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The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability and volatility.
Roster turnover is largely responsible for the tremendous amount of variability from year to year within the sport. Key graduations, early entries into the NFL Draft, dismissals and a massive influx of tomorrow's stars in the form of bright-eyed freshmen create more personnel turnover in college football than any other major sport in the country.
It's these (relatively) unknown commodities that offer fans a renewed hope of future success. Who are the top freshmen to watch in the ACC this fall?
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
The uber-recruit from Immokalee (Fla.) High redshirted a year ago and is ready to fulfill his lofty recruiting expectations. He’s gained some weight and will be charged with protecting the back end of a defense littered with seniors.
Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State
After experiencing some speed bumps in the recruiting process, Thomas is finally ready to contribute in Tallahassee. He has freakish ability and is slated to start alongside Terrance Smith. Jimbo Fisher has proven he will ask big things of first-year starters and Thomas is the next in line.
Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
The five-star safety from Virginia Beach (Va.) Bayside is slotted to start the moment he steps onto a college field for the first time. He has veterans to learn from but the 6-foot-4, 210-pound dynamo could be a savior at the back end of the Cavaliers' defense.
Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Arkansas State head coach and former UNC assistant Blake Anderson told me last week that Hood is as ready made as any true freshman in the ACC. There is a crowded backfield in Chapel Hill but the 220-pounder might be the most talented of the bunch.
KC McDermott, OL, Miami
The Hurricanes have plenty of holes to fill and one should be plugged by the monster (6-6, 315) in-state blocker. He has been worked at right tackle with the first team and he could be just one of a few first-year blockers who contribute in a big way for Miami.
Ermon Lane | Travis Rudolph, WR, Florida State
There is plenty of space in the offense behind senior Rashad Greene and both Lane (6-3, 205) and Rudolph (6-2, 185) have been exceptional in fall camp. Greene and quarterback Jameis Winston have had glowing things to say about the two tall playmakers.
Wyatt Teller, OL, Virginia Tech
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound redshirt freshman has moved from defensive line to offensive tackle to offensive guard and hasn’t played a down yet. But he looks and acts the part of an interior mauler already. His weight lifting records are a testament to that. He will fight to keep his job but the future is extremely bright for Teller in Blacksburg.
Andrew Brown, DL, Virginia
A turf toe injury resulted in surgery at the beginning of fall camp and that has slowed the expectations for the five-star nose guard. The coaching staff still believes the big 300-pounder will be a major contributor this fall but they will ease their prized freshman back into action.
Chad Thomas, DL, Miami
It’s hard to hide Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s excitement about having Thomas on the roster. The local product checks in at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds with excellent burst and great agility. He is the type of South Florida defender the Canes have been sorely lacking.
Bo Hines, WR, NC State
Dave Doeren’s offense will be much improved in Year Two with Jacoby Brissett under center. Hines was impressive in spring camp after enrolling early and there is plenty of space on the depth chart for a talented pass-catcher like Hines to flourish in 2014.
Quarterbacks to Watch:
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
The talented dual-threat early enrollee needs to stay healthy but should already be entrenched as Cole Stoudt’s backup and the QB of the future.
Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Marquise Williams is the starter but Trubisky brings pocket talent that Larry Fedora brought in for a reason. He is the future in Chapel Hill.
Kevin Olsen, Miami
He’s suspended for at least the opener against Louisville but this situation could be so dire that Olsen could get plenty of reps once he’s out of the doghouse. True freshman Brad Kaaya is also getting a look.
Best of the Rest:
Bentley Spain | R.J. Prince, OL, North Carolina
Keith Bryant | Derrick Nnadi, DL, Florida State
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Artavis Scott, WR, Clemson
Wayne Gallman | Tyshon Dye, RB, Clemson
Zach Challingsworth | Jester Weah, WR, Pitt
Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami
Kentavius Street, DL, NC State
Chris Griffin, OL, Georgia Tech
The SEC couldn’t close the BCS era with an eighth consecutive national championship, but the conference is still the best in the nation. With a conference deep in playoff contenders and top 25 teams, there’s no shortage of individual talent on all 14 rosters.
In order to rank the top 15 players in the SEC for 2014, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2014 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2014.
A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.
Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports (@AthlonSteven)
Braden Gall, Athlon Sports (@BradenGall)
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com (@Josh_Ward)
Matt Scalici, AL.com/Sports (@MattScalici)
Zac Ellis, SI.com (@ZacEllis)
Josh Kendall, TheState.com (@JoshatTheState)
Thomas Goldkamp, GatorBait.net (@Goldkamp247)
Barrett Sallee, Bleacher Report (@BarrettSallee)
Matt Wyatt, Head to Head Radio (@MaroonWyatt)
Russ Mitchell, CollegeFootballNews.com (@RussMitchellCFB)
David Fox, Athlon Sports (@DavidFox615)
Brad Crawford, SaturdayDownSouth.com (@BCrawfordSDS)
Mitch Light, Athlon Sports (@AthlonMitch)
SEC Logo, (@SEC_Logo)
Peter Flournoy, DrSEC.org (@TheDrSEC)
Ross Dellenger, The Advocate (@DellengerAdv)
Ben Roberts, Lexington Herald-Leader (@NextCats)
Wess Moore, Fox16/93.3 The Source, (@Wess_Moore)
Ranking the SEC's Best Players for 2014 (Experts Poll)
|1||Todd Gurley, RB||19||4||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||341|
|2||Vernon Hargreaves III, CB||2||5||4||5||1||4||0||0||1||0||270|
|3||Amari Cooper, WR||1||3||3||1||3||1||3||1||2||0||220|
|4||Cedric Ogbuehi, OT||0||5||4||3||0||2||2||1||1||0||218|
|5||T.J. Yeldon, RB||0||3||3||3||1||0||2||1||1||2||183|
|6||Nick Marshall, QB||1||2||1||1||2||2||2||2||0||2||177|
|7||Landon Collins, S||0||1||1||2||3||2||3||2||2||0||161|
|8||Mike Davis, RB||0||0||1||1||4||1||2||1||0||0||128|
|9T||Ramik Wilson, LB||0||0||1||0||2||2||1||0||2||1||110|
|9T||La'El Collins, OT||0||0||1||1||1||1||3||2||1||1||110|
|11||Dante Fowler, DL||0||0||0||1||1||0||1||1||1||1||76|
|12T||A'Shawn Robinson, DL||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||1||2||3||63|
|12T||A.J. Cann, OG||0||0||1||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||63|
|14||Reese Dismukes, C||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||1||0||2||59|
|15||Cody Prewitt, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||3||1||55|
|16||Chris Jones, DL||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||1||0||0||49|
|17||Dak Prescott, QB||0||0||0||0||0||2||0||0||0||1||48|
|18||Laquon Treadwell, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||1||1||44|
|19||Benardrick McKinney, LB||0||0||0||1||0||2||0||0||0||0||41|
|20||Robert Nkemdiche, DT||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||37|
|21||Derrick Henry, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||2||0||0||35|
|22||Laremy Tunsil, OT||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||0||1||0||34|
|23T||A.J. Johnson, LB||0||0||1||0||0||1||0||0||0||1||33|
|23T||Sammie Coates, WR||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||3||0||33|
|25||O.J. Howard, TE||0||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||0||0||26|
|26T||Markus Golden, DE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||0||20|
|26T||Trey DePriest, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||20|
|26T||Trey Flowers, DE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||2||20|
|29||Maty Mauk, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||1||17|
|30T||Leonard Fournette, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||11|
|30T||Arie Kouandjio, OG||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||11|
|32||Bo Wallace, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||7|
|33T||Gabe Wright, DL||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||6|
|33T||Jalen Mills, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||6|
|35||Jordan Jenkins, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5|
|36T||Bud Dupree, DE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|36T||Christion Jones, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|38||Alex Collins, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|39T||Jameon Lewis, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|39T||Drew Kaser, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
A Few Observations
* Georgia running back Todd Gurley received 19 of the 23 first-place votes. He was also the only player to appear on all 23 ballots.
* The East and West Divisions are represented almost equally in the top 10. Six players from the West make the top 10, while four make an appearance from the East.
* The T.J. Yeldon/Derrick Henry dynamic will be interesting to watch in Tuscaloosa this year. Yeldon ranked No. 5 in voting, while Henry ranked No. 21. There’s a good chance Henry pushes Yeldon for the team lead in rushing in 2014.
* The gap in total points between Dak Prescott and Bo Wallace was surprising. Prescott held a commanding 48 to 7 edge in voting, placing the Bulldogs’ passer as the No. 2 quarterback in the SEC in this experts poll.
* Alabama had the most players (nine) receive a vote. Ole Miss ranked No. 2 with five players receiving votes.
* Is South Carolina guard A.J. Cann underrated? The senior appeared on just six ballots but ranks as the No. 2 guard for the 2015 NFL Draft.
* 13 of 14 teams had a player receive a vote. Vanderbilt was the only team to not have a player receive consideration for the top 15. Two players who could end up on this list at the end of the year for the Commodores: Running back Jerron Seymour and linebacker Caleb Azubike.
* One player to watch: Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd. The sophomore recorded 6.5 sacks last season and should push for first-team All-SEC honors under the direction of new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Floyd did not receive a top 15 vote in this experts poll.
Do most SEC fans know who Taylor Kelly is? That he is the only other player in the nation other than the great Johnny Manziel to throw for at least 3,000 yards and rush for at least 500 in each of the last two seasons?
Because if not, they should. Which is why Kelly is ranked by Athlon Sports as the No. 8 quarterback in college football heading into the 2014 campaign.
So using that list of the best quarterbacks in the nation to determine exactly what “underrated” is — for this exercise, anyone not ranked in the top 15 — here are the most underrated signal-callers in college football this fall.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (Jr.)
The Bulldogs are one of just three teams from the Big 5 conferences that have never had a QB drafted in the modern era (1977). But with great leadership, poise, toughness and a special blend of size (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) and athleticism (829 yards rushing last year), Prescott could be the first. He should also be the first 3,000-yard passer in school history. Dan Mullen has built a deep roster in Starkville and now he has the quarterback to go along with it. Look for Prescott and the Bulldogs to make plenty of noise this fall.
Davis Webb, Texas Tech (So.)
There are few players in the nation who are safer bets to reach 4,000 yards and/or 30 touchdown passes this year than Webb. He proved himself as a freshman last year, throwing for over 300 yards five times in just six starts — including his marquee, 385-yard performance in the upset of Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Look for monster numbers from Tech’s quarterback this fall.
Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion (Sr.)
He’s started 33 straight games for ODU and is one of the most decorated and prolific passers in college football history. He is one of just 18 Division I quarterbacks to throw at least 100 touchdowns (102) and is 29th all-time in NCAA history with 11,483 yards entering his senior season. The Monarchs will have chances to showcase Heinicke against the ACC (NC State), the SEC (Vanderbilt) and Marshall.
Keenan Reynolds, Navy (Jr.)
The Navy quarterback won’t ever make headlines for passing the football but Reynolds certainly made a statement as a runner last fall. Reynolds set the single season TD record for a quarterback with 31 rushing scores. He finished with 1,346 yards on 300 carries. Few players are better suited to run the triple option than the Nashville native.
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana (Jr.)
In two seasons splitting time under center, Sudfeld has helped Indiana lead the Big Ten in passing offense twice. He posted numbers comparable to most Big Ten starters last fall (2,523 yards, 21 TDs, 9 INTs) despite sharing the field with Tre Roberson. He now has sole control of Kevin Wilson’s prolific offense and should flourish with huge numbers — and, who knows, maybe a bowl berth for the Hoosiers.
C.J. Brown, Maryland (Sr.)
If fans are looking for someone else who could join Kelly as a 3,000-500 guy, look no further than Maryland’s Brown. Finally healthy, the Terps' signal-caller threw for 2,242 yards, ran for 576 and accounted for 25 total touchdowns. All without two potential NFL wideouts in Deon Long and Stefon Diggs. Look for Brown (if healthy) to be one of the surprises in the Big Ten this fall.
Cody Kessler, USC (Jr.)
He isn’t a star like most of his Pac-12 brethren, but make no mistake, Kessler has plenty of talent. The Trojans' signal-caller finally grasped Clay Helton’s offense following Lane Kiffin’s firing. He threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions while winning seven of nine games following the regime change. This includes a very impressive 288-yard, TD performance in the marquee win over Stanford. He threw just seven interceptions in 362 attempts and posted career highs (344 yds, 4 TDs) in the season finale bowl win over Fresno State.
Cole Stoudt, Clemson (Sr.)
His story isn’t told all that often any longer in college football. Most players don’t sit and wait their turn like Stoudt has done at Clemson. Now, he is given the reins to one of the most prolific offensive systems in the nation. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder completed 79.3 percent of his passes last year in mop-up duty but has the tempo and quick release coordinator Chad Morris is looking for in 2014.
Will Gardner, Louisville (So.)
The 6-foot-5 pocket passer from Douglas (Ga.) Coffee turned down a scholarship offer from Alabama to attend Louisville. Now, he falls into a Bobby Petrino offense in which his skill set should flourish. A great offensive line, a superstar wide receiver (DeVante Parker) and a talented running game could make this as potent a Petrino offense as any. And it all starts with the 230-pound sophomore.
Marquise Williams, North Carolina (Jr.)
Forced into action when Bryn Renner was injured, Williams acquitted himself admirably in his first chance as a starting college quarterback. Over the final seven games of the season, he rushed for 441 yards, threw for 1,308 yards, scored 17 total touchdowns and led the Tar Heels to a 6-1 record. The offense averaged over 40 points per game during that span and he should only continue to get better this fall.
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.
The dog days of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season are almost over. This weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway spells the end of the sport’s horsepower-hungry summer malaise. Soon, a trio of exciting nighttime races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond will serve as a three-week hype-builder before NASCAR’s playoffs commence.
For two Cup Series rookies, it’s time to find another gear (metaphorically speaking). For others, like BK Racing’s Cole Whitt, who sat down with Athlon Sports last week for an exclusive interview, getting the best results in the remaining races is the primary goal.
After a three-week hiatus, the Rookie Report rankings return with a familiar face at the front of the pack:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
Third, seventh, 11th and fourth are the results for Larson in his last four Cup Series starts and the worst of those came after he won his second pole of the 2014 season. He isn’t quite leading laps — he paced the field just 19 times across those four races — but he’s crowding the front of the field at the finish, netting results far better than his average running position in each of those races. It seems as if Larson and this young team, led by second-year crew chief Chris Heroy, is beginning to hit its stride; however, they’re hitting a snag that befalls many a race team. Larson’s restarts are heavily dictating his outcomes. He gained six positions across seven restart attempts in the first seven rows at New Hampshire (where he finished third) and five across four in Indianapolis (he finished seventh), before losing seven positions across eight at Pocono, which was the 11th-place effort. It makes sense that success or failure in the sport’s most abundant position-changing window is reflected in the outcome, and it is important that Larson, who isn’t all that shabby during these windows, doesn’t boot an entire race because of consistently failing to retain his position.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
While taking in a slow-mo viewing of the Pocono race from two weeks ago, Dillon’s No. 3 car was an omnipresent loser on three late-race restarts within the first seven rows, dropping a total of seven positions. It’s something he needs to improve upon, sure, but before deep analysis is placed on his poor restart habits there is a more basic notion to point out: He is now restarting late in races, consistently, from the first seven rows. Earlier this year, this kind of money position eluded him. In his four most recent outings, he finished 14th, 10th, 15th and 16th, occasionally running higher prior to race-deciding restarts. Add in the fifth-place finish at Daytona in July and it’s easily the best five-race stretch of the season for the rookie. He hasn’t finished worse than 17th since his last visit to Michigan and if this team, one that finished third in points with Kevin Harvick driving last season, wants to crack this year’s Chase, a replication of his 30th-place finish in his last trip to the Irish Hills won’t fly.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 4)
In the last two weeks, Allgaier has earned finishes of 16th at Pocono and 17th at Watkins Glen. The latter, if you’ve paid attention to his career, shouldn’t come as a surprise. A fairly versatile driver with an eclectic background, Allgaier won an ARCA Series road course race in Millville, N.J., in 2008 and scored a NASCAR Nationwide Series victory on the famed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2012. The stout finish for a team that has struggled to maintain track position harkens one back to Allgaier’s take, in my Q&A with him in April, on why former dirt drivers become standout road course racers:
“I think it’s multi-fold. Number one, in dirt you learn car control that you just don’t find developing on asphalt. The other thing is that in dirt racing you’re constantly searching for a line that allows you to go faster. It’s entering fast, slowing down in the middle and accelerating off the corner or carrying speed through the center; whatever the track calls for, you do it. On asphalt, a lot of times especially in oval racing, you’re going to want to carry center corner speed. That’s the goal, to carry center corner speed. On a road course, that’s not always the key. I feel like dirt racers tend to search around a lot more and maybe that’s why it clicks easier.”
4. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 3)
This weekend’s race at Michigan provides a welcome sight for Annett, who has scored six finishes of 22nd or better in the last 13 races, five of them coming on tracks two miles or more in length. Granted a driver like Greg Biffle has made a career from excelling at one track type, Annett’s inconsistency in finishing is the wrinkle in his rookie season that needs to be ironed; his 6.8 finish deviation is the second-worst among rookies. In the last nine races specifically, his “good” results (a 20.4-place average) have differed from his “bad” results (30.1) by a whopping 10 positions.
5. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 5)
When Whitt told me that his goal for the remainder of the season is “to get every position possible and bring the best car to every race,” he surely didn’t have a Jimmie Johnson-esque ride into the Watkins Glen tire barriers in mind. The cringe-worthy accident left him with a dead-last finish after an uplifting qualifying effort (18th) provided some optimism. Prior to the freak accident at The Glen, he finished 21st at Pocono, an improvement of nine positions over his first visit’s result.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Bowman finished 13th in a nutty July Daytona race, but in the four races that followed, outcomes weren’t as great. Finishes of 31st, 40th and 31st were the results at New Hampshire, Indianapolis and Pocono, respectively, after he amassed a 40.48 percent adjusted pass efficiency and a minus-8.64 percent surplus passing value during that span. It’s a 180-degree turnaround in the wrong direction from the improvement he made in passing from the first quarter of the season to the second quarter.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 7)
Truex and team finally cracked the top half of the field for a finish at Pocono — a 20th-place result — after weeks of steady, albeit practically invisible, improvement in the driver’s passing efficiency. There is still something this young team has yet to accomplish: A lead-lap finish. A two-mile track like the one he’ll see this weekend in Michigan provides a swell opportunity to finish within a lap of the leaders.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
The Cleveland Browns are new again. Come Opening Day, they’ll have their third head coach in three years, their sixth different Opening Day quarterback in seven years and a new team playing under a new regime. The second full season under the ownership of Jimmy Haslam starts with a new head coach in Mike Pettine and a new boss on the personnel side in general manager Ray Farmer.
