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Reigning FedExCup champion Billy Horschel has worked his way onto the short list of players to watch in the 2015 major championships. He’s also a viable candidate to do something no one else has done — successfully defend the FedExCup. In the pages of Athlon's 2015 Golf Annual, Horschel shares the tee-to-green points of emphasis that he and respected instructor Todd Anderson have focused on during his ascension to the top 15 in the World Golf Ranking.
Long and Straight
by Billy Horschel
With a lot of amateurs, even when they have good width in their backswing, they lose it by having the right arm come in too close to the body. They lose all the stored power they have. When you maintain the width on your downswing that you had on your backswing, it allows you to create that same power (above). When your hands come closer to your body, you lose that width in your right arm (below), and it becomes a handsy golf swing.
However far away your hands are on the backswing, maintain that same distance with the hands. That way, the right arm stays long, and you create that stored power to unleash on the golf ball.
Officials in sports constantly find themselves in a “no-win” situation. At best, they’re invisible while making the right calls that don’t affect the game. At worst, they’re the center of attention, causing a controversy that detracts from the final outcome. The last thing you want as a sport is to be constantly talking about subjective calls.
Somehow, NASCAR has failed to understand this philosophy, a black cloud of uncertainty following too many finishes the last few years. Fontana was the latest example, a caution thrown with two laps left because of a piece of debris on the racetrack. It’s like calling a foul on a half-court, desperation shot as time expires in basketball, or pass interference on a Hail Mary to end an NFL game.
Some would argue driver safety was compromised without some sort of caution. Well, then how do you explain another call two minutes later? During a green-white-checkered finish, Greg Biffle spun and smashed the wall hard on the frontstretch. Easily, a caution could have been thrown in the interests of driver safety, similar to the last lap of February’s Daytona 500. Instead? The race finished under the green flag.
Let’s review: a shiny piece of metal barely visible was allowed to change the outcome of a race with two laps left. A car slamming into a SAFER Barrier wasn’t. It’s the type of confusion that results from those calls which left driver Kurt Busch saying “WWE” on the radio to his crew in the closing laps. These calls cost Busch the race, one where he led a race-high 65 circuits.
But there’s also one other important place it costs NASCAR: credibility. When fans can’t understand the direction or reasoning behind different calls, they get frustrated. If they don’t see the debris that caused a yellow flag, they claim conspiracy. They’re not talking about who won the race; they’re talking about what caused others to lose.
That’s a dangerous cliff, but it’s one NASCAR doesn’t mind walking down. Let’s hope it doesn’t bite them in the end.
Through The Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Keselowski Steals One
Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske team has been a step behind for the first part of 2015. While teammate Joey Logano won the Daytona 500, Keselowski went without a top-5 finish during the season’s first four races. For most of Sunday, it was much of the same, leaving him far from the battles up front between Kevin Harvick, Busch, and Matt Kenseth.
But a series of late cautions bunched the field and gave him an opportunity. Pitting for fresh tires, a series of green-white-checkered finishes put the No. 2 car in perfect position to blow by the competition on restarts, deftly maneuvering through traffic to lead his only lap all day – the last one.
“You don't know how these things are going to work out,” Keselowski said of the frantic finish. “Sometimes you can restart fifth or sixth with four tires, you know, get caught up behind someone who doesn't have tires, end up 10th. You just don't know. It's picking the right lane and hoping that it comes together. For us it did at the end.”
Now, the Chase has come together for all of Team Penske in just five races. With Keselowski and Logano both locked in, they can spend the next five months preparing for another run at the title.
SECOND GEAR: Busch’s Bad Break
Make no mistake, Kurt Busch had the car to beat on Sunday. He was headed toward victory before two straight debris cautions caused green-white-checkered chaos that stole it away. But there’s plenty for Busch to take away from during a quality performance where he was the class of the field just two weeks into his return to the racetrack.
“I don’t know what we could have done different,” he said. “We just got pinned in by the yellows and the sequence at the end on which tires we needed to have to optimize how many laps were left. We had two tires; (Brad) Keselowski had four. We didn’t need that extra yellow at the end and I just got out muscled by Keselowski.”
Busch now sits inside the top 30 in points, already which means he’ll be Chase- eligible should the team snag a victory. In fact, he’s just 38 points behind 16th-place Carl Edwards, meaning it’s not inconceivable he could make the playoffs on points alone. Considering how much parts of Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled this season, that’s a great accomplishment.
THIRD GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing Stumbles
Joe Gibbs Racing, if the season ended today would place all four of its racecars in the Chase. However, it’s small consolation when their drivers sit 13th through 16th in the point standings.
Some of that is due to poor luck. Matt Kenseth was a contender at Fontana until a broken axle sabotaged his chances late. Denny Hamlin was also running up front until a penalty for an uncontrolled tire left him fighting from the back of the pack. David Ragan spun out with a top-10 car. Carl Edwards got caught with a speeding penalty. And so on… but the bottom line is, they haven’t been getting the finishes, putting Toyota’s top team in a far more vulnerable position than they should be.
“There ain’t nobody in the field with a fast enough car to come back from any penalties,” Hamlin said. “We had one at the inopportune time and it just led to a bad finish.”
Hopefully for JGR, Lady Luck will swing their way soon.
FOURTH GEAR: Harvick Keeps On Humming
When the smoke cleared Sunday, Kevin Harvick was sitting second, his eighth straight top-2 finish. That leaves him three short of tying the modern era record of 11 straight set by Richard Petty in the mid-1970s.
Harvick’s been so consistent his lead in the standings is a whopping 28 points after just five events. Only Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. sit within striking distance of the point lead. While the regular season title is meaningless under NASCAR’s new system, the way in which the defending champ has come out swinging is admirable.
The racing at Fontana, fantastic in recent years was disappointing Sunday. There were just 19 lead changes and the field under green was much more spread out. However, the fans’ enthusiasm hasn’t dampened as the track once again sold out their only Cup date… Dale Earnhardt Jr. rebounded for sixth one week after running dead last at Phoenix. He now has four top-10 finishes in the first five races with new crew chief Greg Ives… Martin Truex, Jr. has five top-10 finishes in a row to start the season. That equals the number of top 10s he got in a full schedule of 36 races driving for FRR last season.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
The last time South Carolina lost six games in a season was back in 2009.
After unprecedented success and 42 wins from 2010-13, the Gamecocks came crashing back down to earth with six losses — five in the SEC — in 2014.
Steve Spurrier’s resume speaks for itself and South Carolina isn’t devoid of talent, but there is plenty of work to be done this spring in Columbia.
5 Storylines to Watch in South Carolina’s Spring Practice:
1. Find a pass rush
It’s no secret how bad South Carolina’s pass rush was last season. Spurrier has spoken openly about it all offseason, so something must be done to improve the SEC’s worst pass rush (14.0 total sacks). No one on the team posted more than 2.0 sacks a year ago and new co-defensive coordinator (along with Lorenzo Ward) Jon Hoke’s first job is to find a way to get after opposing quarterbacks.
2. Is Connor Mitch the guy?
Dylan Thompson needed a bowl win over Miami to give South Carolina a winning record in his only season under center. He’s gone and Spurrier is looking to break in another starting quarterback for a second straight season. Sophomore Connor Mitch (6-3, 210), who has thrown six career passes, will have the inside track on the job but will be pressed by Perry Orth (6-1, 212) and Michael Scarnecchia (6-4, 201) this spring.
3. Rebuild the offensive line
A big part of the preseason hype for South Carolina entering last season was the stable and veteran offensive line. But with Corey Robinson and A.J. Cann now gone, this offense needs to rebuild its front heading into the summer. Brandon Shell is back and is a good piece to build around, but names like Clayton Stadnik, Alan Knott, Cody Waldrop and Will Sport need to step into bigger roles.
4. Stop the pass
The Gamecocks were 11th in the SEC in giving up pass plays or 10 yards or more (118) and 10th in pass plays of at least 20 yards or more (42). This secondary was filled with young players last year and it ranked 70th nationally in passes intercepted (11). Of the top six returning defensive backs, five were underclassmen last year and it’s Hoke's job to develop this group.
5. Develop star power
South Carolina has claimed some of the biggest stars in the SEC in recent years. With Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney or Connor Shaw, the Cocks had star power. With Thompson, tailback Mike Davis and tight end Rory Anderson gone on offense, only Pharoh Cooper returns with any fanfare on either side of the ball. Cooper is the only returning member of the roster with any All-SEC recognition of any kind.
Pre-Spring Outlook on South Carolina:
Spurrier has proven to be a magician in the past and he will need to work some minor miracles with old buddy Hoke if South Carolina wants to get back into the SEC title race. This team has lots of young talent that was forced into action early last year and it falls to the coaching staff to develop it. The SEC East is improving rapidly around Spurrier, so his squad needs to do the same.
College Football’s spring practice session is underway, and all 128 teams and coaches are getting their first glimpse at how their depth chart is shaping up for the 2015 season. And with teams hitting the practice fields, it’s the first chance to take a look at which players are ready to take the next step in their development and emerge as a key contributor.
After taking a look at the quarterbacks and running backs on the rise for 2015, let’s finish the offensive side of the ball with the wide receiver position. There’s no shortage of receivers or breakout candidates at this position, but the list is headlined by USC’s JuJu Smith, Florida State’s Travis Rudolph, Virginia Tech’s Isaiah Ford and Ohio State’s Jalin Marshall.
Note: Players considered for the on the rise designation had less than 1,000 receiving yards in 2014.
College Football’s Top 20 Wide Receivers on the Rise for 2015
Malachi Dupre, LSU
If LSU gets any consistency from its quarterbacks in 2015, then it’s safe to assume Dupre will have a breakout campaign. The Louisiana native was the No. 17 overall recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite and showed his big-play ability as a freshman by averaging 22.7 yards per catch on 14 receptions. Additionally, five of Dupre’s catches went for touchdowns.
Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech
In his true freshman campaign, Ford emerged as Virginia Tech’s top receiver. In 13 contests, Ford grabbed 56 receptions for 709 yards and six scores. He recorded only one performance of 100 yards (Georgia Tech) but averaged 4.3 receptions per game, which ranked ninth among receivers in the ACC. With more consistency from quarterback Michael Brewer and another year to work in the offensive scheme, Ford should only improve on his totals in 2015.
