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Even in a year when Kentucky will have an uncharacteristically veteran team, the Wildcats will feature some of the top freshmen in the SEC.
Karl Towns, Tyler Ulis and Trey Lyles all could be impact players in the league for Kentucky even as they fight for playing time on the national runners up. Meanwhile, many other SEC teams are counting on transfers — from Division I and junior college — to keep them competitive in the league.
Florida is looking toward a transfer and the brother of a former All-SEC performer to keep the Gators atop the league. Alabama and LSU are bringing in transfers to play point guard in an attempt to push the Crimson Tide and Tigers into the NCAA Tournament.
Our breakdown of the top freshmen, transfers and players returning from injury continues with the top newcomers who will impact the SEC standings.
1. Karl Towns, Kentucky
Kentucky may have been loaded in the frontcourt even without this freshman class. Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee all return, meaning perhaps Towns won’t be quite as prolific as recent Kentucky freshman big men. Still, he’s a 7-1, 250-pound center who can can stretch a defense. Towns was named the Gatorade High School Male Athlete of the Year in July, the second Kentucky player under John Calipari to win the award. Towns joins 2010 point guard Brandon Knight as a recipient of the award.
2. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
With guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison back, Ulis won’t be asked to score from the backcourt. That’s no problem. He’s much better as a distributor. As the Harrisons took time to grow into their roles as facilitators, the 5-9 Ulis already has that ability locked down. His vision will be an asset to another loaded Kentucky team.
3. Ricky Tarrant, Alabama
Transfer from Tulane
Tarrant will compete with freshman Justin Coleman for minutes at point guard, where Trevor Releford departs. Tarrant was a second-team All-Conference USA selection in his last season at Tulane in 2013-14. Tarrant averaged 15.3 points and 3.4 assists per game in two seasons at Tulane, needing only 66 games to cross the 1,000-point mark.
4. Trey Lyles, Kentucky
John Calipari may need to get creative to keep Lyles, Towns and the rest of his big men happy. Lyles’ natural position may be power forward, but he can also play small forward. Lyles, though, may be off to a slower start as he (and junior Willie Cauley-Stein) will miss Kentucky’s tour of the Bahamas in early August. Lyles is recovering form a procedure on his left leg.
5. Yante Maten, Georgia
Maten was a big get for Mark Fox as the Bloomfield Hills (Mich.) Andover product was considered a strong Michigan State lean in the recruiting process. Instead, Maten will head to Georgia where the 6-8, 225-pound power forward be a player off the glass.
6. Josh Gray, LSU
Junior college transfer
Sophomore forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin need someone to get them the ball with point guard Anthony Hickey transferring to Oklahoma State. Gray from junior college may be the answer. Before heading to Odessa (Texas) College, Gray averaged 9.6 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman at Texas Tech. He’ll be more than a facilitator, though, as Johnny Jones expects him to score in a variety of ways.
7. Alex Murphy, Florida
Transfer from Duke
Florida may have to wait until the second semester to add Murphy to the lineup. When he’s eligible, Murphy will be a stretch four and another transfer on a roster that includes Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech), Jon Horford (Michigan) and Eli Carter (Rutgers). Murphy is the brother of Erik Murphy, who averaged 12.2 points per game in 2012-13.
8. Antoine Mason, Auburn
Transfer from Niagara
Bruce Pearl isn’t the only interesting newcomer at Auburn. The Tigers at Mason, who was second behind National Player of the Year Doug McDermott in scoring last season. Mason averaged 25.6 points per game, but he took an average of 18.5 shots per game to get there. Auburn’s not going to be a great team in the SEC, but the Tigers won’t need to lean nearly as heavily on Mason as 7-26 Niagara did last season.
9. Cameron Biedscheid, Missouri
Transfer from Notre Dame
Biedscheid is another SEC transfer who will have to wait until the second semester to be eligible. New Mizzou coach Kim Anderson is counting on the 6-foot-7, 205-pound guard to be one of his leading scorers, but he averaged only 6.2 points per game during his freshman season at Notre Dame. Biedscheid will join Deuce Bello (Baylor) and Keith Shamburger (Hawaii) in another round of transfers for Missouri.
10. Robert Hubbs, Tennessee
Returning from injury
As the coach who recruited him left for Cal, Hubbs elected to stay with his home-state school. From Newbern, Tenn., Hubbs was was a five-star recruit out of high school but played only 12 games in an injury-shortened freshman season. Hubbs scored in double figures only twice and shot 30.7 percent in limited duty. New coach Donnie Tyndall will need more from one of the few holdovers on his roster.
On Saturday, Derrick Brooks, Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey, Walter Jones, Andre Reed, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams will officially be inducted as the latest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Their legacies as some of the greatest to ever play in the NFL will be cemented with their addition to the ranks of those forever enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
As far as the present goes, projecting which current superstars will eventually wind up in the Hall of Fame is virtually impossible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not any less entertaining (or potentially controversial) to conduct such an exercise.
With that in mind, limiting the scope to those who were drafted from 2010-12 (this year’s class obviously doesn’t count and one year is too small a sample size for the 2013 group, even for this), here is one football fan’s take on the most likely future Hall of Famers.
Class of 2010:
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans
Unquestionably a tight end, Graham has the opportunity to not only shatter records for his position, but also finish with numbers that compare to some of the most productive wide receivers of all time. A beneficiary of playing in a more pass-oriented league and having a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) throwing to him, Graham is at the forefront of the evolution of the tight end position. A matchup nightmare with his combination of size (6-7, 260), athleticism and explosiveness, Graham is averaging 90 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns over his past three seasons. His future in New Orleans secure after signing a four-year contract, the numbers should only continue to pile up for one of the NFL’s most dangerous pass-catchers.
NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco
A first-team All-Pro each of the last three seasons, Bowman teams with fellow potential Hall of Famer Patrick Willis to form the best linebacker tandem in the NFL. A third-round pick from the 2010 draft that also netted the 49ers All-Pro offensive lineman Mike Iupati (see below), Bowman has been a terror since becoming a starter in 2011. He has averaged nearly 122 solo tackles alone over the last three seasons, along with a total of 22 pass breakups, nine sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions. One of the most feared defenders in the game, Bowman will take on a new challenge this season as he works hard to return from the serious left knee injury (torn ACL and MCL) he suffered in the NFC Championship Game loss in Seattle. Given his track record, toughness and work ethic, it should only be a matter of time before Bowman returns to his All-Pro form.
Mike Iupati, OL, San Francisco
Offensive linemen can be hard to judge when it comes to Hall of Fame credentials, since their contributions are not easily measured. That said, it’s tough to argue with the resume that Iupati has already put together, headlined by his two Pro Bowls and 2012 All-Pro season. A mainstay at right guard, Iupati has started every game he has played (60 total) thus far and has helped establish the 49ers’ running game as one of the league’s best. Over the past three seasons, San Francisco’s rushing offense has ranked no lower than eighth in the NFL. Everyone knows that head coach Jim Harbaugh loves to run the football and Iupati is a big reason why.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati
A fourth-round steal, Atkins is a highly productive defensive tackle who has posted 29 sacks in just 57 games.
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas
Back-to-back 90-catch seasons with totals of 2,615 yards and 25 touchdowns could become the norm for talented wideout that plays for America’s team.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
When healthy, Gronkowski on equal footing with Jimmy Graham as an explosive, dynamic tight end that gives opposing defenses headaches.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit
Two-time All-Pro really has yet to scratch the surface on his immense talent and potential.
Class of 2011:
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina
After taking the league by storm with his dual-threat abilities upon entering as the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft, Newton finally put it all together on the field last season. Posting career bests in completion percentage (61.7), touchdown passes (24) and passer rating (88.8), Newton and one of the league’s stingiest defenses powered the Panthers to a 12-4 record and the NFC South division title. The more Newton develops as a passer the more dangerous he will become since he’s already a tremendous threat (5.6 career ypc, 28 TDs) as a rusher. There’s still much more work to do, but Newton has a chance to establish himself as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the history of the game.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
Somewhat unknown as the Texans’ first-round pick (No. 11) in 2011, Watt has become one of the NFL”s most feared players in a short amount of time. The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, Watt has earned back-to-back Pro Bowl invites and first-team All-Pro honors. A terror off of the edge, Watt has collected 31 sacks over the last two seasons, along with 23 pass breakups and eight forced fumbles. He makes plays consistently despite being the No. 1 target of offensive lines and protection schemes and has a motor that just won’t stop. He’s just 25, but any player that draws comparisons to legends like Reggie White and Bruce Smith is certainly worthy of inclusion in this list.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati
A three-time Pro Bowler in as many seasons, Green has become one of the most trusted and productive targets in the NFL. He has put together back-to-back seasons of nearly 100 catches, averaging 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns during this span. With great hands, elite ball skills, impressive athleticism and more than enough speed, Green is the total package when it comes to wide receiver. Whether it’s moving the chains, catching a pass in traffic, breaking off a long play or coming up big in the red zone, Green does everything required of a No. 1 wide receiver, and then some.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta
A broken foot limited Jones to just five games last season, but there’s no mistaking what he means to the Falcons’ offense. Atlanta traded a total of five picks, including two first-rounders, to Cleveland to move up and grab Jones with the sixth pick of the 2011 draft, and even just three seasons in, no one is second-guessing the team. One of the toughest covers in the NFL, Jones is averaging nearly 16 yards per reception and has caught 20 touchdown passes in a little more than two full seasons’ (34 games) worth of action. The broken foot has caused some to worry a little about how soon Jones will be back to Pro Bowl form, but keep in mind that he’s only 25 years old, is a physical specimen at 6-4, 220 and prior to the injury he was averaging a ridiculous 116 yards receiving over the five games he played in last season. Jones has the tools as well as the opportunity as Matt Ryan’s No. 1 target to post Canton-worthy numbers. And as NFL fans, we are the fortunate ones who get to sit back and watch him work towards that lofty goal.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Von Miller, LB, Denver
One of the NFL’s most feared pass-rushers and defensive playmakers, Miller has 35 sacks and 13 forced turnovers in 40 career games. Just needs to stay healthy (coming back from torn ACL) and focused (suspended first six games last season) to fully capitalize on his immense talent and maximize potential.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle
Not afraid to speak his mind, Sherman backs it up with his play on the field and reputation of being the NFL’s top cornerback. A first-team All-Pro each of the past two seasons, Sherman has 20 interceptions in 48 career games, despite opponents making a point of not throwing to whomever he’s covering.
Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco
Pass-rushing specialist has a mind-boggling 42 sacks in 43 games, but the off-the-field stuff is starting to pile up too. If Smith can get (and then keep) his act together, he could finish among the game’s greatest sack masters.
Class of 2012:
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
Peyton Manning’s successor in Indianapolis, Luck has been everything advertised since being the first pick of the 2012 draft. All Luck has done in his first two seasons is win 22 games, break the single-season rookie record for passing yards (4,374), earn back-to-back postseason berths, capture a division title and win a playoff game (in his second appearance). Compare that early success to Manning, who didn't win a playoff game until his sixth season (in his fourth attempt). Luck cut his interceptions in half from his rookie (18) to sophomore (9) campaigns while also increasing his completion percentage (from 54.1 to 60.2). Luck has all the tools needed (and then some) to not only be a worthy successor to Manning’s winning legacy in Indy, but also to eventually join No. 18 in Canton.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
Though not as heralded as first-round peers Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (see below), Wilson is the most accomplished quarterback of the 2012 class to this point. A third-round afterthought due largely to his size (5-11), Wilson seized the starting job in Seattle as a rookie and enters his third season as a Super Bowl champion. Besides the hardware, Wilson also has more wins (24 regular season, 4-1 in playoffs), more TD passes (52) and a better passer rating (100.6) than either Luck or RG3. The doubters silenced, there’s no question Wilson deserves to be mentioned alongside Luck and Griffin when it comes to the 2012 class. There’s also a chance all three could wind up in Canton together too.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina
A tackling machine in college, Kuechly has continued in that vein in his first two pro seasons. The Defensive Rookie of the Year when he led the NFL in total tackles (164), he followed that up by winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013. A Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro last season, Kuechly piled up a ridiculous 24 tackles in the playoff-clinching win against New Orleans in Week 16. That was just one shy of Brian Urlacher’s 26-tackle performance in 2006, which is the current record for the most stops in a single game (NFL didn’t start counting tackles as an official statistic until 2000). Whether Kuechly can maintain this pace or not remains to be seen, but he’s certainly off to a good start to putting together a Hall of Fame career.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay
A first-team All-Pro last season, David has posted back-to-back 100-tackle seasons while displaying a nose for the ball (5 INTs in 2013).
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
The 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year, a serious knee injury stumped both RG3’s production and development last season. He still possesses all of the tools, both athletically and personally, to join 2012 draft classmates Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson as candidates for eventual enshrinement in Canton.
Matt Kalil, OL, Minnesota
One of the NFL’s top tackles, Kalil has the added benefit of paving the way for Adrian Peterson, the league’s top running back. Excelling in both run blocking and pass protection, Kalil has the opportunity to assist Peterson in his run to Canton, and vice versa.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay
One of the league’s most productive players as a rookie, a torn labrum shortened his 2013 campaign to just six games. A threat as both a rusher and receiver, Martin’s presence in the Buccaneers’ offense should allow him the opportunities to return to 2012’s level of production, provided he stays healthy.