There will be pressure to play rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel — and he very well may earn the job — but veteran Brian Hoyer will provide stiff competition. Five Pro Bowlers from last season are due back to join a nice mix of veteran free agents and more young talent than the Browns have had in several years. Can it result in wins, though? Only if the Browns get solid quarterback play, stay healthy and keep a potentially strong defense off the field and fresh.
Last season, Josh Gordon was the NFL’s most productive receiver despite missing two games due to suspension and playing with three different quarterbacks. Unfortunately, it appears that Gordon will miss significant playing time this season as well as he's already met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell regarding a reported additional violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. To make matters worse, Gordon also was arrested in early July on a charge of driving while impaired. Incidents like this certainly don't bode well for Gordon’s future nor for an offense that doesn’t have anything resembling a suitable replacement.
Tight end Jordan Cameron is coming off a Pro Bowl season and looking for a new contract, and he’ll likely be in line for 70-plus receptions whether Gordon is in the lineup or not. It will come down to whether the Browns can run the ball — Ben Tate was signed and Terrance West was drafted to help the cause — behind a line anchored by the team’s second- and third-highest-paid players, left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
Eventually, the Browns figure to transition to becoming Manziel’s team — and a strong running game would serve as the foundation for an offense that plays to the mobile but diminutive Manziel’s strengths. Hoyer won’t go down without a fight, though, and who plays quarterback shapes up as the biggest question for this Browns team. Even if Hoyer is more ready and able to produce, Manziel Mania is real — and those who drive it will be ready to pounce at even the slightest of Hoyer’s missteps.
Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins bring experience and savvy to the receiving corps. Tate has waited for the opportunity to be a featured back and, if he can stay healthy, figures to have plenty of chances. The Browns simply couldn’t run the ball at all last year, and that’s part of the reason why they used a high second-round pick on Joel Bitonio, who should slide in immediately at guard.
A Browns team with the ability to chew up rushing yards to complement Gordon and Cameron in the passing game shapes up as a formidable team capable of playing with just about anybody in the league. A Browns team with continued inconsistency at quarterback and lack of playmakers on the perimeter figures to struggle again. Stay tuned.
The Browns have a talented front seven and got stronger up the middle in March by guaranteeing $14 million to linebacker Karlos Dansby and $11 million to safety Donte Whitner, a Cleveland native. The goal of Pettine and new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil isn’t just to move past last year’s bad habit of giving up late leads, but to be aggressive and dictate the pace of games.
With an offense that figures to be a work in progress, the defense needs to be the strength of the team, at least early on. The defensive line has depth and talent many teams would love to have, and with Dansby, third-round pick Christian Kirksey and what Pettine hopes will be a new and improved Barkevious Mingo in his second year as an edge-rusher, the pieces are in place at linebacker. Rookie Justin Gilbert should start immediately at corner opposite Joe Haden, who’s becoming a star.
Haden, who signed a huge contract in the offseason, has emerged both as a leader in the locker room and the kind of guy opposing quarterbacks don’t want to have to challenge. That’s why it’s so important that Gilbert proves ready to play right away — and probably why the Browns drafted another big corner, Pierre Desir, as fourth-round insurance. The team wants to keep the speedy but small Buster Skrine in the slot.
The Browns need to be better against the run and make impact plays in obvious passing downs. Desmond Bryant should be back after a heart issue ended his 2013 season prematurely, and nose tackle Phil Taylor needs to prove worthy of the $5.5 million 2015 option the team’s new decision-makers picked up in the spring.
Getting to the passer off the edge will help Haden, Gilbert and all involved. A year after the Browns gave Paul Kruger a $40 million contract and used the No. 6 pick in the draft on Mingo, those two simply have to produce at a higher level. Maybe a new scheme and comfort level with their surroundings will help.
Travis Benjamin provided some sizzle in the return game last year, but neither the offense nor the special teams had the same pop after he went down with a torn ACL. He’s expected back, and the Browns hope he can be the same player. Gilbert has rare athletic ability and could contribute in the return game as well.
The kicking game is solid but not spectacular. The Browns were lucky to land Billy Cundiff just before the start of the 2013 season following the departure of Phil Dawson. Cundiff was good enough to land a contract extension. The team would like to see him in position to make more big kicks. Punter Spencer Lanning did a serviceable job in his first true NFL opportunity and should be better this year. With a young offense and nasty weather due for pivotal games, having a solid punting game can’t be overlooked.
Another restart is here, but Pettine and the winner of the Hoyer/Manziel battle will have better overall personnel than many of their predecessors. The Browns have some talent; the key is mixing a little bit of a luck with a little bit of confidence and seeing where that may lead. At an offseason speaking engagement, Haslam listed his three goals for the 2014 season as being competitive in what should again be a very tightly contested AFC North race; improving the win-loss record (the Browns haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007); and becoming the kind of team Pettine wants in terms of toughness, discipline and establishing an identity. If the Browns run the ball and stop the run, they’ll have a chance for real progress. As for real wins, we’ll see which young players answer the call.
PREDICTION: 4th in AFC North
(Johnny Manziel photo courtesy of Cleveland Browns' Web site, www.clevelandbrowns.com)
Everybody should take a year off work, Lovie Smith says, before adding, “if you can get someone else to pay for it.”
Smith spent last fall in the basement of his home near Chicago watching football. It was a forced but financed hiatus after he was fired by the Bears following a 10–6 season in 2012.
The Buccaneers also wanted to push the reset button following their 4–12 season under Greg Schiano. Smith, who began his NFL coaching career teaching linebackers on Tony Dungy’s staff in Tampa Bay in ’96, was the perfect choice.
“My original statement was for us to become a relevant team again,” Smith says. “And what’s relevant? We want to win all of our home games. We want to put a good product on the field. We want it to be like the old days where teams said. ‘Oh, man, we’ve got to go to Tampa this week. It’s tough going down there.’ We have the same goal as everyone. It’s to win games. To win our division. To win the Super Bowl.”
The Bucs were last in the NFL in total offense last season, so Smith and new general manager Jason Licht believed an overhaul was necessary. They began by cleaning house on an overpriced, unproductive offensive line. Tackle Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph were released. Center Jeremy Zuttah was traded. In their place, the Bucs signed Bengals free agent tackle Anthony Collins and Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith. The only returners were expected to be tackle Demar Dotson and guard Carl Nicks, but Nicks unexpectedly announced his retirement prior to the start of training camp. After coming over from New Orleans as a free agent in 2012, Nicks played in just nine games in two injury-plagued seasons with Tampa Bay.
Smith reached back into his past to select a quarterback — Bears free agent Josh McCown, who threw 13 touchdowns and one interception in five starts filling in for the injured Jay Cutler last season. McCown was immediately named the starter over Mike Glennon, who had been dubbed the Bucs’ “quarterback of the future” by the previous regime. Glennon started 13 games as a rookie and threw for 2,608 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
The Bucs have surrounded McCown with some big targets, the Dunk-a-neers, as Licht calls them — rookie receiver Mike Evans (6'5"), rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6'5") and veteran Vincent Jackson (6'5"). Evans, who is still relatively new to football, caught 151 passes for 2,499 yards in his two active seasons at Texas A&M.
Even though the Bucs believed they had depth at running back with Doug Martin, Mike James and Bobby Rainey, they added a Matt Forté clone in rookie Charles Sims, who caught more than 200 passes during his time at Houston and West Virginia. Martin was the team’s primary ball-carrier through the first part of the ’13 season, but he went down with a shoulder injury in a loss to Atlanta in late October. He was averaging only 3.6 yards per carry at the time of his injury. Rainey stepped in and ended up leading the team in rushing with 532 yards on a 3.9-yard average.
What remains to be seen is how offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, the former Cal head coach, deploys all those weapons. But early indications are that the Bucs will play faster.
“I know you have to play offense and score points to win,” Smith says.
The Tampa-2 has returned home. Fortunately, Smith had two All-Pro components waiting for him — defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (9.5 sacks in ’13) and weak-side linebacker Lavonte David. He also reached back to his past to hire former Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson to coach that position.
“The three-technique in this defense is so important, and Gerald is the best in football right now,” Smith said. “And I think Lavonte is one of the best linebackers I’ve ever seen, and he’s still a young player.”
Jonathan Casillas, who was used mostly on special teams last year but re-signed as a free agent, has the inside track on winning the job at strong-side linebacker.
Smith’s defense generates a pass rush using the front four linemen. McCoy finally will have help with the addition of Bengals free-agent defensive end Michael Johnson and Seahawks defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn will attempt to switch from the right to the left side.
In order to clear some salary cap space, the Bucs released cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was due to earn $16 million in 2014. But they replaced him with Alterraun Verner, a former Titan who made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season. The strength of the secondary is the combination of safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.
The Bucs have not had a player with double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice in 2005. That should change under Smith, and it will need to if the Bucs are going to slow down the collection of NFC South quarterbacks that includes Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
If there is one thing Smith is banking on, it’s that he can make the Bucs’ defense elite again.
Placekicker Connor Barth missed all of 2013 after suffering a torn Achilles while playing in a charity basketball game a week before training camp. Then Lawrence Tynes was infected with MRSA following a procedure on an in-grown toenail. Barth is back and has been kicking since January. He says his leg may have actually benefitted from the rest, and he has been booting 61-yard field goals. A career 84 percent field-goal kicker is a nice weapon to have when you are likely to play a lot of low-scoring games. Punter Michael Koenen had a net average of 38.3 yards and pinned a career low 21.8 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. His ability to kick off remains an added bonus.
Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps has devoted his training to football and easily will be the fastest man in the NFL. He should serve as the Bucs’ primary kickoff returner. Receiver Eric Page will return punts again this year.
Smith brings stability and an identity back to the Bucs. Only nine players drafted before 2013 remain on the team. The defense should be among the best in the league, and the offense will be improved. But McCown has thrown for as many yards or touchdowns in the past five years as Glennon did as a rookie. Smith had four offensive coordinators in Chicago, and his offense never finished higher than 15th. It remains to be seen whether Tedford’s offense can be productive at the pro level. A worst-to-first rise in the NFC South is commonplace but probably too much to ask this year.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC South
The quarterback position is stocked with talent in the college football ranks for 2014. Florida State’s Jameis Winston is the defending Heisman winner and should be the early favorite to go No. 1 in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Winston is closely followed by Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who suffered a late-season knee injury in 2013. Mariota’s injury hindered the Ducks’ offense late in the year, but the junior is back to full strength for 2014.
Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Baylor’s Bryce Petty aren’t far behind Mariota, as both players should challenge for All-America honors.
The depth at quarterback extends past the top 10 rankings, as players like Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds are due for big seasons from leagues outside of the Power 5 conferences.
Ranking college football’s top 35 quarterbacks is no easy assignment. It’s not as simple as just looking at stats on a page. To formulate the 2014 quarterback rankings, Athlon examined last year’s stats, career overview, recruiting rankings, level of competition, pro projection and a guess on what might happen in 2014. These rankings are not just a snapshot of the season right now. Instead, we tried to project how a quarterback will perform in 2014.
Ranking College Football's QBs for 2014
|Tough to top 2013, but Winston is|
poised for another run at the Heisman.
|Ducks need Mariota to stay healthy|
to win Pac-12.
|Shoulder injury a concern, but Miller has|
back-to-back season of at least 3,000 yards.
|Tossed only three interceptions on 403|
attempts last year.
|Led Bruins in rushing (748). Completed|
66.8 % of passes in 2014.
|Could be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL|
Draft. Will thrive under James Franklin.
|Should be more comfortable in |
Gus Malzahn's offense in 2014.
|Quietly accounted for 4,283 total yards|
|Suffered a torn ACL last year but all signs|
point to a return to full strength in 2014.
|Accounted for 4,282 total yards in 2013. |
Should improve as a passer in 2014.
|Was playing his best ball at the end|
of 2013 in wins over Ohio State and Stanford.
|Has tossed at least 37 touchdown passes|
in back-to-back seasons.
|Significant upside. Finished 2013 by torching|
Alabama for 348 yards and 4 passing TDs.
|Led Pac-12 with 358.6 passing yards|
per game in 2013.
|Returns to starting lineup after|
missing 2013 due to suspension.
|Dr. Bo should rebound in 2014 after|
nagging shoulder injury in '13.
|Impressed in limited action. Needs to|
improve completion percentage.
|Has a chance to be one of the top|
QBs in MSU history.
|Top QB in AAC. Threw for 4,139|
yards and 33 TDs last year.
Next star QB in Lubbock? Finished 2013 on a high note
by throwing for 403 yards vs. Arizona State.
|Tossed only three picks in|
Big Ten games last year.
Becomes clear No. 1 QB with
|Should post huge numbers under|
first-year coach Dino Babers.
|Set NCAA record for most rushing TDs in a season|
by a QB with 31 in 2013.
|Threw 10 of 18 touchdown passes in final four games.|
A QB on the rise in 2014.
|Played better in second half of 2013. Threw for|
345 yards and four scores in Las Vegas Bowl.
|Needs to cut down on INTs (22 last year). Tossed|
six TDs in bowl loss to Colorado State.
|Struggled with injuries last season. Recorded|
nearly 4,000 yards of total offense in 2013.
|Played well in relief of Bryn Renner in 2013. Expected|
to thrive in Larry Fedora's offense.
|Has big shoes to fill with departure of Aaron Murray.|
Started final two games of 2013.
|3-0 as a starter. Should be a solid replacement for|
the departed Connor Shaw.
|Completed 60% of passes in 2013. Should have|
one of the Pac-12's top WR groups in 2014.
|Tajh Boyd will be missed, but coordinator Chad|
Morris will keep offense near the top of ACC.
|Prolific passer leads Old Dominion's|
transition from FCS to FBS.
|The next star quarterback under Bobby Petrino?|
10 QBs to Watch in 2014
Besides being home to the AFC champions, the AFC West was the only division in the NFL last season with three playoff teams. Denver is a legitimate Super Bowl contender again this season, but what about fellow postseason participants Kansas City and San Diego? And does Oakland have any reason for optimism following significant roster turnover?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC West is shaping up heading into the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“Only the 1972 Miami Dolphins came back from a Super Bowl loss to win the world championship the following season, that’s 40 years of history working against John Fox and Peyton Manning.” …
“The Broncos got exposed up front against the Seahawks, however, not everyone can play like Seattle does.” …
“Manning had a record-breaking year and earned a fifth MVP award, but he will have some new working parts around him in 2014. At WR, Emmanuel Sanders was signed to replace Eric Decker who left for the Jets and the Broncos drafted Cody Latimer in the second round. Julius Thomas had a breakout season and even more will be expected of both he and Demaryius Thomas moving forward. Wes Welker proved once again that he is an elite slot receiver.” …
“Knowshon Moreno departed for Miami, so Montee Ball will have a bigger role, especially in pass protection this year. The return of Ryan Clady from injury will allow Denver to re-shuffle their offensive line and potentially put Chris Clark at RT with Orlando Franklin sliding inside. Will Montgomery was signed from the Redskins to bolster the middle in support of Louis Vaszquez and Manny Ramirez.” …
“On paper, the Broncos’ front seven looks really strong with Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe handling the run game with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Malik Jackson taking care of the pass rush. The organization is hoping Miller can get back to his previous level of play, while Ware ended up as a cap casualty in Dallas and leaves the Cowboys as their all-time leading sacker.” …
“Aqib Talib unexpectedly became available and the Broncos ponied up a 6-year/$57M contract to obtain him. The other corner spot is up in the air, since Chris Harris went down with a knee injury in the playoffs, so they drafted Ohio State’s Bradley Roby in the first round. They signed T.J. Ward to pair up with Rahim Moore, but neither is classified as a cover safety.” …
“Team health and mental approach are the two unknowns, but key factors to Denver making a return run to the Super Bowl.” …
Kansas City Chiefs
“The Chiefs fixed the two most important positions in pro football last year with head coach Andy Reid and QB Alex Smith. Then, the team stayed healthy and won 11 games.” …
“Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson is a rising star in the business and he helped Smith provide a steady hand to this team, while distributing the football efficiently to Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery. They could use another WR and an interesting prospect to watch will be second-year TE Travis Kelce.” …
“The loss of Dexter McCluster in free agency will hurt, but they may find an answer in fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas.” …
“The Chiefs sustained losses on the offensive line when Brandon Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asomoah departed via free agency, but give GM John Dorsey credit for having the foresight in 2013 (in a draft devoid of stars) to pick Eric Fisher, who will now shift from RT to his more natural LT spot. Rodney Hudson is underrated in the middle and Jeff Linkenbach was signed from the Colts.” …
“Bob Sutton may have been the assistant coach of the year last fall when this unit responded and put five players in the Pro Bowl: Dontari Powe, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Brandon Flowers [Editor’s note: Flowers was released by the Chiefs in late June and signed a one-year deal with San Diego] and Eric Berry.” …
“At corner, they got the most out of Sean Smith and a lot of mileage from Marcus Cooper who was picked up on waivers just before opening day.” …
“If Smith will take another step forward and vertically push the football upfield, their run game with Charles and this defense should keep them in the mix again for AFC honors.” …
“Entering the 2014 offseason, owner Mark Davis waited a full week before having discussions with head coach Dennis Allen and GM Reggie McKenzie. After they were kept intact, then there was quite a bit of talk regarding the Raiders’ assistant coaching contracts, in terms of one-year renewals or two-year extensions. All of this is to say, despite their best attempts, Oakland is a difficult place to win in the NFL.” …
“Once the league year rolled around, McKenzie did not re-sign DE Lamarr Houston and negotiations with OT Jared Veldheer became personal in nature, so both players departed from the Silver-and-Black. After the Rodger Saffold/failed physical situation, the Raiders signed seven new starters with six of them being 30 or older.” …
“They traded a sixth-rounder for Matt Schaub and will hope that he can return to 2011-12 form when he was a Pro Bowl selection. Oakland did draft Fresno State QB Derek Carr in the second-round, so he is the likely future at the position.” …
“The key offensively will be the cohesion and continuity of the rebuilt offensive line (under the direction of Tony Sparano) and their ability to protect Schaub.” …
“They like TE Mychal Rivera as a pass-receiving threat and WR Denarius Moore has shown flashes of quality play in his first two seasons. Still, this is a team that is lacking in offensive firepower.” …
“Defensively, the Raiders are hoping DEs Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley can regain their previous pass rush form to provide some pressure in a division where they will face Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers on four different occasions.” …
“The Raiders sat at No. 5 in the draft and Khalil Mack, arguably the best player in the 2014 class, fell right to them. OLB Sio Moore had a productive rookie season and SS Tyvon Branch, when healthy, can be a competent player.” …
“Again, they will need a big step forward out of 2013 first-round pick, cornerback D.J. Hayden, and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver will rely on Charles Woodson’s return to communicate the scheme to a very young back end.” …
“The reality is this team has so many players and coaches from different backgrounds and philosophies, there just doesn’t seem to be much hope of them improving in 2014 against the toughest schedule ranked by win percentage going into September.” …
“if Hayden and OT Menelik Watson don’t play well and another 4-12 season ensues, with the specter of stadium issues and relocation always in the discussion, major changes would be expected for 2015.” …
San Diego Chargers
“It’s amazing how far a new messenger and team health can go in pushing an organization up the ladder in the NFL. GM Tom Telesco hired Mike McCoy as head coach and he enjoyed a very successful first year.” …
“Their coordinators are all communicators and well-liked by the players: Frank Reich on offense, John Pagano on defense and Kevin Spencer with special teams.”…
“Philip Rivers regained his confidence and returned to previous Pro Bowl form with the help of a reliable Ryan Matthews, the emergence of Keenan Allen, and surprisingly, a better-than-expected offensive line. People knock Rivers for his lack of a championship, but put him in the same situation as Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, and he might have a couple of rings too.” …
“Many were shocked at how well LT King Dunlap played in 2013, can he do it again this year? Nick Hardwick has had a very good career at center and D.J. Fluker proved worthy of the No. 11 pick a year ago when he performed as well as any rookie lineman in the league.” …
“Antonio Gates still has something left and Ladarius Green began to show signs that he can be the legit heir apparent at the position. The Chargers need Malcolm Floyd to return from injury and that should only help Allen who showed why he should have been a first-round selection despite his injuries coming out of Cal.” …
“Defensively, Pagano can rely on Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes on the front with re-signed Donald Butler and Manti Te’o patrolling the middle. Jarrett Johnson just keeps on playing winning football regardless of circumstance, while Dwight Freeney only appeared in four games before going down with an injury. Melvin Ingram gave them a boost at the end of the year and should be fully recovered from his knee injury in 2014. They drafted Jerry Attaochu from Georgia Tech in the second round and he has legit rush potential.” …
“This secondary is worrisome, because there is no lockdown corner and both safeties are somewhat undersized. Eric Weddle plays small and is over-hyped and Marcus Gilchrist is really an ideal third safety. They got even smaller on draft day, when they selected TCU CB Jason Verrett who has a slight build, but can play man-to-man as a nickel or outside corner.” …
“The Chargers gained great confidence under McCoy during his rookie season, but they reside in a tough division with Denver and KC, so it’s not an automatic that they make the playoffs again this year.” …
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 12:
• Hot celebrity alumni of the Pac-12, including yummy Oregon Duck Kaitlin Olson.