DaeSean Hamilton/Geno Lewis, Penn State
The Nittany Lions are loaded with promising young talent at receiver, with Hamilton and Lewis the group’s leading statistical options last season. Hamilton led the team with 82 catches for 899 yards, while Lewis ranked second with 55 receptions for 751 yards. Assuming Penn State can protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg in 2015, the passing attack should take a step forward, allowing Hamilton and Lewis to increase their production and opportunities.
Kenny Lawler/Stephen Anderson/Bryce Treggs, California
Let’s group all three of California’s top returning receivers here, as the Golden Bears should have one of the nation’s top passing attacks in 2015. Quarterback Jared Goff returns after throwing for 3,973 yards last season, and the talented trio of Lawler, Anderson and Treggs is due for an increase in opportunities after Chris Harper left for the NFL. With a defense that is still rebuilding, California will have to win with its offense in 2015. Keep an eye on this receiving trio, as it’s a safe bet at least one player will earn All-Pac-12 honors this year.
Jalin Marshall, Ohio State
Marshall and Dontre Wilson manned Ohio State’s H-Back position last season, and with the departure of Devin Smith, Evan Spencer and tight end Jeff Heuerman, both players should see an increased role in the offense in 2015. Marshall finished 2014 with 38 receptions for 499 yards and six scores and added 145 yards and one touchdown on the ground. Three of Marshall’s touchdowns came in one game, but he grabbed 24 of his 38 receptions over the final six contests.
Deon-Tay McManus, Marshall
The Thundering Herd enters spring with a few holes to fill on offense, as quarterback Rakeem Cato and top receiver Tommy Shuler expired their eligibility after the Boca Raton Bowl. While the quarterback battle could extend into the fall, the receiving corps could find its next go-to receiver in McManus this spring. As a redshirt freshman last year, the Maryland native caught 26 passes for 422 yards and six scores.
Speedy Noil, Texas A&M
The Aggies have one of the nation’s top receiving corps in 2015, and this group could get even deeper if Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones take the next step in their development. Noil caught 46 passes for 583 yards and five scores in his first season in College Station. In addition to his receiving totals, Noil averaged nearly 24 yards per kickoff return and 12 yards on punt returns. The sophomore should be one of the SEC’s top all-around playmakers in 2015.
Robbie Rhodes, Bowling Green
Bowling Green coach Dino Babers is a former Baylor assistant, and his “Falcon Fast” offense is similar to the one he learned under coach Art Briles in Waco. Rhodes is eligible in 2015 after sitting out 2014 due to NCAA transfer rules, and the sophomore should be an instant-impact performer for the Falcons. As a freshman at Baylor in 2013, Rhodes caught 10 passes for 157 yards (15.7 ypc). The Texas native ranked as the No. 28 recruit in the 2013 247Sports Composite.
Demarcus Robinson, Florida
Florida’s offense isn’t going to take a huge step forward in 2015, but new coach Jim McElwain will make a difference with this group. Robinson was the go-to target in the Gators’ passing offense last year, grabbing 53 receptions for 810 yards and seven scores. McElwain’s offense at Colorado State was instrumental in receiver Rashard Higgins (96 catches for 1,750 yards and 17 scores) pushing for All-America honors last season. Robinson won’t make that big of a jump in receiving totals, but he should benefit from the head coaching change this year.
Travis Rudolph, Florida State
With the departure of quarterback Jameis Winston, four starters on the offensive line and receiving targets Rashad Greene (WR) and Nick O’Leary (TE), there are a handful of new faces in key roles for Florida State’s offense this spring. Regardless of who takes the snaps under center for the Seminoles, Rudolph should be one of the team’s top playmakers in 2015. He caught 38 passes for 555 yards and four scores as a true freshman last season. Rudolph, Ermon Lane and incoming freshmen George Campbell and Da’Vante Phillips give Florida State one of the nation’s most talented groups of receivers for the next couple of seasons.
Artavis Scott, Clemson
As a true freshman last season, Scott led the team with 76 catches (including eight for scores) and recorded 965 receiving yards in 13 games. Scott capped the season on a high note by torching rival South Carolina for 185 yards and two scores, while also posting eight catches for 114 yards against Oklahoma. Scott should easily eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2015, especially if rising star quarterback Deshaun Watson stays healthy.
Hunter Sharp, Utah State
Despite injuries to Utah State’s top three quarterbacks, the Aggies still finished 10-4 and claimed victories in six out of their last seven games. Sharp was a key junior college find on the recruiting trail for coach Matt Wells, as the California native led the team with 66 catches for 939 yards and seven scores. Assuming Utah State has better luck in the injury department this year, Sharp should easily eclipse 1,000 yards and rank among the Mountain West’s best at receiver.
Brandon Sheperd, Oklahoma State
Sheperd entered 2014 with just 15 career receptions, but the Missouri native emerged as one of the top big-play threats in the Big 12. In 13 games, he grabbed 39 receptions for 737 yards and five scores. Sheperd developed a good rapport with quarterback Mason Rudolph late in the season, catching 12 passes for 254 yards and three scores in the final two games of 2014. With Rudolph under center for a full season, Sheperd is expected to be an even bigger piece of the offense in 2015.
Cam Sims/Robert Foster, Alabama
With the departure of Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones, Alabama is essentially starting over at receiver in 2015. Go ahead and pencil in a name from the Crimson Tide roster in this space, the only question is which player will emerge as a go-to target for the quarterback in 2015? Sims and Foster are the two most likely breakout players on the roster, as the duo combined for 13 catches for 106 yards and one score last season. True freshman Calvin Ridley is another name to watch in Tuscaloosa.
JuJu Smith, USC
The biggest void on USC’s offense heading into 2015 is at receiver with the departure of Nelson Agholor. Last season, Agholor led the Trojans with 104 catches for 1,313 yards and 12 scores. Coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t hurting for options at receiver with the emergence of Smith, along with the addition of a talented recruiting class for 2015. Smith ranked second on the team with 54 catches for 724 yards and five scores last season and is expected to emerge as quarterback Cody Kessler’s go-to target in 2015.
Thomas Sperbeck, Boise State
The Broncos lost top receiver Matt Miller early in 2014 due to injury, but the receiving corps didn’t miss a beat with the emergence of Sperbeck. The California native caught 51 passes and led the team with 877 yards (17.2 ypc). He also delivered in the Fiesta Bowl with his best performance of 2014 (12 receptions for 199 yards) and caught six passes for 148 yards in a 55-30 win over BYU. Even with a new quarterback taking over at Boise State, Sperbeck should be a lock for All-Mountain West honors in 2015.
Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers averaged 374.3 passing yards per game last season and should rank near the top of the nation once again with quarterback Brandon Doughty back under center. Taylor ranked second on the team with 797 yards (17 yards per catch) and third on the stat sheet with seven touchdown catches. Taylor is the team’s top big-play threat and should be an even bigger piece of Western Kentucky’s offense in 2015.
Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska
New coach Mike Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf produced their share of prolific passing attacks at Oregon State and a few tweaks are coming to Nebraska’s offense in 2015. The Cornhuskers need quarterback Tommy Armstrong to take the next step in his development this season, but the passing game has all of the necessary pieces in place at receiver. Westerkamp was second on the team in 2014 in catches, yards and receiving touchdowns. With Kenny Bell out of eligibility, Westerkamp should slide into the No. 1 receiving role for Armstrong.
D’haquille Williams, Auburn
Williams ranked as one of the top junior college prospects in the nation going into the 2014 season. The Louisiana native didn’t disappoint in his Auburn debut, catching 45 passes for 730 yards and five scores. With Sammie Coates off to the NFL, and Jeremy Johnson – a better passer than Nick Marshall – taking over at quarterback, Williams will see more opportunities in his direction this year.
De’Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State
The Bulldogs have several new faces stepping into the lineup with just seven returning starters in 2015. However, there’s little doubt about the strength of this team next season with the return of quarterback Dak Prescott. The senior should be one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and has a talented group of receivers at his disposal. Wilson is a nightmare matchup for opposing defensive backs at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. The Birmingham native finished 2014 on a tear, catching at least eight passes in each of his final three games.
Other Receivers to Watch in 2015
Power 5 Conferences
Devon Allen, Oregon
Allen showed plenty of promise as a redshirt freshman in 2014 before a knee injury in the Rose Bowl ended his season. If healthy, Allen should build off his 2014 totals: 41 receptions, 16.7 yards per catch, seven scores.
Victor Bolden/Jordan Villamin, Oregon State
The Beavers enter spring with uncertainty at quarterback, but there’s a promising group of receivers returning in 2015. Bolden and Villamin combined for 107 of Oregon State’s 290 catches in 2014.
Bra’Lon Cherry, NC State
Cherry is the Wolfpack’s top returning receiver after Bo Hines transferred to Yale. He caught 27 passes for 354 yards and three scores in 2014.
Stacy Coley, Miami
Can Coley regain his 2013 form (33 catches, 591 yards) after only grabbing 23 receptions in 2014?
Armanti Foreman, Texas
Upgrading the passing attack is coach Charlie Strong’s top priority this spring. The quarterback battle between Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes could extend into the fall, but the receiving corps is also under the spotlight with the departure of John Harris and Jaxon Shipley. Foreman – the No. 110 recruit in the 247Sports Composite last year – is ready for a bigger role in the offense.
J-Shun Harris II, Indiana
The Hoosiers must replace Shane Wynn (56 catches) this offseason. Will Harris emerge in 2015?
Levern Jacobs, Maryland
Jacobs missed 2014 due to suspension but he led the team with 47 catches for 640 yards in 2013. He should move into the No. 1 role with Stefon Diggs and Deon Long exiting College Park.
Devin Lauderdale, Texas Tech
Lauderdale averaged a healthy 19 yards per catch in 2014 and should see more passes his way in 2015 with the departure of Bradley Marquez.
Eric Lauderdale, Arizona State
Lauderdale ranked as a four-star prospect in the 2014 signing class and used a redshirt season in his first year in Tempe. The junior college prospect will be counted on to help replace the production lost by Jaelen Strong (NFL Draft) and Cameron Smith (knee injury).
Allen Lazard, Iowa State
Lazard did not disappoint in his true freshman campaign, catching 45 passes for 593 yards and three scores.
Gabe Marks, Washington State
Marks led Washington State with 74 receptions and 807 yards in 2013 but sat out 2014 as a redshirt. With the Cougars replacing leading receivers Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers, the door is open for Marks and River Cracraft to become the top receivers in coach Mike Leach’s offense in 2015.