Louisiana Tech is planning a one-game switch for its helmet design in 2014.
The Bulldogs usually wear a helmet with the state of Louisiana headlined by a “T” at the top.
In 2014, Louisiana Tech will wear a red helmet with a Bulldog logo for its red out game against UTEP on Oct. 4.
Here’s a look at the alternate helmet:
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 30:
• Throwback Wednesday: 2003 SI Swimsuit cover girl Petra Nemcova has still got it at age 35.
• The umps screwed up royally in a KC loss, and had no explanation for their gaffe.
• Scouts discovered some art school kid who throws 100 mph. Sounds like a bad movie pitch. Is he also a golden retriever?
• Price, Lester et al: A trade deadline primer.
• Clash of the Titans: The Cubs and Rockies played a 16-inning marathon, with a backup catcher getting the win.
• Orlando Bloom tried to punch Justin Bieber at a club in Spain. We're all Team Bloom, right?
• Why I don't gamble: Watch a poker player's horrific elimination unfold.
• Best news of the day (besides somebody taking a swing at Bieber).
• Watch a sharknado hit Citi Field in this clip from "Sharknado 2."
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Jimbo Fisher was only kidding, but the image he conjured during a press conference before Florida State’s spring practices commenced was colorful and plenty accurate.
When asked about the challenges of moving forward with a program that has aspirations of national contention every year, Fisher likened himself to his children, who seem to spend the majority of their time around him looking for something other than fatherly advice.
“They go to mom a lot, but they come to me for money,” Fisher said to big laughs.
Fisher plays that role when he speaks with FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox. It takes more than fine athletes to satisfy the appetite of big winners. There have to be facilities fit for the most exclusive country club — Oregon has a barbershop in its football building — donors willing to wield platinum checkbooks, and a support system capable of helping players with their classwork and the normal rigors of college life. The list doesn’t end. And neither do Fisher’s requests.
“I always have something for them, I promise you,” Fisher says.
It’s hard to believe Fisher would have to draw up a wish list at Florida State, but the Seminole program is not yet on a par with some of college football’s aristocracy, despite last year’s national championship and the Bowden heyday, which included 14 straight years of double-digit wins and top-five finishes, and two national titles. FSU is just now reaching parity with the best of the best in terms of facilities and has finally begun to mobilize its donor base to fund the program on a level that’s in line with its competitors.
Despite its huge success during the late ’80s and ’90s, Florida State is not found on the rolls of college football’s most tradition-bound programs. It didn’t start playing ball until 1947 and wasn’t even thought about beyond the state lines until Bowden took over in ’76. Without generations of alumni and donors to draw upon, and with a location that makes it hard for fans to come for games and stay, FSU has had to move quickly to create an infrastructure congruent with that of its competition. Doing that leads to wins, but it also convinces Fisher that Tallahassee is the place to stay long-term and end annual rumors that he is a candidate for whatever top job (say, Texas) happens to open.
“I think we have been behind,” says senior associate AD Monk Bonasorte, who was a standout defensive player for Bowden from 1977-80. “The facilities we’ve added have helped us.”
Last year, the Noles opened an indoor practice facility. By the start of this season, they will have new locker, meeting and office space. It all matters, even the ability to practice inside, which doesn’t seem to mean much in Florida. Snow and cold aren’t the issues in Tallahassee, but freak late summer and fall rainstorms are. So are hours of lightning that can prevent outdoor work. The new team amenities need no explanation, other than to say that premium high school recruits are savvy enough to know whether lockers are made of cherry or mahogany. There’s no barbershop planned, but it isn’t 78 degrees in mid-March in Eugene, Ore., either.
“Every day, other institutions are continually improving their facilities,” Wilcox says. “That’s what we have to work at on an annual basis.”
When Fisher approaches Wilcox or any other administrator with his wish list, he does so knowing that everything he wants is necessary. Remember that he fell out of the Nick Saban coaching tree, so his requests are made to create a climate that will allow him to compete with the Alabama sideline cyclone, and not just for esoteric reasons. Saban has set the template, and Fisher is following it. “If you’re sitting still, someone is going past you,” Fisher says.
One of the keys to the fundraising efforts that have supported the facility growth is the re-engagement of Bowden, who remains a living legend in the state, despite the program’s struggles during his final four seasons. Bowden’s decision to step out of the limelight during Fisher’s first few years was generous, but Bowden has moved back into the public consciousness and has been helpful in the school’s identifying some previously untapped resources and enticing them to endow the program.
The one thing that even Bowden can’t overcome is Tallahassee. Nestled in Northwest Florida, about 20 miles from the Georgia border, the state capital isn’t easily reached by most of the state. Further, because it isn’t home to much industry or many business headquarters, there isn’t a hospitality infrastructure that can accommodate thousands of fans who want to stay for home football weekends. It may sound ridiculous, but this is the first year in several that the Noles sold out their season ticket allotment. And that’s as much due to the arrivals of Clemson, Florida and Notre Dame as it is to the residual excitement of last year’s national title or to the growing affection for the program.
It is a testament to Bowden’s charisma that the Seminoles were able to sustain such overwhelming success for so long without the same tradition or facilities as the schools against which they competed for recruits. Personality went a long way at the end of last century. These days, brick and mortar — not to mention funky uniforms — are what draw top talent, and Florida State has taken the necessary steps to make sure that big-time recruits have no reason to look elsewhere. That also goes for Fisher, whose new contract, announced right before the title game win over Auburn, is worth $4.015 million annually and makes him one of the top 10-15 highest-paid coaches in the country. As long as he has the ability to mine the fertile Florida talent vein with the same facilities as do his rivals — and gets paid like a CEO — he will stick around. And Florida State will continue to win big.
“Different people take different jobs for different reasons, and you would hope the success Jimbo has here and the opportunities he has to win are enough,” Bonasorte says. “Coaches want to win. At Florida State, with the availability of recruiting and the kids you can bring in, you should be able to win.”
Even with all of that, Fisher’s going to keep asking for more. And Wilcox had better have his wallet at the ready.
This is going to get pretty expensive.
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2014.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the top positions that must produce in 2014.
All eyes in Tuscaloosa will be on the quarterback battle, but the Crimson Tide must address its cornerback spot after struggling in key moments against the pass. Florida’s offense struggled mightily last season and will be under the direction of new coordinator Kurt Roper. The Gators need a big year from quarterback Jeff Driskel, but the supporting cast has to give the junior signal-caller more help.
10 SEC Position Groups Under Pressure in 2014
Alabama Defensive Backs (CB)
The quarterback battle will garner most of the preseason attention in Tuscaloosa, but Alabama’s secondary could be a bigger concern. The Crimson Tide finished No. 3 in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last season and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 55.5 percent of their throws. Despite the No. 3 finish in the SEC, this unit was torched by Oklahoma (348 yards, three scores) and Texas A&M (464 yards, five touchdowns). Eddie Jackson was slated to start at one cornerback spot, but a torn ACL will sideline the sophomore indefinitely. Juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones are the frontrunners to start at cornerback, with freshmen Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown expected to push for snaps this fall. With the turnover at quarterback in SEC, the cornerback position isn’t a huge concern for coach Nick Saban. However, this unit has to play better against spread teams and could be a potential stumbling block in the playoffs if Alabama meets Florida State.
Auburn Defensive Line
Improving on defense is a top priority this offseason for coach Gus Malzahn, but this unit has already suffered a setback due to an ACL injury to end Carl Lawson. The sophomore was expected to play a key role in Auburn’s pass rush, especially with the departure of Dee Ford to the NFL. With Lawson sidelined, the Tigers will ask more of junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence, along with sophomores Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. Senior LaDarius Owens is penciled in at one end spot, and Gabe Wright could shift between end and tackle this year. Coordinator Ellis Johnson isn’t hurting for talent, but there are a handful of new faces stepping into new roles. The Tigers allowed 162.1 rushing yards per game in 2013.
Florida Wide Receivers
From 2006-10, Florida had six receivers selected in the NFL Draft. Since 2010, it’s been a different story in Gainesville. The Gators haven’t had a receiver drafted since 2010 and no wide receiver has recorded more than 600 yards in a season since 2009. Last season, Florida pass-catchers averaged only 10.3 yards per catch. Improving the offense is a top priority for coach Will Muschamp this year, and new coordinator Kurt Roper is tasked with finding a quick fix for a unit that averaged only 18.8 points per game last year. Not only must quarterback Jeff Driskel pickup his performance for Florida to double its win total from 2013, but the receiving corps has to provide more help. Senior Quinton Dunbar is the top returning performer (40 catches), and sophomores Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson are back after combining for 23 receptions last year. There’s certainly talent on the depth chart, but this unit has to provide more big plays, consistency and overall better performance in 2014.
Georgia Defensive Backs
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt should provide a quick fix for a Georgia defense that allowed 29 points per game in 2013. The Bulldogs have a strong front seven, led by a linebacking corps that could be the best in the nation. The secondary is the main area of focus for Pruitt, and he will coach this unit in 2014. Shaq Wiggins and Tray Matthews transferred this offseason, leaving senior Damian Swann and sophomore safety Quincy Mauger as the only returning starters. Junior college recruit Shattle Fenteng, redshirt freshman Aaron Davis, converted running back J.J. Green and true freshman Malkom Parrish lack experience but could play significant snaps in 2014. Pruitt doesn’t inherit elite talent in the secondary like he had at Florida State, and he will need to mix and match in the fall to find the right combination. With the turnover at cornerback and safety, along with the performance of this group in 2013, Georgia needs its front seven to set the tone on defense. However, with matchups against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season, the secondary will be under pressure early and often in 2014.
LSU Defensive Line
Make no mistake: The Tigers aren’t hurting for talent in the trenches. However, LSU ranked eighth in conference-only games last season by allowing 170.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests. John Chavis’ defensive front also registered only 15 sacks in eight league matchups, the lowest number for the Tigers since recording 11 in 2009. Junior Danielle Hunter and senior Jermauria Rasco should start at end this year, and both players should be in the mix for All-SEC honors. The tackle position is up in the air, as Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson departed after 2013. Sophomore Christian LaCouture and junior Quentin Thomas are listed as the starters on the preseason depth chart, but freshmen Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore should push for snaps. Considering the amount of athleticism, speed and talent at this position, LSU’s defensive line will eventually be one of the best in the SEC. The opener against Wisconsin should provide a good barometer test for a unit that has room to improve after 2013.
Missouri Wide Receivers
Despite the departure of Dorial Green-Beckham, the Tigers aren’t in bad shape at receiver. In addition to replacing DGB, Missouri’s L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas expired their eligibility, leaveing senior Bud Sasser as the No. 1 statistical option from 2013 (361 yards). In addition to Sasser, seniors Darius White and Jimmie Hunt are expected to round out the starting trio, with freshmen J’Mon Moore, Lawrence Lee, and Nate Brown vying for snaps. New quarterback Maty Mauk impressed in limited action and should be one of the SEC’s top passers in 2014. DGB will be missed, but the talent is there for Missouri to not suffer a dramatic drop in production. Can Sasser become the go-to option? Or will Hunt or White seize that spot? Although there’s talent, it may take a few games for Missouri to settle its pecking order at receiver.
Ole Miss Offensive Line
Thanks to back-to-back top 20 recruiting classes under coach Hugh Freeze, the depth and overall talent on the Ole Miss roster has improved. But the one area of concern on offense in 2014 has to be the line. Sophomore Laremy Tunsil returns after a standout freshman season and should team with guard Aaron Morris (back from ACL surgery) to form a strong combination on the left side. Junior Justin Bell is expected to start at right guard after making 13 starts in 2013, while Ben Still is penciled in at center. The right tackle spot could go to Robert Conyers, but junior college recruit Fahn Cooper could also factor into the mix. Even though the starting five could rank in the top half of best SEC offensive lines, depth is a concern. Freshman Rod Taylor may have to play immediately at guard, with redshirt freshman Davion Johnson providing depth at tackle. An injury up front could be a big problem for the Rebels.
South Carolina Defensive Backs
The Gamecocks finished 2013 ranked seventh in the SEC in pass defense efficiency, limiting opponents to just 15 touchdown passes and under 60 percent completion percentage (59.9). This unit must replace cornerbacks Victor Hampton (second-team All-SEC) and Jimmy Legree, while also dealing with extra pressure due to the departure of standout linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. Depth at cornerback is thin, and the situation could get more perilous if incoming freshmen Chris Lammons and Wesley Green fail to qualify. Senior Brison Williams is listed on the preseason depth chart at safety but could shift to cornerback. Sophomore Rico McWilliams (one tackle in 2013) is slated to start at the other corner spot. This unit is thin on proven options, which is cause for concern with Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia in the first three weeks of the season.
Tennessee Offensive Line
The Volunteers are starting from scratch on the offensive line, replacing all five starters from a unit that allowed 12 sacks in SEC games last year. Making matters worse for second-year coach Butch Jones is there’s little in the way of proven options stepping into the starting role. Center Mack Crowder made one start in 2013, while guard Marcus Jackson redshirted after playing in 24 games in his first two years on campus. The Volunteers hope junior college recruit Dontavius Blair can step in at left tackle, with junior Kyler Kerbyson and freshman Coleman Thomas in the mix to anchor the right side. This unit is young, unproven and inexperienced. Building a cohesive line will take some time, which isn’t good news for a team that takes on Utah State, Oklahoma and Georgia before October.