• This Robin Williams riff on golf has been making the rounds since yesterday's gut punch. (Language warning) And here's an interview Williams did in 2013 with Dan Patrick. One more — a guide to binge-watching Robin Williams movies.
• I lied — here's one more: Conan, Andy Richter and Will Arnett learned of Williams' death while taping Conan's show. They proceeded to pay a heartfelt tribute.
• You've probably heard of "Garfield Without Garfield." Now, enjoy "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" without the Kardashians.
• Note to self: Never wink at Diego Maradona's lady.
• A 65-year-old former bowler made a nice catch at Wrigley yesterday.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability and volatility.
Roster turnover is largely responsible for the tremendous amount of variability from year to year within the sport. Key graduations, early entries into the NFL Draft, dismissals and a massive influx of tomorrow's stars in the form of bright-eyed freshmen create more personnel turnover in college football than any other major sport in the country.
It's these (relatively) unknown commodities that offer fans a renewed hope of future success. Who are the top freshmen to watch in the Pac-12 this fall?
Adoree Jackson, ATH, USC
For lack of a better term, Coach Steve Sarkisian adores his true freshman, do-everything dynamo. Jackson is penciled in as the star kick returner but will also get carries as a running back, catch passes as a receiver and could even get reps as a defensive back. Coach Sark will use Jackson in any and all ways this fall because it looks like the freshman can handle it.
Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona
The former standout from famed Bishop Gorman High School has been taking most of the first-team reps and appears to have a leg up on Jerrard Randall and Jesse Scroggins. His skill set fits Rich Rodriguez’ offense perfectly and he’s had a year to sit and learn the playbook. He was a big-time winner in high school and is one of the highest-rated QB recruits to ever sign at Arizona.
Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
While twin brother Tyrell will be suiting up for Fresno State after being dismissed from Oregon, Tyree is set to take over as the starting strong safety. The long, rangy athlete has put in the work this offseason and is in line to become a breakout defender in his redshirt freshman season in Eugene.
Khaliel Rodgers | Toa Lobendahn, OL, USC
Rodgers, a four-star member of the 2013 class, has been through two springs and was considered the best center in the nation two years ago. He is penciled in at the pivot currently. Lobendahn was a four-star early enrollee this spring and is currently holding the starting left guard position. The Trojans' front line is extremely talented, but also extremely inexperienced.
Jermaine Kelly | Budda Baker, DB, Washington
Baker is the highest-rated member of the 2014 Husky class and has already earned a spot in the two-deep at safety. Kelly, a redshirt freshman, is slotted to start at cornerback for new coach Chris Petersen and his reworked secondary. Look for both talented newcomers to lead a group of defensive backs that could feature half a dozen young contributors.
D.J. Calhoun, LB, Arizona State
One of three ASU early enrollees, Calhoun has shot up the depth chart to earn a potential starting spot at outside linebacker. His quickness and size allows him to be moved all over the formation. He will battle all fall camp to hold onto that starting spot and will undoubtedly be a long-term contributor for Todd Graham.
Bryce Bobo, WR, Colorado
Bobo is the top name in a collection of young freshmen who stand to get playing time this fall in Mike MacIntryre’s offense. Junior Nelson Spruce will be the top target for the Buffs but Bobo leads a deep group of redshirt and true freshmen who are eyeing first-team reps. Bobo, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound redshirt freshman, has the inside track for the No. 2 role in Boulder.
JuJu Smith, ATH, USC
Who knows what side of the ball it will be on but Smith appears to be earmarked for a large role as just a true freshman. He’s already gotten rave reviews as a wide receiver but rumors are swirling about the electric player switching to defensive back to start at nickelback. Wherever he lines up, keep an eye on the explosive youngster.
Devon Allen | Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon
The Ducks are in desperate need of quality depth at wide receiver and Oregon could have a couple of playmakers in Allen and Carrington. Allen, a world-class sprinter and track star, is a great fit in the offense while Carrington brings a bigger, more traditional frame. These are just two freshmen that coordinator Scott Frost and head coach Mark Helfrich will employ this fall.
Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford
Many are excited to see the nation’s No. 1 tight end prospect Dalton Schultz in action but they may have to wait until after he redshirts this fall. This is due, in part, to the development of redshirt freshman Austin Hooper. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is excellent at both in-line blocking (a must) and as a pass-catcher (a need) in Stanford’s offense. The three-time state champ from De La Salle is slated to start for David Shaw this fall.
Cole Madison, OL, Washington State
The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder is penciled in as the starter at right tackle for Mike Leach. The former tight end recruit has added plenty of weight (obviously) and has been considered the starter on the right side since spring camp. Look for Madison to have a long career in Pullman.
Best of the Rest:
Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
Marcus Ball, S, Arizona State
Hunter Jarmon | Walter Jones, WR, Oregon State
Kenny Young, LB, UCLA
Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
Jacob Alsadek, OL, Arizona
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Tre Watson, RB, Cal
Salesi Uhatafe, OL, Utah
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The SEC is college football’s No. 1 conference, and there’s a handful of players waiting to emerge as stars in 2014. The SEC is losing several standout quarterbacks from last season, which opens the door for Missouri’s Maty Mauk and Georgia’s Hutson Mason to contend for all-conference honors. Mauk and Mason are joined on the offensive side with players like Texas A&M receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and Alabama running back Derrick Henry, On defense, sophomores Robert Nkemdiche and Chris Jones are two linemen due for a big season in 2014.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
SEC Breakout Players for 2014
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
Cooper didn’t make a huge impression on the stat sheet last year, recording 202 rushing yards, 29 passing yards and three receptions for 54 yards. However, expect that to change significantly in 2014. The sophomore is an all-purpose threat for the Gamecocks and should see some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. Cooper is also expected to handle returns this year.
Jordan Cunningham, WR, Vanderbilt
Jordan Matthews dominated the stat sheet for Vanderbilt receivers last year, catching 112 of the Commodores’ 243 passes. With Matthews off to the NFL, it’s up to Cunningham and a host of youngsters to fill the void at receiver. Cunningham played in 13 games as a true freshman last year and caught 15 passes for 123 yards. The sophomore should be the No. 1 target for Vanderbilt’s offense in 2014.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
It’s a bit of a stretch to put Floyd on this list after he recorded 55 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks last year. However, we think the sophomore goes from All-SEC contention to All-America honors and earning national recognition. Floyd should anchor one of the edges in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, and the sophomore is expected to push for 10 sacks.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The No. 1 player in the 247Sports Composite rankings for 2014 could have a monster season in Baton Rouge. The LSU offensive line is one of the best in the SEC with four returning starters, and with a young quarterback (Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings) slated to start, expect the Tigers to lean on the ground attack. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Fournette has the size and skill-set to be an every-down back in the SEC. If he gets enough carries, the Louisiana native could finish near the top of the conference in rushing yards.
Kris Frost, LB, Auburn
Frost started just one contest for Auburn’s defense last year but played in all 14 games and finished fifth on the team with 59 tackles. The junior is slated to move into the starting lineup in 2014 and should team with Cassanova McKinzy to form a talented duo at linebacker. Frost also tied for the team lead on last year’s defense with two forced fumbles.
Braylon Heard, RB, Kentucky
Heard was a four-star recruit for Nebraska in the 2010 signing class, and the Ohio native rushed for 462 yards and four scores from 2011-12. Heard averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2012 and will team with Jojo Kemp to form a much-improved Kentucky rushing attack in 2014.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Fans around the SEC are familiar with Henry through recruiting and his limited playing time last year, but it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Henry rushed for 382 yards and three scores last season, capped by a 100-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl. The Florida native should provide the thunder to T.J. Yeldon’s lightning in 2014, as his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame is a handful for opposing defenses. Don’t be surprised if Henry surpasses the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
For any first-year starting quarterback, a potential All-American at tight end is a nice security blanket to have. That’s the case for junior quarterback Jacob Coker in his first season in Tuscaloosa, as Howard should be one of the top tight ends in the nation after a solid freshman campaign. Howard caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two scores last year, averaging 19.2 yards per reception. Expect Howard to be an even bigger part of the Crimson Tide offense this season, likely doubling his catches under new coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Chris Jones, DL, Mississippi State
Jones ranked as the No. 18 overall player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100, and the Mississippi native didn’t disappoint as a true freshman. Jones recorded 32 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and three pass breakups. He was at his best late in the year, recording three tackles for a loss and a sack against Ole Miss. After a solid freshman year, the best is yet to come from Jones. With a full offseason to work in the weight room and learn under coordinator Geoff Collins, Jones should build off a promising finish to 2014 and challenge for All-America honors.
Denver Kirkland/Dan Skipper, OL, Arkansas
Bret Bielema wants to establish a run-first, smashmouth mentality at Arkansas, and the second-year coach has two budding stars in the offensive line in sophomores Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. Both players started eight games last year and earned all-freshman honors by Athlon Sports. Considering Bielema’s track record from Wisconsin on recruiting and establishing offensive lines, look for Skipper and Kirkland to develop into future stars for the Razorbacks.
Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia
Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury allowed Mason to gain valuable experience in 2013, and the senior heads into 2014 with two starts under his belt. Mason threw for 189 yards and one score in relief of Murray against Kentucky, threw 299 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-34 victory over rival Georgia Tech and completed 21 of 39 throws for 320 yards and one score in the Gator Bowl versus Nebraska. Mason has waited his turn by sitting four years behind Aaron Murray. Expect the senior to deliver a big season in his first chance at the full-time starting job in Athens.
Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
Most around the SEC are probably familiar with Mauk after his short stint as Missouri’s No. 1 quarterback in 2013, but the sophomore is poised for bigger and better things in 2014. Mauk threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while recording 229 rushing yards. The Ohio native needs to improve his completion percentage (51.1), but he should continue Missouri’s run of successful quarterbacks under coach Gary Pinkel.
Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina
With the departure of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with tackle Kelcy Quarles, the Gamecocks may use more 3-4 looks in 2014. The linebacking corps should be the strength of Lorenzo Ward’s defense, as Moore led the team with 56 tackles as a true freshman last year. Moore also intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 tackle for a loss in 2013. Expect Moore to challenge for All-SEC honors this season.
Emmanuel Moseley, CB, Tennessee
The Volunteers will have a handful of young players receiving snaps on the defensive line and in the secondary this year, but Moseley has already made an impression on the coaching staff. Moseley was an early enrollee for spring practice and worked his way to the top of the depth chart at cornerback. The three-star recruit will be pushed for time in the fall, but he’s slated to play a key role in the Volunteers’ secondary this year.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Yes, as the No. 1 recruit from the 2013 signing class, it seems obvious to mention Nkemdiche as a breakout player. However, the Georgia native seemed to find his role late last year. Nkemdiche finished with 34 tackles (eight for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. Six of Nkemdiche’s 10 starts came at defensive end, with the other four coming at tackle. The Rebels will regain the services of end C.J. Johnson (missed most of last year due to injury), and the other end spot is expected to go to FIU transfer Fadol Brown. With Brown and Johnson anchoring the end positions, Nkemdiche should settle back into the interior. The sophomore played better as the season progressed in 2013 and should build off that momentum.
Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M
With Mike Evans, Derel Walker and Travis Labhart departing, the Aggies will be young (and very talented) at receiver in 2014. Redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones also makes our list of top breakout players from the SEC, but Noil is also a name to remember. The Louisiana native ranked as the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and could see touches in a variety of ways – special teams, catches or handoffs – for coach Kevin Sumlin.
Marquez North, WR, Tennessee
North or running back Jalen Hurd deserves a mention in this space as a breakout player for Tennessee’s offense. North quickly established himself as one of the Volunteers’ top playmakers in the passing game in 2013, catching 38 passes for 496 yards and one score. The North Carolina native only had one 100-yard game last season, but his numbers should get better if Tennessee has more consistency at the quarterback spot.
Aarion Penton, CB, Missouri
The Tigers must replace both starting cornerbacks from last year’s defense, including standout E.J. Gaines. Two sophomores – Penton and John Gibson – should have an inside track to replace Gaines and Randy Ponder. Penton played in all 14 games (two starts) and recorded one interception and 16 tackles as a true freshman last year.
Darius Philon, DT, Arkansas
After redshirting his first season on campus, Philon quietly emerged as a force on Arkansas’ defensive line in 2013. The Alabama native played in all 12 games, recorded 46 tackles (nine for a loss) and three sacks). Philon recorded eight stops against Alabama and six against LSU in the regular season finale. Expect the sophomore to push for All-SEC honors in 2014.
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
It’s not easy starting as a true freshman on the offensive line in the SEC. However, that’s the likely assignment handed to Robinson in 2014. The touted true freshman – No. 4 player in the 2014 247Sports Composite – could start at left tackle for the Crimson Tide this year. The talent is certainly there for Robinson to have a standout freshman campaign similar to Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil last season.
Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State
Dak Prescott will play a key role in Mississippi State’s rushing attack, but the Bulldogs need to find a new running back to replace LaDarius Perkins to take some of the pressure off of their quarterback. Robinson finished third on the team with 459 yards last season and averaged an impressive 5.9 yards per rush. Expect to see Robinson emerge as the No. 1 back in Starkville.
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU
A number of LSU defenders could earn a mention in this space, but Robinson is Athlon’s pick to have a breakout year on defense for coordinator John Chavis. The 6-foot-3 corner has the size to matchup against the bigger receivers in the conference, along with the speed to prevent big plays in the passing game. Robinson was a late arrival to preseason camp last year but finished with 16 tackles and broke up three passes in 12 games. The emergence of Robinson and sophomore Tre’Davious White should give LSU one of the top cornerback tandems in the nation.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
Seals-Jones was slated to be a key cog in Texas A&M’s receiving corps last season, but an injury sidelined him for the year after the first two games. The Texas native caught three passes for 84 yards and one score in the limited playing time. With Mike Evans departing, the Aggies are counting on Seals-Jones – the No. 25 prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 – to become one of the top options in the passing game. Whether it’s Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill under center for coach Kevin Sumlin, expect to see Seals-Jones making his share of big plays in 2014.
Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
We could pencil in Tabor or fellow freshman corner Duke Dawson here. Tabor ranked as the No. 14 recruit in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete this spring. The Washington, D.C. native could start opposite of sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback this year.
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida
Running back is a position of strength for new coordinator Kurt Roper, as the Gators return three running backs that recorded at least 330 yards last year. Mack Brown led the team with 543 yards, but Taylor turned plenty of heads as a true freshman. In 10 games, Taylor rushed for 508 yards and four scores, including 90 or more yards in two out of his last three outings. If the offensive line is improved, Taylor could push for 1,000 yards.
Ryan Timmons, WR, Kentucky
Kentucky’s offense averaged only 20.5 points per game last year, but there’s hope for improvement with more consistent quarterback play expected in 2014. If Patrick Towles, Drew Barker or Reese Phillips stabilizes the passing game, look for Timmons to have a breakout year. As a true freshman last season, Timmons caught 32 passes for 338 yards and two scores.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
Donte Moncrief’s big-play ability will be missed in Oxford, but quarterback Bo Wallace won’t have to look far for his replacement. Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five scores as a true freshman last year and is slated to move from the slot to the outside in 2014. Treadwell averaged only 8.4 yards per catch in 2013, but that number could easily double in 2014.
D’haquille Williams, WR, Auburn
The Tigers may look to throw more in 2014, as running back Tre Mason departed for the NFL, and quarterback Nick Marshall should be more comfortable in his second year under center in the SEC. Auburn’s receiving corps is also deeper in 2014, largely due to the emergence of junior Sammie Coates and the arrival of Williams in the spring. Williams ranked as the top junior college recruit in the 247Sports Composite and caught five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Andrew Williamson, S, Vanderbilt
New coach Derek Mason must replace all four starters in the secondary, but the coaching staff should be encouraged about the replacements. Williamson is one of the names generating buzz on West End, as he’s slated to step into a starting role after working as a top reserve in 2013. Williamson recorded 20 tackles and two interceptions last season and should emerge as one of the leaders for Mason in the secondary this year.
Perhaps we should have seen the signs for Auburn’s turnaround from winless in the SEC in 2012 to conference champions in 2013.