Marquez North, Tennessee
North missed three games and battled injuries late in the season but still finished with 30 catches and four scores. He should benefit from a full season of Joshua Dobbs at quarterback.
Dante Pettis, Washington
Washington is looking for more playmakers in its receiving corps this offseason. Pettis is a name to watch after catching 17 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown in 2014.
Daikiel Shorts/Jordan Thompson, West Virginia
The Mountaineers lose top receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford. Can Shorts (24 catches in 2014) or Thompson (49) emerge as the No. 1 target this year?
Damore’ea Stringfellow, Ole Miss
Stringfellow transferred to Ole Miss after catching 20 passes for 259 yards at Washington in 2013. The California native was regarded as a top 100 recruit in the 2013 signing class.
Ja’Quay Williams, Louisville
Williams – a Texas A&M transfer – will be counted on for a major role in Louisville’s receiving corps in 2015, as the Cardinals lose standout DeVante Parker, Eli Rogers and tight end Gerald Christian expired their eligibility after the Belk Bowl. James Quick also deserves a mention in this article after catching 36 passes as a sophomore in 2014.
Group of 5
Devonte Boyd, UNLV
Boyd was one of the nation’s top freshman receivers last season, catching 64 passes for 973 yards and four touchdowns. He should see even more passes in his direction in 2015.
Trevon Brown, East Carolina
Brown is a talented playmaker that averaged 18.9 yards per catch (as a true freshman) before a knee injury limited him over the second half of 2014.
Steven Dunbar, Houston
Dunbar impressed as a true freshman last season by catching 20 passes for 286 yards. He will be one of the top targets in coach Tom Herman’s offense.
Donovan Harden, Georgia State
Illinois State transfer led Georgia State with 60 catches in 2014. With quarterback Nick Arbuckle returning, the Panthers should be one of the Sun Belt’s top passing offenses.
Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech
Henderson was a big-play threat for the Bulldogs as a redshirt freshman last season. In 12 games, he grabbed 29 receptions for 569 yards and four scores. Henderson’s 19.6 yards per catch ranked second among receivers in Conference USA in 2014.
Eric Judge, San Diego State
San Diego State has a new play-caller (Jeff Horton), and a likely transfer under center (Maxwell Smith), but Judge is a name to watch this spring. He caught 24 passes for 471 yards (and two scores) in 12 games last year.
Jesse Kroll, Central Michigan
Kroll ranked second on the team last season with 36 receptions for 582 yards and four scores. With Titus Davis expiring his eligibility, Kroll should emerge as the No. 1 target for quarterback Cooper Rush.
Mekale McKay, Cincinnati
The Bearcats return a loaded group of weapons for quarterback Gunner Kiel. McKay tied for the team lead with eight touchdown catches last season and ranked second on the team with 44 receptions. He could be primed for an even bigger role in 2015.
Dijon Paschal, Arkansas State
Paschal had a breakout year in 2014, catching 37 passes for 642 yards as a redshirt freshman. Arkansas State’s offense is only going to get better in 2015 with quarterback Fredi Knighten returning.
Zach Pascal/Blair Roberts, Old Dominion
The Monarchs lose quarterback Taylor Heinicke and top receiver Antonio Vaughan. But the offense should remain potent with coach Bobby Wilder and coordinator Brian Scott at the controls. Roberts missed 2014 due to injury, while Pascal caught 59 passes for 743 yards.
Alonzo Russell, Toledo
Russell ranked fourth in the MAC with eight touchdown catches in 2014. A healthy Phillip Ely at quarterback for the Rockets will only help Russell’s numbers in 2015.
Rokeem Williams, Miami (Ohio)
The RedHawks must replace quarterback Andrew Hendrix, but there’s a promising trio of young receivers returning in 2015. Williams caught 35 passes and averaged 19.5 yards per reception last year.
Ron Willoughby, Buffalo
Willoughby entered 2014 with just three career receptions. He caught 50 passes for 771 yards and nine scores last season. Look for Willoughby and Buffalo’s offense to improve under new coach Lance Leipold.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 24:
• Dirk Nowitzki's classic Tweet about Steve Nash provides an excuse to use the classic photo you see above.
• Crying Villanova piccolo girl's 15 minutes included appearing on Fallon and sitting in with the Roots. That's a productive 15 minutes.
• This is an amazing story: Michael Graham went from feared and hated mid-'80s Hoya, to hoops washout, to troubled loser, to lottery-winning restauranteur. Only in America.
• Watch Bubba Watson get a pie in the face from January Jones on Fallon. That's a random assortment of people.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Half of the MLB teams finished with a losing record in 2014. Of these 15 teams, which are in the best position to experience better results on the diamond this season? Preseason hope is never a guarantee of success once the games that count begin, but fans of these five teams have plenty of reasons to be excited with Opening Day just around the corner.
Boston Red Sox
(71-91, 5th in AL East in 2014)
If any team knows what it’s like and takes to go from worst to first, it’s the Red Sox. Boston pulled off the feat in 2013, improving from 69-93 to 97-65 and eventually winning the World Series. While it’s premature at this point to paint the Red Sox as a legitimate championship contender, it’s also pretty clear that general manager Ben Cherington is focused on getting back to the postseason.
Following a flurry of offseason moves, the only aspect of the team that remains relatively unchanged is the bullpen. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were both signed to bolster the heart of the Red Sox lineup to give stalwarts David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia some much-needed support. Boston also hopes it has budding superstars in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Cuban import Rusney Castillo.
The rotation is pretty much brand new too, as Clay Buchholz is all that remains from the quintet that Boston opened 2014 with. Rick Porcello (Detroit) and Wade Miley (Arizona) were both acquired in trades and Justin Masterson was signed to a one-year deal. Joe Kelly, who came over as part of the John Lackey trade with St. Louis last summer, is expected to round out this young and relatively unproven group. Scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem for this Red Sox team. If the new-look rotation comes together and the bullpen gels, Boston could find itself back atop the AL East standings.
Chicago White Sox
(73-89, 4th in AL Central)
Whether you are a Cubs or White Sox fan, the Windy City is abuzz and eagerly anticipating the start of this season. Despite the additions the Cubs (see below) made, the White Sox were even more aggressive this offseason. General manager Rick Hahn took care of every item on his to-do list, adding a front-of-the-rotation starter (Jeff Samardzija) via trade, while signing a closer (David Robertson), a left-handed bullpen specialist (Zach Duke), a No. 2 hitter (Melky Cabrera) and a new DH (Adam LaRoche) in free agency.
These significant new pieces will join cornerstones Chris Sale (the ace) and Jose Abreu (the slugging first baseman from Cuba, pictured above right), as the White Sox look to join the Royals and Indians in the pursuit of ending the Tigers’ four-year reign in the division. There’s no question the White Sox have improved their roster, but this is not a team without flaws (back end of the rotation, lineup depth). That said, the front office and ownership were intent on getting better, and they put their money where their mouth was in hopes of accomplishing this. It’s now up to manager Robin Ventura and the players to make the moves pay off in the win-loss column.
(73-89, 5th in NL Central)
Is THIS the year the Cubs break their century-long World Series drought? Probably not, but expectations are definitely on the rise, as Theo Epstein and company’s comprehensive rebuilding plan should finally start bearing tangible fruit. Not only is the organization’s farm system ripe with impact talent, headlined by uber-prospect Kris Bryant, but Joe Maddon also appears to be the right manager to lead this team to the next stage – becoming a consistent contender.
While much of the focus in the first three years of the Epstein regime has been to strengthen and develop the farm system (mission accomplished), the franchise also showed its commitment to winning by signing ace Jon Lester in free agency, while also acquiring leadoff man/centerfielder Dexter Fowler, catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross, and bringing back reliable righty Jason Hammel. They beef up a roster that already featured All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, along with an underrated bullpen.
Things are looking up for the North Siders, but this team may still be a year or two away from being a legitimate contender. However, things could change, especially if Bryant (when he arrives) and fellow highly regarded prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara end up being as good as advertised. The Wrigley Field renovations won’t be finished for the April 5 season opener against archrival St. Louis, but it will be the team on the field, not the empty bleachers, that will have everyone’s attention.
(77-85, 4th in NL East)
The Marlins improved by 15 wins from 2013 to ’14, and while it may be too much to expect them to pull off an encore, Miami could make a serious push for a Wild Card spot. First off, any team that boasts NL home run leader Giancarlo Stanton has to be considered a threat, but it appears the lineup is starting to come together around him. Not only do the Marlins boast one of the majors’ best outfield trios in Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, but speedy Dee Gordon and the versatile Martin Prado were acquired via trades and Mike Morse was signed in free agency.
The rotation got some help too in the additions of veterans Mat Latos and Dan Haren, but it’s the eventual return of ace Jose Fernandez that could hold the key to this season. The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year made just eight starts last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He probably won’t be back on the mound until the summer, but Fernandez has the potential to be a difference-maker down the stretch.
Miami also benefits from the company it keeps in that once you get past Washington in the NL East, the other three teams all enter with plenty of question marks, especially Atlanta and Philadelphia. Whether the Marlins can take advantage of this remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if Mike Redmond’s club is still in the postseason discussion come September.
(70-92, 4th in AL West)
Don’t look now, but it may be time to start taking the Astros seriously. Yes, this team is just a season removed from going 51-111, but last year saw a 19-game turnaround. Playoff contention is probably a bit too much to expect for 2015, but things appear to be headed in the right direction
Similar to the Cubs, Houston has a pretty stocked farm system that offered a glimpse of the future last season. George Springer made his much-anticipated debut last April and he didn’t disappoint, swatting 20 home runs in just 78 games before a quad injury ended his season in the middle of July. Springer and All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, who led the majors in 2014 with a .341 average and set a franchise record for hits (225), are the centerpieces to a lineup that now includes former Brave Evan Gattis and some other former top prospects (catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Jon Singleton) who need to take the next step in their development.
The rotation could surprise, especially if Dallas Kuechel and Collin McHugh can match last season’s success. The key will be if the other starters — expected to be veteran Scott Feldman, lefty Brett Oberholtzer and trade acquisition Dan Straily — can hold their own. If the starters can make it through five or six innings, the bullpen should be able to close things out, as Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek were both signed in free agency to bolster a group that has blown 74 saves the past three seasons.
Among the five teams on this list, Houston is definitely the one that has the most question marks entering 2015. The Astros are probably the farthest away from playoff contention, but that doesn’t mean new manager A.J. Hinch’s team won’t make some noise of its own this season either. Houston still has problems, but it finally has some hope for the future too.