Texas A&M Defensive Line
All three of Texas A&M’s defensive units warrant a mention in this article, but we will focus on the line in this article. The Aggies allowed 236.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests last year and generated only 14 sacks. This unit has already suffered a few setbacks in the offseason, as end Gavin Stansbury left the team in July, and tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed after an off-the-field incident. Incoming freshman Myles Garrett ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the 247Sports Composite for 2014, and he will have to play a significant role. Coordinator Mark Snyder also needs freshmen Zaycoven Henderson, Justin Manning and sophomore Daeshon Hall to emerge as key contributors. There’s talent available, but how quickly can this unit find its footing with new faces stepping into major roles? With an opener against South Carolina, Texas A&M needs to find answers in the fall.
Other Position Groups Under Pressure in 2014:
The last Arkansas linebacker to win first-team All-SEC honors was Sam Olajubutu in 2006. This position has seen its share of ups and downs in Fayetteville recent years, and the Razorbacks enter 2013 with just one returning starter. Senior Braylon Mitchell headlines the unit after recording 77 stops in 2013, but Arkansas needs Martrell Spaight, Otha Peters, Brooks Ellis to step up this year.
Georgia Offensive Line
Three starters depart from a line that allowed only nine sacks in eight SEC contests. Center David Andrews is one of the best in the SEC, and tackle John Theus returns after making eight starts in 2013. The other three spots on the line are up for grabs this fall.
Kentucky Wide Receivers
This unit was littered with inexperience and question marks last season, and three newcomers (Javess Blue, Jeff Badet and Ryan Timmons) finished as the team leaders in receiving yards. The outlook for Kentucky’s pass catchers is better in 2014, but coordinator Neal Brown still needs more consistency from this group. Keep an eye on newcomers T.V. Williams and Thaddeus Snodgrass.
Mississippi State Running Backs
Quarterback Dak Prescott led the Bulldogs with 829 yards in 2013, and LaDarius Perkins – the No. 1 running back in 2013 – departs after recording 542 yards on 137 yards last year. Junior Josh Robinson, sophomore Ashton Shumpert and true freshman Aeris Williams are expected to handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield, and it’s critical the Bulldogs get consistent production from their running backs to limit the wear and tear on Prescott during the season.
Missouri Defensive Backs
The Tigers return only one starter from a secondary that finished No. 6 in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last year. Cornerback E.J. Gaines will be missed, but senior safety Braylon Webb will push for All-SEC honors, and sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson played well at corner in limited action last year.
South Carolina Defensive Line
The Gamecocks’ defensive line was depleted with the departures of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with standout tackle Kelcy Quarles. Due to the losses up front, coordinator Lorenzo Ward may utilize more 3-4 looks in 2014. A drastic drop in production isn’t expected, but the Gamecocks need contributions from junior college recruit Abu Lamin and sophomores Gerald Dixon and Darius English.
Tennessee Defensive Line
Much like the offensive line, Tennessee’s defensive front is in need of major repair entering fall practice. The Volunteers will have four new starters and expect major contributions from freshmen Dewayne Hendrix, Charles Mosley and Derek Barnett. Sophomore Corey Vereen could be in for a breakout season.
Vanderbilt Defensive Backs
The defensive backfield was a strength for Vanderbilt last season, finishing sixth among SEC teams (conference-only games) in pass efficiency defense. This unit heads into fall practice under construction, as four new starters must emerge. The secondary isn’t without talent, as junior Andrew Williamson and sophomore Paris Head are two building blocks for 2014.
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 challenges the theory that all rookies get better in a second visit to a racetrack.
This weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway presents a first for this year’s rookie crop: It is the first track — and I’m omitting Daytona because of the more random nature of restrictor plate racing — that the rookies and their respective teams are hitting for a second time this season. If you’ve watched NASCAR coverage at any point during your life, then it’s likely that you have heard about the wondrous advantages of a young driver seeing a track for a second time. It hangs in the air like a promise to be fulfilled; once these guys start returning to tracks for a second time, everything will fall into place.
Could there be a mental advantage associated with returning to a track with a race under the belt? Sure, but when dealing in reality, the notion of just wait until they come back is a silver lining without substance. Notable rookie seasons of years past indicate that the return trip doesn’t ensure better results.
The currently-en-vogue Jeff Gordon was a 21-year-old kid with a criminally bad mustache when he averaged a 16.1-place result, which included five top-10 finishes, in the 11 races at tracks that had repeat visits in the 1993 season. In the 11 races that served as “second looks,” his top-10 total dropped to two and he tacked on four positions to his average, a 20.5, across the span.
Jimmie Johnson scored victories in his first visits to Fontana (a track without a repeat visit in 2002) and Dover (he won his second race there as well, setting up what’s now a well-known love affair between the driver and the concrete mile track). He averaged a 13.6-place finish in the first visits, and dropped by a position to 14.5 in the return trips.
The results don’t always deteriorate, though. Tony Stewart’s averages in 1999, 10.2 and 10.5, were relatively the same. Juan Pablo Montoya’s in 2010 were identical 23.9 averages in separate 12-race spans across the same tracks. And there have been improvements. Denny Hamlin increased his average by six positions in 2006, from 14.4 to 8.4, in his return visits, while Joey Logano chipped 2.6 positions off of his average in 2009.
The rookie-year numbers (at right) for this select group of future stars indicates that results in return trips to racetracks are mixed.
Now, the average finish number is far from the be-all, end-all — it might not properly tell the story of an entire race — but to be in the highest possible position at the conclusion of the final lap is the overall goal of auto racing. In the case of the return visits during a rookie season, focus more on what the numbers are indicating rather than what the numbers are: The aura of the second visit is over exaggerated and every driver and team develops differently.
You can have proper expectations on the future growth of a young driver by peering into their past while climbing up NASCAR’s treacherous development ladder. Some drivers are fast assimilators — Stewart was, which might be why his first-year average finish splits were similar and Gordon was, which made his initial visits to Cup tracks so memorable — while others take time to grow into their driving identity.
Kyle Larson’s history as a quick learner — it’s one of the reasons I’ve often compared him to a young Stewart or Gordon — means that we probably shouldn’t anticipate a dramatic efflorescence during his second visits. This was clear last year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series when his average finish at the nine non-plate tracks that hosted two races each dropped from 10.3 in his first visits to 16.1 in his second trips.
Other drivers might be limited by equipment. Outside of Larson and Austin Dillon, the five remaining rookies — Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex — face the harsh financial realities of the sport in the second half of this season. Much-needed aerodynamic updates might be tough for the smaller teams to acquire, which could mean the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots has the potential to widen as the year winds down. Those same teams, at some point, will also abandon their starry-eyed Chase dreams and turn their attention to the 2015 season. This makes marked improvement during a second visit in the same season illogical in most cases.
The act of improving takes on many forms and regression might not always be what it seems. Don’t raise expectations based on a folksy tall tale. Guaranteed improvement the second time around at one facility, at least from a basic results standpoint, is a fallacy in NASCAR.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
CHICAGO — At first, Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah wasn’t thrilled when Nebraska's sports information director put his name in the running for the featured player speech at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon without his knowledge.
“I didn’t want my name on the ballot at all,” Abdullah said during a small roundtable interview session Tuesday before his speech. “I’m terrible at speaking. Ironically, they picked me, so here goes nothing.”
He was being self-deprecating. Abdullah did just fine during his comments to hundreds of Big Ten fans and media.
Abdullah mentioned “capitalism” in college athletics as a reference to the ongoing unionization issue at Northwestern and the autonomy and cost-of-attendance discussion going on around the power five conferences.
Instead of dwelling on those hot-button topics, Abdullah focused on the advantages of being a student-athlete. Nowhere was that more evident than when he returned home to Alabama to find one of his high school friends, who went to college as an athlete himself, kicked out of school and facing a drug addiction. Another was in jail.
“These aren’t people I read about or saw on TV,” Abdullah said. “These are my friends. If it can happen to them, it can happen to any student-athlete in this room.”
Abdullah’s growth in Lincoln has been stark, he says.
By his own admission, Abdullah was “socially awkward” as a high school senior from Homewood, Ala. At a high school all-star game — at a time when Abdullah was still being recruited as a defensive back — he and eventual Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon struck up a friendship that would last into their college years.
Both were introverts, so they ate breakfast together all week. By last spring, they were Nos. 1-2 in the Big Ten in rushing and contemplating going to the NFL Draft. They talked it over and elected to return to school.
“We’ve been clicking ever since then,” Gordon said. “We talk all through the season. He’s a great person to know. We’re good friends.”
At Nebraska, Abdullah had no choice but to come out of his shell. Nebraska recruits nationally, so Abdullah arrived in Lincoln around a handful of players from all walks of life.
Abdullah will talk anything now. He’ll joke with reporters. A day before his speech to Big Ten fans and media, he joked: “Speech? I’m making a speech? Uh oh.”
But if you really want to get Abdullah going, start talking draft trends and running backs. No running back has been drafted in the first round since three did it in 2012. What does that mean for Abdullah and his pal Gordon?
“Now we’re talking. Now we’re talking,” Abdullah said.
A self-described film junkie since age 7 when his father filmed park league games, Abdullah said he watches NFL Live on ESPN regularly. That leads him to believe the days of running backs are coming back.
“Football works in fads,” Abdullah said. “This is the D-end fad.”
Abdullah sees tall, stand-up defensive ends and outside linebackers like South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and UCLA’s Anthony Barr — both first-round picks last year — and sees his future. Those two players are built to rush the passer.
The answer? Abdullah says its the running back.
“Everything eventually comes full circle,” Abdullah said. “At some point, the NFL is going to come to the conclusion that the stand-up guys aren’t the best guys against the run. To beat those guys, you’ve got to get more running backs. It’s going to come back around to running backs in the first round.”
But just in case the running back pendulum doesn’t swing back to Abdullah in time for the 2015 draft, he’s doing everything he can to improve his pro potential.
Abdullah is a slippery back and tough to tackle. But he’s only 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds. Even if running backs become en vogue in the next year, he’ll need to round out his skill set. He’s playing on special teams in 2014. He says he wants to block punts, return punts and return kickoffs.
If that makes him a Heisman contender, he won’t say. And what’s the point of projecting? Abdullah remembers last season’s surprises all too well.
“I don’t like to get caught up in preseason accolades because (Boston College running back) Andre Williams didn’t know he was going to win the Doak Walker award. (Oregon State wide receiver) Brandin Cooks as well with the Biletnikoff.
“You never know when it’s your time.”
NFL training camps are in full swing now and even though the games that count are still more than a month away, that doesn’t mean what’s happening on the practice field doesn’t impact fantasy football. For example, injuries have already made their mark, both in a good and bad way, which has resulted in some shuffling on Athlon Sports’ Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280).
From the “good” standpoint, there has been no more welcome sight in Foxboro, Mass., than a healthy Rob Gronkowski on the field. It’s still early, but Gronk appears to be progressing in his recovery from the torn ACL and MCL he suffered last December. There’s still plenty of risk when it comes to Gronk’s fantasy value, but the potential reward is enough to move him up in our rankings.
Unfortunately, the news has not been as optimistic in other camps. Running backs Vick Ballard (Achilles) and Kendall Hunter (ACL) already have seen their 2014 seasons come to an abrupt end due to season-ending injuries, while several others are dealing with other ailments of varying degrees. Regardless of the severity, these injuries and other happening on or off of the field (such as suspensions or retirements) have a twofold effect as it relates to fantasy. Not only do they potentially change the outlook for teammates on their respective teams, but they also necessitate numerous adjustments to our Big Board. And keep in mind that preseason action has yet to begin. More changes are sure to come.