In only his first season as a head coach, Gus Malzahn had an unblemished record in close games at Arkansas State the year before he arrived at Auburn. He was 4-0 in one-score games with the Red Wolves, but Auburn already may have an idea of Malzahn’s composure under pressure.
In 2010 and 2011, Malzahn’s final two seasons as offensive coordinator, Auburn was 10-0 in one-score games.
Going by numbers like that, Malzahn could make a case to be the most clutch coach in the country.
Indeed, Malzahn’s 11-1 record in one-score games as a head coach gives him the best win percentage in the nation the last five years. No other coach wins more than 90 percent of his games in one-score situations the last five years. Only three coaches who have presided over 10 or more one-possession games have won three-quarters of those matchups.
Granted, two of Malzahn's most dramatic wins — the Prayer on the Plains against Georgia and the Kick Six against Alabama last season — had little to do with great Xs and Os acumen. Even disregarding those two finishes, he remains the only coach who has won 90 percent of his close games the last five seasons, and his only loss came by three points to an otherwise dominant Florida State team in the national title game.
Athlon Sports decided to take a look at how every program and every active coach has fared in one-possession games during the last five seasons, i.e. games decided by eight points or less.
While simply looking at scoring margins does not exactly reflect how close a game was — garbage time touchdowns could skew are metrics — this still gives us an idea of how coaches and teams fare in close games. Our method also doesn't account for games that go out of reach within the final minutes, for example, a team going up — or falling behind — by six points in the final five minutes with a field goal in the final two for a more decisive final margin.
Here’s the data we found for coaches:
|Best coaches in one-score games, last five seasons|
|By win percentage (10+ games)||By wins|
|1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn/Ark. St. (.917, 11-1)||1. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame/Cincy (20-8)|
|2. Pete Lembo, Ball State (.765, 13-4)||2. Frank Solich, Ohio (19-9)|
|t3. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (.750, 15-5)||3. Les Miles, LSU (18-9)|
|t3. Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette (.750, 9-3)||t4. Bill Snyder, Kansas State (17-6)|
|5. Bill Snyder, Kansas State (.739, 17-6)||t4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (17-13)|
|t6. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame/Cincy (.714, 20-8)||t4. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy (17-13)|
|t6. Dave Doeren, NC State/N. Ill. (.714, 10-4)||7. George O'Leary, UCF (16-14)|
|8. Urban Meyer, Ohio St./Florida (.706, 12-5)||t8. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (15-5)|
|9. Rocky Long, San Diego St. (.688, 11-5)||t8. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (15-12)|
|10. David Shaw, Stanford (.684, 13-6)||10. Six coaches tied with 14 wins|
• Malzahn is the gold standard here with an 11-1 record in one-possession games in just two seasons as a head coach. Consider this: Malzahn has won as many one-possession games the last two seasons as Alabama has played (6-5) during the last five years.
• Steve Spurrier’s 15-5 record is impressive enough, but he’s 11-3 in the last three seasons in one-possession games as the Gamecocks have finished in the top-10 each year.
• Brian Kelly started his Notre Dame tenure with a 2-5 record in his first seven one-possession games. The Irish are 14-3 since, including 11 wins in a row.
• Penn State also would be advised to be patient with some heartbreaking losses. Vanderbilt started 1-6 in close games under James Franklin before he finished 6-1.
• Another lesson in the patience category: Louisville went 9-2 in one-possession games in the final two seasons under Charlie Strong after starting 5-10. Granted, one of those losses was a 38-35 home loss to UCF that cost the Cardinals an undefeated season and an AAC title.
• Are we noticing a trend? Washington went 10-4 in close games in the final four seasons under Steve Sarkisian, now the coach at USC.
• Will Muschamp is combustible enough as it is. This might not help. He went 4-0 in close games in 2012 and 0-4 in 2013.
• Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has a nice record (11-8), but it’s probably not a stat he wants people to examine closely. Those close wins have included Troy, Louisiana Tech, UAB, Wake Forest, Bowling Green, Kentucky and Ole Miss (twice).
• Want to know why Ball State’s Pete Lembo and UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth will be hot commodities for Power 5 programs? Lembo is 13-4 in one-possession games in three seasons, including two wins over Toledo, two over Indiana, one over USF and another over Arkansas state in a bowl. Hudspeth is 9-3 with two of those losses at Arizona and at Florida.
• Kevin Sumlin is 12-11 in one-possession games during the last five years. His record is skewed by an 0-4 performance in such games in 2010 at Houston, the year quarterback Case Keenum missed with injury.
• Dave Doeren may be the strangest name in the best win percentage column, considering his first NC State team went winless in the ACC. Still, he went 9-3 in one-score games at Northern Illinois.
• Three coaches have presided over 30 one-possession games the last five years, tied for the most in the country: Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Navy’s Ken Niumatalo (17-13 each) and UCF’s George O’Leary (16-14).
• Three coaches have won 80 percent of their one-possession games but didn’t meet our 10-game threshold: UTSA’s Larry Coker (7-1), Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter (5-1) and Boise State’s Byran Harsin (4-1 at Arkansas State).
And here’s the other side of the equation:
|Worst coaches in one-score games, last five seasons|
|By win percentage (10+ games)||By losses|
|Kevin Wilson, Indiana (.154, 2-11)||Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (12-17)|
|Dave Clawson, Wake/Bowling Green (.263, 5-14)||Larry Fedora, North Carolina/So. Miss (12-16)|
|Bob Davie, New Mexico (.273, 3-8)||Troy Calhoun, Air Force (6-15)|
|Troy Calhoun, Air Force (.286, 6-15)||Larry Blakeney, Troy (12-15)|
|Charlie Weis, Kansas/Notre Dame (.333, 5-10)||Dave Clawson, Wake/Bowling Green (5-14)|
|Joey Jones, South Alabama (.357, 5-9)||Bret Bielema, Arkansas/Wisconsin (11-14)|
|Bobby Hauck, UNLV (.364, 4-7)||Brady Hoke, Michigan/San Diego St. (11-14)|
|Terry Bowden, Akron (.400, 4-6)||Gary Andersen, Wisconsin/Utah St. (11-14)|
|Mike MacIntyre, Colorado/San Jose St. (.412, 7-10)||Skip Holtz, La. Tech/USF/E. Carolina (14-14)|
|Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (.414, 12-17)||George O'Leary, UCF (16-14)|
• Kevin Wilson has lots of what-ifs in that 2-11 mark. Those losses include two to Ball State, two to Navy and one to North Texas.
• This makes sense: There are very few coaches with dismal records in close games. Most of the coaches with poor records in close games end up getting fired before putting up a truly lopsided number.
• Wake Forest traded a coach who was 11-17 in close games (Jim Grobe) for one that is 5-14 (Dave Clawson at Bowling Green).
• Among the lowlights for former coaches: Dennis Erickson (4-11 at Arizona State), Derek Dooley (2-7 at Tennessee) and Houston Nutt (2-6 at Ole Miss).
Getting ready for your fantasy football draft? Be sure to read these 10 tips from Athlon contributor Mike Clay before plotting your championship-winning plan of attack.
1. Gather as many studs as possible, Then worry about everything else
League-wide offensive production is growing each and every year. The recent wave of fast-paced and pass-heavy offenses has led to more fantasy points than we’ve ever seen. As a result, there are more fantasy-relevant players at every position. “Wait at <enter position name here>” is a common piece of advice from fantasy pundits, but in this day and age, you truly can wait at any position and end up with a competent group of starters. So what’s the message here? The focus of your first few picks should not be on need or replacement value; rather, it should be on selecting superstars until none remains. I always suggest drawing lines on your cheat sheet to create tiers. Be sure that only superstars are in that first tier at each position. The players who fit the superstar bill can fluctuate depending on your league’s scoring, but they’re usually not terribly hard to determine. This year, it’s the top seven or so running backs, top six wide receivers and tight end Jimmy Graham. Unless your scoring is obscenely favorable for quarterbacks, no passers should be in this conversation.
2. Be prepared to adjust on the fly
There are a lot of draft strategies out there: value-based drafting, high ceiling, wide receiver heavy, best player available, tiers. The list goes on and on. Although you’re best served having a game plan in mind come draft day, it’s important that flexibility and the willingness to adjust are a part of your mindset. No two drafts are the same, which means that all the preparation in the world can’t prevent the inside-the-box thinker from panicking when his target is swooped up right before he’s on the clock.
There are a few ways you can stay ahead of the game during your draft. The most obvious one is to cross every selected player off your board. Not only does this help you avoid the embarrassment of selecting a player taken four rounds earlier, but it also allows you to keep an eye on the flow of the draft. Maybe you’re in a 12-team league and haven’t picked a quarterback yet. You notice 10 are already off the board. Should you panic and snatch one up? Unless you’re staring at a major value, of course not. The owners who already have quarterbacks will be addressing other positions for a few rounds, which means you can take advantage and wait even longer to select a signal-caller.
Drafting near the turn? Glance at the rosters of the teams who pick between your two selections on the short side of the turn. Let’s say you have the 10th pick of the fifth round in a 12-team league, and you’re trying to decide between a quarterback and wide receiver. You glance at the rosters of the teams picking 11th and 12th. Both have a quarterback. The odds of either team picking a second quarterback are extremely low. That makes your decision easy. Pick the best wide receiver and go with the quarterback the next time around.
Those are just a few examples of how to adjust on the fly during your draft. Keeping tabs on everything going on around you is the best way to maximize your roster.
3. Don’t be the guy who drafts Peyton Manning
Earlier, I mentioned that quarterbacks do not fit the bill as early-round must-target superstars. That’s despite the fact that there are several superstar talents at the position. On top of that, Peyton Manning was arguably the fantasy MVP last season, breaking all sorts of records en route to blowing all other quarterbacks out of the water in terms of fantasy points. So why am I advising against selecting Manning this season? Simple: He’s not going to live up to his average draft position (ADP).
In early mock drafts, Manning is coming off the board in the mid-to-late first round. If you believe Manning will equal his 2013 performance, that’s not a bad pick. If you expect regression, it’s a poor selection. And you should expect regression. Manning set the single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns, and his team set the records for most points, touchdowns and 50-plus point games. Historically, teams that have put up extremely high touchdown totals have regressed the very next season. Consider that over the past six years, 12 offenses have averaged at least three touchdowns per game over a full season. Two-thirds of those teams saw a drop in scoring the next season. The average drop-off was a massive 22 percent, and every team dropped by at least 12 percent. Of the four teams that scored more the next season, three saw a boost of just three percent. The fourth was, go figure, the Broncos, who went from 3.1 TDs per game in 2012 to 4.1 per game in 2013.
I should also point out the loss of Eric Decker and the fact that we already saw regression from the Denver offense in the second half last season. After averaging an absurd five offensive scores per game through their first eight games, the Broncos put up 3.4 per game the rest of the way. That’s still a very healthy number, but it puts them right there with the league’s other elite offenses. Manning remains a top fantasy quarterback, but the inevitable regression makes him a poor first-round pick.
4. With two exceptions, wait at tight end
Much like last year, the tight end position is shaping up to drop off after the top two before leveling off, for the most part, until around the No. 12 spot. Jimmy Graham is your clear No. 1 option, but Rob Gronkowski is so productive when healthy — sometimes more so than Graham — that he has to be considered in the third round. After that, we have a tier of tight ends who will put up similar numbers. A case could be made that Julius Thomas should be in his own tier, but he usually comes off the board before Gronkowski despite overlooked durability questions of his own.
The true values come later in the draft. Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten, Jordan Reed, Dennis Pitta and Greg Olsen can all be had in the middle rounds. Even better, the likes of Kyle Rudolph, Martellus Bennett and breakout candidate Zach Ertz usually last into and beyond the ninth round. High-ceiling fliers like Ladarius Green, Travis Kelce, Tyler Eifert and Dwayne Allen can be had with late-round picks.
Graham and Gronkowski (assuming he remains on track to play in Week 1) are worth the early-round pick, but otherwise, the smart move is to wait for a major value later.
5. React reasonably to hype
Each year, the fantasy football industry grows exponentially. Punditry grows as a result. We all have guys we love and guys we hate, which leads to a constant seesaw of market value for each player. One week, I write a piece suggesting a breakout season for Justin Hunter. His ADP skyrockets. The next week, Joe Analyst writes a piece explaining why Tavon Austin will bust out during his sophomore season. Hunter’s ADP returns to earth, and Austin becomes overvalued for a while.
The key is to take every single piece of advice with a grain of salt. Does the advice make sense? Does the math add up? Is the player truly in a situation where he can succeed? Is he really as good as the analyst suggests?
Savvy owners take advantage of overreacting owners by avoiding the noise and sticking to their boards, making occasional tweaks only when it makes sense.
6. Go get these sophomore wideouts
All the talk is about the depth of this year’s crop of rookie wide receivers. Sorted by my favorite values, don’t overlook these sophomores:
I foreshadowed this earlier, but Justin Hunter actually is an excellent breakout candidate in Ken Whisenhunt’s wide receiver-friendly, pass-first offense. Terrance Williams will start opposite Dez Bryant in Dallas’ pass-heavy offense. Aaron Dobson figures to play nearly every down in an offense operated by Tom Brady. DeAndre Hopkins struggled along with the rest of Houston’s offense last season, but he will be rejuvenated with Bill O’Brien in control. Tavon Austin disappointed as a rookie but showed big-play ability and will be a key part of the Rams’ improving offense. In Buffalo, Robert Woods is being overshadowed by rookie Sammy Watkins, but the sophomore has an excellent shot to play nearly every down in 2014. Markus Wheaton and Kenny Stills have been promoted into starting roles in good (Pittsburgh) and great (New Orleans) offenses, respectively. The likes of Quinton Patton, Stedman Bailey, Marquise Goodwin, Ace Sanders, Marquess Wilson and Brice Butler should be monitored.
Keenan Allen and Cordarrelle Patterson are fine picks as well, but both will come off the board in the first half of your draft, making them expensive investments.
7. Draft post-hype superstars
We see it every year. A highly talented player makes perfect sense as a breakout. Selected in the first few rounds of every single draft, the player inevitably disappoints before finally busting out the very next season. Last year, Ryan Mathews was a fine example. Knowshon Moreno, DeMarco Murray, Rashad Jennings, Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas also fit the bill.
This season, C.J. Spiller should be on your radar. Considering that he was a first-round pick in most drafts, the 2013 season was a major disappointment. Despite dealing with injuries and sharing the Buffalo backfield with Fred Jackson, Spiller still managed 202 carries and eclipsed 1,100 total yards. A lack of usage near the goal line remains a concern, but Spiller is only 27 and one of the top talents at the position. Available in the third round of most drafts, Spiller has top-five upside.
Looking for other post-hype candidates? Consider Jake Locker, Mark Ingram, David Wilson, Stevan Ridley, Danny Amendola, Tyler Eifert, Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green.
8. Raise the roof
Once you’re comfortable with your starting lineup, ensure that your focus is on acquiring the players with the highest ceiling. Obviously you want to draft high-upside players early as well, but for the most part, the players in this category are unproven. Spending early-round picks on speculative players is risky and best saved for the mid-to-late rounds. I’ve mentioned a bunch of these players throughout this piece, but there are a few categories breakout players tend to fall into. The most obvious one is “talented.” Players drafted in the last three years who have a ton of raw talent but were injured or buried on their team’s depth chart are usually worthy of late-round consideration. Last season, Alshon Jeffery, Zac Stacy, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron fit this category. Another is “opportunity.” These players might not be quite as naturally gifted, but they’ve fallen into a situation where they’ll be playing a significant offensive role or playing enough of a role in a high-scoring offense. The likes of Riley Cooper, Charles Clay and Julian Edelman fit the bill in 2013.
9. Be wary of rookies
Each year, there is a massive amount of attention given to the NFL Draft. That, combined with recency bias toward the college superstars of the past season, often leads to rookies being overvalued in fantasy drafts. Last year, 14 rookies were drafted in the top 200 of most drafts. Only four players (Eddie Lacy, Gio Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Cordarrelle Patterson) outperformed their ADP. The other 10 players were nothing more than waiver wire fodder for most of the season. That was the case for Patterson for a good chuck of the season as well. There were a few other rookies who shined, but the likes of Andre Ellington, Keenan Allen, Jordan Reed, Zac Stacy and Mike Glennon went undrafted in most leagues. The message here is that rookies tend to be overhyped, and you should be very skeptical about choosing them during the first dozen rounds of your draft.
10. Don’t draft your handcuffs; draft the best handcuffs
It’s inevitable. The guy who picks Toby Gerhart is going to draft and/or waste a valuable roster spot on Jordan Todman. Trent Richardson owners will stash Vick Ballard. Gio Bernard owners will snag BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You get the picture. There are a lot of backup running backs who qualify as handcuffs but who are not very good and/or would be no more than a committee back in the event that they were called on to start. Todman, Ballard and Green-Ellis fall into that category and shouldn’t be stashed over running backs with higher ceilings. You don’t need to own Jamaal Charles in order to snatch up Knile Davis. Or Matt Forté to grab Ka’Deem Carey. Christine Michael, LeGarrette Blount, Bernard Pierce, Carlos Hyde, Donald Brown, Jerick McKinnon, Tre Mason, Charles Sims and Devonta Freeman all make for solid late-round targets.
So often when people look at tragedy they forget its human cost. Rarely are incidents involving death clear-cut — a battle of good versus evil like we read about as children. No one, with any shred of conscience, deserves to bear the guilt of killing a man, a catastrophe they carry the rest of their lives regardless of accident or intention. It’s a punishment worse than any court can impose, a daily nightmare where one can never hit the “Stop” button. Most importantly, there’s the victim, through which the word “recovery” is impossible. No one deserves to die in vain the way a 20-year-old young man named Kevin Ward Jr. did while walking down the track at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park Saturday night.
It’s the disgusting way it happened, a gut-wrenching video as easily accessed as clicking on YouTube that gives so many chills this Monday morning. It’s made an otherwise enjoyable NASCAR race at Watkins Glen virtually irrelevant, and a heartwarming victory by a driver who deserved it rings hollow. Death has a way of doing that. Its impact is the prescription for conquering joy while leaving all involved in various states of grief.
That’s where we focus right now while awaiting the results of an investigation that could take weeks. You have a young man, his whole life in front of him, taken down on a track he loved not because of a wreck or a safety malfunction, but by taking a few small steps into traffic. A talent will never be realized, but a life will also never be lived. There will be no happy marriage, no children, no adventures to one day tell the family on the rocking chair.
There are people connected to Ward, including his parents, who were in the stands that fateful Saturday night. There to cheer on their son, what they saw instead was a scene no parent should ever have to witness. It’s hard enough to endure the loss of a child; just ask those within the world of motorsports like Kyle Petty. But to watch that death unfold while sitting next to random strangers is a scenario for which there are no words, only tears.