Expectations are starting to soar in Knoxville for a reason.
Butch Jones has quickly rebuilt the Tennessee depth chart with two incredibly talented recruiting classes. The results on the field were tangible as well, as the Vols got back to the postseason and were extremely impressive against quality competition like Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Iowa.
However, there are major strides this program still needs to take before it can become an SEC title contender.
5 Storylines to Watch in Tennessee’s Spring Practice:
1. Handle the training room
Butch Jones has implemented a unique day-on, day-off strategy for spring practice due in large part to his lack of healthy starters. There are big-time names on both sides of the ball — like Jalen Hurd, Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett, for example — who will not be going through much contact this spring, if at all. With nine players off the depth chart this spring, Tennessee needs to win in the rehab room as much as it does on the field.
2. Build the D-line
Nowhere is the lack of starting bodies more obvious than along the defensive line. Barnett, Maggitt as well as Danny O’Brien and incoming star freshman Kyle Phillips are considered “out” while other D-line contributors will be limited. This leaves the Vols with five defensive linemen in spring camp — which not only hurts the much-needed development of the defensive line but also the progress the offensive line could make as well.
3. Stop opposing pass rushers
Speaking of the offensive line, the Vols allowed 43 sacks last year. That number ranks 122nd nationally and dead last in the SEC by a large margin. The good news is this unit should be improved in 2015. Jones’ offensive line returns four starters and the depth behind the starters has gotten better as well. Marcus Jackson won’t be available this spring but that may only aid in the development of younger prospects.
4. The DeBord-Dobbs marriage
Baring some unforeseen circumstances, Joshua Dobbs is the starting quarterback in Knoxville. The rising junior will now be under the tutelage of new coordinator Mike DeBord. How does DeBord’s tweaks to the offense (if any) mesh with Dobbs’ skill set? Building the young playmaker's repertoire and keeping him healthy could lead to an All-SEC type breakout season from the Vols' signal-caller. And it could put the Big Orange in contention in the East.
5. Temper expectations
Jones constantly talks about raising a football team and keeping this group grounded will be a big part of his offseason duties this year. The bowl win was almost too impressive and has led to many experts touting the Vols as a potential division front-runner. The depth chart isn’t there yet and both sides of the ball have a long way to go before an SEC crown is within reach. How this extremely talented, but extremely young roster handles rising expectations will be imperative this spring and summer.
Pre-Spring Outlook on Tennessee:
The anticipation growing in East Tennessee will only continue to boil over until Week 1 of the 2015 season. There are plenty of reasons for optimism with a depth chart getting better by the day and a playmaker finally developing under center. But issues in the trenches and on the training table should keep this group grounded and focused. If Jones and company keep grinding, this team will begin to push for SEC East supremacy. The question is whether or not it happens in '15 or ’16.
6. Chris Andersen, Miami Heat: “Birdman”
Superhero, rapper, Oscar winner… and Miami Heat role player. The frequently used “Birdman” moniker works so well for Chris Andersen because his outrageously tattooed body and surprisingly vertical style do not seem exactly human. Even the most casual NBA fans have taken notice of Andersen in recent years, as he jumps off the screen like a raptor in a chicken coop. His rim protection and ability to rebound and finish near the hoop often made him a closer for the Miami squads who saw the Finals for four straight years. Now 36 and near the end of his road, Birdman won’t soon be forgotten in annals of postseason goonery.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: “The Greek Freak”
Like the titanic men populating the mythology of his homeland centuries and centuries before him, Giannis Antetokounmpo is larger and more powerful than life. The 20-year-old has a body that’s freakish in most ways, standing at 6’11” and seemingly still growing. And, like Anthony Davis, Antetokounmpo has an uncanny knack for actually being able to use his ridiculous frame. He’s mobile, skilled, and has the instincts of a hunter. Once he matures and plays through more of his raw mistakes, this oversized utility man may earn a nickname that refers to more than just his unusual physical features.
4. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies: “Z-Bo”
You know a nickname’s good when you start using it so casually that it seems like an actual name. The way Randolph tells it, this tag doesn’t mean too much of anything — it’s just something he was called in middle school, and it’s stuck ever since. But in these two syllables there is, somehow, an evocation of the force that Zach brings to the court. Say “Z-Bo” out loud, and you’ll start to feel fear of getting clobbered in the paint, trying to hold your ground as the Memphis Grizzlies’ workhorse lowers his shoulder and breaks you down, over and over again.
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: “The Stifle Tower”
The Utah Jazz are much further along in their rebuilding process than they previously anticipated, and it has a lot to do with the emergence of this 22-year-old. The French-born Gobert has been the fourth-most effective defensive center in the NBA through his sophomore season, earning a starting role and a quickly rising reputation in Salt Lake City. One might even say he stands as tall as one famous Parisian tower by the rim, stifling each and every penetration with a calm moxie that’s rare for such a youngster.
2. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: “Boogie”
Cousins, like the genre of his nickname, doesn’t proceed at a typical beat. The outspoken, emotionally volatile center is extremely talented, and extremely entertaining. And while the always tumultuous state of his franchise hasn’t always made for the best display case for his immense skills, it has been an appropriate backdrop for his iconoclastic mentality. Boogie is a joy, albeit a difficult one, and it’s almost hard to imagine how he’d fit in with an organization that provided him with less shaky ground. DeMarcus is the undisputed king of unlevel NBA territory, for now.
1. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: “The Splash Brothers”
It’s fun to say, and it’s damn accurate. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are well on their way to proving themselves as the best shooting backcourt in league history, if they haven’t already. What else can you say about a pairing that’s got someone who scored 37 points in one quarter (Thompson) but who isn’t even the MVP candidate of the two? That’s Curry, whose playmaking and world-class handles and vision open the way for the endless long-range assault that the two produce together. The Splash Brothers hold the NBA’s most appropriate, and most fun, informal title.
— John Wilmes
West Virginia rebounded from a 4-8 mark in 2013 to finish 7-6 and earn its first winning record (5-4) in Big 12 action since joining the league. The Mountaineers return 16 starters for 2015, including talented running back Rushel Shell and defensive backs Daryl Worley (CB) and Karl Joseph (S). Coach Dana Holgorsen has this program trending in the right direction, but his 2015 team has a few holes to address this spring, including a quarterback battle and question marks on both lines of scrimmage.
5 Storylines to Watch in West Virginia’s Spring Practice
1. The Quarterbacks
West Virginia already has a good idea of what it has in its two quarterbacks vying for the starting role. Skyler Howard started the final two games of 2014 and finished the year with 829 passing yards and eight passing scores. Howard’s accuracy (50.9 percent) is one area to watch in 2015. William Crest was slated to work in the backup role last year. However, a shoulder injury sidelined the talented freshman in September after he rushed for 27 yards and completed three of four passes against Towson. The upside is clearly with Crest. Can he exit spring with a clear hold on the No. 1 job?
2. New Targets at WR
While the quarterback battle is expected to draw most of the offseason attention in Morgantown, West Virginia also has to find replacements for its top two receivers. Kevin White was one of the nation’s top receiving threats last year, catching 109 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 scores. Mario Alford also departs after recording 65 receptions for 945 yards and 11 touchdowns. This is a big spring for Jordan Thompson and Daikiel Shorts to emerge as the go-to targets for the quarterback. Shelton Gibson, freshman Jovon Durante and junior college recruit Ka’Raun White are also names to watch this offseason.
3. Stabilizing the Offensive Line
The Mountaineers must replace arguably their best offensive linemen from last year’s group in guards Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski. Some shuffling is already underway for line coach Ron Crook, as Adam Pankey (13 starts in 2014) is moving to guard after playing at left tackle last year. Marquis Lucas and Tyler Orlosky also return as starters, but which positions will they play? Could Lucas flip to left tackle? This spring is the first opportunity to sort out this unit.
4. Restock the Defensive Line
Under Tony Gibson’s direction last season, West Virginia limited conference opponents to 27.1 points per game. And with nine starters back, the Mountaineers could improve on that total in 2015. The biggest concern for Gibson has to be the depth in the trenches with the departure of Shaquille Riddick and Dontrill Hyman. Riddick earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors after recording seven sacks in 2014. Kyle Rose and Noble Nwachukwu are back after productive 2014 campaigns, but Gibson still needs to find a third starter, as well as develop the depth needed to stop opposing offenses in the Big 12.
5. Replacements at Linebacker
Gibson’s busy spring continues with a few new faces stepping into starting roles at linebacker. Brandon Golson and Wes Tonkery have expired their eligibility, which leaves Shaq Petteway, Nick Kwiatkoski and Edward Muldrow as the unit’s top returners. Jared Barber also returns from a torn ACL, while Isaiah Bruce hopes to find the form that helped him rank second on the team in tackles in 2012.
Pre-Spring Outlook on West Virginia in the Big 12:
West Virginia has a few key voids to fill this offseason, but the middle of the Big 12 is open. The Mountaineers defeated Baylor in Morgantown and lost to TCU by just a point. This team has made progress since joining the Big 12 under coach Dana Holgorsen and should easily make a bowl in 2015. How high this team climbs in the standings revolves around solving quarterback battle and the new faces on the offensive and defensive lines. Surpassing last year’s win total wouldn’t be a surprise.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 12: Jimmy Walker
Born: Jan. 16, 1979, Oklahoma City, Okla. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 4 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 3 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $5,787,016 (4th) | World Ranking: 13
2014 Key Stats
Total Driving: 78 (2nd)
Greens in Regulation Percentage: 69.03% (8th)
Final Round Scoring Average: 68.92 (3rd)
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Walker has improved his position on the money list every year since 2005, climbing from 207th to fourth in 2014. He is among the longest players off the tee and is now one of the best wedge players, and yet his greatest strength is in his flawless putting technique and ability to handle big moments. These are the attributes that made Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Vijay so dominant, and although Jimmy is a little late coming to the party, he still has four or five years to make up for the time he spent toiling among the middle class on Tour. In addition to winning three times last year, he finished eighth at The Masters, sixth at the Players Championship, ninth at the U.S. Open and seventh at the PGA Championship. To continue his climb up the world rankings, he likely has to win one of these events this year — and it would surprise no one if he did.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T8
U.S. Open - T9
British Open - T26
PGA Championship - T7
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T8 (2014)
U.S. Open - T9 (2014)
British Open - T26 (2014)
PGA Championship - T7 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 3
Top-25 Finishes: 4
Missed Cuts: 4
Athlon's 2015 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
Clemson has won 42 games in the last four seasons.
