. 2 WR
High expectations surround USC in 2015, and the Trojans could be a national title contender if all of the pieces fall into place. One area coach Steve Sarkisian will be watching this spring is the receiving corps. Top target Nelson Agholor left for the NFL after grabbing 104 receptions in 2014. JuJu Smith is back after a standout freshman campaign (54 catches), but quarterback Cody Kessler needs a No. 2 and No. 3 target to emerge. Could Hampton – a 6-foot-4 physical target – be one of the answers? Kessler and Sarkisian certainly hope Hampton can help ease the departure of Agholor, while teaming with Smith, fellow junior college recruit Isaac Whitney and Darreus Rogers to keep USC’s passing offense performing at a high level.
D.J. Jones, DT, Ole Miss
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 4 Overall, No. 1 DT
The Rebels have upgraded their talent and overall depth up front in recent years, and coach Hugh Freeze and line coach Chris Kiffin appear to have another standout coming to Oxford in Jones. The South Carolina native spent two years at East Mississippi Community College and recorded 12 sacks in that span. At 310 pounds, Jones has the size to push for snaps on the interior, which should help to spell Robert Nkemdiche and Issac Gross. Look for Jones to be a disruptive force for Ole Miss in 2015.
Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 2 Overall, No. 2 RB
Coach Butch Jones continues to elevate the talent level in Knoxville, and the 2015 signing class could feature a handful of impact newcomers. One of the top names to watch is Kamara, as the former Alabama running back should team with sophomore Jalen Hurd to form one of the top one-two backfield combinations in the SEC next year. Kamara redshirted at Alabama in 2013 and spent 2014 at Hutchinson Community College. In his only year in the junior college ranks, Kamara rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 scores.
Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 37 Overall, No. 1 QB
If the Rebels can find an answer at quarterback, coach Hugh Freeze’s team certainly has the talent to win the SEC West next year. Kelly redshirted at Clemson in 2012 and played in five games with the Tigers in 2013. The New York native was dismissed in the spring of 2014 and landed at East Mississippi Community College. Kelly threw for 3,906 yards and 47 scores last season in the junior college ranks. The 6-foot-3 quarterback had an off-field incident in December, but assuming he stays out of trouble, Kelly has a good chance to start the opener against UT Martin.
Jeremiah Ledbetter, DT, Arkansas
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 18 Overall, No. 2 DT
Coach Bret Bielema has Arkansas headed in the right direction, and the Razorbacks should take a step forward in the win column in 2015. Coordinator Robb Smith was one of the SEC’s top assistant hires last season, as Arkansas’ defense made steady gains throughout the year. Smith will have his work cut out for him in the spring, especially up front where end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon are off to the NFL. Ledbetter was an active defensive lineman at Hutchinson Community College the last two seasons, recording 22.5 career sacks and second-team NJCAA All-American honors in 2014. He should help soften the blow of Philon’s early departure to the NFL.
Marquavius Lewis/Dante Sawyer, DE, South Carolina
247Sports Composite Rank: Lewis: No. 3 Overall, No. 1 DE, Sawyer: No. 16 Overall, No. 2 WDE
South Carolina’s defense is looking for answers after allowing 6.2 yards per play and giving up 36.8 points per game (SEC-only contests) in 2014. Coach Steve Spurrier adjusted the coaching staff to provide help, hiring Jon Hoke to team with Lorenzo Ward as co-defensive coordinators. The Gamecocks also dipped into the junior college ranks by bringing in Sawyer and Lewis. Both players are expected to help jumpstart an anemic pass rush that registered only eight sacks in SEC play last season. Lewis recorded 18.5 sacks in two years at Hutchinson Community College.
Paris Palmer, OT, Penn State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 12 Overall, No. 2 OT
Improving the offensive line is expected to be the biggest area of focus for coach James Franklin and line coach Herb Hand this spring. The Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks last season and had their scoring average drop from 28.7 in 2013 to 20.6 in 2014. Adding to the preseason concerns for this unit was the departure of left tackle Donovan Smith to the NFL. Palmer is expected to help ease the loss of Smith and strengthen the line at one of the tackle spots after playing two years at Lackawanna College.
Lorenzo Phillips, LB, Florida State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 17 Overall, No. 1 OLB
Florida State’s defense has to room to improve after allowing 5.5 yards per play last season. The Seminoles enter spring with a few question marks, starting up front with the departure of tackle Eddie Goldman and end Mario Edwards Jr., while the linebacking corps dealt with numerous injuries last season. Linebacker Reggie Northrup’s availability for the 2015 season is also in question due to a torn ACL. Playing time in the front seven is certainly available for Phillips, as the Louisiana native is an instant-impact recruit for the Seminoles. In 2014, Phillips recorded 14 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss at East Mississippi Community College. Phillips won’t arrive until the summer, but he has potential to help in the front seven as an edge rusher.
Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 9 Overall, No. 1 OT
Mississippi State returns one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in senior Dak Prescott, but the line loses three starters, including left tackle Blaine Clausell. However, the Bulldogs may not see a drop in performance by the offensive line if Rankin is able to secure a starting spot this offseason. The Mississippi native enrolled in time to compete in the spring after earning All MACJC honors in 2014. At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, Rankin already has the size needed to compete right away in the brutal SEC West.
Jovon Robinson, RB, Auburn
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 1 Overall, No. 1 RB
Robinson originally committed out of high school to Auburn but was ruled ineligible after a guidance counselor at his high school (Wooddale) changed one his grades to help the running back qualify in 2012. Robinson was the NJCAA player of the year in 2013 after rushing for 2,387 yards and 34 scores. With Cameron Artis-Payne, Nick Marshall and Corey Grant departing, the Roc Thomas (214 yards) and Peyton Barber (54) are the top returning options at running back. Robinson is expected to win the starting job and push for 1,000 yards for coach Gus Malzahn’s high-powered offense in 2015.
Other Key JUCO Transfers to Watch in 2015
Chase Abbington, RB, Missouri
Cory Butler, DB, Utah
Johnathan Calvin, DL, Mississippi State
Malik Cuellar, OL, Missouri
Jeremy Cutrer, S, LSU
Jamal Danley, OL, Oklahoma
Allen Edwards, DL, Pittsburgh
Anthony Fotu, DL, Arizona
Marcell Frazier, DL, Missouri
Donald Gray, WR, Mississippi State
Paul Harris, WR, Louisville
Brandon Hodges, OT, Texas
Tyler Howell, OL, Missouri
Khalil Hunter, OL, Louisville
William Johnson, CB, Oklahoma
Traver Jung, LB, Mississippi State
Shalom Luani, S, Washington State
Justin Martin, CB, Tennessee
Kameron Miles, S, Boise State
Nehemiah Mitchell, DE/LB, Vanderbilt
Camion Patrick, WR, Indiana
Aaron Porter, LB, Washington State
Maurice Porter, OT, Baylor
Dominique Reed, WR, Arkansas
DeVondre Seymour, OT, Georgia
Jason Smith, QB/ATH, Auburn
Jeremy Smith, RB, Louisville
Maurice Swain, DT, Auburn
Jonathan Taylor, DT, Alabama
Demond Tucker, DT, Iowa State
Quincy Vasser, DL, Texas
Isaac Whitney, WR, USC