But in this type of tragedy, where intention is forever unclear, it’s both sides that feel the hurt. For those accusing Tony Stewart of a callous heart, the victims of last February’s horrible Nationwide Series crash at Daytona think otherwise. Stewart visited those fans in the hospital, unsolicited, and has checked in to ensure some of their lives are back on track. The countless kids whose lives he’s touched through charitable endeavors pursued when the cameras are off are feeling the pain of a hero turned human. Stewart is single, but he has a family too, all of whom are helping heal the guilt that is overwhelming and will never completely disappear.
There are countless employees of Stewart-Haas Racing and Tony Stewart Racing whose grief this morning takes on many forms. They’re mourning their boss, who has a hands-on nature and know most in the shop so personally. One half of their brain asks how they can help a fallen leader as the other rational half produces fears of worry. Millions of dollars are on the line here, and the ruination of Stewart could mean the fall of SHR, TSR and hundreds of people losing jobs. SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli, thrust into the role of replacement leader, has the difficult balance of playing emotional therapist while sitting in the boardroom of emotionless corporate damage control.
There’s a reason why so many in NASCAR Nation have gone one, perhaps two days without sleep. It’s the type of horror that makes you go home, hug your loved ones and remember what’s really important in life. Remember the perfection of now because the imperfection of tomorrow is always lurking.
In life, joy is finite. Kevin Ward Jr. taught us all in just a few small steps.
FIRST GEAR: The latest on Stewart-Haas Racing
Before transitioning to the race itself, how could we ignore the goings-on at the No. 14 Chevrolet? Stewart, who pulled out of the race Sunday morning, was replaced by Regan Smith, JR Motorsports’ full-time Nationwide Series driver who flew up to Watkins Glen with Sprint Cup owner Rick Hendrick. Arriving an hour before race time with no practice and an unfamiliar crew, Smith did an admirable job under the circumstances. Charging from the rear, he was a potential top-10 car until a late-race accident left him an innocent victim en route to 37th.
Hendrick, arguably the most powerful car owner in Cup, clearly flew up from North Carolina on a mission. PR spin, with the impact still blossoming, is the school of thought as an investigation continues into Ward’s death. Sponsors must be assured it’s a tragic accident; anything less, from either the police or doubtful minds, put Stewart’s expansive economic empire in jeopardy. Those who back his Cup car could bolt, along with those supporting one of NASCAR’s few bright spots these days in Eldora Speedway. Stewart’s absence, more pronounced than breaking his leg one year ago, will be felt far and wide across the spectrum of racing.
As for what happens next? It’s hard to say for sure. Some believe Stewart is a shoe-in to be behind the wheel again Sunday at Michigan. I find that, as well as a brief decision to race at the Glen until more rational heads prevailed, incredibly hard to get behind. With many fans jumping to guilt over innocence how can Stewart focus enough to be effective inside the car? The security surrounding him, with fans angrily shouting “murderer” like they did on Twitter this weekend, would have to be unprecedented in nature. NASCAR, for the time being, has said there’s nothing precluding the driver from competing but I have a feeling that’s going to change by Sunday.
By the way, has anyone heard from Brian France, the most powerful racing commissioner in America? Someone should tell him one of his sport’s biggest names is the lead story on every news station in the country. He might want to step up and say something soon. Just a thought.
SECOND GEAR: A heartwarming victory amongst the madness
Two years ago, AJ Allmendinger was out of NASCAR, serving a suspension for a failed drug test while his racing career sat on life support. Squandering a top-tier opportunity with Penske Racing, the question was not when but if he’d race in the big leagues again. Rarely do 30-something drivers sans a Sprint Cup victory come back to the table armed with a second opportunity.
However, Allmendinger proved Sunday that he’s a very special case. Outfitted with an infectious personality — the type you can’t help but like — the California driver has charmed the pants off so many. It’s to the point former boss Roger Penske himself wound up giving out Nationwide and IndyCar rides to the ‘Dinger a year after said suspension.
JTG-Daugherty Racing, a single-car team with years of middling success, then got convinced to take a flyer on a guy who has always seemed filled with potential. It’s a decision they won’t soon regret, as the road course ace manhandled their No. 47 Chevrolet to the front in what was one of, if not the best, finish to a Cup race all year.
In the closing laps, it was Allmendinger versus Marcos Ambrose — the sport’s finest road course racer — with a bid to the postseason squarely on the line. Win? You’re in the Chase. Lose? You’re almost certainly out of it. The side-by-side, wheel-banging action over the final 10 laps brought fans to their feet and ended with a driver getting the race-life redemption he thought might never be achieved.
“It’s just a memorable day to go out there and remember everything that just happened,” Allmendinger said. “I hope I win a lot more, but if I don’t, to be able to remember it like this, it’s pretty awesome. (A) dream come true.”
Even his Australian rival, whose loss may confirm a trip back Down Under in 2015, admitted Allmendinger deserved this victory, the first Cup win for JTG-Daugherty Racing. It was also the first single-car Cup win in three years with a team that was largely out of contention with former driver Bobby Labonte. Now, they’re in the Chase, a reality like heavyweights Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle can’t say quite yet.
THIRD GEAR: Safety at Watkins Glen must be addressed
The other enduring incident from the weekend not involving Stewart or Ward will be a mid-race accident on Sunday that nearly split Michael McDowell’s car in two. Occurring off the dangerous carousel turn at Watkins Glen, a slip by Greg Biffle caused Ryan Newman to lose control, bounce off an Armco barrier and pinball into McDowell at high speed. The resulting debris field, along with damage to the fence, clearly showed one of the hardest hits for any driver to have taken all season.
“The SAFER Barrier doesn’t exist here, there are no concrete walls,” Newman said during an extended red flag to clean up the mess. “It’s just a very antiquated racetrack and the safety is not at all up to NASCAR’s standards. It’s a shame that we have to have accidents like that to prove it. Hopefully, something will change the next time we come back with our Caterpillar Chevrolet.”
Newman made a fair point that NASCAR, through its track arm International Speedway Corp., is spending $400 million to renovate Daytona International Speedway’s grandstand area, but refuses to spend a few million at tracks like the Glen to ensure these SAFER Barriers are at key portions of the track. One would think the key stakeholders would learn from the Ward incident Saturday night, tragic in nature, but real in the damage an on-track death does to the court of public opinion. NASCAR can’t risk another Dale Earnhardt moment — and it’s come too close at the Glen with both this wreck and Sam Hornish Jr.’s vicious crash out of the same corner three years ago. NASCAR has some smart people, and they need to come up with a solution for 2015.
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle Larson’s sneaky fourth-place finish
Kevin Harvick may be NASCAR’s “closer,” but there’s something about Kyle Larson these days. His charge from around 10th to fourth by the final lap at Watkins Glen was akin to his out-of-nowhere jump to second at Fontana in March. To do what the rookie did at a road course where he has limited experience showcases the type of range only a few in this sport will ever possess. To me, Larson’s first year is shaping up very much like Jeff Gordon’s did in 1993; come close to a few wins, make a big impression and get yourself set up for year two. Everyone knows what happened to Gordon, as by year three, he was holding a championship trophy.
The way Larson drives, a title by year three wouldn’t surprise me either.
Jimmie Johnson’s late wreck gave him yet another disappointing finish over the summer. But keep in mind that in 2010, Johnson went seven straight races in July-August with finishes of 10th or worse. And last season he averaged a 36th-place finish in the regular season’s final four events. On both occasions he came back to win the series title. … Kyle Busch’s inconsistency continued at the Glen after a mechanical failure led to several laps inside the garage. Over the last six races, he now has three second-place finishes, two DNFs and Sunday’s 40th-place result. … Two red flags pushed the total race time of the Glen to well over four hours. While the racing was fantastic, fans were again forced to stick around through a season of rain delays and extended stoppages. It’s a level of patience fewer are having the time to squeeze into their busy lives; can the sport evolve in line with America’s short attention span? … Dale Earnhardt Jr. now holds the Sprint Cup Series points lead after Jeff Gordon suffered mechanical problems at the Glen. That hasn’t happened this late in a season since 2004.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Home to the defending Super Bowl champions and the only division that featured three 10-win teams last season; there is little debate that the NFC West is the NFL’s toughest division entering the 2014 season. So how is Seattle shaping up as the Seahawks prepare their title defense and what about the three other chasing them out west?
In order to get an accurate assessment of the four NFC West teams heading into 2014, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The Cardinals have as much front-line talent as any NFL team. The problem is that they reside in the toughest division in the league and there is no guarantee to even make the playoffs.” …
“Bruce Arians has had quite a run since taking over as interim coach of the Colts in 2012 and then leading Arizona to a 10-6 mark last year. The players love Arians’ approach and really believe they can go win the Super Bowl in 2014, and they might be right.” …
“As Carson Palmer heads into the twilight of his career, he is surrounded by elite-level ability. Larry Fitzgerald has enjoyed a remarkable career despite being, at times, hamstrung by inept QB play, and Michael Floyd is poised to advance his game in his third season.” …
“Arians has raved about Andre Ellington, but he had major durability concerns coming out of Clemson, and it would be difficult to think of him as a workhorse over the course of 16 games and the playoffs. For that reason, Jonathan Dwyer was signed from Pittsburgh and Stepfan Taylor could be a stopgap option.” …
“With Jonathan Cooper returning from a leg fracture and Jared Veldheer being signed during free agency, this line should be much improved. John Carlson gives them a better-than-average answer at tight end and some inside the organization still think Rob Housler has more to offer from a physical standpoint.” …
“Arizona’s front seven has a mixture of experience and youth, but all of them can play. John Abraham can still rush the passer, Darnell Dockett has matured into a consistent Pro Bowler, and Calais Campbell is a force due to his height and athleticism.” …
“The Cardinals signed Antonio Cromartie to pair off with Patrick Peterson, and with Tyrann Mathieu expected to successfully return from knee surgery, they can be multiple in their coverage packages. They addressed their need at safety with Washington State’s Deone Bucannon in the first round ” …
“The backup-caliber players need to understand that special teams could be the difference between them and the Seahawks and 49ers.” …
“If Palmer stays healthy and upright, this team is highly motivated and stronger than people realize.” …
St. Louis Rams
“Head Coach Jeff Fisher is widely respected and well thought of in league circles because of his work on the Competition Committee and overall presence as a leader of the coaches. However, some are beginning to question his won-loss record and lack of success in St. Louis.” …
The Rams appear content to go forward with QB Sam Bradford, but there is no denying the risk involved because of his past injury history. Offensively, the line has been bad for two years running and their best ball-carrier emerged in the form of  fifth-round pick, Zac Stacy from Vanderbilt. They addressed both of those areas in the draft with a pair of Auburn Tigers, OT Greg Robinson and RB Tre Mason.”…
“TE Jared Cook has very good skill and should thrive more with a healthy Bradford, but the wide receivers have been a major work in progress over the past two campaigns. It took nearly ten weeks to get rookie Tavon Austin cranked up, so the assumption will be that he picks up where 2013 ended. STL has gotten little out of former second-round pick Chris Givens, so this will be a make-or-break year for him.”…
“They were lucky that Rodger Saffold returned to them after the physical fiasco in Oakland and the plan might be to play him at RG with Joe Barksdale at RT and Robinson aligning as a LG.” …
“The Rams now have the best defensive front four in the game after selecting Pittsburgh All-American Aaron Donald with their second first-round pick. The linebacking corps isn’t bad, either, with James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree.” …
“The Achilles’ heel has been the secondary and that is where they added Florida State’s super-competitive Lamarcus Joyner who can play safety, corner or nickel. And with even more pressure coming from Robert Quinn and Chris Long, this secondary should be improved.”…
“The Michael Sam story will get some play upon his arrival and maybe during training camp, but his shot to make the team will be as a situational pass rusher and special teams contributor, period.”…
“GM Les Snead and Fisher appear to work well together, but their time in the Gateway of the West will begin to run down without significant progress in football’s most difficult division.”
San Francisco 49ers
“The 49ers may have the most physically imposing and best-looking team in the entire league. They are big and strong along both lines and have tough, athletic skill players on offense and defense.”…
“Despite some of the communication issues between head coach Jim Harbaugh, GM Trent Baalke and football administration director Paraag Maranthe, this is an organization that has built a quality team. “ …
“Many inside the NFL think 2014 could likely be Harbaugh’s last season in SF, so it has been interesting to monitor the upward movement of former Jets and Browns coach Eric Mangini. He is currently the TEs coach, but made his name in New York and New England on the defensive side of the football. There is no question that he is reinventing himself for another run at a head job and would love the opportunity to take over a roster that is absolutely loaded, although DL coach Jim Tomsula would be the in-house favorite.” …
“The 49ers have hitched their wagon to QB Colin Kaepernick’s unique combination of rare size and speed at the position. If there is a criticism, it is his penchant to throw almost every pass on a line with no touch whatsoever. On play-actions and bootlegs, he can rifle a flat ball in between defenders, but in the drop-back game, he tends to try and throw it through rather than around people.” …
“Expect SF to have more of a backfield-by-committee in place for ’14 as RB Frank Gore still has some in-between-the-tackles ability and they picked Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde in the second round.” …
“Defensively, it’s all about what happens with NaVorro Bowman’s return from the brutal knee injury suffered in the playoffs and the off-field problems experienced by Aldon Smith.” …
“Look for second-year player Tank Carradine to make a splash after ‘redshirting’ last season. “ …
“They are so strong up the middle and that is where Patrick Willis has become this generation’s ‘Ray Lewis.’”…
“If they are light anywhere, it would be on the corner where Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers left for Oakland and the remaining group is headlined by Eric Wright [Editor’s note: he retired in June] and Chris Culliver with the anticipation that first-round choice Jimmie Ward will likely be the nickel in 2014. FS Eric Reid is a Pro Bowl talent and they signed Antoine Bethea to replace Donte Whitner.” …
“The ‘body’ of this team is ready to return to the Super Bowl, the ‘head’ of this team is what will determine their fate.” …
“Pete Carroll became only the third coach in football history to win both a college national championship and Super Bowl joining Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer in that elite club. He was rewarded with an extension during the offseason and between the leadership combination of himself, GM John Schneider and Russell Wilson, this team isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.” …
“Offensively, Wilson should be able to expand his game to provide more balance to their attack (4th in rushing, 26th in passing) and Percy Harvin is obviously a difference-maker for them when he is healthy and on the field. Golden Tate moved on to the Lions, so Harvin and Doug Baldwin will need to step up in 2014.” …
“The offensive line lost Breno Giacomini, but the other four starters return and RT Michael Bowie gained valuable experience as a rookie when he started 8 games during the regular season.” …
“Marshawn Lynch has prospered since arriving from Buffalo and his Beast Mode style matches the toughness of their defense.” …
“They traded for Terrelle Pryor prior to the draft, so that is a situation to monitor in regards to their backup QB situation.” …
“Defensively, the Legion of Boom will continue uninterrupted after Earl Thomas received a new contract in April and Richard Sherman did the same a few weeks later.” …
“Up front, the Seahawks lost Clinton McDonald, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to free agency, but they did retain Michael Bennett and still have Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin on the outside. Jordan Hill should figure more prominently on the inside as a second-year player to rotate with Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel.” …
“Bobby Wagner, T.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith are ideal fits for this scheme because of their versatility against the run and pass.” …
“Byron Maxwell’s emergence opposite Sherman allowed them to let Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner to walk, so expect to see more of Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon this year. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor form the league’s best safety duo where they complement each other’s skill set unbelievably well.” …
“Seattle is built to last because of the QB, a solid OL and the quality of their overall defense. They preach competition and that’s exactly what they will get from their division rivals in 2014.” …
General Manager Rick Spielman created 13 categories that he thought described a successful NFL coach. He identified 10 preferred candidates, interviewed seven and fell in love, professionally speaking, with just one. “It’s like when I met my wife,” he said. “You just know.”
Mike Zimmer, the self-proclaimed “fixer” and first-time head coach at any level, replaces the fired Leslie Frazier. And, boy, does he ever have some fixing to do after a 5–10–1 season that featured the league’s worst scoring defense and a three-headed fiasco at quarterback. Zimmer and Spielman immediately infused the defense with youth and depth, signing five unrestricted free agents before spending seven of their 10 draft picks on that side of the ball.
Offensively, Norv Turner has been entrusted with maximizing a group of talented players and a less-than-ideal quarterback situation that already looks more promising with the franchise-wide acceptance that Christian Ponder never will be a franchise quarterback.
The Ponder experiment is over. Matt Cassel, who had opted out of the second year of his original contract with the Vikings, re-signed in part because he trusts that Turner and Zimmer are committed to him as the starter. That wasn’t the case last year when the Vikings waffled between Ponder, Cassel and Josh Freeman despite obvious examples that Cassel, though not great by any stretch, had the most poise, courage to throw the deep ball and overall success (a 3–3 record).
Ponder will start only if Cassel is injured. And even that would depend on whether rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater is ready or not. Ideally, the Vikings want Cassel to be a one-year bridge and then back up Bridgewater in 2015.
Unlike former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, Turner can be counted on to not only groom a young quarterback, but also produce a creative and diverse offense. He’s proven over decades that he gets the most out of quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends while still being able to satisfy Hall of Fame-caliber running backs. And, of course, Adrian Peterson will remain the focal point of the Vikings’ play-action, run-first attack.
Musgrave’s approach was simple, predictable and puzzling in that it failed to incorporate obvious superstar-in-waiting receiver Cordarrelle Patterson until the team’s season had already collapsed. Patterson, an All-Pro kick returner as a rookie last year, will excel in Turner’s offense even though it’s more complex and he’s still a bit raw as a route-runner.
Up front, the offensive line underachieved last season and needs to live up to the level one would expect of a unit that’s still young and enters its third season intact. Left tackle Matt Kalil, a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012, had too many lapses in his second season. Left guard Charlie Johnson struggled and may be challenged by younger players.
Peterson is 29 and has had knee, hernia and groin surgeries the past three years. But he looks ready to surpass his 1,266-yard effort from 2013. Peterson will get some help from rookie Jerick McKinnon, the kind of third-down, change-of-pace back Turner likes.
The Vikings have played a Cover-2 base defense since 2006. Zimmer, meanwhile, has displayed admirable versatility throughout his career. He’s a 4-3 guy who has posted top-10 defenses using his own 4-3 scheme and a 3-4 alignment he learned working for Bill Parcells.
The selection of UCLA’s Anthony Barr ninth overall fills a huge need at strong-side linebacker and will be a key ingredient as Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards transform the Vikings into a more unpredictable unit capable of easily mixing fronts, coverages and blitz packages. Barr, who has played linebacker for only two years, is raw, but his 6'5", 255-pound frame comes with unusual length, speed and cornerback-caliber agility. He’s a natural rusher from the up or down positions and has the skills to cover the seam downfield, which has been a weakness for the Vikings.