However, all of the talent — both on the field and calling the plays on the sideline — that helped Dabo Swinney reach that number has moved on. There is plenty left in the cupboard, namely star quarterback Deshaun Watson and the second-most talented roster in the ACC, but another brutal schedule will make getting to the ACC title game a tall order.
The Tigers' slate in 2015 is dotted with landmines. Two tricky road trips in the Atlantic Division to Louisville and NC State won’t be easy. Crossover play against Georgia Tech (home) and Miami (road) could feature the top two teams in the Coastal. The non-conference schedule is just as brutal with Notre Dame and South Carolina on tap.
And then there is that little meeting on Nov. 7 in Death Valley against the Florida State Seminoles.
The Tigers will likely enter the summer a top-25 team but will have to earn their way through a tough schedule to win its first ACC title since 2011. Here is a game-by-game breakdown of what Clemson faces in 2015:
2015 Clemson Tigers Schedule
Bye: Week 4, Sept. 26; * - Thursday
|1.||Sept. 5||Clemson, SC|
|In-state tune up with Wofford in the season opener should be extremely one-sided. Terriers haven't beaten big brother since 1933 and has faced Clemson just three times since World War II.|
|2.||Sept. 12||Clemson, SC|
|The Tigers are 4-0 all-time against Appalachian State. The Mountaineers could be the preseason front-runners in the Sun Belt Conference.|
|3.||Sept. 17*||Louisville, KY|
|First-ever meeting took place last year, a 23-17 Tigers win in Death Valley. This early Thursday night game sets stage for someone to become top challenger to Florida State.|
|5.||Oct. 3||Clemson, SC|
|Historic Meeting The third-ever meeting between the Midwestern powerhouse and the Southern staple should be a fan favorite for both programs. And is likely to feature two top-20 teams — possibly, top 10.|
|6.||Oct. 10||Clemson, SC|
|ACC Championship Game Preview? Star freshman DeShaun Watson's knee issues began in the ugly 28-6 loss to Georgia Tech late last season in Atlanta. The Tigers have won three straight in Death Valley over the Coastal Division defending champs.|
|7.||Oct. 17||Clemson, SC|
|Clemson has beaten BC four straight years and six of the last seven, even though the last matchup was the closest score since 2010. The Eagles' power-rushing attack will challenge the rebuilt Tigers D-line following a game against a triple-option offense.|
|8.||Oct. 24||Miami, FL|
|Leaving Death Valley for only the second time in the first eight weeks, Clemson has to go on the road in crossover play after facing two physical running games. These two haven't met since 2010 and Miami holds a 6-3 edge in the series.|
|9.||Oct. 31||Raleigh, NC|
|Trap Game A clear look-ahead moment for the Tigers with Florida State coming to town the following week. Clemson is 10-1 in its last 11 against Wolfpack but three of last four losses in the series have come in Raleigh.|
|10.||Nov. 7||Clemson, SC|
|Division Showdown The top game in the Atlantic Division each season should once again feature these two teams. The Noles have won three straight overall but the Tigers have won five of six against FSU in Clemson. The Tigers will be looking for revenge after the painful six-point overtime loss in Tallahassee a year ago.|
|11.||Nov. 14||Syracuse, NY|
|Will be just the fourth meeting all-time, as Clemson has won the first two ACC matchups relatively easy by a combined score of 65-20.|
|12.||Nov. 21||Clemson, SC|
|Back-to-back games with bottom feeders (Cuse) should finally allow Clemson to exhale after a brutal heart of the schedule. The Tigers have topped the Deacs in six straight by an average of 25 points.|
|13.||Nov. 28||Columbia, SC|
|Rivalry Game Snapped five-game losing streak to hated Gamecocks with impressive 35-17 showing last year. The Tigers are 3-3 in last six trips to Columbia.|
Listen to the Cover 2 Podcast: Early 2015 ACC Preview
This spring marks Year 4 of the Larry Fedora era at North Carolina and unfortunately, things have been trending in the wrong direction for the Tar Heels’ football program. Despite playing in a second straight bowl game (ineligible in Fedora’s first season), UNC’s win total has decreased each of the past two seasons since going 8-4 in 2012. While Fedora has been successful in implementing his fast-paced offense, the Tar Heels’ defense has steadily declined. Fedora brought in former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to overhaul the defense, while the offense returns all but one starter. In a seemingly wide-open ACC Coastal Division, can the Tar Heels find a way to put it all together and break through in 2015?
5 Storylines to Watch in North Carolina’s Spring Practice
1. Starting Over on Defense
There’s no way to sugarcoat it – North Carolina’s defense was abysmal last season. The Tar Heels finished 120th in FBS in total defense (497.8 ypg) and tied for 119th in scoring defense (39.0 ppg). Their woes on defense can pretty much be summed up in the 70 points and 789 yards East Carolina piled up in its Sept. 20 win in Chapel Hill. Not surprisingly, Fedora is basically starting over; hiring former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator to oversee the implementation of a new scheme. This process begins in earnest, as Chizik and his staff will use spring practice to introduce the new system, while getting a better idea of the personnel they have to work with. Six starters are returning on that side of the ball, but given all of the issues last season, it may as well be viewed as a blank slate.
2. Quarterback Controversy?
Marquise Williams was named third-team All-ACC after accounting for 3,856 yards of total offense and 35 total touchdowns in 2014. A senior, Williams has to be considered the favorite for the starting job, but he will miss spring practice due to a hip injury. Williams’ absence presents third-year sophomore Mitch Trubisky with a chance to impress the coaching staff. Trubisky threw five touchdown passes and four interceptions last season and he was recruited by Fedora for this offense while Williams came to UNC the year before Fedora was hired. Williams has proven himself capable of orchestrating Fedora’s system, but can Trubisky show enough this spring to create a viable QB competition come fall camp?
3. Sorting Out the Backfield
The seventh-ranked rushing offense in the ACC last season, North Carolina returns every player who ran the ball, including Joey Mangili, the punter. The key returnees are Williams, who led the team in attempts, yards and rushing touchdowns, along with a quintet of running backs in T.J. Logan, Romar Morris, Elijah Hood, Charles Brunson and Khris Francis. Logan, a junior, and Morris, a senior, have the most experience, while Hood was the top recruit of the 2014 signing class. The Tar Heels don’t lack for options and Fedora isn’t shy to use them. All five backs had at least 27 carries last season. The question is, will one or more of them emerge in the spring to the point a running back and not the quarterback will lead the team in carries this fall?
4. Development of the Offensive Line
North Carolina not only returns just about every key offensive weapon from last season, but also any lineman who started a game. Nine different Tar Heels started up front, a group that’s led by third-team All-ACC right guard Landon Turner and the junior trio of left tackle John Ferranto, left guard Caleb Peterson and center Lucas Crowley. The returnees will be joined this spring by early enrollees Mason Veal and William Sweet with Tommy Hatton scheduled to arrive in the summer. Similar to the running backs, Fedora doesn’t lack for options along the offensive line. It’s figuring out which pieces fit best, as UNC looks to improve upon both its rushing production (151.4 ypg, 83rd in FBS, 4.0 ypc) and pass protection (28 sacks allowed, tied for 71st) this season.
5. Identifying Defensive Linchpins
The Tar Heels’ issues on defense are well documented, but one of the benefits of breaking in a new scheme and coaching staff is that the players can basically put the past behind them too. Competition in the spring should be pretty spirited, as everyone gets a chance to show the new coaches what they bring to the table. It would help both the coaches and the players if some leaders and/or building blocks emerge sooner than later, such as junior cornerback Brian Walker, junior defensive end Junior Gnonkonde or senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer. The new guys, like early enrollees Jalen Dalton and Andre Smith and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Clarke, also will get their chances this spring.
Pre-Spring Outlook on North Carolina in the ACC:
The Tar Heels played in a bowl game in 2014, but won just six games and were one of the worst defenses in the entire nation. Every starter but one returns on offense, while former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has come to Chapel Hill to overhaul the defense. Offense shouldn’t be an issue for Larry Fedora’s team, but the defense must improve if North Carolina wants to be viewed as a legitimate contender in what appears to be a fairly wide-open ACC Coastal Division in 2015.
The East region will have an ACC flavor even though the ACC regular season champion is at home. Louisville and NC State will meet in the Sweet 16 on an ACC floor for a rare conference game in the NCAA Tournament.
At the same time, Oklahoma will try to save face for a beleaguered Big 12, but the Sooners will have to go through Tom Izzo, who as usual has his Michigan State squad peaking in March.
Here’s a look at the East Regional in Syracuse at a glance.
No. 8 NC State vs. No. 4 Louisville (7:37 pm., TBS)
No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (approx. 10:07 p.m., TBS)
Top Five Players
1. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
2. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
3. Terry Rozier, Louisville
4. Branden Dawson, Michigan State
5. Trevor Lacey, NC State
Top Dog — Oklahoma
For the first time since 2004, a regional will begin with the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds eliminated in the first weekend. That leaves No. 3 Oklahoma as the top-seeded team in the East region. The Sooners held off Dayton in the round of 32 thanks to some late heroics by Buddy Hield. He’s usually a big-time shotmaker, but a block helped seal the win over the Flyers. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is taking his fourth team to the Sweet 16, but he hasn’t taken a team beyond that since the 1994 Final Four at Florida.
Underdog — NC State
NC State was one of the most frustrating teams during the regular season, a team with the talent to be a top team in the ACC, but also a team capable of losing to Clemson, Boston College and Wake Forest. LSU collapsed down the stretch in the round of 64, and Villanova’s offense went cold for an entire game as NC State went to the Sweet 16. Cat Barber, Trevor Lacey and Abdul-Malik Abu are a talented trio, and the Wolfpack can’t be dismissed simply because it is a No. 8 seed in the Sweet 16.
An All-ACC Sweet 16 game
With memberships ballooning in the major conferences, the selection committee is having a tougher and tougher time of making sure that conference teams don’t play each other until the Elite Eight. The ACC sent six of its 15 members to the field and two of them — Louisville and NC State — will meet in the Sweet 16. On an ACC court in the Carrier Dome, no less. The Louisville-NC State meeting in the regional semifinal was permissible since the two teams played only once during the regular season. NC State won 74-65 on Feb. 14.