Early 2014 Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280)
(Last updated on 7/29/14)
|2||Jamaal Charles||KC||RB||Shortest training camp holdout ever?|
|3||Adrian Peterson||MIN||RB||Says Vikes' O no longer "predictable."|
|6||Marshawn Lynch||SEA||RB||How long will Beast Mode hold out?|
|7||Jimmy Graham||NO||TE||TE and contract status no longer in doubt.|
|11||Julio Jones||ATL||WR||Being brought along slowly.|
|15||Arian Foster||HOU||RB||If healthy, he should see plenty of work.|
|19||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||RB||Could be big beneficiary of improved O-line.|
|22||Jordy Nelson||GB||WR||Short-term future secure with 4-year extension.|
|24||Andre Johnson||HOU||WR||Appears to be on board w/ team's direction.|
|26||Randall Cobb||GB||WR||Ready to prove he's worthy of new deal.|
|31||Drew Brees||NO||QB||Wants to play 10 more years.|
|42||Rob Gronkowski||NE||TE||So far, so good.|
|47||Frank Gore||SF||RB||Team already down one back (Hunter, ACL).|
|48||C.J. Spiller||BUF||RB||Says his ankle is 100 percent.|
|51||Vernon Davis||SF||TE||Wants new contract, but he's in camp.|
|54||Cordarrelle Patterson||MIN||WR||Expanded role in Turner's O coming?|
|56||Andre Ellington||ARI||RB||Added weight in the offseason.|
|57||Trent Richardson||IND||RB||Played hurt last season. Bounce back coming?|
|58||Chris Johnson||NYJ||RB||Reportedly looking "explosive" in camp.|
|59||Ray Rice||BAL||RB||Don't forget he will miss the first 2 games.|
|60||Toby Gerhart||JAC||RB||Don't discount him as an every-down back.|
|63||Reggie Wayne||IND||WR||Looking good in his return from ACL tear.|
|65||Sammy Watkins||BUF||WR||Has yet to play a game and already on "Hot Seat."|
|74||Robert Griffin III||WAS||QB||RG3 likes what he's seen from Gruden, new O so far.|
|77||Dennis Pitta||BAL||TE||Healthy Pitta could be difference-maker for Ravens.|
|79||Knowshon Moreno||MIA||RB||Starting job may not be his to lose in first place.|
|84||Colin Kaepernick||SF||QB||New contract leaves plenty of room for growth still.|
|87||Mike Wallace||MIA||WR||Knows he needs to better this season.|
|90||Tom Brady||NE||QB||Healthy Gronk could mean return to vintage Brady.|
|93||Lamar Miller||MIA||RB||Reportedly already ahead of Moreno.|
|95||Cecil Shorts||JAC||WR||Expected to miss 2 weeks b/c of hamstring injury.|
|98||Kyle Rudolph||MIN||TE||Pending FA no longer after signing 5-year extension.|
|102||Ben Roethlisberger||PIT||QB||OL and WRs both could be better this season.|
|108||Bernard Pierce||BAL||RB||Will have 2 games to make strong impression.|
|110||David Wilson||NYG||RB||Got medical clearance (neck) to return to field.|
|111||Chris Ivory||NYJ||RB||Injured hamstring keeping him out of camp.|
|117||Shonn Greene||TEN||RB||Won't give up starting job w/o a fight.|
|121||Dwayne Bowe||KC||WR||Reported to camp in great shape.|
|134||Christine Michael||SEA||RB||Lynch's holdout increases appeal.|
|136||Jeremy Hill||CIN||RB||Rookie off to good start in camp.|
|145||Brandin Cooks||NO||WR||Lots to like, but still a rookie.|
|153||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||WR||Will miss some of camp due to a bone bruise.|
|160||Aaron Dobson||NE||WR||Still recovering from foot surgery.|
|163||Marqise Lee||JAC||WR||Ace Sanders taking leave of absence for personal reasons.|
|167||Johnny Manziel||CLE||QB||No rookie under more scrutiny than Johnny Football.|
|173||Sam Bradford||STL||QB||May not play in first preseason game as precaution.|
|175||Odell Beckham Jr.||NYG||WR||Off to sluggish start due to hamstring injury.|
|180||Jonathan Stewart||CAR||RB||Can't seem to shake injury bug.|
|181||Carlos Hyde||SF||RB||Hunter's (ACL) loss could be Hyde's gain.|
|184||Ahmad Bradshaw||IND||RB||Vick Ballard (Achilles) out for season.|
|193||Jake Locker||TEN||QB||Says his foot (Lisfranc injury) is completely healed.|
|194||Geno Smith||NYJ||QB||Thinks he'll be a top 5 QB in 2 years.|
|198||Jace Amaro||NYJ||TE||Sustained minor knee injury early in camp.|
|202||Jermichael Finley||FA||TE||If he signs, he could shoot up rankings.|
|220||Jermaine Kearse||SEA||WR||Sidney Rice's retirement creates opportunity.|
|231||Brian Hoyer||CLE||QB||Has reportedly taken early lead over Manziel in camp.|
|264||Marcus Lattimore||SF||RB||49ers taking their time w/ Lattimore.|
|269||Allen Robinson||JAC||WR||Missed parts of OTAs b/c of hamstring injury.|
|279||Bobby Rainey||TB||RB||He and Mike James could battle for roster spot.|
Athlon Sports' 2014 Fantasy Football magazine is now available for purchase at newsstands everyone or online. The ultimate draft-day resource, this year's edition features 419 in-depth player reports, informative features, a 20-round mock draft, team-by-team analysis from NFL beat writers and much more. Whether your fantasy league is head-to-head, roto, PPR or IDP, this magazine has all the stats and insight you need to help you get ready for the upcoming season. Click here to purchase you copy today!
In light of Ray Rice’s recent two-game suspension for his part in an altercation that ended with the decorated Baltimore Raven carelessly dragging his unconscious then-fiancée - now wife – Janay Palmer out of a New Jersey casino elevator, the NFL has been taking some well deserved heat from reporters and journalists all over the nation. The criticism has been rampant but warranted; it’s obvious that the league dropped the ball in disciplining the star running back. In an interview with ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning," Aldopho Birch, the Senior Vice President of Labor Policy & Government Affairs, insisted that the Rice decision, a punishment that essentially translates into a $500,000 fine, demonstrates that the NFL does not condone his actions. But Birch, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the rest of the league’s leaders are missing the point. Yes, the NFL is a business, but that does not mean that every action and transaction involving the league should be measured in dollars.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, a number of notable players were given lifetime bans for drug and crime-related incidents. But that was a time when the on-the-field action was more brutal, as was the iron-fist style of discipline that we saw from Pete Rozelle, who reigned over the NFL from 1960 to the end of the '80s.
The modern equivalent of the discipline seen during the NFL’s older days can be found in the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal. Vick was suspended indefinitely without pay for running an operation consisting of pit bull fights that were accompanied by hefty wagers. The shifty Falcons quarterback went on to serve 548 days behind bars, but by Week 13 of the 2009 season, he was back on the field throwing touchdowns yet again. Simply put, if this is the most damning penalty levied by Goodell in his tenure, he has failed dramatically. The final outcome: Vick took a three-year hiatus from football for abusing animals and managing an illegal gambling ring. In any other profession, a fall from grace of this magnitude would be tremendously difficult to return from. But in today's NFL, money overshadows morality. Vick is a well-known character who can sell merchandise and put fans in the stands. The quarterback's treatment shows that the commissioner has been more of a buddy to players than a boss.
In a second high-profile case in 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. In another case related to the mistreatment of women, Roethlisberger was accused two separate times of sexual assault, a situation equally troubling to the one that Rice created in February. But no one talks about Big Ben’s shady behavior anymore. He disappeared from the starting lineup for a few games and then returned to the field. That same year, eight players were suspended for the same length or longer for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
If the NFL cared about the concept of “integrity” as much as it would like everyone to believe, Roethlisberger would have been sidelined significantly longer than those eight peers who personally jeopardized their own health to gain a competitive edge, not the other way around. In handing down the suspension to Rice, Goodell wrote that the NFL “simply does not tolerate conduct that harms others.” If that’s the case, it should be reflected in the league’s actions; words are meaningless here.
Today, roughly 66 percent of NFL teams have at least one player on their rosters with a domestic violence or sexual violence charge on his record. The owners of the individual teams could care less about a player’s wrongdoing in the past; it's all made right on the field if you're scoring points. This is a despicable attitude but not an incomprehensible one. These organizations are out to make a profit and they need to field the best possible talent in order to do so, criminal or not. But here is where Goodell should step in. In his interview with "Mike & Mike," Birch suggested that the way the NFL determines discipline is “based on both the conduct and the importance of making the right message for the league.” The right message would be that domestic and sexual violence is inexcusable, but for men blinded by the pursuit of monetary gains, it seems to be harder to arrive at that conclusion.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon will most likely miss the entire year for smoking pot, which is now legal in two U.S. states. All 14 of the other suspensions this offseason will have a player sit for at least four games. Rice will serve just two for incapacitating his wife with a vicious punch. You can see the hypocrisy in it all with just a surface-level glance. This is bad news for all parties involved, and a more ominous thought is that Rice’s peers have not seriously condemned him for his actions.
The league’s stance on the abuse of women is shown by its handling of numerous cases over the years. I would summarize it as so: if you don’t make us money, you’re on your own. To retired players who sue the league for fumbling the concussion crisis, the answer is the same. The NFL is willing to invest millions and even change the game’s traditional rules to preserve the health of stars in their prime. But for anyone besides the beer-bellied, jersey-donning fanatics filing into stadiums across America every Sunday, if you can’t suit up, your opinion doesn’t matter.
At some point the NFL needs to stop treating these conduct-related incidents from players, coaches, and team administration (see: Jim Irsay) as if they exist in a vacuum. All of these men are role models for young children around America, and if Commissioner Goodell had his way, the rest of the world. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States. This accounts for more harm each year than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. Each case is unique and so are state laws, but in the US judicial system, a conviction can bring a sentence of up to four years. For sexual assault, the terms are similar. However, Roethlisberger received a penalty of four games, Rice just two. True, these men were not convicted for their crimes, but neither was O.J. Simpson or Ray Lewis.
Currently, women represent approximately 45 percent of the NFL fan base, according to Scarborough Research, and 33 percent of viewers based on Nielsen data. To increase profits, the league must find ways for these numbers to increase organically. The NFL now offers pink jerseys and other feminine gear for those interested. But in order to truly reel in this potential fan base for good, the NFL cannot continue to treat women as though they are unimportant to the league’s goals. If it were not enough that women are people too, then I would urge the NFL to consider that women are fans too. As a member of society, the NFL is failing to meet its social responsibilities. What Goodell and the rest of the league office fail to realize is that if the league’s disciplinary policies are not remarkably transformed soon, the NFL's business model may fail, or at least be damaged mightily, as well.
As the NFL’s reach grows in coming years to cover new geographic and demographic regions across the globe, so will the marriage of the world’s attention and the influence of NFL employees and members. Sadly, for now the NFL can get away with having a reputation of condoning violence against women. But if Commissioner Goodell’s aims at expansion are genuine, the league will have to prioritize an ethical operating system over the quality of its product moving forward.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 29:
• This one's for the nerds: The 100 Hottest Cosplay Girls of Comic Con 2014.
• The 30 most ridiculous MLB fan tattoos. Regrets, they've got a few.
• Speaking of Toronto, the Jays' Melky Cabrera broke a winshield outside Fenway with a mammoth home run.
• Watch an amazing 41-shot ping pong rally. Anyone think ping pong isn't a sport?
• The Bachelorette picked her dude last night and then got outed for being kind of a tramp. I'm shocked, I tell you.
• A longform read about baseball's hyper-sexual bro culture. (Language alert)
• This Texas kicker's hair is a cascade of wonder. Harry Styles, he's coming for you.
• Watch a jorts-clad Japanese actress/martial artist break cinder blocks with her head prior to a baseball game.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
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 Big 12 is home to a handful of intriguing names for 2014. Oklahoma has young talent ready to emerge at running back, including Keith Ford and Joe Mixon. In-state rival Oklahoma State has an emerging star in Jhajuan Seales at receiver, while West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley is a key cog in the defense in Morgantown.
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.
Big 12 Breakout Players for 2014
B.J. Catalon, RB, TCU
After averaging only 20.9 points per game (conference-only matchups) in 2013, TCU’s offense was overhauled in the offseason. New co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham plan to increase the tempo and run more spread looks, which should help the Horned Frogs take a step forward on offense this year. There’s uncertainty at quarterback and receiver, but Meacham and Cumbie should be able to utilize Catalon more in 2014. The Texas native caught 11 passes and led TCU with 569 rushing yards and six touchdowns last season. Catalon’s 5.3 yards per carry was impressive, especially behind an offensive line that struggled to find consistency last year. Don’t expect Catalon to log 250 carries, but he should find plenty of touches on the ground and through the air this season.
Terrell Clinkscales, DT, Kansas State
Predicting what type of impact junior college recruits will have in a given season is never easy. For every success story, there are a handful of players who struggle to adapt to the transition. Kansas State has a strong track record of developing junior college recruits, and Clinkscales has a chance to push for a starting role in 2014. The Illinois native played in one season at Dodge City Community College and recorded 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Clinkscales rated as the No. 10 junior college recruit by 247Sports. Even if Clinkscales doesn’t start, the 315-pound tackle will contribute as a key piece of K-State’s defensive line rotation.
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
Baylor’s receiving corps is one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Antwan Goodley (18.9 yards per catch in 2013) and seniors Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller. But with Tevin Reese departing, the Bears are looking for a new speed threat for quarterback Bryce Petty. Coleman impressed as a freshman in 2013, catching 35 passes for 527 yards. And in a good sign for Coleman’s development, the best game (seven receptions for 88 yards) of his 2013 campaign was the Fiesta Bowl. Expect the sophomore to become an even bigger target for Petty in 2014.
Reginald Davis, WR, Texas Tech
Eric Ward and Jace Amaro leave big shoes to fill in Texas Tech’s receiving corps, and the answers for quarterback Davis Webb could come in the form of a few players. The Red Raiders may not have a dominant No. 1 option in 2014, but there’s still a lot of talent for Webb to target. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez combined to catch 114 passes last year and will play a bigger role in the offense in this year, while Davis is a name many in Lubbock expect to have a breakout year after catching 15 passes for 200 yards in 2013. He showed his explosiveness by catching a 38-yard pass against Arizona State and by returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
Keith Ford, RB, Oklahoma
Oklahoma loses its top three statistical running backs from last season (Brennan Clay, Damian Williams and Roy Finch), but Bob Stoops’ team isn’t hurting for talent. Off-the-field issues have clouded touted freshman Joe Mixon’s status for now, but Ford is a five-star talent ready for an opportunity to star in the Oklahoma backfield. The Texas native played in 10 games last season and rushed for 134 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. Ford never recorded more than seven carries in a game but rushed for 34 yards on six attempts against Texas and 15 yards on three carries against Alabama. With one of the Big 12’s top offensive lines leading the way, Ford should find plenty of running room for the Sooners in 2014.