Up front, the Vikings said goodbye to Jared Allen and Kevin Williams and hello to a dramatic youth movement. Everson Griffen, 26, steps in for Allen after four years as an heir apparent. He possesses a freakish combination of speed, size, position flexibility and potential. Meanwhile, Sharrif Floyd, who had a nondescript rookie season, takes over for Williams and will be given a chance to live up to being a 23rd overall pick. Linval Joseph, 25, moves in at nose tackle, giving the Vikings their first legitimately sized nose since Pat Williams in 2010.
In the secondary, Spielman is finally starting to assemble a solid unit after the team experienced some bad misses in the draft. Free safety Harrison Smith, a first-round pick in 2012, is instinctive, fast, physical and will be an All-Pro one day if he stays healthy. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, is a potential Pro Bowler who needs to prove he can be durable.
Meanwhile, the other starting corner is Captain Munnerlyn, a prized free-agent signing and a huge upgrade over Chris Cook, who was a four-year disappointment on and off the field. Munnerlyn also can slide inside over the slot in the nickel, something Josh Robinson failed at last year when asked prematurely to fill that role after Antoine Winfield was cut in a salary cap move. Finding a suitable third corner on the current roster will test Zimmer’s reputation as “the fixer.”
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was one of Frazier’s three assistants retained by Zimmer. That’s because the Vikings are as good if not better top to bottom than any other team when it comes to special teams. Patterson, the kick returner, turned a ridiculous combination of size and speed into an NFL-leading 32.4-yard average and a league-record 109-yard return. Meanwhile, at punt returner, Marcus Sherels staved off being released and averaged a franchise-record 15.2 yards per return, good enough for second in the league.
Kicker Blair Walsh, an All-Pro as a rookie when he made a record 10-of-10 field goals of 50 yards or longer, struggled from long range last year (2-of-5), but he will be fine. Punter Jeff Locke was typically inconsistent as a rookie last year but should improve.
If turnovers aren’t an issue at quarterback, there’s enough firepower in Turner’s creative hands to maintain a balanced, run-oriented attack that highlights Peterson, camouflages Cassel and taps the potential of Patterson. Defensively, there’s more of a leap of faith required. How quickly can a unit that’s been overhauled with youth get up to speed in Zimmer’s system? The schedule-maker doesn’t give them much time with an opener on the road at St. Louis followed by games against Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, the latter on the road on a Thursday night. An 8–8 finish might be a nice place to start.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC North
(Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings' Web site, www.vikings.com)
Phase 1 for the regime of general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley in Jacksonville was about survival, attempting to cobble together a roster last year that would avoid being totally outclassed. And the Jaguars did stay upright — barely, winning four games in the season’s second half. And now there is Phase 2, which is about being competitive in general and against the NFL’s best teams in particular.
The Jaguars went 0–7 last year against teams that made the playoffs, losing each game by at least 16 points. In 2014, the team wants to cut that margin and maybe even win some of those contests to confirm that it’s on the right path. To that end, Caldwell was active in free agency, adding eight players while also waving goodbye to veterans like running back Maurice Jones-Drew, right guard Uche Nwaneri and the retired Brad Meester and Russell Allen.
The Jaguars’ message to quarterback Blake Bortles once they drafted him third overall in May: Hurry up and wait. The Jaguars produced the draft’s first “Wow!” moment when they a) stayed at No. 3 instead of trading down and b) chose Bortles instead of higher-ranked names like Sammy Watkins and Khalil Mack. Bortles is the future, but Chad Henne is the present. Henne is well versed in the offense, respected in the locker room and huddle and stands tall in the pocket. But he’s also a player who is 18–32 as a starter in his career and has 55 touchdowns and 62 interceptions. Henne will keep the seat warm until Bortles is deemed ready to play (maybe at midseason, maybe after the Week 11 bye, maybe 2015). What should help Henne is a free-agent and draft season that re-tooled the offense. The Jaguars ranked last in points and second-to-last in yards, and upgrades were necessary. The end result is new faces, fresher legs and more speed.
After eight years and one league rushing championship, Jones-Drew was allowed to walk in free agency to Oakland. He will be replaced by Toby Gerhart, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry in four years as Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota. The Jaguars were intrigued by Gerhart’s lack of wear and tear, his ability to get yards after contact and experience as a receiver out of the backfield. A hip flexor injury kept him out of the first preseason game, but that was probably more for precautionary reasons than anything.
The Jaguars then took advantage of a deep receiver class in the draft. USC’s Marqise Lee fell to them at No. 39, and then they traded up to No. 60 late in the second round to take Penn State’s Allen Robinson. Both bring what the Jaguars have lacked in the passing game — a willingness to go over the middle for the tough catch and a knack for getting to the end zone. The Jaguars hope that their presence will open up the seam routes for tight end Marcedes Lewis and that the coverage downfield will shade away from Cecil Shorts. Getting Lewis back for a full year after he was slowed by a calf strain last September/October gives the Jaguars a fine blocker (they averaged 0.6 more yards per carry when he was on the field) and a red-zone target (touchdowns in four straight games last year).
But the Jaguars’ most expensive signing was designed to improve an offensive line that has been plagued by performance and durability issues in recent years. Zane Beadles arrived from Denver on a five-year, $30 million contract to play left guard and serve as a leader. Luke Joeckel, coming off a broken leg, has moved from right tackle to left tackle. Brandon Linder, whom the Jaguars traded up in the third round to draft, is the likely new right guard. Mike Brewster will enter camp as the favorite to start at center, and Austin Pasztor, a former guard who impressed last year, will start at right tackle. The goals of this group are to stay healthy, run-block better and prevent a third straight year of 50 sacks by its opponents.
The Jaguars basically have to do everything better on defense. In addition to increasing their sack total, they have to stop the run better (29th last year), produce more takeaways (only 21) and be more effective on third down (27th).
Call the Jags’ defense “Seattle South,” both in the personnel and the scheme. Red Bryant was signed to be an early-down run-stopper at defensive end, and Chris Clemons was added to improve a pass rush that was last in 2012 and tied for last in 2013. Both played for Bradley and defensive line coach Todd Wash in Seattle. The scheme: Use big bodies at three of the defensive line spots and replace them with speedy pass-rushers on third down.
Bradley often says a team can’t have enough pass-rushers, and that is reflected in the Jaguars’ acquisitions. Clemons and draft pick Chris Smith join holdovers Jason Babin and Andre Branch. Ideally, Bradley wants to have four “Leo” (open-side end) players active on Sundays.
At linebacker, the Jaguars hope they’ve added an ascending player in Dekoda Watson, who had only six career starts in four years with Tampa Bay but signed with the Jaguars hours after the free-agent market opened. They believe he can add a dimension against tight ends, a season-long bugaboo in 2013, and also fit into the pass-rushing defensive end rotation. He joins middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, a tackling machine who is the defense’s heart and soul, and Geno Hayes, who is coming off knee surgery.
If the Jaguars are better stopping the run and more effective with a four-man pass rush, that could mean good things for a secondary that started three rookies at various points last year. Veteran Alan Ball returns at one corner and is paired with second-year pro Dwayne Gratz, who has a nose for the football but was sidetracked by two high-ankle sprains last year. At strong safety, former second-round pick Johnathan Cyprien came on during the season’s second half. At free safety, Winston Guy (another Seattle alum) and Josh Evans will compete in camp. Guy and Evans are hard hitters but need to become surer tacklers.
The Jaguars were top 10 in covering kicks and punts and returning kicks, but last in punt returns. Ace Sanders was drafted as a receiver/punt returner but never got untracked on special teams. The second-year player from South Carolina also announced prior to the start of training camp that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team after he was notified he would be suspended the first four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. A candidate to replace Sanders is Tandon Doss, signed as a free agent from Baltimore. The Jaguars’ kicker-punter-long-snapper team of Josh Scobee-Bryan Anger-Carson Tinker returns intact. Scobee still gets good distance on his kickoffs and is adept at the directional kick, and Anger’s consistent hang time allows his teammates to get down the field.
Is it OK to say “Wait until next year” before the current year has even started? In the Jaguars’ case, probably. The goal this year should be to play better against the league’s elite teams, decide which players should make up the core moving forward and get Bortles late-season experience so that he’s ready to start in 2015.
PREDICTION: 4th in AFC South
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 11:
• We missed Anna Kendrick's 29th birthday last week. We'll try to make amends with this slideshow.
• A little something to whet your college football appetite: The 113 best GameDay signs of all time.
• Yasiel Puig snapped his bat on a checked swing without hitting the baseball. Yasiel Puig is not human.
• If you didn't enjoy the PGA Championship because Tiger wasn't in it, you should quit watching golf. But it is okay to be a little weirded out by that ending.
• Rory didn't just win — he saved the Wanamaker Trophy from some clumsy PGA official.
• Jay Bruce robbed Giancarlo Stanton of a homer.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Jack Nicklaus once said of Tiger Woods that he "could win as many Masters as Arnold (Palmer) and me combined." That's 10 green jackets, if you're counting.
Earlier, this week, the Golden Bear made similar comments about the heir to Tiger's throne atop the world of golf. "I think Rory (McIlroy) is an unbelievable talent," Nicklaus said. "I love his swing, I love his rhythm, I love his moxie. He's got a little swagger there, it's a little bit cocky but not offensive. I like that. I like the self-confidence in a young man. He's got an unbelievable amount of speed in his golf swing, he obviously hits the ball a heck of a long way. And he hits in there consistently and how he controls it. I think Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do if he wants to keep playing."
After a thrilling PGA Championship win in the gathering gloom at Valhalla Golf Club, McIlroy is well on his way to making a prophet out of the course's architect. After earning his fourth major championship at age 25, McIlroy has earned his comparisons to a young Tiger and a young Nicklaus — the only two men of the modern era to win major No. 4 at a younger age.
Like Woods, McIlroy has now won majors in every conceivable way — comfortably (two eight-shot wins) and in grind-it-out fashion (yesterday's nerve-rattling march to the Wanamaker Trophy). He's also won a major in a way Tiger never has — by making a final-round charge from behind. Rory made the turn on Sunday facing a three-shot deficit, with the players in front of him (specifically Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson) eliciting pine-rattling roars from the record galleries. But on 10, needing a jump-start, McIlroy pulled a Tiger-esque rabbit out of his Nike cap, drilling a 3-wood laser within 10 feet on the difficult par 5 and calmly draining the eagle putt. From there, it was a (literal) sprint to the finish for McIlroy, who posted a back-9 32 and a 16-under par finish.
With the Woods era seems to be truly on the wane, it's time to anoint a new king. Science tells us that nature hates a vacuum, and with four major championship wins at age 25, McIlroy is more than ready to fill the void that Tiger has left at the game's apex. And more than that, Rory looks likes he could be the kind of historic force in the game that Woods was. His win delivered the kind of ratings bonanza once reserved for Tiger in his prime. In fact, the 2014 PGA earned the tournament's best ratings since Woods' loss to Y.E. Yang in 2009 — in retrospect, possibly Tiger's last gasp in major championship golf.
McIlroy wisely continues to dismiss all the talk about chasing down the major totals of Woods (14) and Nicklaus (18). He’s just enjoying the moment.
“I'm on a nice track at the minute and I'm on a nice path,” he said. “I've still got a long way to go, but to be in their company at this age is very special.”
Rory's reluctant to make the comparison, but we're not. Here's a look at Tiger and Rory at similar points — Tiger through the 2000 PGA Championship, which he also won at Valhalla in a spirited duel with Bob May, and Rory following yesterday's win for the ages. Clearly, Tiger's breathtaking run at the dawn of the 21st Century will be impossible for anyone to replicate, but Rory's on his way to a legendary career of his own.
Rory McIlroy-Tiger Woods Career Comparison (Through Their PGA Championship Wins at Valhalla)
|Tiger Woods||Rory McIlroy|
|Tournaments won (worldwide)||24||15|
|Cumulative winning margin in majors||37 strokes||19 strokes|
|Major top 5s||8||7|
|Major top 10s||11||10|
|Total weeks at No. 1 in the World||121||41|
|Largest winning margin in major||15 strokes||8 strokes (twice)|
|Lowest scoring avg. for a season||67.79 (2000)||68.87 (2012)|
Marshall could be set for a special year in 2014, as the Thundering Herd has a favorable path to an undefeated record in the regular season.
And in college football’s new playoff format, a 12-0 regular season mark, combined with a C-USA Championship in early December, and Marshall could be the top team from the Group of 5 leagues to play in one of the premier bowl games.
Marshall unveiled new green jerseys for 2014 on Sunday, which features a new gradient number and black stripes on the sleeves.
Check out the Thundering Herd’s new green uniform for 2014:
Well, finally we get to show these things off. Our new Kelly Green uniforms for the 2014 season. Hope you enjoy! pic.twitter.com/m8FInxSqya— Marshall Equipment (@HerdEquipment) August 10, 2014
The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability and volatility.
Roster turnover is largely responsible for the tremendous amount of variability from year to year within the sport. Key graduations, early entries into the NFL Draft, dismissals and a massive influx of tomorrow's stars in the form of bright-eyed freshmen create more personnel turnover in college football than any other major sport in the country.
It's these (relatively) unknown commodities that offer fans a renewed hope of future success. Who are the top freshmen to watch in the SEC this fall?
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The conversation about 2014's top freshmen not only in the SEC but in the nation begins with the No. 1 prospect in the class. From a power and speed standpoint, Fournette might be the closest thing college football has seen Adrian Peterson began his career at Oklahoma over a decade ago. He is a 6-foot-1, 230-pound sure thing and is likely a front-runner for national freshman of the year.
Cam Robinson, OL, Alabama
The mammoth 6-foot-6 freshman from West Monroe (La.) High School was the No. 1 offensive line prospect in the nation. He enrolled early and has already been working with the first team offense for most of the summer. How many national title contenders will have a true freshman anchoring the left tackle position?
Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
The No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation is a tall, pocket passer from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Desert Mountain. The 6-foot-3 signal-caller is a student of the game and is battling Kenny Hill for full-time starting duties in College Station. Many believe Allen is the future and will eventually wrestle the starting job away from Hill permanently.
Ricky Seals-Jones | Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M
Seals-Jones was a five-star top 25 prospect in the 2013 class. He redshirted last year after catching three passes in two games early in the year. His massive frame is a mismatch nightmare for most SEC defenses. Packaged with the smaller, more explosive and versatile Noil, this duo could easily develop into one of the SEC's best.
Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
The Nashville product is every bit of 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds and he stands out on Tennessee's practice field. He's dealt with some health issues during his outstanding prep career, but if he can stay on the field, his rare combination of size and speed makes him an instant impact player for Butch Jones — both as a runner and pass-catcher.
Jalen Tabor | Duke Dawson, DB, Florida
Both enrolled early in January and both will compete for the starting spot opposite All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. The loser of that battle will likely be the top nickelback — a position that is almost a starter in the modern SEC. Tabor is slightly more talented and fits better as a corner, while the more physical Dawson has the ability to make plays around the line of scrimmage. Florida is the LSU of the East in terms of producing defensive backs.
Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky
The massive 6-foot-7, 350-pounder (depending on the time of day) is already entrenched as a starter for Mark Stoops' defensive line. The head coach can barely hide his excitement about injecting this talented in-state product into the heart of his developing defensive front. Elam will go through growing pains but has the astounding quickness and agility that NFL scouts drool over when it comes to guys his size.
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
In just a few trips to the practice field, Adams already has Les Miles raving about his overall ability. The big-time defensive back prospect is already working with the starting defensive unit for coordinator John Chavis and is set to become the next in a ridiculously impressive run of elite secondary players for LSU.
Tre Williams, LB, Auburn
He may not start the season in the starting lineup but fans can expect to see plenty of Williams this fall. Behind an impressive work ethic and willingness to learn, Williams has placed himself in the running to steal a starting spot in his first fall camp. 'Headhunter' is the word starter Cassanova McKinzy used to describe Williams.
Brandon Harris, QB, LSU
He is battling with Anthony Jennings but the 6-foot-2, 195-pound dual-threat signal-caller brings a new dimension to LSU's offense. He may not win the starting job right away but all signs are pointing to this dynamic freshman as the future for Cam Cameron and Les Miles in Baton Rouge.
Myles Garrett | Justin Manning, DL, Texas A&M
The only player rated ahead of Garrett in the national recruiting rankings was Fournette. The freakish 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is set to carve out a critical role for a defensive line in desperate need of development. Garrett and former four-star redshirt freshman Justin Manning are two names who should establish themselves as future All-SEC types in 2014.
Tony Brown | Marlon Humphrey, DB, Alabama
One of the few weaknesses for Alabama is at cornerback where graduation and the NFL Draft have finally caught up with Nick Saban. Brown (6-fooot, 190) enrolled early and will be fighting for one of two open corner sports all camp long. He was the top defensive back signee in the SEC and was considered the No. 9 overall prospect in the nation. Humphrey is no less talented and he brings an equally impressive 6-foot-1 frame to a secondary in need of quick help (relatively speaking).
Oren Burks, S, Vanderbilt
The redshirt freshman moved from linebacker to safety when new coach Derek Mason took over. Mason wants his size (6-2, 215) at the back end of his defense. He has a chance to be one of the most imposing playmakers in a totally rebuilt secondary.
Malkom Parrish, DB, Georgia
Both players can play multiple positions and both have seen time at various spots. Parrish has excelled backing up J.J. Green at the Star position and has pressed for starting time at corner. Additionally, Aaron Davis, a redshirt freshman and starting corner in spring practice, is now playing at safety due to Parrish's emergence. Both could start this fall in coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's reworked secondary.
Wesley Green, CB, South Carolina
Few teams took a bigger hit at one position like the Gamecocks did at cornerback. Which is why Steve Spurrier signed five defensive backs in this class. Green and fellow freshman Chris Lammons will get every opportunity to land starting roles in Lorenzo Ward's secondary.
Best of the rest:
Bijhon Jackson, DT, Arkansas
Rod Taylor, OL, Ole Miss
Malachi Dupree, WR, LSU
Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee
Braden Smith, OL, Auburn
Dillon Bates, LB, Tennessee
J'Mon Moore, WR, Missouri
Peyton Barber, RB, Auburn
Nigel Bowden, LB, Vanderbilt
Nifae Lealao, DT, Vanderbilt
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Lorenzo Carter, LB, Georgia
Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State
Special Teamers to Watch:
Daniel Carlson, K, Auburn
JK Scott, P, Alabama
Cole Hedlund, K, Arkansas
Gary Wunderlich, P, Ole Miss
Free agency isn’t an option in college football, but player movement is still a big part of every offseason. The transaction wire was busy over the last year with several players changing homes for the 2014 campaign.