“(Former Michigan State All-American) Draymond Green actually this morning said ‘Don't let this be your last game,’ and I texted him back and said, ‘I won't.’ But that was our mindset coming in. We knew they were a great team, we had to jump out on them early.”
-Michigan State guard Travis Trice on his hot start against Virginia
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament wiped away notion of Cinderellas, but if you’re looking for an underdog, perhaps you can find one in the South Region.
Going up against Duke is the lowest seed remaining in the Tournament, a team that won six games just four years ago and a team that’s been very good for a long time but never reached the Final Four. Of course, we’re talking about UCLA, Utah and Gonzaga, so Cinderella fits this crew about as much as “South” region does.
Here’s a look at the South Regional in Houston at a glance.
No. 11 UCLA vs. No. 2 Gonzaga (8:15 p.m., CBS)
No. 5 Utah vs. No. 1 Duke (approx. 9:45 p.m., CBS)
Top Five Players
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
2. Delon Wright, Utah
3. Justise Winslow, Duke
4. Tyus Jones, Duke
5. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
Top Dog — Duke
Even before the Tournament, Duke looked like the easy favorite in the South region. The first two games made the pick look even more easy. The Blue Devils made easy work of Robert Morris and then had no trouble with the length of San Diego State in the round of 32. The Blue Devils averaged 1.11 points per possession against San Diego State, the third-highest average against the Aztecs this season. Jahlil Okafor was 12-of-16 from the field for 26 points, but the most impressive player may have been Justise Winslow. The freshman had 13 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in a highlight-reel day.
Underdog — UCLA
Go ahead and debate if UCLA should be in the field in the first place, but it’s no question the Bruins have taken advantage of the selection committee’s vote of confidence. A goaltending call late in the round of 64 gave UCLA a leg up on SMU, and the Bruins thrashed No. 11 seed UAB in 92-75 to go to the Sweet 16. UCLA isn’t a deep team, but the Bruins can score. UCLA’s starting five scored 88 points against the Blazers.
The Bulldogs have been snakebit in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Sweet 16 on once since 2006. The program hasn’t won in the Sweet 16 since 1999, the year before Mark Few became the head coach. This is one of Few’s best teams in 16 seasons in Spokane, but Gonzaga will need to conquer one demon to reach the regional final. The Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA is a rematch of the 2006 regional semifinal that ended with National Player of the Year Adam Morrison in tears after a 73-71 Bruins win.
“Now we look around and it's like, Pinch me. Here we are. It's been a fun run with a lot of these guys that have been a part of it.”
-Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, whose first team at Utah in 2011-12 went 6-25 in 2011-12
Kentucky’s bid for an undefeated season will have to go through West Virginia, the team that in 2010 beat what was arguably John Calipari’s best team in Lexington.
In the other regional semifinal, Wichita State and Notre Dame will try to re-orient themselves for an emotional — for very different reasons — Sweet 16 game.
Here’s a look at the Midwest Regional in Cleveland at a glance.
No. 7 Wichita State vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (7:15 p.m., CBS)
No. 5 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Kentucky (approx. 9:45 p.m., CBS)
Top Five Players
1. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky
3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
4. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
5. Ron Baker. Wichita State
Top Dog — Kentucky
Kentucky has done nothing to change the perception that it is the top dog of the entire Tournament. In the round of 32, Cincinnati gave the Wildcats some difficulty early on, but Kentucky’s depth and length was too much to handle. The Bearcats tried to get under Kentucky’s skin with a physical game to no avail. If anything was an issue, Kentucky’s guards had an off game against Cincinnati. Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis combined to shoot 12-of-34 from the field overall and 4-of-15 from 3.
Underdog — Wichita State
A disclaimer: the underdog label is not appropriate for Wichita State. In the last three years, Wichita State has gone to the Final Four, started a season 35-0 and conquered Kansas in the round of 32. The Shockers have accomplished more in recent years than its Sweet 16 opponent, Notre Dame. But No. 7 Wichita State is the lowest-seeded team remaining in the region. After the build-up to the anticipated matchup with the Jayhawks, the Shockers’ energy levels will be a storyline to watch.
Kentucky vs. West Virginia again
Kentucky and West Virginia have met in the NCAA Tournament three times since John Calipari and Bob Huggins have been at their current posts. The most recent was a 71-63 Kentucky win in the round of 32 in 2011. The most memorable was in the 2010 Elite Eight when fourth-seeded West Virginia upset a top-seeded Kentucky team led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. This year’s meeting will be just as compelling when undefeated Kentucky faces West Virginia’s relentless pressure. The Wildcats will face back-to-back physical opponents in Cincinnati and West Virginia before they get to the Elite Eight.
“I'd talk to her during the season and very rarely did I get ‘hey, Mike, how you doing?’ It's like, ‘Have you got them ready? Are they ready? I think we can beat Duke, Mike.’ It's unbelievable. She was intense.”
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who revealed Saturday his mother, Betty Brey, died the morning of the Notre Dame’s 67-64 overtime win over Butler.
The West region will be full of familiar faces on a number of fronts. For starters, each team in the Sweet 16 is no stranger to this stage. In the last five seasons alone, these four teams have been to the regional semifinal 12 times.
But if the region goes chalk and sends top two seeds Wisconsin and Arizona to Saturday, the game will be a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight that sent Bo Ryan to his first Final Four.
Here’s a look at the West Regional in Los Angeles at a glance.
No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 1 Wisconsin (7:47 p.m., TBS)
No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 2 Arizona (approx. 10:17 p.m., TBS)
Top Five Players
1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
2. T.J. McConnell, Arizona
3. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
4. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
5. Stanley Johnson, Arizona
Top Dog — Wisconsin
The Badgers are making their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the last five seasons, but the goals are far more grand than they once were for Wisconsin. To reach the Final Four for the second consecutive season, the Badgers have to get through North Carolina. The Tar Heels are generally regarded as a dynamic offensive team because of their up-and-down style, but Wisconsin ranks first in the nation in offensive efficiency. The battle for tempo will be the most interesting matchup of the game.
Underdog — Xavier
Xavier is no stranger to this stage. The Musketeers are in the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last eight years. But they’re also a No. 6 seed among Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina. With freshman Trevon Bluiett and sophomore Jalen Reynolds emerging, this Xavier team is peaking at the right time.
Familiar Faces for Sean Miller
The selection committee made sure Sean Miller’s path to his first Final Four was an emotional one. To get to the Sweet 16, the Arizona coach had to go head to head with Ohio State coach Thad Matta, his predecessor and former boss at Xavier. Miller’s Sweet 16 matchup will be a against Xavier, a team he coached for five seasons. On the Xavier bench is Chris Mack, who spent all five of those seasons on Miller’s staff before succeeding him with the Mountaineers.
“It's been a hard year, it really has. I probably acted sillier in the locker room after this game than I have in quite a while. I'm going to try to enjoy the dickens out of this one for a while.”
-North Carolina coach Roy Williams after the 87-78 win over Arkansas, referring to the passing of mentor and UNC legend Dean Smith earlier this year.
Syracuse unveiled three uniforms last season, but the reveal didn’t include an orange design. One year later, it appears Syracuse will be adding a fourth color to its jersey wardrobe.
On Monday, Syracuse unveiled a new orange jersey for 2015.
Check out the new look for the Orange:
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 23:
• The best NCAA Tournament photos of the first weekend. For my money, sad piccolo girl was the star of the weekend. That's the face that captures what this tournament is all about for 67 of 68 teams.
• SEC West schools are realizing that basketball is a sport too. Mississippi State went out and got Ben Howland, who led UCLA to three straight Final Fours a few years ago, and Bama's taking a run at Wichita's Gregg Marshall. Call it the Bruce Pearl effect.
• Arnold Palmer Invitational champ Matt Every has an Oasis tattoo. Too bad for him they'll probably never get together again, at least until they go broke.
• This is just plain bizarre: Adrian Peterson rode into his 30th birthday party on a camel.
• Just when cops needed some good PR, this one helped a lady finish a race and became a viral hero.
• Paul Pierce shoved Omri Casspi into a little girl sitting courtside.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
West Virginia entered the opening round of the NCAA Tournament with TV experts hyping the return of Bobby Hurley, and with Buffalo planted firmly in their minds.
The country had not heard from Buffalo all season, but due to Hurley on the bench, the Bulls were poised to pull the upset of the tourney. The bad news for the Bulls was, Hurley couldn’t play. Although much of the broadcast was about the former Duke national champion, he did not make a shot, grab a rebound or have an assist. When it comes to shocking losses, ask Baylor and Iowa State.
Before the ink could dry on the bracket, analysts had the Bulls winning the No. 12 vs. No. 5 matchup. Three of those people beating the drum were Doug Gottlieb, Seth Davis and Jay Bilas.
Enter Bob Huggins.
When asked about the predictions, Huggins didn’t hold back. Huggs said he doesn’t put much stock in predictions from “a guy who couldn’t shoot 50 percent at the free-throw line and another guy who played intramurals at Duke.”
After West Virginia defeated Buffalo 68-62 to advance to the next round, Huggins would turn his attention to Bilas.
“I’m really going to have to lose my mind when I start paying attention to what Jay Bilas and those people say,” Huggins said via ASAP Sports.
“Jay always does those tweets, gotta go to work, I’m trying to wonder what that is. But I don’t pay any attention to those guys. I mean really, honestly, if they knew everything they probably would have a pretty good coaching job making a lot more money than they’re making sitting there in the studio. So we don’t pay any attention to that.”
Since then, West Virginia continues to prove the doubters wrong, and that continued on Sunday evening when the Mountaineers defeated Maryland 69-59. WVU will now face overall No. 1 seed and undefeated Kentucky on Thursday night.
“It seems like everywhere we go people say, well, it’s not pretty,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “Well I think it’s beautiful. I love it. I love the fact that we can not make shots and still win – still find a way to score."
Huggins added, “It’s hard work. It’s hard and it comes down to having a lot of heart.”
While most of the country is laughing at the idea of West Virginia pulling off the upset on Thursday, the Mountaineers will enter the contest with every intention of winning. This team has no fear, and they don’t fear Kentucky.
“I can’t tell you we are going to win, but I can tell you we aren’t going to be scared.”
Now the stage is set for old friends to face each other once again, and Huggins knows both sides will be ready.
“It’s not another game because it’s the Sweet 16,” said Huggins. “It’s the NCAA Tournament and it’s one-and-done, so you just can’t say it’s another game. I just told our guys to make sure they know (Kentucky coach John Calipari) is going to have them ready to go.”