Nick Harwell, WR, Kansas
Fans of MACtion will remember Harwell from his time at Miami, Ohio. The Texas native transferred to Lawrence after three seasons with the RedHawks and is poised to be the No. 1 target for quarterback Montell Cozart in 2014. Harwell caught 229 passes in three years in Oxford, including a monster 2011 season (97 catches, 1,425 yards and nine touchdowns). Asking Harwell to replicate those numbers with a young quarterback is unrealistic, but the senior is a much needed difference maker for a receiving corps that has struggled mightily under coach Charlie Weis.
Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Oklahoma State
Hill drew significant praise from coach Mike Gundy at Big 12 media days, and it’s clear the junior college recruit is going to play a major role in Oklahoma State’s offense this year. Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich plan to use Hill in an all-purpose role and indicated the junior will touch the ball 15-20 times each week. The Georgia native possesses elite speed and won the Big 12 indoor 200 meters title this year. Expect Gundy to get Hill involved in a variety of ways in 2014.
Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor
While Baylor’s offense grabbed most of the headlines for last year’s Big 12 championship, the defense quietly led the conference in fewest yards allowed per play (4.7) in 2013. This unit has to be remodeled in 2014, as only four starters return for coordinator Phil Bennett. The secondary must replace three starters, including standout safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson. Howard played in 13 games in a reserve role last season and recorded five tackles and one interception. Opposing offenses will test the revamped secondary early, but Howard (an imposing 6-foot-2 cornerback) should ensure there’s not a drastic drop in the secondary this season.
Marcus Johnson, WR, Texas
Depth in the receiving corps for Texas has dwindled recently, as Montrel Meander and Kendall Sanders were suspended indefinitely due to an off-the-field incident. With Sanders (37 receptions) out of the picture, Johnson should have a bigger role in the offense. He caught 22 passes for 350 yards (15.9 yards per catch) and two scores last season. Johnson should benefit from the return of quarterback David Ash, along with a rushing attack that features standouts Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. Even if Johnson doesn’t catch 60 passes, his big-play ability will help Ash stretch the field in 2014.
Luke Knott, LB, Iowa State
Knott was on his way to a breakout season in 2013 but a hip injury sidelined him for the final six contests. Through the first six games, Knott recorded 45 tackles, one forced fumble and two pass breakups. The Missouri native was one of the Cyclones’ most active defenders in Big 12 play, recording 11 stops against Texas and 10 against Texas Tech. Knott is expected to start at weakside linebacker, and the sophomore should be one of the leaders in a revamped Iowa State defensive front.
Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
It might be unrealistic to ask Lazard to make a huge impact as a freshman, but the Iowa native is simply too talented to sit on the bench. Lazard ranked as the No. 11 receiver in the 247Sports Composite and caught 105 passes and 34 touchdowns during his high school career. Lazard should give quarterback Grant Rohach another weapon in the passing game, as the Cyclones already have reliable options in tight end E.J. Bibbs and receiver Quenton Bundrage. If Lazard picks up the offense this fall, he will play a significant role in the passing game for Iowa State.
Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
Lache Seastrunk’s big-play ability will be missed in Waco, but Baylor’s backfield should still rank among the best in the Big 12 this season. Linwood played in 12 contests last year and finished second on the team with 881 yards and eight scores. The Texas native recorded four 100-yard efforts, including 182 yards in the 41-12 victory over Oklahoma. Linwood should handle the bulk of the carries in Baylor’s backfield, but redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson, sophomore Devin Chafin and true freshman Terence Williams will all factor in to the mix. Linwood is a projected first-team All-Big 12 back by Athlon Sports for 2014.
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
At 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds, Oakman is an imposing figure off the edge for Phil Bennett’s defense. The Pennsylvania native started his career at Penn State but transferred after a redshirt year. Oakman’s first game experience in college occurred last season, as he played in all 13 games, recorded 33 tackles (12.5 for a loss) and two sacks. Most of Oakman’s production came early in the year, including 3.5 tackles for a loss against Wofford and two against Iowa State. He only recorded 0.5 tackles for a loss over the final six games, but the experience gained by Oakman through his first extended playing time should be valuable in 2014. Expect the junior to be one of the top defensive ends in the Big 12 this year.
Kevin Peterson, CB, Oklahoma State
NFL first-round pick Justin Gilbert leaves big shoes to fill in the Oklahoma State secondary. Gilbert’s presence was a key reason why the Cowboys allowed only 11 passing scores in Big 12 games last year, and coordinator Glenn Spencer is counting on Peterson and Ashton Lampkin to raise their game in 2014. Peterson recorded 24 tackles (three for a loss), two interceptions and four pass breakups last year. The Oklahoma native received plenty of attention opposite of Gilbert, but he’s likely tasked with defending opposing team’s No. 1 receivers in 2014. Expect Peterson to challenge for all-conference honors. Another name to watch on Oklahoma State’s defense: Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah.
Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
With Aaron Colvin departing, Oklahoma is counting on Sanchez to be the top cornerback on a defense that should be one of the nation’s best. Most Sooner fans are familiar with Sanchez after a standout freshman season, but the Texas native is poised to emerge as one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Sanchez started all 13 games, recorded 46 tackles and intercepted two passes. With Colvin on the other side last year, it was no surprise Sanchez was frequently targeted. However, he responded by defending 15 passes. Opposing Big 12 quarterbacks will likely stay away from Sanchez this season.
Jhajuan Seales, WR, Oklahoma State
There’s a significant amount of roster turnover for Oklahoma State in 2014. The Cowboys return only eight starters and lost 28 seniors from last season’s team. Despite the turnover, Mike Gundy’s team can still push for eight wins. For Oklahoma State to push for a spot among the top four teams in the Big 12, quarterback J.W. Walsh has to play with more consistency after an up-and-down stint in 2013. But Walsh should have plenty of help at the skill positions, as running back Desmond Roland rushed for 811 yards last year, and Seales is primed for a breakout year at receiver. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Seales grabbed 39 receptions for 571 yards and three scores. The Texas native is a physical presence on the outside but also has the speed to be a big-play threat for Walsh.
Rushel Shell, RB, West Virginia
Remember him? Shell was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and rushed for 641 yards and four scores during his freshman season at Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania native transferred following the 2012 season and landed at West Virginia. After sitting out 2013 due to NCAA transfer rules, Shell is poised to be one of the top playmakers for the Mountaineers. The sophomore will battle with Dreamius Smith, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie for carries, but Shell has the most upside and talent among the running backs in Morgantown. With quarterback Clint Trickett recovering from shoulder surgery, West Virginia’s offense could feature the run more in 2014. If Shell picks up where he left off in 2012, he could push for All-Big 12 honors.
Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett will be missed, but there’s optimism in Fort Worth that TCU’s secondary is still the best in the Big 12. The safety spots are in good hands with Sam Carter and Chris Hackett, and cornerback Kevin White is a second-team All-Big 12 selection by Athlon Sports for 2014. Texada was a spring standout for the Horned Frogs after redshirting in 2013, and the Texas native should team with White to help the defense ease the loss of Verrett.
Dalvin Warmack, RB, Kansas State
In the last seven years, no Kansas State freshman running back has rushed for more than 400 yards in a season. Could that change in 2014? The Wildcats lack a clear replacement for John Hubert, with Demarcus Robinson, Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones considered the early favorites for the No. 1 job. Warmack is a name to remember this fall, as the true freshman could stake his claim for playing time. The Missouri native rushed for 2,223 yards and 29 touchdowns at Blue Springs High School in 2013 and ranked as a three-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite.
Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia
Worley has generated plenty of buzz this offseason in Morgantown. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-1 cornerback from Philadelphia played in 11 games in 2013 and recorded 45 tackles and broke up five passes. Considering the offensive firepower in the Big 12, having a shutdown corner with the size to matchup against big receivers is a valuable asset for any defense. And the Mountaineers’ defense may have to shoulder more of the load in 2014, as the offense – especially the quarterback spot – is a work in progress. With another year to develop, expect Worley to challenge for all-conference honors this year.
Walk into any major college football facility and you will likely be greeted by some sort of massive trophy case.
Some are bigger than others, some are more stocked than others and some are featured more prominently than others. But every school has one.
Largely, they are used to show off former exploits and accomplishments on the field to future recruits. “Come to State U and you can win a Heisman Trophy.”
Yes, there are also bowl trophies in those same cases but the BBVA Compass Bowl championship trophy doesn’t resonate with a star athlete like an individual award can.
Who are the front-runners to win those esteemed and coveted national awards in 2014? Here are Athlon Sports’ preseason predictions for each of the major individual awards:
Heisman: Marcus Mariota, Oregon
The odds are stacked against Jameis Winston repeating and the safest bet, should he stay healthy, is the Ducks' superstar signal-caller. Mariota has the numbers, the stats, the highlight-reel plays and a potential run at a national championship. Finalists: Jameis Winston, Braxton Miller, Brett Hundley
Maxwell: Jameis Winston, Florida State
The Heisman Trophy winner rarely gets the nod as “Player of the Year.” Tim Tebow was the last player to win both and only one defensive player since Hugh Green in 1980 has won it (Manti Te’o). The Maxwell is a nice consolation prize for Winston. Finalists: Melvin Gordon, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley
Davey O’Brien: Jameis Winston, Florida State
Part of the reason Mariota is the pick to win the Heisman is his athletic ability. While Winston may not repeat as the stiff-armed champion, he is still likely to be the best passer in the game this fall. Again, a nice consolation prize for the Noles' quarterback. Finalists: Bryce Petty, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley
Doak Walker: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
This class of tailbacks is absolutely loaded and a dozen of them have a legit case to be the Doak Walker winner. Gordon, who posted over 1,600 yards in a timeshare situation last fall, is the star of the show for an offense known for producing elite running backs. The outstanding O-line, easy schedule and Todd Gurley’s penchant for missing time pushes Gordon to the top of the list. Finalists: Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, Mike Davis
Biletnikoff: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
This is certainly a bit of a projection but there is little doubting Treadwell’s overall ability. He is a sure-fire, first-round NFL talent who is playing in an up-tempo offense in the nation’s toughest league with a senior quarterback. The production is there and one or two upsets over, say, Alabama or Auburn would only increase Treadwell's profile nationally. Finalists: Nelson Agholor, Amari Cooper, Tyler Boyd
Mackey: O.J. Howard, Alabama
Bama wideout Christion Jones told me at SEC Media Days that Howard was the best and most important player on the Tide roster. He is a freakish athlete, both physically and mentally, and he might be the best blocker on a team picked to play in the national championship game. Finalists: Nick O’Leary, Jeff Heuerman
Outland: Andrus Peat, Stanford
This team is known for producing elite offensive lineman and Peat might be the best of the bunch. He has the size, athleticism, production, team success and every other aspect to a resume deserving of being labeled the best in the nation. Finalists: Cameron Erving, Brandon Scherff, Cedric Ogbuehi
Rimington: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon
Grasu plays for one of the best offenses in the nation, one picked to win the Pac-12 championship. He was named first-team All-American in the preseason this summer and that makes him the front-runner to claim the honor of best pivot in the land. Finalists: Reese Dismukes, B.J. Finney
Johnny Rodgers: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Lockett has elite speed, quickness, burst and has proven to be extremely dangerous in the return game. The first-team preseason All-American return man will have many chances to post highlight-reel plays against top-10 teams Auburn, Oklahoma and Baylor. Finalists: Ty Montgomery, Nelson Agholor
Bednarik/Nagurski: Shaq Thompson, Washington
Thompson is in a great situation to excel in 2014. After shifting to linebacker, Thompson may actually add running back to his already impressive resume. The Huskies' star tackler will post huge numbers for a team that could very easily be the story of the Pac-12 by season’s end. He has elite physical ability and won’t disappoint this fall. Finalists: Shilique Calhoun, Vic Beasley, Eric Striker
Lombardi: Chris Jones, Mississippi State
As just a true freshman, Jones proved he was worthy of his lofty five-star recruiting status. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder appears to be a lock as a future NFL star and should be virtually unmovable in the SEC West this fall. Watch for the Bulldogs to surprise some people based on Jones and a very stout defensive front seven. Finalists: Leonard Williams, Vic Beasley, Randy Gregory
Hendricks: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
There are a lot of great defensive ends around the nation but Calhoun could be the best. He makes game-changing plays (see three defensive TDs last fall) and he will be the star of what should once again be one of the nation’s elite defenses. A win over Ohio State and another Big Ten title would supplant Calhoun as the nation’s top DE. Finalists: Leonard Williams, Vic Beasley, Randy Gregory
Butkus: Shaq Thompson, Washington
Thompson is a tackling machine who uses superior physical ability to fly all over the field. He will be in most national defensive award races all season long and should the Huskies upset the cart in the Pac-12 North, it will be because of guys like Thompson. Finalists: Jaylon Smith, Eric Striker, Myles Jack
Thorpe: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
Much like Jones at Mississippi State, Hargreaves quickly established himself as a superstar as just a freshman last fall. He is the nation’s top pure coverman and he could play for one of the most improved teams in the nation in Gainesville. Finalists: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Landon Collins, Jalen Ramsey
Coach of the Year: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
This one is nearly impossible, as the Coach of the Year is rarely the guy who is picked to win the league or national title. Names like Chris Petersen, Gary Pinkel, Todd Graham, Dan Mullen and Bill Snyder could dramatically overachieve this fall. Freeze, should he lead Ole Miss to a nine- or 10-win season, would certainly fall into that category. Finalists: Chris Petersen, Gary Andersen, Dan Mullen
Freshman of the Year: Leonard Fournette, LSU
There are few names on this list I feel better about getting correct than Fournette at LSU. The superstar No. 1 running back in the nation will be running behind a great veteran O-line and there is little doubt he will burst onto the national scene in just his first year. Finalists: Jabrill Peppers, Kyle Allen, Joe Mixon
Frank Broyles: Chad Morris, Clemson
The top offensive assistant in the land has his work cut out for him as stars Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Roderick McDowell have all departed. Despite all of this turnover, look for Morris to turn Cole Stoudt into an All-ACC passer and for the Tigers to push for 10 wins again this fall. Finalists: Pat Narduzzi, Mike Stoops, Justin Wilcox
Speeding past the sport’s best drivers 20 years ago, Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 en route to starting his own legacy. Much has been made of the win’s impact — his second of 90 Cup victories, — even though it was hardly surprising at the time. After all, Gordon was blooming in his second season and the Indiana native was expected to morph into one of the sport’s all-time best. For me, on its 20th anniversary, the bigger statistic that remains is just two active drivers remain competing on the Cup circuit from that race: Gordon and Bobby Labonte, who popped up as part of his limited schedule Sunday.