Several quarterbacks changed addresses for 2014, including graduate transfers Michael Brewer (Virginia Tech), Jacob Coker (Alabama), Jake Heaps (Miami), Matt Joeckel (TCU) and Stephen Rivers (Vanderbilt).
In addition to the graduate transfers, the quarterback position has a handful of names that sat out 2013 as a result of NCAA transfer rules. NC State’s Jacoby Brissett and Illinois’ Wes Lunt are two transfers expected to make a huge impact in 2014.
Key transfers weren’t just limited to quarterbacks, as running back Rushel Shell left Pittsburgh for West Virginia, receiver Jordan Leslie left UTEP for BYU, while defensive tackle Delvon Simmons transferred from Texas Tech to USC.
Which players might make an impact as a transfer in 2014? Let’s take a look:
Power 5 Conference Transfers at Quarterback
Conner Brewer, Arizona (from Texas)
Arizona opened fall practice with a wide-open battle for the starting job. Brewer redshirted in his only season at Texas and is battling Jesse Scroggins, Jerrard Randall and Anu Solomon for time.
Michael Brewer, Virginia Tech (from Texas Tech)
Virginia Tech’s offense is searching for a spark after averaging only 22.5 points per game last season. Logan Thomas expired his eligibility as the No. 1 quarterback in Blacksburg, leaving Brewer, Brenden Motley and Mark Leal competing for the starting job. In two seasons at Texas Tech, Brewer completed 41 of 58 passes for 440 yards and five touchdowns.
Jacoby Brissett, NC State (from Florida)
NC State’s offense struggled to find consistency from its quarterback position in 2013. But the Wolfpack should show significant improvement on offense behind Brissett in 2014. In two seasons with Florida, Brissett completed 41 of 74 passes for 455 yards and three scores. NC State quarterbacks combined to throw only 11 touchdowns last year, but Brissett will easily surpass that mark in 2014.
Jacob Coker, Alabama (from Florida State)
With Jameis Winston entrenched as Florida State’s No. 1 quarterback, Coker left Tallahassee for a chance to start for Nick Saban. The Alabama native played sparingly in two years with the Seminoles, completing 18 of 36 passes for 250 yards and one interception in 2013. Coker has the size and arm strength coaches want in a prototypical quarterback. With a strong supporting cast, he won’t be asked to win many games for the Crimson Tide, but Coker’s performances in key SEC contests could decide whether or not Alabama returns to Atlanta in early December.
Jake Heaps, Miami (from Kansas)
Heaps ranked as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in the 2010 signing class and spent his first two years with BYU. Heaps threw 24 touchdown passes with the Cougars but transferred to Kansas after losing the starting job to Riley Nelson. In one year with the Jayhawks, the Washington native completed only 49 percent of his throws and tossed 10 picks. With Ryan Williams suffering a torn ACL in spring practice, and the suspension of Kevin Olsen, Heaps is slated to start the opener against Louisville.
Matt Joeckel, TCU (from Texas A&M)
In an effort to find a spark on offense, the Horned Frogs are changing offensive schemes to an up-tempo, spread attack in 2014. Trevone Boykin and Joeckel will battle to win the starting job, with Joeckel likely holding a slight edge due to his experience at Texas A&M in a similar offense. Joeckel completed 27 of 48 passes for 335 yards and two scores from 2012-13 with the Aggies. If Joeckel wins the quarterback battle, Boykin is expected to move to receiver.
Wes Lunt, Illinois (from Oklahoma State)
Tim Beckman’s hire of Bill Cubit as the team’s play-caller paid big dividends for the Illinois’ offense in 2013. The Fighting Illini averaged 29.7 points per game last year and could take that number even higher in 2014. Lunt – a former four-star recruit – is eligible after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. In 2012 at Oklahoma State, Lunt threw for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns. With a struggling defense, expect Lunt and the Fighting Illini offense to be involved in plenty of shootouts in 2014.
Tyler Murphy, Boston College (from Florida)
Murphy played sparingly prior to last season, but an injury to Jeff Driskel pressed the Connecticut native into his first extensive action with the Gators. Murphy started six games and finished 2013 with 1,216 yards and six passing scores, while rushing for 61 yards. The Eagles are expected to shift to a spread attack in 2014, which fits Murphy’s skill-set better than the offense did at Florida in 2013. Murphy should take the opening snap for Boston College this year.
Stephen Rivers, Vanderbilt (from LSU)
First-year coach Derek Mason heads into 2014 hoping to improve an offense that managed only seven passing scores in SEC games last year. Mason and coordinator Karl Dorrell have options at quarterback, including Patton Robinette, Rivers and promising redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Rivers spent three years at LSU and misfired on both passes he attempted in limited action. The Alabama native lacks mobility, but has intriguing size (6’7”) and is the brother of NFL star Philip Rivers.
Kendal Thompson, Utah (from Oklahoma)
Thompson transferred to Utah after three years at Oklahoma. After redshirting in his first season, Thompson did not play in 2012 and only attempted 13 passes with the Sooners in 2013. If healthy, Travis Wilson is Utah’s starter, but Thompson adds more depth to a position that has been hit hard by injuries in recent years.
Group of 5 Transfers to Watch at QB
Rob Bolden, Eastern Michigan (from LSU)
Bolden was regarded as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2010 signing class. Fast forward to 2014 and Bolden is on his third school and vying for a chance to start at Eastern Michigan. Prior to his stop in Ypsilanti, Bolden was at Penn State for two years and had a two-season stint at LSU. Bolden threw seven touchdowns and 14 picks from 2010-11 at Penn State.
Brandon Connette, Fresno State (from Duke)
Derek Carr will be missed, but Fresno State is still in good shape at quarterback. Connette transferred from Duke after spring practice and is competing with Brian Burrell for the starting job this fall. Connette scored 27 total touchdowns for the Blue Devils in 2013.
Phillip Ely, Toledo (from Alabama)
Alabama transfer is part of a three-way battle to replace Terrance Owens. Ely was a three-star recruit by Rivals in the 2011 signing class and played in six games with Alabama in 2012.
Blake Frohnapfel, UMass (from Marshall)
With Rakeem Cato entrenched at Marshall, Frohnapfel transferred to UMass with an opportunity to start in 2014. Frohnapfel threw for 206 yards and three scores in limited snaps with the Thundering Herd in 2013.
Andrew Hendrix, Miami (Ohio) (from Notre Dame)
New coach Chuck Martin’s rebuilding effort at Miami (Ohio) will have some help from a couple of Notre Dame transfers, including Hendrix at quarterback in 2014. The former four-star recruit completed 25 of 58 passes for 360 yards and one score in three years with the Fighting Irish.
Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati (from Notre Dame)
The Bearcats led the American Athletic Conference by averaging 6.3 yards per play in league games last year. Quarterback Brendon Kay has expired his eligibility, but Cincinnati’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat with Kiel at the controls. The Indiana native ranked as the No. 27 overall recruit in the 2012 signing class by 247Sports Composite and redshirted in his debut with the Fighting Irish. Kiel has yet to take a snap on the college level, but he’s a promising option for a Cincinnati team expected to contend for the American Athletic Conference title.
Nick Patti, UCF (from Boise State)
Patti is battling Justin Holman and Pete DiNovo to replace Blake Bortles. The Florida native is eligible immediately after transferring from Boise State.
Cody Sokol, Louisiana Tech (from Iowa)
Sokol transfers to Ruston after two years at Iowa. The former Scottsdale Community College quarterback did not record any statistics with the Hawkeyes and is competing with Ryan Higgins for the starting job.
Pete Thomas, ULM (from NC State)
Thomas is on his third stop in his collegiate career, transferring to ULM after a stint at NC State. The California native played from 2010-11 at Colorado State and tossed four touchdowns to nine interceptions with the Wolfpack in 2013. Thomas is competing with Brayle Brown for the starting job.
Other Key Transfers
RB Dee Hart, Colorado State (Alabama)
Former five-star recruit transferred to Colorado State after three years at Alabama. Hart is reunited with former coordinator Jim McElwain and could push for the starting job with the departure of Kapri Bibbs.
RB Thomas Rawls, Central Michigan (from Michigan)
Rawls moves two hours north from Ann Arbor to Mount Pleasant and joins the Chippewas after rushing for 333 yards in three years with the Wolverines.
RB Rushel Shell, West Virginia (from Pittsburgh)
Shell ranked as a five-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite in 2012 and played in 12 games as a freshman for Pittsburgh, recording 641 yards and four touchdowns on 141 attempts. Shell is competing for time in a crowded backfield, but he could be an All-Big 12 player if he gets enough opportunities in 2014.
RB Braylon Heard, Kentucky (from Nebraska)
Heard was a four-star recruit for Nebraska in the 2010 signing class, and the Ohio native rushed for 462 yards and four scores from 2011-12. Heard averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2012 and will team with Jojo Kemp to form a much improved Kentucky rushing attack in 2014.
WR Nick Harwell, Kansas (from Miami, Ohio)
The Jayhawks have struggled to find playmakers at receiver in recent years, but the addition of Harwell and Nigel King should help. Harwell caught 229 passes in three years with Miami (Ohio) and posted a 1,000-yard season in 2011.
WR Cayleb Jones, Arizona (from Texas)
Arizona’s receiving corps could be one of the deepest in the nation in 2014. Jones – a Texas transfer – played in 10 games as a freshman in 2012 with the Longhorns and caught one pass. Jones was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class.
WR Nigel King, Kansas (from Maryland)
King was a late addition to Kansas’ roster this summer after catching 33 passes for 450 yards and four scores with Maryland in 2013. The North Carolina native adds talent to a position that has struggled for the Jayhawks in recent years.
WR Jordan Leslie, BYU (from UTEP)
Leslie should be a key piece of BYU’s passing attack in 2014. In three seasons at UTEP, the Texas native caught 125 passes and averaged 19.1 yards per catch in 2012. With Cody Hoffman departing, the Cougars need a new No. 1 target in 2014.
WR Davonte Neal, Arizona (from Notre Dame)
Neal is a name to remember this year, as the former Notre Dame receiver could play in an all-purpose role for the Wildcats. The Arizona native caught one pass for the Fighting Irish in 2012 but the sophomore has game-changing ability and should be a key piece in the offense in 2014.
WR Shakim Phillips, Boston College (from UConn)
The Eagles’ receiving corps is thin on proven options heading into 2014, but the return of Phillips should give Boston College a go-to target for quarterback Tyler Murphy. Phillips started his career with the Eagles but transferred to UConn for the 2012-13 seasons. The New Jersey native caught 28 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns in 2013.
WR Marvin Shinn, South Alabama (from Alabama)
Shinn was a four-star recruit for Alabama in the 2011 signing class and played in 14 games in 2012 for the Crimson Tide. Shinn should be a key weapon for new quarterback Brandon Bridge.
WR Miles Shuler, Northwestern (from Rutgers)
Shuler is a key pickup for a Northwestern team hoping to rebound after a 5-7 mark in 2013. The New Jersey native caught five passes in two years with Rutgers from 2011-12 and adds another speed threat to the Wildcats’ receiving corps.
WR LeKendrick Williams, Fresno State (from Texas A&M)
Williams caught seven passes in three years at Texas A&M, but he should easily surpass that mark in 2014 with Fresno State. The Texas native will help replace some of the production left by Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse.
TE Jake McGee, Florida (from Virginia)
McGee is a significant pickup for a Florida offense that desperately needs playmakers in the receiving corps. The Virginia native caught 71 passes and seven touchdowns in three seasons with the Cavaliers. McGee should be a good fit in Gainesville under new coordinator Kurt Roper.
TE Alex Welch, Miami (Ohio) (from Notre Dame)
Welch caught only one pass during his time at Notre Dame, but the Ohio native is slated to start for the RedHawks in 2014.
OL Malcolm Bunche, UCLA (from Miami)
Bunche played in 31 games in three seasons with the Hurricanes, including 12 starts at left tackle in 2012. He could play at guard or tackle for the Bruins in 2014.
OL Cameron Jefferson, Arkansas (from UNLV)
Jefferson transferred to Arkansas after UNLV’s bowl ban (later rescinded) was announced. The Las Vegas native started all 13 games for the Rebels in 2012 and earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors in 2013.
OL Alex Lewis, Nebraska (from Colorado)
Lewis is expected to start at left tackle for Cornhuskers in 2014 after starting 12 games at Colorado in 2012.
OL Chad Lindsay, Ohio State (from Alabama)
Lindsay is a graduate transfer from Alabama and joins the Buckeyes after starting four games with the Crimson Tide in 2013. He could push for a starting spot on the interior this year.
OL Ian Silberman, Boston College (from Florida)
Silberman is a graduate transfer from Florida and is slated to start at right tackle for Boston College in 2014. In three years with the Gators, Silberman appeared in 20 games and made four starts in 2013.
OL Christian Westerman, Arizona State (from Auburn)
Westerman ranked as a five-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite for the 2011 signing class, and he transferred to Arizona State after two years with Auburn. The Arizona native played in the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech, but this will be his first extended opportunity at playing time since high school. Westerman is expected to start at left guard, allowing Jamil Douglas to play at left tackle in 2014.
DL Jordan Allen, Arizona (from LSU)
Allen is another key transfer pickup for coach Rich Rodriguez. In three years at LSU, Allen played in 17 contests and recorded two sacks. He will push for playing time on a line that is considered the weak spot on Arizona’s defense.
DL Houston Bates, Louisiana Tech (from Illinois)
Bates’ departure was a significant blow for Illinois’ defense and a huge gain for Skip Holtz and Louisiana Tech. The Louisiana native was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2013 and finished his Fighting Illini career with 81 tackles (14 for a loss) and three forced fumbles. Bates should push for All-Conference USA honors in 2014.
DL Fadol Brown, Ole Miss (from FIU)
Brown is a promising sophomore for Ole Miss’ defense, as he transferred from FIU after just one season (eight tackles, 1.5 sacks). The South Carolina native adds depth to a line that could be one of the best in the SEC this year.
DL Jalen Grimble, Oregon State (from Miami)
Oregon State’s defensive line is under construction with only one returning starter (Dylan Wynn). Grimble was a four-star prospect by Rivals in the 2011 signing class and played in 15 games in his first two years at Miami. Grimble is slated to play significant snaps at defensive tackle in 2014.
DL Se’Von Pittman, Akron (from Ohio State)
Pittman was a top-100 recruit in the 2012 signing class and redshirted in his first season at Ohio State.
DL Shaquille Riddick, West Virginia (from Gardner-Webb)
Riddick is one of the most intriguing transfers for 2014. The Ohio native is eligible immediately after transferring from Gardner-Webb, where the 6-foot-6 defensive end earned FCS All-America honors in 2013. Riddick recorded 10.5 sacks from 2012-13 and is slated to push for a starting spot with the Mountaineers.
DL Josh Shirley, UNLV (from Washington)
Shirley is a late summer pickup for UNLV. The California native earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2013 and recorded 18 sacks at Washington from 2011-13.
DT Delvon Simmons, USC (from Texas Tech)
Simmons spent two years at Texas Tech, recording 27 tackles and two sacks in 2012. He is expected to play a key role in USC’s defensive line this year.
DL Gavin Stansbury, Houston (from Texas A&M)
Stansbury was expected to be a key piece of Texas A&M’s defensive line rotation, but he transferred to Houston this summer. Stansbury recorded 47 tackles and three sacks with the Aggies last year.
LB A.J. Hilliard, Texas A&M (from TCU)
Hilliard played in 11 games as a true freshman with TCU in 2012. He is expected to push for snaps in Texas A&M’s linebacking corps this season.
LB Gionni Paul, Utah (from Miami)
Paul transferred after two years at Miami and was expected to be a key piece of Utah’s linebacking corps in 2014 until a foot injury sidelined him in the spring. Paul recorded 61 stops for the Hurricanes in 2012.
DB Ty-Meer Brown, Boston College (from UConn)
Brown was a three-year starter for UConn, recording at least 45 tackles in every season from 2011-13. The Pennsylvania native missed the final five games of 2013 due to a neck injury and transferred as a graduate student to Boston College. Brown is expected to be a significant contributor for Eagles’ secondary in 2014.
S Harvey Jackson, BYU (from Nebraska)
BYU’s secondary got a late-spring boost with the addition of Jackson from Nebraska. The Texas native played in 35 games in three years with the Cornhuskers and recorded 54 tackles.
DB Lo Wood, Miami (Ohio) (from Notre Dame)
Wood is one of three Notre Dame players following new coach Chuck Martin from South Bend to the MAC. Wood played in 32 career games with the Fighting Irish and recorded 20 tackles.
CB Cody Riggs, Notre Dame (from Florida)
The Fighting Irish could have one of the nation’s top cornerback duos in 2014, as KeiVarae Russell is a standout junior on one side, and he will be joined by Florida transfer Cody Riggs. In three years with the Gators, Riggs recorded one interception, 107 tackles and one forced fumble.