West Virginia and Kentucky is set for a 9:45 p.m. ET tip on CBS on Thursday. The Wildcats opened as a 12.5-point favorite.
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is over, and in some ways there are relatively few surprises.
In a macro sense, it’s not surprise to see Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State or even UCLA here. The same great coaches keep advancing through the Tournament. Four of the five active Hall of Fame coaches are in the second weekend. The exception, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, is not allowed to be here.
The Sweet 16 and the first weekend of the Tournament brought their share of surprises, too. The ACC and Big East regular season champions aren’t in the field. Neither is Kansas.
These are some of the ups and downs and statistical highlights from the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament:
Time since the field expanded the ACC and Big East regular season champions both lost before the Sweet 16. Villanova became the third outright Big East champion to lose in the round of 32 since 2008, joining 2011 Pittsburgh and 2008 Georgetown. Virginia became the first outright ACC champion to lose before the Sweet 16 since 2003. But both ACC and Big East champs losing in the first weekend of the same Tournament? That hasn’t happened in the 64-team era.
Only twice have teams that won a share of the ACC/Big East titles lost before the Sweet 16 in the same season. In 2001, outright Big East champion Boston College lost in the second round to USC while North Carolina, which tied for the ACC title with Duke, lost to Penn State. In 1997, outright ACC champion Duke lost to Providence in the second round while two teams that shared the Big East title lost in the first weekend (Boston College to Cal, Villanova to Saint Joseph’s).
The ACC is back to its roots, at least as far as the Sweet 16 is concerned. Three members of the Tobacco Road hub are in the Sweet 16. Duke, North Carolina and NC State are all in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 and only the fourth time in NCAA history.
Coaches with NBA coaching experience in the Sweet 16. Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Lon Kruger and Larry Krystkowiak all have been NBA head coaches and not great ones. Their collective record was 364-523, and none of them has a career winning record in the pros.
Times a Mark Gottfried team has upset a No. 1 seed to go to the Sweet 16. Since the field expanded, 17 No. 8 or No. 9 seeds have reached the Sweet 16, needing an upset of a No. 1 seed to get there. Gottfried is responsible for two of those. His eighth-seeded NC State upset Villanova this year, and in 2004, Gottfried led an eighth-seeded Alabama team that upset No. 1 seed Stanford 70-67. The ’04 Tide defeated Syracuse in the Sweet 16 before losing to UConn in the Elite Eight.
Speaking of those No. 8/9 seeds to reach the Sweet 16, they’re just as likely to reach the Final Four as they are to lose in the Sweet 16, historically speaking. Six No. 8/9 seeds that made it to the Sweet 16 won their regionals, including each of the last three. NC State will try to join 2014 Kentucky, 2013 Wichita State, 2011 Butler, 2000 Wisconsin and North Carolina, 1986 Auburn and 1985 Villanova in going from the 8/9 game to the Final Four. No. 8 Villanova is the lowest-seeded team to win a national championship.
Times Kansas has lost before the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed, most in NCAA history.
Wichita State tops Kansas to advance to Sweet 16. Kansas has 6 first-weekend losses as a Top-2 seed, most in NCAA Tournament history— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2015
The losses are:
|Kansas First Weekend Losses as Top-Two Seed|
|Year||KU's Seed||Lost to...||Coach|
|2015||2||No. 7 Wichita State||Bill Self|
|2014||2||No. 10 Stanford||Bill Self|
|2010||1||No. 9 Northern Iowa||Bill Self|
|1998||1||No. 8 Rhode Island||Roy Williams|
|1992||1||No. 8 UTEP||Roy Williams|
|1990||2||No. 7 UCLA||Roy Williams|
Roy Williams’ record in the round of 64. Mark Titus at Grantland noted the North Carolina coach’s perfect first round record. Just for fun, let’s compare that to the other active Hall of Fame coaches, the two up for the Hall of Fame this season (Bo Ryan and John Calipari) and three other sure-fire Hall of Famers (Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan and Bill Self).
|Coach||Career Round of 64 Record|
|Roy Williams, North Carolina||25-0|
|Mike Krzyzewski, Duke||26-5|
|Rick Pitino, Louisville||16-4|
|Bob Huggins, West Virginia||16-5|
|Jim Boeheim, Syracuse||26-5|
|Bo Ryan, Wisconsin||12-2|
|John Calipari, Kentucky||15-1|
|Tom Izzo, Michigan State||15-3|
|Bill Self, Kansas||15-2|
|Billy Donovan, Florida||11-3|
Schools Lon Kruger has taken to the Sweet 16. On Friday, Kruger became the first coach to win an NCAA Tournament game with five teams. He topped that Sunday by becoming the first coach to reach the Sweet 16 with four teams after the Sooners defeated Dayton 72-66. Kruger has gone to the Sweet 16 with UNLV (2007), Florida (1994) and Kansas State (1988). The two schools he’s coached not taken to the Sweet 16? Texas-Pan American and Illinois.
Times the top two seeds from the same region lost before the Sweet 16. No. 1 Villanova and No. 2 Virginia both lost in the East Region before the Sweet 16, marking the sixth time since 1985 a region lost both of its top two seeds before the Sweet 16. The last time it happened, No. 1 Kentucky lost to UAB and No. 2 Gonzaga lost to Nevada in the first weekend of the 2004 Tournament
Longest Sweet 16 drought ended. By reaching its first Sweet 16 since 2003, Notre Dame its ending the longest regional semifinal drought of any team reaching the second weekend. The Irish have lost in the first weekend six times since that trip. The biggest uphill climb, then, belongs to Utah. The Utes last reached the Sweet 16 in 2004, but they made the Tournament only once between then and now.
Teams that reached the Sweet 16 last season. Kentucky, Arizona, Michigan State, UCLA, Wisconsin and Louisville are all making back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16. Louisville has made four in a row.
Average margin of victory for No. 1 seeds in the round of 64. Never say never, but the prospect of a No. 16 seed upsetting a No. 1 seems as far as ever. Two No. 16 seeds playing in the First Four in Dayton and then racing to another Tournament site has made the job even tougher.
Combined record for No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. We’re not ready to swear off 12-5 and 13-4 upsets in our brackets just yet, but this was a startling number. For the first time since 2007, every No. 4 and No. 5 seed advanced to the round of 32. For the No. 5 seeds in particular, this is a reversal of a trend: No. 5 seeds were a combined 2-6 in the 2013 and 2014 Tournaments.
Consecutive favorites to win from Thursday afternoon to Friday night. If you were lucky enough to indulge in the Thursday afternoon games, congratulations, you witnessed all the upsets. After UAB, Georgia State and UCLA, the universe corrected itself and went chalk for 23 consecutive games. Even the No. 8 seeds swept the No. 9s, which in theory are the most evenly matched games in the field.
No. 14 seeds to move into the round of 32. UAB and Georgia State picked up the slack for the mid-major upsets. For the First time since 1996, two No. 14 seeds advanced to the round of 32. That year, Weber State upset Michigan State and Old Dominion upset Villanova.
Margin of victory for No. 7 Iowa over Davidson. The third-highest margin of victory in the round of 64 involved a No. 7 seed against a mid-major regular season champion. Iowa defeated Atlantic 10 champion Davidson 83-52. It was the only game not involving a No. 1 seed decided by more than 20 points.
Games decided by 1 point in the round of 64. This included:
• No. 8 Cincinnati 66, No. 9 Purdue 65
• No. 8 NC State 66, No. 9 LSU 65
• No. 11 UCLA 60, No. 6 SMU 59
• No. 14 Georgia State 57, No. 3 Baylor 56
• No. 14 UAB 60, No. 3 Iowa State 59
Record for the Big 12 in the first weekend the last two seasons. The most competitive league during the regular season again struggled in the NCAA Tournament. True, the league produced two Sweet 16 teams in each of the last two seasons (West Virginia and Oklahoma this year, Baylor and Iowa State last year), but the Big 12 also had seven teams bounced in the first round in the last two seasons and league champ Kansas in the second round.
Pac-12 teams in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. The Pac-12 is still working to catch up to the Big Ten and ACC, but at least as far as the Tournament is concerned, the Pac-12 has had a good showing the last two seasons. Arizona and UCLA have reached back-to-back Sweet 16s, Utah advanced this year and Stanford last season. Keep in mind, the Pac-12 had three Sweet 16 teams total from 2009-12.
Virginia Tech won at least 10 games in eight consecutive seasons from 2004-11. But the Hokies took a step back over the last three years, recording a 22-17 mark in that span. Coach Frank Beamer is also coming off his first losing record in conference play since 2002. While Virginia Tech’s win total has dipped recently, this program isn’t far from contending in the Coastal. The defense is one of the best in the nation, but the offense is once again under the spotlight in spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch in Virginia Tech’s Spring Practice
1. Michael Brewer’s Development
Brewer threw for 2,692 yards and 18 scores in his debut at Virginia Tech last season. The Texas Tech transfer helped to guide the Hokies to a win at Ohio State early in the year but also tossed 10 picks through his first five games. With a full offseason to learn the offense and develop a rapport with coordinator Scot Loeffler, will Brewer take a step forward in 2015?
2. Finding Answers on the Offensive Line
The offensive line is easily the biggest concern for Virginia Tech in 2015. Three players started all 13 games last year – Laurence Gibson, David Wang and Caleb Farris – and have expired their eligibility, while this unit returns promising younger players in guard Wyatt Teller and tackle Jonathan McLaughlin. Can line coach Stacy Searels find the right answers for a unit that gave up 34 sacks in 2014?
3. Establishing a Pecking Order at Running Back
Make no mistake: Virginia Tech has options at running back. Will the coaching staff develop a clear pecking order for carries this spring? Clouding the outlook is a knee injury to Marshawn Williams, as well as a suspension for Shai McKenzie. J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds and Joel Caleb will have first shot at claiming the top spots on the depth chart this spring, while D.J. Reid and Travon McMillian are ready to push for snaps off a redshirt season.
4. New Faces at Safety
With eight starters back, Virginia Tech’s defense will be among the best in the nation. Few question marks surround this group, but coordinator Bud Foster needs to restock at safety after the departure of Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner. Chuck Clark (73 tackles in 2014) is expected to move to safety after playing corner in 2014. The rover position is unsettled and could fall to C.J. Reavis or Der’Woun Greene.