So much has changed since then, but who would have thought at age 43 Gordon would be the only Cup driver to survive NASCAR’s robust growth period? It’s hard to believe, and a stark reminder of how short the careers of athletes can be even in NASCAR. To complete 21 Brickyard 400s, Jimmie Johnson needs to race until the year 2022 (age 47). To match that total, Tony Stewart must race until 2019 (age 48). Do you honestly see either driver lasting in the Cup Series that long with the amount of outside commitments, the grueling nine-month schedule and the push to keep up performance? Burnout can be mental just as much as physical and the pressure wears out even the best of athletes.
Once a generation, we still might have someone pop up like a Kyle Larson, who’s young enough and mentally tough enough to last that long. We’re still waiting on the next Mark Martin freak that enters the Cup Series late — in his 30s — but has the physical fitness regimen to stay active long into their early 50s. But for most, the clock ticks quickly once they hit a certain age — for every Martin there’s a Darrell Waltrip, who stopped winning by age 45. Ditto for Richard Petty, while Cale Yarborough cashed in for the final time at 46. Heck, we might be witnessing the beginning of the end for Stewart (43) right this second and not know it yet.
So Gordon, who once said he’d be done racing by his early 40s, should be celebrated for his longevity — and his success. Just one of the other 42 drivers in that first Brickyard field even had enough talent to qualify for Sunday’s race, let alone have the competitive fire and talent to make it to Victory Lane. Johnson may have overshadowed Gordon’s success at Hendrick Motorsports over the last decade, but make no mistake — he is still one of the greatest this sport will ever see.
“Through the Gears,” post-Indy we go …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick remains atop the charts
Gordon’s victory, which cemented his lead atop the Sprint Cup standings, is also another notch in Hendrick’s belt. After a month outside Victory Lane, HMS simply dominated, with Kasey Kahne leading a race-high 70 laps and Gordon following close behind, armed with the fastest car. While Joe Gibbs Racing finished 2-3-4 — a sign of continued improvement — it’s clear that when all the cards are shown in “major events” like Indy, it’s still Hendrick that remains a step above everyone else. The organization may have just seven of the 20 Sprint Cup wins so far this season but that total’s still good enough to lead all teams on the circuit.
Although snookered on the final restart, Hendrick’s most promising showing may have come from Kahne, who put himself in position to win. Now only four points out of a Chase spot, the success of the No. 5 team of late has most thinking it will make the postseason, either by sneaking in the old-fashioned way or via a trip to Victory Lane at Michigan or Bristol.
“It is the strongest effort the team has put out all season long,” Kahne said after coming home sixth. “All of us working together, yeah, we can take a lot out of here.”
So with Gibbs and even Penske Racing a step behind, at this “major” it’s clear Hendrick can take the words “title favorite” and wear them proudly around the shop once again. With Gordon on pace, Kahne seemingly on the brink, Dale Earnhardt Jr. making a push in his final year with Steve Letarte and Johnson being … well, Johnson, you get the picture.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see a Gordon-Earnhardt-Johnson contingent inside the Final Four — and if Kahne reaches Victory Lane, any kryptonite within the organization disappears. And let’s not forget Chase Elliott making the Nationwide Series his personal playground right now, his three victories and continued development leaving HMS in position to stay at the top of NASCAR’s ladder over the long-term.
SECOND GEAR: Kevin Harvick’s swings and misses
For Kevin Harvick, the off week was a chance to regroup and relearn how “The Closer” can finish races with what has arguably been the fastest car on the circuit. Leading 894 laps, only Johnson has run up front more, but Harvick, despite two victories, has seen a long list of team-inflicted mistakes take their toll. He’s got only one top-5 finish in the last eight races, with another missed opportunity at Indy on Sunday. Winning the pole in demanding fashion, he failed to find the handle over the course of the race and wound up a disappointing eighth. It’s part of a trend, the eighth straight event in which the No. 4 — which admittedly often qualifies up front — has finished worse than its starting spot.
“Yeah, we just started off bad really from the first lap,” he said. “We were just way too tight as we went through the day and we never could make it better. Just made it worse most of the day. So yeah, just way too tight.”
Harvick’s frustration has clearly built over the last few months and often led to public criticism of his team. While others like Johnson can struggle pre-Chase and get the team together, you get the sense Harvick’s emotion makes this team in its first year a different case. So watch the performance of the No. 4 closely over the next month; while they’ve clinched a Chase spot, a poor performance now is likely a good predictor of how they’ll do when the races really count.
INDIANAPOLIS | Edwards couldn't say "no" twice
THIRD GEAR: Indy’s single-file parade
For those who watched the Eldora Truck race, where passing happened every turn of every lap, Sunday’s Indy slate was a bore by comparison. One observer, taking photos in Turn 1, quipped that the field was single-file, first to 43rd, every time within the first two green-flag laps. That’s par for the course at Indy, whose racing has suffered exponentially since Goodyear’s embarrassing tire debacle of 2008.
Since then, the route has been to go towards conservative, same speed, single-file racing at a track already hard to pass rather than risk a handful of blowouts. So teams have now resorted to fuel strategy, stretching their stops and trying to go off sequence in a race that feels more like a road course than an oval. Why not? If you’re stuck in 25th with no hope of moving up, daring pit calls are your only hope to get to the front.
Here’s the difference between Indy and say, Watkins Glen: people play around in the pits on road courses and actually pass. At Indy, there’s little if any of that, which is why it’s no surprise the stands look emptier every year. It’s a broken record that’s got to be fixed one of these years if the race is ever going to match the hype.
FOURTH GEAR: Danica’s Indy drought continues
It’s been nearly a decade since Danica Patrick put herself on the map, contending for victory as a rookie at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005. Now, in 2014, her limited success stories are getting old, improvement seemingly not fast enough as her sophomore season at Stewart-Haas Racing has passed with little more than a blip on the radar screen.
That’s why Indy is so important, a chance for her to connect to past success. Instead, for the second straight year, Patrick wasn’t really a factor, as a broken rear gear erased a strong qualifying run and added to the list of disappointments this season.
“It just one of those things,” she said after ending the day inside the garage. “It’s too bad and these things never happen when you’re having a bad day. We were having a good day. We were the fastest car out there at times. We qualified better and had a good car for the race, it just didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”
For Patrick, it was one of the last times this season she had a chance to jump into contention. The Chase will leave her all but invisible, on the outside looking in to what’s been a disappointing Cup career.
Indy, notoriously a poor track for rookies, was forgiving to Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Both top freshman contenders ran inside the top 10 Sunday, while Austin’s brother, Ty, won the Nationwide Series race at the track on Saturday. Both youngsters find themselves on the Chase bubble as the regular season winds down. … It was a tough day for Paul Menard, who was one of the few drivers to make contact with the outside wall Sunday. A 34th-place disappointment at the only track where he’s won a Cup race leaves him on the outside of the Chase looking in. Chances are that’s where he’ll stay. … Carl Edwards was 15th after his long-rumored departure from Roush Fenway Racing was made official. Look for Edwards to join Joe Gibbs Racing in a fourth car, with sponsorship and details to be announced in early September. For its part, RFR quickly re-signed Greg Biffle to ensure it still has one veteran to team with youngsters Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne next season. And no, no one was surprised.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
CHICAGO — Braxton Miller has been good — very good — the last two seasons. Only now, though, is Ohio State coach Urban Meyer starting to see his quarterback nearing his potential.
“He’s real close,” Meyer said from Big Ten Media Day Monday. “I made the comment that you couldn’t see the ceiling (before). You can see the ceiling with him now.”
That ceiling is a mix of a lethal run-pass threat at quarterback and a leader of a potential national title-contending team. To reach that ceiling and for Ohio State to remain in championship contention, Miller may have to get through a season unscathed.
Meyer tried to deflect some attention away from Miller to an offensive line that returns only one starter, but it’s clear the quarterback is the key. Ohio State has sent him to work with Jon Gruden and brought in a former NFL general manager to meet with him.
“We’ve pulled out every possible stop to make sure he’s ready to go and he embraced it,” Meyer said.
Miller isn’t shy about talking about the possibility of what could happen if he has a season at his potential. This is a guy who walks past seven Heisman Trophies on his way through the Ohio State football facility. He’s twice finished in the top 10 and appeared on several watch lists.
“I’ve been in the Heisman talk since my sophomore year,” Miller said. “I walk past that all the time, and I think about what I need to do to walk across that podium.”
With a Sept. 6 game against Virginia Tech — ranked 27th by Athlon Sports in the preseason — Miller will need to get off to a healthier start than he did a year ago if he's going to achieve those kinds of goals.
Miller missed two full games and most of a third in September last season with a knee injury. Lucky for Ohio State, those games were against San Diego State, Cal and Florida A&M. Miller, though, returned to the lineup at full strength, throwing four touchdown passes in a 31-24 win over Wisconsin on Sept. 28.
But Miller also struggled by the end of the year. He was a combined 14-of-36 for 234 yards passing against Michigan and Michigan State, though he rushed for nearly 300 yards and five touchdowns as the Buckeyes split games against the Spartans and Wolverines. He also played through a shoulder injury in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, in which he accounted for three total touchdowns but also threw two interceptions.
Miller attempted to rehab the shoulder without surgery for the first seven weeks of the offseason before deciding to undergo outpatient surgery in late February. The surgery kept him out of spring practice, which may not have been all bad for Miller.
"It's probably what I needed," Miller said. "Just learning the game from the defensive coaches. Learning how practice is without you practicing."
Since his offseason surgery, Miller says he's been throwing for two weeks, and he has returned to full strength.
The margin for error, though, will be slim. Ohio State is counting on Miller like never before. Perhaps that’s a strong statement for a quarterback who has passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 the last two seasons. But it’s accurate.
Ohio State will need to replace Carlos Hyde, who rushed for 1,521 yards in 11 games last season. Two starting receivers return, but Meyer was displeased with the progress of the entire position group during the spring.
Perhaps most important is the departure of Kenny Guiton, a senior who flourished in his role as backup the last two seasons. Guiton completed 68.4 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions in September last season, and a year earlier, he led Ohio State to an overtime win over Purdue in relief of an injured Miller.
Ohio State’s backup quarterback is now sophomore Cardale Jones, who has thrown two career passes. Of course, the Buckeyes hope the season doesn’t come down to a backup.
A healthy Miller may be the difference between a solid Ohio State team and one looking to make up for near misses the last two seasons.
In 2012, the Buckeyes went 12-0 but missed a chance at a Big Ten championship and a potential national championship game while serving a bowl ban. Had Ohio State served its bowl ban a year earlier — when the Buckeyes wrapped up a 6-7 season with a Gator Bowl loss — the 2012 team may have been able to play for a national championship.
And last season, Ohio State started 12-0 before losing 34-24 to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and 40-35 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
In addition, a healthy and productive season could make Miller the most prolific quarterback for Meyer and the Big Ten.
With a career year, Miller could top Florida’s Tim Tebow in career total offense among Meyer quarterbacks. Miller enters his senior season 3,886 yards short of the 2007 Heisman winner. With a monster year, Miller could challenge Purdue’s Drew Brees’ for the Big Ten record of total offense. Miller is 4,346 yards short of Brees’ record of 12,692 total yards.
Granted, Miller’s average the last two seasons is 3,236 yards per year, both times in 12 games. Ohio State, ranked No. 3 in the Athlon preseason top 25, has aspirations of playing more than a dozen games, though.
The goal isn’t the numbers. It’s the balance. Meyer needs Miller to improve his ability in the passing game to reach that ceiling that’s now in his quarterback’s sights.
“We have to be very balanced,” Meyer said. “We have been too one-dimensional with him. He’s got the skill set and we believe he has the knowledge, and we believe the personnel around him is better.”
CHICAGO — This is not the Penn State program Mike Hull thought he was joining.