Other Players Transferring in 2014
QB Luke Del Rio, Oregon State (from Alabama)
QB Matt Floyd, South Alabama (from USF)
QB Anthony Maddie, Northern Illinois (from Western Michigan)
QB T.J. Millweard, Kansas (from UCLA)
QB David Olson, Clemson (from Stanford)
QB Brent Stockstill, MTSU (from Cincinnati)
QB Mike Wegzyn, Tennessee (from UMass)
RB Justus Pickett, Tennessee (from Maryland)
RB Lucky Radley, San Diego State (from Utah)
RB Anthon Samuel, FIU (from Bowling Green)
RB Adonis Smith, Arizona (from UNLV)
WR Rodney Adams, USF (from Toledo)
WR Aaron Bradley, Ohio (from Nevada)
WR Trevor Davis, California (from Hawaii)
WR Gehrig Dieter, Bowling Green (from SMU)
WR Chandler Dorrell, Vanderbilt (from Stanford)
WR Eric Dungy, USF (from Oregon)
WR Nick England, Old Dominion (from FIU)
WR Kenny Golladay, Northern Illinois (from North Dakota)
WR Jeff Greene, Ohio State (from Georgia Tech)
WR Donovan Harden, Georgia State (from Illinois State)
WR Charlie Hegedus, Georgia (from NC State)
WR Alex Kenney, UMass (from Penn State)
WR D’Vario Montgomery, Iowa State (from USF)
WR Keanu Nelson, BYU (from Stanford)
WR Cam Oliver, Houston (from ULM)
WR Quinton Pedroza, Hawaii (from Utah)
WR E.J. Scott, Wake Forest (from Virginia)
WR Paul Turner, Louisiana Tech (from LSU)
WR Andrew Turzilli, Rutgers (from Kansas)
WR Jackie Williams, UCF (from UAB)
WR Cameron Wilson, Ohio (from Iowa)
TE Darien Bryant, West Virginia (from Vanderbilt)
TE Michael Cooper, Indiana (from Arizona)
TE Davis Dudchock, Vanderbilt (from Stanford)
TE Iona Pritchard, Oregon State (from BYU)
TE Evan Tatford, UL Lafayette (from Tulane)
TE Jacob Wark, Oregon State (from California)
OL James Bodanis, Michigan State (from Toronto)
OL Shane Callahan, Colorado (from Arizona)
OL Travis Cross, Houston (from Oklahoma State)
OL Ben Dew, Houston (from Hawaii)
OL Ethan Hutson, Troy (from Ole Miss)
OL Blake Muir, Baylor (from Hawaii)
DT Richard Ash, Western Michigan (from Michigan)
DL Jacoby Briscoe, UL Lafayette (from Miami)
DL Bruce Heggie, Ball State (from Notre Dame)
DL K’Hadree Hooker, East Carolina (from NC State)
DL Terrell Jackson, Bowling Green (from Pittsburgh)
DL Lawrence Lagafuaina, Hawaii (from Washington)
DL Langston Newton, Purdue (from Kentucky)
DL Ernest Suttles, Memphis (from Nebraska)
DL Sam Ukwuachu, Baylor (from Boise State)
DL Anthony Williams, Troy (from Georgia Tech)
DL Ricardo Williams, Marshall (from Miami)
DL Brandon Willis, UNLV (from UCLA)
LB Jeremy Castro, Hawaii (from UCLA)
LB Trey Grainer, UL Lafayette (from LSU)
LB Ruben Ibarra, Arizona State (from Purdue)
LB Harvey Langi, BYU (from Utah)
LB Cameron Nwosu, SMU (from Rice)
LB Deaysean Rippy, Colorado (from Pittsburgh)
LB Anthony Wallace, North Texas (from Oregon)
LB Eric Wilson, Cincinnati (from Northwestern)
DB Anthony Alford, Ole Miss (from Southern Miss)
S Cullen Christian, West Virginia (from Pittsburgh)
CB Bruce Dukes, Georgia State (from UCF)
S Justin Ferguson, Western Michigan (from Notre Dame)
S Josh Furman, Oklahoma State (from Michigan)
CB Daniel Gray, Utah State (from Tennessee)
DB Bryan Harper, Fresno State (from Arizona)
DB Lee Hightower, Houston (from Boise State)
CB Donaldven Manning, Marshall (from Virginia Tech)
S Reggie Mitchell, Pittsburgh (from Wisconsin)
CB Najee Murray, Kent State (from Ohio State)
DB Damian Payne, UTEP (from Houston)
DB Cleveland Wallace, San Jose State (from Washington)
CB Tyler White, Houston (from Utah)
K James Hairston, Rice (from LSU)
College football’s new four-team playoff has added extra intrigue to the upcoming season.
No one knows exactly how this year will play out and what the committee will value when it comes to evaluating and ranking the teams. However, with four teams getting a chance to play for the national championship, the margin of error has slightly increased.
Instead of trying to get to the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, teams can get into the No. 3 and No. 4 positions and still win the national title.
Despite the extra margin of error, every team in the nation has a concern or weakness heading into the season.
Some concerns are obvious, while some are just minor.
Using Athlon’s projected final rankings for the 2014 season, let’s take a look at the biggest concerns for the top 15 teams.
Top Concerns for College Football's Playoff Contenders
1. Florida State
Defensive tackle: The Seminoles have a few departures on the interior, including standout Timmy Jernigan. Eddie Goldman and Nile Lawrence-Stample are solid, but which players emerge to help with depth? Redshirt freshman Keith Bryant or one of the touted true freshman: Derrick Nnadi, Arthur Williams or Demarcus Christmas could help in 2014.
Wide Receivers: Talent certainly isn’t an issue here. The Seminoles boast an All-American receiver on one side in Rashad Greene, and a standout tight end Nick O’Leary attacking over the middle. But the spot opposite of Greene is up for grabs, with seniors Christian Green and Jarred Haggins competing for snaps, along with sophomore Jesus Wilson and freshmen Ermon Lane and Traivs Rudolph.
Punter: It’s easy to overlook special teams, but punting is an area of concern for coach Jimbo Fisher. Cason Beatty needs to be more consistent and will face competition from Jonathan Hernandez and Larry Lawson III.
Cornerback: Opposing quarterbacks completed only 55.5 percent of their throws against Alabama’s defense in 2013, but the cornerback position is still a concern for Nick Saban heading into the fall. 11 of the 13 touchdown passes allowed by the Crimson Tide last season came in three games (Oklahoma, Auburn and Texas A&M), and cornerback Deion Belue must be replaced. Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart need more consistent production from their corners and could call on two true freshmen (Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey) to help in 2014.
Quarterback: This position has generated most of the offseason buzz in Tuscaloosa, but with a strong rushing attack and defense, Alabama won’t need too much from its quarterback position. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is considered the favorite to start over Blake Sims. Coker completed 18 of 36 passes for 250 yards with the Seminoles in 2013 but does not have a start in his college career. The Crimson Tide can win a lot of games with so-so quarterback play. However, when the game is on the line against Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss, can Coker or Sims make the necessary throws to elevate the Crimson Tide to a victory?
3. Ohio State
Offensive Line: It’s a tough call to pick the No. 1 concern for the Buckeyes, as the offensive line, receiving corps, secondary and linebacking corps are all worth a mention. However, the offensive line is perhaps the biggest concern for coach Urban Meyer, especially with quarterback Braxton Miller’s injuries last season. Keeping Miller healthy is the No. 1 priority this year, as Kenny Guiton is no longer around to provide insurance. Left tackle Taylor Decker is the lone returning starter, but guard Pat Elflein had a promising stint at the end of 2013. The left guard, center and right tackle spots are still up for grabs. Winning the Big Ten – especially on Nov. 8 at Michigan State – and contending for a playoff spot rests largely on how quick the Buckeyes can develop their offensive line.
Playmakers for Trevor Knight: The Sooners return 14 starters from a team that went 11-2 last year, and there are few glaring concerns for coach Bob Stoops. Quarterback Trevor Knight ended 2013 with his best performance of the year, throwing for 348 yards and four scores against Alabama. For Knight to continue his growth as a passer, the coaching staff needs to find new weapons at receiver. Three of last year’s top four receivers are gone, including Jalen Saunders (61 catches). Junior Sterling Shepard is an All-Big 12 receiver, but who steps up into the No. 2 and No. 3 roles? Is it Durron Neal or K.J. Young? How about Dannon Cavil, Derrick Woods or Jordan Smallwood? True freshman Michiah Quick is another name to watch this fall.
Lines of Scrimmage: It’s a bit cliché, but teams have to be strong in the trenches in order to win in the SEC. Auburn’s offensive line was one of the best in the nation in 2013 and was projected to rank near the top once again. However, guard Alex Kozan will miss 2014 due to a back injury, which adds to a giant void on the left side with Greg Robinson leaving for the NFL. The defensive front is also uncertain, as Carl Lawson could miss most of 2014 due to a torn ACL. Sophomores Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel are promising, and there’s depth with the addition of junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence. However, after giving up 162.1 rushing yards per game last season, Lawson's injury, and the departure of Dee Ford to the NFL, the Tigers head into 2014 with concerns (albeit small) about the defensive line.
Transition on defense: Second-year coach Mark Helfrich doesn’t have many glaring concerns to address this offseason, but the defense is under the direction of first-year coordinator Don Pellum after Nick Aliotti retired. Pellum is no stranger to Oregon football, as he’s worked in Eugene for the last 21 seasons. However, this will be his first opportunity to coordinate the Ducks’ defense. What tweaks will he install into the scheme? Personnel-wise, there’s not a ton of concerns, but Oregon needs to develop depth on the interior of the line and sort out its new starters in the secondary.
Offensive line: The Bruins struggled to find consistency with this unit in 2013, and line coach Adrian Klemm now must find a replacement for standout guard Xavier Su’a-Filo. UCLA played a handful of young players up front last season, which should pay dividends for 2014. Additionally, Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche is expected to solidify a spot on the left side. With more snaps, this unit should emerge as a strength for the Bruins. However, this unit will be tested right away against an underrated Virginia defensive line in the opener and against Texas in Week 3. Another position to watch for UCLA: The rushing attack. Coach Jim Mora needs to find a consistent presence on the ground to take some of the pressure off of quarterback Brett Hundley.
Secondary: New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt inherits a defense with potential, but this unit allowed nearly 30 points per game in 2013. Pruitt helped Florida State’s defense rank among the nation’s best last season and should work a quick turnaround in 2014. The front seven is among the best in the SEC, but the secondary is a significant concern. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed prior to spring practice, and cornerback Shaq Wiggins transferred to Louisville, while safety Tray Matthews landed at Auburn. The overall depth has been depleted with the player departures, and Pruitt could look to the freshmen ranks for answers. Junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng is expected to help at cornerback or safety, while true freshman Malkom Parrish and redshirt freshman Aaron Davis are also in the mix. Considering the uncertainty with this unit, it’s critical Georgia’s front seven is able to generate a pass rush against opposing offenses – at least early in the 2014 season.
9. South Carolina
Cornerbacks/defensive line: Coordinator Lorenzo Ward will have his hands full through the first couple weeks of the season, as the Gamecocks take on three explosive offenses in Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia. The defensive line returns only one starter (J.T. Surratt), but there’s enough talent returning to ensure there’s not a huge drop in production from last year’s unit that featured Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. But the secondary is a bigger concern for Ward, as South Carolina could lean on three true freshmen for major snaps: Carlos Lammons, Wesley Green and Al Harris Jr. With the turnover up front and in the inexperience in the secondary, the Gamecocks could use more 3-4 fronts in 2014.
Revamped defense: Coordinator Phil Bennett has brought noticeable improvement to Baylor’s defense over the last few years, and the Bears ranked second in the Big 12 in 2013 (league-only games) by allowing only 4.8 yards per play. Just four starters return for 2014, but the defensive line could be one of the best in the Big 12, and senior Bryce Hager is back to anchor the linebacking corps. The biggest concern for this unit is the secondary, which has to replace standout safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson. Also, keep an eye on offense with left tackle Spencer Drango. The standout lineman had back surgery last season and needs to quickly return to full strength in order for Baylor to repeat as Big 12 champs.
11. Michigan State
The Spartans check in at No. 11 in Athlon’s projected top 25 for 2014, but coach Mark Dantonio’s team should be higher. This team doesn’t have many glaring concerns, and the defense is one of the best in the nation. Finding replacements for a few defensive standouts (Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen) is the biggest priority for the Spartans.
A brutal schedule awaits Stanford in 2014. The Cardinal play five road games against teams projected to finish in the final top 25. Personnel-wise, coach David Shaw needs to find a replacement for running back Tyler Gaffney, as well as fill the voids on defense left behind by linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, linemen Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro and safety Ed Reynolds.
13. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish have concerns on both sides of the ball, but the offense should get a boost with the return of quarterback Everett Golson. A revamped front seven highlights the defense, as new coordinator Brian VanGorder has to replace standout linemen Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt.
New coach Steve Sarkisian’s biggest obstacle is depth. The Trojans are short on scholarships due to NCAA sanctions and an injury to a couple of players in the starting lineup could be difficult to overcome.
The Badgers return only eight starters and have concerns at quarterback and on the front seven on defense. However, a favorable schedule should keep coach Gary Andersen’s team in the hunt for the West Division title.
Official school logos have been and will always be the simplest and most important way for a college program to classify and separate itself from its peers. Some change dramatically over time while others are literally set in stone for decades. Some are edgy, exciting and extremely busy while others are clean, classic and simple.
Every college football program in the nation has an official logo and the goal is to be the most recognizable brand in the nation.
Since Athlon Sports has been designing the best-looking magazines on newsstands for the better part of half a century, we asked our senior graphic design guru to rank college football's best and worst logos.
Here is what Art Director Matt Taliaferro best (and worst) logos in college football.
Note: Since college football is now an autonomous sport, only the Big 5 (including Notre Dame) are eligible.
College Football's Best Official Logos
|1.||Texas||The best logo in college football, the Longhorn is classic, simple, unchanging but also unique and creative. There is nothing else to say.|
|2.||Clemson||There are tons of Tigers, Wildcats and Bulldogs in college sports but none use their mascot quite like Clemson. The Tiger Paw print is synonymous with Clemson athletics and is utterly simple but still edgy and creative.|
|3.||Georgia||Find me a more effective marriage of color and simplicity of design and I'll hand these writing duties over to you. Georgia's logo is so timeless that I can't remember there ever being another that represented the football team. When you see this, there's no confusion as to what you're looking at.|
|4.||Michigan St||It's clean, classic, gets the point across and is recognizable. It has some fierce edginess to it, the color scheme is perfect and there is no doubt it represents a Spartan.|
|5.||Washington||Simple, tasteful, unchanging and very obvious. This emblem with its signature gold trim is one of the best in the nation and leaves little doubt as to what it represents.|
|6.||USC||The interlocking "S-C" is as famous as any logo in the nation. The other logo with the script team nickname above the "SC" isn't needed for a major brand like USC.|
|7.||Notre Dame||It is one of the most recognizable logos in college sports. There is some creativity in the interlocking N and D but it's done in a simple, classic and vintage way. I like the N better than the D.|
|8.||North Carolina||The interlocked N-C are as famous as any brand logo in the nation. There are simple touches of style — the font and black trim — that make this logo completely unmistakable.|
|9.||Auburn||Hard to find fault in the interlocking A-U. Again, trimming away all the waste and boiling a logomark down to its most basic typically nets the best results.|
|10.||Tennessee||As a logo, Tennessee's is as direct and to-the-point as it gets. Think what you will of the orange (personally, I'm no fan), but the unique working of the "T" is as good as it gets. As an aside, UT's retro Davy Crockett logo is badass.|
|11.||Miami||It's as simple as it gets but also brings loads of creativity and history. No other logo turns into a hand signal like "The U" and the two-tone color scheme and pattern is unique.|
|12.||Penn St||Historically speaking, few logos are as traditional as the Nittany Lions oval. The smooth looking Lions head has great lines and appears to be hunting... Wolverines or Buckeyes? Few logos combine classy and aggresive like PSU.|
|13.||Iowa||It also comes in black, which is slightly more stylish. While maintaining a simple and historic look, the Hawkeye emblen also brings some creativity. In fact, I've no idea what an actual Hawkeye looks like.|
|14.||Oklahoma||There is no doubting what the interlocking "O" and "U" stand for, right? The smooth lines and lack of extras in the font make this a fantastic logo.|
|15.||UCLA||The script "UCLA" is one of the most well-known logos in all of sports much less college football. And the way the word Bruins is incorporated makes it one of the most informative in the nation while still being fairly simple.|
|16.||Stanford||Michigan State and NC State know exactly what the smart kids from Palo Alto were thinking when this logo was created. It's classic and simple with a touch of style in the stroked white/red trim. Stanford boasts one of the best brand logos in the nation.|
|17.||Oregon||It doesn't get any simpler than the Oregon "O." There is some subtle style to the font that makes it cooler than the average "O." The clean classic look works but some yellow trim might make it the best in the league.|
|18.||Kansas St||All of Kansas State's design work, color scheme and uniforms are underrated and the logo is the same. Aggressive, stylish but yet still fairly simple and clean.|
|19.||Texas A&M||Someone from A&M needs to call Texas Tech and explain how effective beveling is done. Like Vandy, Texas A&M's logo is simple and therefore works as a potent branding mark.|
|20.||Ohio State||Normally, a name in a logo doesn't work, but the "S" is perfectly designed into the "O" and it works. It makes it busier than the cleaner, more classic logos above. The colors and trim are second to none.|
Others receiving votes: West Virginia, Vanderbilt, Colorado, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Indiana
College Football's Worst Official Logos
|Oregon St||The Beavers updated their look recently with a new edgier looking logo. And, frankly, they did a good job. This one is smoother and streamlined and is more aggressive. It's tough to make a beaver look mean, however.|
|Northwestern||The purple "N" has plenty of things going on around it. The font is seriously bizarre and not really intimidating anyone.|
|South Carolina||Surprisingly, it's not the gamecock that turns me off here, it's the 90 degree angles on the inside of the "C" — shave those off and the awkwardness of this logo is minimalized. Sure, the rooster could use an upgrade, but let's be honest, it may be time to start from scratch.|
|Kansas||The cartoon Jayhawk is a signature logo but doesn't really create an intimidating image in any sense of the word. And why is it dancing?|
|Boston College||The cartoon eagle and italicized/overlapped BC just doesn't exude tradition and excellence like some other logos. The colors aren't bad but it's too busy to be considered a great logo..|
Tony Stewart will not participate in the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen International today after being involved in a tragic incident at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park in upstate New York on Saturday night.
Stewart struck a competitor, Kevin Ward Jr., with his sprint car after the two were involved in a wreck. Ward exited his car, walking onto the track, to show his displeasure when Stewart’s car clipped the 20-year-old. Ward was thrown by the impact and lay motionless as track safety crews scrambled to the scene. He was announced dead on arrival at a local hospital. Stewart was not injured in the incident.
Stewart was questioned by authorities following the event. They stated that no criminal charges have been filed. Further activities at the dirt track were cancelled.
“When the investigation is completed, we will sit down with the district attorney and review it,” Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said. “But I want to make it very clear: there are no criminal charges pending at this time.”
A telephone call placed to the track by Athlon Sports at 2:00 a.m. EST went unanswered.
Stewart traveled to Watkins Glen overnight with the intention of racing in the NASCAR event today. However, Stewart Haas Racing Competition Director Greg Zipadelli addressed the assembled media at Watkins Glen Sunday morning and announced Stewart would sit out.
“We talked last night and then realizing, going through the night — gave Tony some time to sleep on it — and met with him this morning and he feels strongly this is the right thing to do,” Zipadelli said of the decision. “We at Stewart Haas Racing support it and agree with it. It's a difficult time for both parties. There's not a lot you can do. The only thing we can do is do what we feel is right and this is it. This is what we feel is right and are supporting Tony in it.”
Regan Smith will drive Stewart’s No. 14 SHR Chevy in today’s race.
NASCAR issued a statement Sunday morning, saying, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and fellow competitors of Kevin Ward Jr. We support Tony Stewart’s decision to miss today’s race and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward.”
Shortly after the race at Watkins Glen began, Stewart released this statement:
"There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It's a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I've decided not to participate in today’s race at Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy."
Stewart made his return to NASCAR at the beginning of the 2014 season after being involved in a sprint car accident in August 2013. In that incident, Stewart suffered a broken leg in a crash at Southern Iowa Speedway and missed the final 15 NASCAR events of the season.
Stewart is mired at 19th in the Sprint Cup Series standings, without a win this season.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.