5. Eliminate Turnovers and Mistakes
It’s difficult to predict or coach, but Virginia Tech has to find a way to limit the turnovers in 2015. The Hokies ranked near the bottom of the ACC with 26 turnovers lost in 2014 and also averaged seven committed penalties a game. If Beamer’s team can eliminate the mistakes, it should have a little better luck in close games after finishing 2-5 in one-score contests in 2014.
Pre-Spring Outlook on Virginia Tech in the ACC:
Similar to last season, the Coastal Division is filled with uncertainty entering spring practice. Georgia Tech is considered the favorite, but Virginia Tech isn't far behind. The Hokies are loaded with talent on defense and had some bad luck last season with 26 lost turnovers and a 2-5 mark in one-score games. If offensive line improves, and quarterback Michael Brewer develops in his second year as a starter, Virginia Tech has a chance to win the division and return to the top 25 in 2015.
Auburn wasn’t quite able to recapture the magic from its 2013 run to the national championship, but coach Gus Malzahn’s second season still resulted in an 8-5 record with two losses coming by three points. As Malzahn’s team works through spring practice, it’s clear this team will be in the mix for the SEC West Division title. New quarterback Jeremy Johnson is a rising star, and there’s no shortage of talent at the skill positions. The defense should benefit significantly from the addition of Will Muschamp as coordinator.
5 Storylines to Watch in Auburn’s Spring Practice
1. Jeremy Johnson’s Time to Shine
Nick Marshall had a successful two-year stint as Auburn’s quarterback, but the offense shouldn’t miss a beat with Jeremy Johnson under center. The junior has two career starts under his belt and passed for 436 yards and three scores in seven appearances in 2014. Johnson isn’t as mobile as Marshall, but coach Gus Malzahn will tweak the offense to fit his strengths. This spring is Johnson’s first to work as the starter.
2. New Faces on the Offensive Line
The Tigers must replace two starters on the line, including standout center Reese Dismukes. While Dismukes won’t be easy to replace, this unit does return left tackle Shon Coleman and promising sophomore Braden Smith, while guard Alex Kozan is expected to return from a back injury that sidelined him all of 2014. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson could factor into the mix to replace Dismukes at center. This spring is all about finding the right players at the right positions.
3. Restocking the Skill Players
Talent is plentiful at the running back and receiver positions, but new faces must emerge to keep the offense performing at a high level in 2015. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are gone at running back, which leaves junior college recruit Jovon Robinson, Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber as the team’s top three options. At receiver, Sammie Coates and Quan Bray depart, but Duke Williams turned down the NFL for one more year at Auburn. In addition to Williams, the Tigers will ask more of Marcus Davis, Ricardo Louis and redshirt freshman Stanton Truitt.
4. Getting Comfortable With the New Defense
After giving up over six yards per play in SEC contests in each of the last two years, Malzahn decided it was time for a change at coordinator. And Malzahn made one of the offseason’s top hires by landing former Florida coach Will Muschamp to call the defensive signals in 2015. Muschamp should bring immediate improvement to this unit and will have help with the return of end Carl Lawson from an ACL injury. How quickly will the players pickup and adapt to the new scheme?
5. Solidify the Secondary
The pass defense had its share of issues over the last two seasons, and this unit enters spring practice with holes to fill. Cornerback Jonathon Mincy and safeties Jermaine Whitehead and Robenson Therezie must be replaced. Talent certainly isn’t an issue here, as Jonathan Jones is back at cornerback after a breakout season, and Georgia transfer Tray Matthews should help at safety. Joshua Holsey may claim the other starting cornerback spot, and Muschamp has options to fill the void left behind at safety. This unit isn’t necessarily a major concern for 2015, but it’s critical to establish a pecking order or begin to sift through the options.
Pre-Spring Outlook on Auburn in the SEC:
After a run to the national championship in 2013, the Tigers took a step back and finished just 4-4 in SEC play last season. However, this team will be one to watch in 2015. Auburn has all of the necessary pieces to make a run at the SEC title, especially if quarterback Jeremy Johnson performs as expected. The defense has been an issue over the last two years, but the addition of Muschamp will pay dividends. With Alabama visiting Auburn, it’s not out of the question to think the Iron Bowl could decide the SEC West champion in 2015.
For a moment over the weekend, Steve Nash stole the basketball world’s attention away from NCAA’s March Madness.
He did it by retiring.
The 41-year-old made the announcement via a column written for The Players’ Tribune. He gave props to former coaches, teammates and friends including Don Nelson, Mike D’Antoni, Dirk Nowitzki, Grant Hill, Amar’e Stoudemire, Michael Finley and Alvin Gentry in his piece.
Nash’s three-team career spanned nineteen years with three teams — the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns (twice) and Los Angeles Lakers. He won the MVP award two times, with the Suns in 2005 and 2006, while his D’Antoni-coached teams ran amok on the NBA with a devastating, revolutionary offense.
The Suns’ “seven seconds or less” attack could only have worked with Nash at its helm. His split-second decision making and almost unparalleled court vision were the modem for a team that turned otherwise boring regular season games into must-watch television.
Regrets? Nash has a few.
“It will always hurt that Phoenix Suns fans didn’t get the championship they deserved during our run,” he wrote. “Yes, we had some bad luck but I always look back at it and think, I could’ve made one more shot, or not forced a turnover, or made a better pass. But I don’t regret anything. The arena was always sold out and rocking. It was the time of my life. Thanks, Phoenix.”
Nash’s career petered out in L.A. on a string of injuries, including some scary nerve issues, that were perhaps collected in the effort to get that championship.
“I will likely never play basketball again,” he wrote. “It’s bittersweet. I already miss the game deeply, but I’m also really excited to learn to do something else. This letter is for anyone who’s taken note of my career. At the heart of this letter, I’m speaking to kids everywhere who have no idea what the future holds or how to take charge of their place in it. When I think of my career, I can’t help but think of the kid with his ball, falling in love. That’s still what I identify with and did so throughout my entire story.”
— John Wilmes
The Sooners entered last season with loads of hype following a devastatingly impressive performance over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Many had Oklahoma winning the Big 12 title and participating in the College Football Playoff.
Neither of these will be a concern for Bob Stoops and his Crimson and Cream faithful this spring. This team should enter spring practice grounded after a Stoops-worst five losses last year — four of which came in the Big 12. The 5-4 mark was the worst conference record of Stoops' entire career.
With an overhauled coaching staff, a rebuilt line of scrimmage on both sides and questions under center, Oklahoma has its work cut out for it this spring. That said, this is still one of the most talented rosters in the nation led by one of the best head coaches, so expectations aren't going anywhere in Norman.
5 Storylines to Watch in Oklahoma’s Spring Practice:
1. The Quarterback Battle
Trevor Knight was supposed to be a Heisman candidate in 2014, but his season spiraled out of control after a pick-six cost the Sooners the TCU game. Now he is in a dogfight with Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield and former OU baseballer (and spot starter) Cody Thomas for the Sooners' starting gig. Stoops and new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley need to depart spring camp with a good idea of the QB pecking order. The good news for Knight is that he brings something totally different to the table with his athleticism than either Mayfield or Thomas — IF that is what Riley wants under center.
2. Plug two big gaps at tackle
Departed defensive tackles Jordan Phillips and Chuka Ndulue have left Stoops with a huge void in the middle of his defensive line. There are plenty of linebackers returning and despite issues giving up big plays, the secondary returns plenty of talent too. But those position groups may not matter if OU can’t hold the point of attack up front.
Listen to the Cover 2 Podcast: Early 2015 Big 12 Preview
3. Rebuild the O-line
The quarterback position is critical and we will get to the backfield, but the biggest concern on offense for the Sooners is up front along the line. Four starters are gone from this unit, leaving Riley and Stoops to completely rebuild the offensive front. The first task will be at tackle where OU loses two first-team All-Big 12 players in Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson. Stabilizing this group will go a long way to helping develop a quarterback.
4. Divide the workload
This collection of ball carriers might be the best in Norman since the current regime arrived 16 years ago. Which is saying something for a school with Adrian Peterson, Quentin Griffin and DeMarco Murray filling up pages in the record books. Samaje Perine, Alex Ross, Keith Ford, possibly Joe Mixon and incoming freshman Rodney Anderson might form the best backfield in the nation and the new offensive staff needs to figure out a way to get as many of them involved as often as possible. Riley's background as an Air Raid disciple makes this storyline even more intriguing.
5. Stabilize the sideline
One of the biggest storylines for Stoops this spring might have nothing to do with his players. With an entirely new coaching staff around him, meshing on the sidelines and in meeting rooms is just as important as anything else in Norman. Lincoln Riley brings a new offense from East Carolina and designing the right system for the roster will be huge for the Sooners. A reinvention worked for Gary Patterson and TCU last year, the same could be true for Oklahoma.
Pre-Spring Outlook on Oklahoma:
Oklahoma is always one of the most physically gifted teams in the Big 12 and is led by a potential Hall of Fame coach. Needless to say, the Sooners are always a threat to compete for a league title, especially with one of the best running back corps ever assembled. However, this current roster doesn't feel like one of his best so Stoops will have to find answers under center, along both lines of scrimmage and on the sideline. Should things come together this spring, however, and double-digit wins in the fall appear to be well within reach.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 13: Henrik Stenson
Born: April 5, 1976, Gothenburg, Sweden | Career PGA Tour Wins: 4 (9 on the European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 2 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,894,235 (49th) | World Ranking: 2
2014 Key Stats
Total Driving: 78 (2nd)
Greens in Regulation Percentage: 69.03% (8th)
Final Round Scoring Average: 68.92 (3rd)
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Stenson works with Pete Cowan who along with Butch Harmon is one of the giant-makers in today’s game. They more than any other teachers have an ability to make the best players even better. On the strength of a torrid tee-to-green game, Henrik has four top-five finishes in the majors since 2013, a year in which he also won the FedExCup and Race to Dubai, making him the first person to achieve this unique double. Given that this year’s major venues — three of which will be on the water’s edge — will require more brawn than touch, this could be the year that he breaks out of that group of players who are far too good to have never won a major. He turns 39 in April, meaning that his time may be running out, but all he needs is a slightly above-average year with his wedges and putter to put a bow on a great career.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T14
U.S. Open - T4
British Open - T39
PGA Championship - T3
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T14 (2014)
U.S. Open - T4 (2014)
British Open - 2 (2013)
PGA Championship - 3/T3 (2013, '14)
Top-10 Finishes: 9
Top-25 Finishes: 17
Missed Cuts: 9
Athlon's 2015 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.