Now, that’s not a bad thing, but the James Franklin style is not one Hull thought he’d be embracing when he was a recruit from Canonsburg, Pa., in 2009.
“My perception of Penn State was straight-edge, take-care-of-business kind of team,” Hull said from Big Ten Media Day on Monday. “But (Franklin) is putting himself out there. That’s what you need to do as a program these days.”
Putting himself out there is Franklin talking up Penn State, continuing to hang out in the SEC territory and boasting of the work he’ll put in to recruit the backyards of new Big Ten foes Maryland and Rutgers.
“From time to time that gets me in trouble, but I don’t want to lose that aspect of who I am,” Franklin said. “I come to things like this and don’t want to be this boring standard coach who gives these dry answers. I want to have fun.”
This is a strange sight, a Penn State coach who doesn't mind ruffling feathers.
Predecessor Bill O’Brien may have been the perfect figure to lead Penn State as it recovered from the death of Paterno and Jerry Sandusky scandal. O'Brien was more consumed with the product on the field far more than pleasing various factions around Penn State.
Paterno every now and then would take a dig at Jackie Sherrill and Barry Switzer, but before the scandal that tainted his legacy, Paterno aimed to keep college athletics as a place of humility and virtue.
Franklin may try to re-establish that message. At the same time, though, he’s shown no sign of backing down from poking other programs. In a speech to boosters in Baltimore, Franklin said he considers the states of Maryland and New Jersey to be in-state as far as recruiting is concerned, a shot across the bow for the Terrapins and Rutgers. “They might as well shut them down because they don’t have a chance,” Franklin told the crowd, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“I get up and talk to our fans and try to get them excited,” Franklin said. “I probably said a few things I shouldn’t have said because I’m trying to get our fans excited.”
Franklin said he’s not surprised by the attention. Poking a potential rival drives clicks to web sites, he says.
Franklin also kept his Southeastern ties alive as he and his staff served as guest coaches at Georgia State and Stetson football camps in June. The camps in Atlanta and Central Florida mean Franklin can do something SEC coaches cannot — work camps in the Southeast. SEC rules prohibit league coaches from working camps more than 50 miles away from campus; Big Ten rules have no such limitations.
SEC coaches and administrators weren’t impressed.
Franklin has at least a few good reasons for his bravado.
He led Vanderbilt to three consecutive bowl games without a quarterback garnering serious consideration for All-SEC. At Penn State, he’ll have Christian Hackenberg, who is already one of the nation’s top passers as a sophomore.
As a true freshman, Hackenberg was third in the Big Ten at 246.3 passing yards per game. He was arguably the top passer in the league in the final month of the season. In November, he threw eight touchdowns to two interceptions and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. Penn State also returns its entire stable of running backs, led by Zach Zwinak.
But the Nittany Lions also lose Hackenberg’s top target in Allen Robinson and have a line that may be among the worst in the league. Left tackle Donovan Smith is the lone returning starter on a thin unit filled out by freshmen.
The schedule, at least, includes no non-conference opponent tougher than a UCF team without Blake Bortles and no crossover games with Athlon’s top three teams in the West (Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa).
As a rival coach might say, “talk is cheap.” Franklin will find out soon if the edge he’s brought to Penn State will yield dividends.
“Sometimes we think it’s too much,” Hull joked. “But it makes you want to play for someone who is that passionate.”
CHICAGO — The Bo Pelini image makeover isn’t a makeover at all, at least as far as his players are concerned.
Pelini’s sideline blowups have been well-documented. During the season, he can be short and gruff with answers to the media.
But his players are perplexed the outside world is starting to see the new, looser side of their embattled coach.
“It’s funny, man, everyone keeps saying he’s changed. He hasn’t changed a bit to me,” Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah said from Big Ten Media Day on Monday. “He’s the same guy as when he sat on my couch recruiting me.”
The coach Abdullah knows is the one who brings a cat to the spring game and hoists the feline into the air to present the him in to the crowd. The coach Abdullah knows is the one who teamed with former defensive tackle Thad Randle for a prank in which Pelini smashes a cell phone with a hammer during a team meeting.
That’s the coach Nebraska safety Corey Cooper knows, too.
“The cameras are on him when he’s at his most stressful point — when he’s coaching,” Cooper said. “We see him every day, and he’s a player-friendly guy. I wouldn’t want to play for any other coach.”
That’s the side those around Pelini — those he trusts and sometimes the staff, he says — want him to show more often.
“Some people around me have encouraged me to show that side,” Pelini said. “I guess I’ve always chosen not to. I guess I’m I private person. When I’m away from the office I’m to myself. I spend 99 percent of my time away from football with my kids. I haven’t really let a lot of people in.”
That’s starting to change, especially compared to where he was near the end of last season.
Pelini wrapped up his sixth regular season in defiant fashion, telling reporters that Nebraska could “go ahead” and fire him if the administration wanted. The frustration of another four-loss season had boiled over.
Nebraska didn’t fire Pelini and instead extended his contract. At the least, it’s a vote of confidence that Pelini is the coach who will keep Nebraska nationally prominent. At this stage, though, the program has been stagnant. Pelini has lost exactly four games every season at Nebraska. He’s also won nine or 10 games each season and reached a conference championship game three times.
But Pelini’s record isn’t an outlier in recent Nebraska history. The Cornhuskers haven’t lost fewer than four games since 2003 and haven’t finished in the top 10 since a national title game appearance in 2001.
If Nebraska is going to struggle again, Pelini seems determined to make sure he isn’t the one contributing to the “negativity” he says played a role in the Huskers’ inconsistency in 2013.
Pelini’s public persona may have done little favors for Nebraska’s season, but it’s been a part of him since he played safety at Ohio State.
“They see this part of you, and they think that’s you all the time,” Pelini said. “But that was the case when I was playing. They see that side of me and then they get to know me and it’s night and day. That’s the case with a lot of people."
Which brings us to the cat.
Younger Nebraska fans, good luck explaining to your parents or grandparents why Bo Pelini hoisting a cat into the air at a spring game is a meaningful gesture.
First, explain the parody Twitter account @FauxPelini, a caricature of Pelini’s explosive temper. And in that parody, an image of Pelini holds a cat in a cheesy Olan Mills pose.
Then, on the night of the national championship game, Pelini (the real one) does this:
@FauxPelini ok enough is enough... I want my cat back. You've had her long enough!— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) January 7, 2014
Nebraska went all-in on Pelini’s spontaneous interaction with his Twitter parody, posting an image of a cat in Pelini’s office and an image of an assistant leaving for a recruiting trip with a cat carrier.
Then came this:
So, this is a long way to explain show that Pelini and Nebraska is going to great lengths to shed the coach’s stern exterior. Pelini seems conscious his image could use a makeover, if for no other reason than to do his part to keep "negativity" from harming his team.
After Nebraska lost 41-21 to UCLA on Sept. 14, a tipster leaked to Deadspin an audio recording from 2011 of Pelini’s profane comments regarding fans and local media. (Warning: Bad words) “We'll see what they can do when I'm (expletive) gone,” Pelini says in the recording.
Was it unfair for a tipster to release audio from two years earlier? Perhaps. But Pelini didn’t really help his case at the end of the year after wrapping up another four-loss season with a 38-17 loss at home to Iowa.
“They want to fire me, go ahead,” Pelini told reporters. “I believe in what I’ve done. I don’t apologize for what I’ve done. I don’t apologize to you. I don’t apologize to anybody."
The question now is if 9-4 or 10-4 should be considered a success with this season’s group. Gone is Nebraska career passing leader Taylor Martinez, who played only four games last season.
On the plus side, Nebraska returns Tommy Armstrong, who went 7-1 as a starter after Martinez was lost to injury. Abdullah returns after rushing for 1,690 yards, the fourth-highest total in school history. The Huskers also have an Athlon second-team All-America pass-rusher in Randy Gregory. But the offensive line returns only one starter, and only five starters return to the defense.
The schedule may be more manageable with a home game against Miami replacing the series with UCLA. The Big Ten West figures to be easier to navigate than the East, but Nebraska must visit division contenders Wisconsin and Iowa while facing Michigan State on the road.
So the next question is if Pelini will have as much fun with the on-field performance as he is with his players.
“He’s a very passionate guy. He loves football,” Abdullah said. “You don’t want to play for anyone who isn’t passionate about football.”
For some athletes, career achievements are done on a grander scale. Every accomplishment has a little more flare, it has more of a trailblazing bent and therefore seamlessly falls into place, making a good story not only great, but transcendent. Think Jeter, Jordan and Montana.
Think Jeff Gordon.
His victory at Indianapolis on Sunday — a record fifth Brickyard 400 triumph — was the 90th of Gordon’s star-studded NASCAR career. He is a four-time Cup champion and has won nearly everything there is to win in the sport, but we’ll get to the gaudy numbers soon enough. See, Gordon was destined for notoriety from the start.
A rising open wheel talent, his intended path to Indianapolis Motor Speedway was derailed before it ever truly began. Unable to bring the personal or sponsorship money it took to break into the open-wheel big-time, Gordon instead gave stock cars a whirl and realized his true calling.
This is where the intangibly special, now-mythic story of his NASCAR career took shape. Following a couple seasons honing his skills in the Busch (now Nationwide) Series, Gordon was swiped away from Ford team owner Bill Davis by Chevy’s Rick Hendrick. Fittingly, he made his first Cup Series start in a race many point to as the most significant of NASCAR’s modern era: the 1992 Hooter’s 500.
Still considered the greatest championship finale the sport witnessed until its made-for-TV playoff “Chase,” that race in Atlanta is now recognized as a true game-changer for the NASCAR. As Richard Petty — the figurehead of all-things-NASCAR — participated in his final race, Jeff Gordon — the soon-to-be choice of a new generation — was to start his first. Nearly 22 years later the event drips symbolism.
The season that followed was marked by bent sheet metal and hard lessons learned for the 21-year-old. However, by his sophomore campaign in 1994, Jeff Gordon was ready to burst out. And burst out he did.
Twenty years ago, Gordon won his first Cup race, the Coca-Cola 600, in Charlotte. Just over two months later, he received a hometown welcome for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in Indiana. Although stock cars “invading” Indy’s hallowed ground was viewed as blasphemous by some open-wheel traditionalists at the time, there was no denying the race would go down as a defining moment in motorsports history. So what better place for Gordon to have his coming out party?
Having moved with his family from California to Pittsboro, Ind., as a teen to advance his racing career, the storybook victory that weekend in front of a quarter of a million spectators — mind, at that point he had two Cup wins, both crown jewel events — kick started a run that was unequalled until protégé Jimmie Johnson hit the circuit in 2002.
The next season Gordon won his first Winston Cup championship. Three more followed by 2001. In that seven-year run of brilliance, Gordon won 56 races, tacked on two additional wins at both the Brickyard and in the Coke 600 as well as two Daytona 500 championships and a dazzling four Southern 500 triumphs. He did so while viewed by many fans as an outsider. Worse, he upstaged and at most every turn got best of the great Dale Earnhardt — a point that drew the ire of many an old-schooler.
In fact, NASCAR’s skyrocketing popularity at the time could be boiled down to the Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry; gruff, old-school Southerner vs. young, hot-shot Hollywood type. They couldn’t have been more different in their approach or in their persona; it was the perfect duel.
INDIANAPOLIS | NASCAR, Indy need marquee winner to bolster slumping 400
All the while, NASCAR team owners studied intently the mold in which to sculpt their own next find — and the impersonators came in droves. Few stuck, though. Gordon combined the best of both worlds in a way none of the other hopefuls could: his acumen as a corporate pitchman was exceeded only by his talent behind the wheel. Gordon was the white-hot catalyst that brought about change to a regional sport already on the brink of national prominence.
He became the face of NASCAR.
Still, 20 years ago no one could have predicted his tenured relevance, despite the obvious greatness and his penchant for rewriting record books. (Gordon himself quipped at various points throughout his career that he didn’t see racing into his 40s.) Yet, here he is. NASCAR’s elder statesman. Hot-shoe turned vet. Playboy turned family man. Playing through nagging back pain. Still driven, though now by different priorities.
“My wife and kids, they’ve never experienced (a championship),” Gordon says of his quest for a fifth title. “We're just putting everything we possibly can into it.”
INDIANAPOLIS | NASCAR'S 10 most memorable moments at the Brickyard
Is a title at 43 years of age feasible? Bobby Allison won the 1983 Cup at the age of 45, becoming the oldest champion in the sport’s history. Of course, Allison did so competing in a format that rewarded sustained success throughout a season. For the last decade, Gordon has battled a system focused on garnering television ratings more than placing a premium on crowing the most deserving driver a champion.
“I’m not thinking about anything else, in all honesty, other than going race-to-race in this season to try to battle for a championship,” Gordon says. “That’s the only thing I’m thinking about at this point.”
Maybe under NASCAR’s newest iteration of the Chase, crown jewel wins are more meaningful than championships. The biggest and best teams roll out their primo stuff for the most prestigious races — and beating everyone at their best is the true mark of a champion. Much more so than surviving a concocted Roulette wheel of a playoff scheme.
Regardless, a title is still viewed as the ultimate endgame. If Gordon, who has led the point standings for 14 consecutive race weeks, can capture championship No. 5 this season, he’ll do so in a manner epitomizing his 1994 and 2014 Brickyard wins: by making good stories great and great stories transcendent.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 28:
• This should help with your case of the Mondays: 40 hot Instagram photos from last week.
• Catnip for grammar nerds like me: Greg Maddux's Hall of Fame plaque has a grammatical error.
• Now that Tony La Russa is safely ensconced in Cooperstown, he's comfortable letting in the cheaters.
• Joe Torre forgot to mention George Steinbrenner in his Hall of Fame speech. Zombie Steinbrenner then tried to fire him.
• Stephen A. Smith had a bad week last week. At this point, for Stephen A. it's all about damage control.
• An NFL bigwig took a shot at justifying the Ray Rice suspension. It didn't go well.
• Dale Jr.'s mom sent him a funny post-race text, although she apparently thinks congratulations is spelled with a "d".
• A volleyball player from Kazakhstan has been deemed "too attractive" and "distracting to fans." She's cute, but if this is what passes for outrageous hotness in Kazakhstan...
• If you've got a few minutes, watch Frank Thomas' emotional Hall of Fame speech.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Using the past to project the future has major flaws but in the case of the Heisman Trophy, the past can be extremely useful.
There are a few numbers college football fans need to know when it comes to the Heisman Trophy and how to handicap the race for the 2014 stiff-armed trophy.
First, quarterbacks have won the award four straight years and 12 of the last 14. Mark Ingram (2009) and Reggie Bush (2005) are the only running backs since the turn of the century to win the Heisman Trophy.
Second, only once in the nine-decade history of the award has anyone ever repeated. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won in 1974 and was successful in defending his award the following year. Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram and Johnny Manziel all failed to repeat in the last decade.
Third, only twice since Griffin has a conference won two consecutive Heisman Trophies. USC repeated with Leinart and Bush (2004-05) and the SEC did the same with Ingram and Cam Newton (2009-10). In fact, only twice since 1955 has a conference won consecutive Heismans with two different teams. UCLA’s Gary Beban and USC’s O.J. Simpson went back-to-back in 1967-68.
Finally, only one true defensive player (Charles Woodson) and only two wide receivers (Tim Brown, Desmond Howard) have ever won the award.
With this in mind, here are the top Independent Heisman Trophy candidates in 2014:
1. Taysom Hill, QB, BYU
The BYU signal-caller has an elite combination of size, power and athleticism that most quarterbacks only dream about. His ability to embarrass defenses with his feet is obvious — try 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground — but it’s his continued development as a passer that makes him a Heisman contender. After three games last year, Hill was completing less than 40 percent of his passes but as the season progressed, so too did his accuracy and efficiency. He finished eighth in the nation with 4,282 yards of total offense — ahead of names like Winston, Boyd, Bridgewater and Bortles. With a schedule filled with solid but not overly taxing games, Hill could post monster numbers for a team with double-digit wins. And that should get him into Heisman conversations.
2. Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame
Irish fans are happy to welcome back their starting quarterback after a one-year hiatus. From all accounts, Golson spent his year away from campus honing his skills as a passer and it should allow him to slide back into college football with relative ease. Golson took major strides during his one year as the starter, not only leading Notre Dame to the national championship game, but also proving to be a dynamic playmaker along the way. He is a perfect fit in Brian Kelly's system, a scheme that allows for big statistics from the QB position. Big numbers and lots of marquee wins at Notre Dame generally means national acclaim.
3. Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
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 to go with 1,057 yards passing, eight more touchdowns and only two interceptions. This team has increased its win total three straight years and a jump again in 2014 would likely mean All-American consideration for Reynolds. Few people are better suited to run the triple option than the current Navy quarterback.
4. Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU
As just a sophomore, Williams broke onto the scene with a very productive 1,233-yard, 7-TD season. He averaged nearly six yards per carry (5.7) and posted his biggest games late in the year in important moments. He rushed for 219 yards on the road against Nevada and rolled up 107 yards against Boise State — both wins for the Cougars. He struggled against elite competition (Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Washington) but so did most tailbacks against those three defenses. Look for a jump in production and another big year from the Cougars' rushing attack.
5. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
He was the No. 1 recruit in the nation at his position for a reason. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound athlete stepped into a starring role for Notre Dame and produced as just a freshman last fall. He posted 67 tackles (third on the team), 6.5 for a loss and made one freakish interception against USC. With a move to the inside, Smith should find himself around the ball on every play and the Irish have proven that their middle linebacker can land in New York.
Vanderbilt is coming off one of the best three-year stretches in program history. The Commodores won 24 games under James Franklin, including back-to-back bowl victories and top-25 finishes in the Associated Press poll for the 2012-13 seasons. Franklin left for Penn State after Vanderbilt’s win over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl and was replaced by Derek Mason.
Mason arrives at Vanderbilt after three years as Stanford’s defensive coordinator. Under Mason’s watch, the Cardinal defense was a driving force in the program’s back-to-back Pac-12 Championships. Stanford ranked first or second in fewest yards per play allowed (conference-only games) and points allowed in Mason’s three-year tenure.
Franklin set the bar high for Mason. Vanderbilt has just three seasons of nine victories, with two coming under Franklin’s direction.
After a successful three-year stint under Franklin, Mason is tasked with taking the program to new heights and pushing the Commodores into SEC title contention.
Expectations are usually high for any first-year coach. There’s a new excitement and buzz throughout the program. However, immediate success isn’t always guaranteed.
Let’s take a look at Mason’s history and set the realistic expectations for 2014:
Mason’s Job History:
2011-13: Stanford – Defensive Coordinator
2010: Stanford – Defensive Backs Coach
2007-09: Minnesota Vikings – Asst. Defensive Backs Coach
2005-06: Ohio – Wide Receivers Coach
2004: New Mexico State – Wide Receivers Coach
2003: Saint Mary’s – Co-Defensive Coordinator
2002: Utah – Wide Receivers/Special Teams Asst. Coach
1999-01: Bucknell – Defensive Backs Coach
1997-98: Idaho State – Running Backs Coach
1995-96: Weber State – Wide Receivers Coach
1994: Mesa Community College – Wide Receivers Coach
Obstacles to Overcome:
The Passing Game: The Commodores finished ninth in the SEC in passing offense last season, averaging just 227.5 yards per game. Total yards per game can be deceiving when judging offenses, but Vanderbilt has not ranked higher than eighth among SEC teams in passing offense in the last seven years. The passing game is a huge concern for Mason and coordinator Karl Dorrell in 2014. The Commodores could turn to LSU transfer Stephen Rivers at quarterback, while top receiver Jordan Matthews (112 of Vanderbilt’s 243 receptions in 2013) departs. The offensive line and rushing attack should carry the offense, but the Commodores have to develop a passing game to top last year’s win total.
The Secondary: The defensive backfield was a strength for Vanderbilt last season, finishing sixth among SEC teams (conference-only games) in pass efficiency defense. This unit heads into fall practice under construction, as four new starters must emerge. The secondary isn’t without talent, as junior Andrew Williamson and sophomore Paris Head are two building blocks for 2014.
Team Strengths for 2014:
Rushing Attack/Offensive Line: The backfield is headlined by Jerron Seymour (716 yards in 2013), Brian Kimbrow (341 yards) and freshmen Ralph Webb and Dallas Rivers. Until a quarterback emerges, expect Vanderbilt to rely on its ground attack and an offensive line that returns four starters.
Front Seven on Defense: Mason plans to change Vanderbilt’s scheme on defense to a 3-4. Although it’s a significant shift in philosophy, the Commodores have the personnel to make it work. Vince Taylor is poised for a breakout year as the team’s nose guard, and the outside linebacker positions are manned by Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike (10 sacks in 2013). Establishing a pass rush is critical with four new starters in the secondary.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
|SEC Rank||National Rank||Three-Star Prospects||Four-Star Prospects|
|Rankings from 247Sports Composite|
Despite a late start on recruiting in 2014, Mason managed to ink the No. 45 overall class (247Sports Composite). Vanderbilt’s class ranked last in the SEC, but Mason and his staff signed two four-star and 16 three-star prospects. Those totals were almost equal to Franklin’s class in 2012 but did not match the No. 26 rank in 2013. The No. 26 class in 2013 is the outlier in Vanderbilt’s five-year recruiting trend. Over the last five seasons, the Commodores averaged a 46.5 rank in recruiting and have only one finish (26) above 45.
Vanderbilt should be favored in its four non-conference games (Old Dominion, Temple, UMass and Charleston Southern), which leaves the Commodores just two wins short of bowl eligibility. Getting two wins in SEC play will be a challenge, as Vanderbilt plays an improving Ole Miss team in LP Field on Sept. 6 and travels to Mississippi State on Nov. 22 in crossover games with the West. The Sept. 27 date at Kentucky and the Nov. 29 game against Tennessee are two key swing games.
Mason is walking into an interesting situation. The Commodores could show improvement on the field, yet finish with a worse record. Last year, Vanderbilt was outgained by 75.5 yards per game in SEC play and finished with a -28 scoring differential. A +6 turnover margin helped the Commodores narrow the gap in yardage and scoring.
Winning eight games in 2014 would be a surprise, especially with Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky all expected to improve.
Vanderbilt isn’t hiring a head coach to rebuild or help the program get to a bowl game. Instead, Mason was picked to take this program to the next level and in contention for SEC titles. This is Mason's first season as a head coach, and life in the SEC is never easy. Expect plenty of growing pains over the next few years, as Mason needs time to mold the roster to his liking and settle into his new role. Defense will be the backbone of Mason's teams, especially in 2014 while the offense develops under Dorrell.
The Commodores closed the gap under Franklin and should chip away at it even more under Mason. But expecting Mason to elevate Vanderbilt into SEC title contention in 2014 is too much to ask. With a glaring question mark at quarterback, along with a scheme change on defense, a bowl game (and seven wins) is a reasonable first-year expectation for Mason.
Vegas Expectations: 6.5 over/under (5Dimes)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 6-6
Texas A&M opens its third set of fall practices under Kevin Sumlin searching for answers on both sides of the ball. The Aggies went 4-4 in SEC play last season and must replace three first-round draft picks in quarterback Johnny Manziel, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and receiver Mike Evans.
Replacing Manziel is the top offseason storyline for Sumlin, but Texas A&M’s defense is a bigger concern. The Aggies allowed 6.7 yards per play in SEC contests last year and gave up 36.5 points per game.
Texas A&M has plenty of positive momentum heading into the 2014 season, as a newly renovated Kyle Field is one of the top stadiums in college football, and Sumlin continues to reel in elite talent on the recruiting trail.
What should Sumlin and the Texas A&M coaching staff concentrate on this fall? Here’s a few things to watch when fall practice begins in College Station.
Texas A&M 2014 Fall Practice Priorities
1. The Quarterback Battle
Study Materials for 2014
Will Sumlin and coordinator Jake Spavital get separation between Allen and Hill this fall? Or will this battle continue into the opener and beyond?
2. Fixing the Defense
Where should we start? The good news for Texas A&M: It’s hard to get any worse. The bad news? The Aggies may not show dramatic improvement on defense in 2014.
Texas A&M ranked 14th in the SEC in points allowed, last in the conference against the run and generated only 14 sacks in eight league matchups. The Aggies also allowed 42 scores on 48 redzone trips by their opponents.
Each level of the defense has concerns, which were magnified by the loss of tackle Isaiah Golden, end Gavin Stansbury and linebacker Darian Claiborne this offseason. With only five returning starters, coordinator Mark Snyder has his work cut out for him this fall.
Talent certainly isn’t an issue, but there’s a good chance the Aggies will field a defense with only eight seniors in the defensive two-deep. How quickly will the young talent reach its potential?
The line will be counting on true freshman Myles Garrett to play right away, while sophomores Hardreck Walker and Daeshon Hall need to take on a bigger role. Redshirt freshman Justin Manning and true freshman Zaycoven Henderson will be asked to play significant snaps on the interior. As mentioned above, the line has talent, but it's also very young. Snyder needs this group to be stronger at the point of attack and eliminate some of the big plays allowed on the ground in 2013 (84 rushes of 10 or more yards).
At linebacker, Tommy Sanders or A.J. Hilliard will get first crack at replacing Claiborne on the weakside. This unit as a whole has to perform better and will be needed to help plug a run defense that was gashed frequently in 2013.
Establishing a consistent pass rush will help the secondary, which allowed 23 touchdowns in eight SEC contests last year. The defensive backfield could be the strength of Snyder’s defense, especially if cornerback Deshazor Everett plays at an All-SEC level. Junior De’Vante Harris has 18 starts under his belt and will start on the opposite side of Everett. The Aggies have to get better play from their safeties, which include senior starters Floyd Raven and Howard Matthews.
It's hard to envision this defense performing any worse than last year, but it may take a chunk of the season for the defense to find its footing with the young players stepping into the lineup.
3. Solidify the Offensive Line
Out of the three fall practice goals, this is the least of Kevin Sumlin’s worries. The Aggies have a future first-round pick in Cedric Ogbuehi anchoring the line at left tackle, while Mike Matthews is one of the best centers in the SEC. Senior Jarvis Harrison starts at left guard, and sophomore Germain Ifedi returns after starting 13 games as a redshirt freshman. Ifedi will move from guard to tackle in 2014.
The only open spot on Texas A&M’s line is at right guard, where junior Joseph Cheek holds an edge over junior college recruit Jermaine Eluemunor. With Cheek stepping in at right guard, combined with Ogbuehi and Ifedi changing positions, the line needs snaps to jell in the fall.